AFTER A LONG seventy-two-hour flight, we landed in Addis Ababa at four o’clock in the morning. Mudgy with fatigue, we hired a taxi and careened through the desolate streets to our guest-house. Our loud knocking roused the elderly guard to the gate, and we made our way through the drive, up the stairs, and to our bed. For the next two days we tried to sleep off our jetlag before heading south along the Great Rift Valley to the area where we would be working for the next three months. My husband, Andy, was reuniting with a research group he had worked with in medical school. They were administering part of a multi-year study on trachoma, the world’s leading cause of infectious blindness. I would be along for the ride.
We had touched down in the capital of Ethiopia, but our final destination was a small town six hours south along Southern Ethiopia’s only paved road. The field research would be taking us to most of the villages within an hour and a half drive of our home base—a musty, but at least wholesome, hotel squeezed between a mosque and discothque/gas station. We fell asleep to the beat of Ethiopian rap and awoke to the early morning call to prayer.
For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted to spend my days “in the service of others.” When I was thirteen, I went through a Gandhi phase. Because I was realizing there was nothing better about me than any other person in the world, I figured I should remove from my life as many of the material blessings my American middle-class family provided. This I mainly achieved by sleeping on floor mats, wearing secondhand clothes with fierce pride, and denying myself the things I thought frivolous, like Nutella. By sixteen, I was positive my star of destiny was leading me to be a famous (yet humble) leader in adult literacy. I pictured myself an inner city heroine, bringing light and knowledge to so many hungering, poor souls at the city library. At twenty, I studied Arabic in Palestine for five months. When I got home, I was determined to tell the West the whole story of what was happening in the Middle East, bringing justice to an oppressed people.
Now I felt I would finally experience service in a concrete, practical way that would make an immediate difference in people’s lives. Like some president’s wife, I would easily slip into a soft cause, become a hero for a few weeks, then go home and quietly mention it in moving ways on Sundays.
Almost every day, Andy and I, along with our entirely Ethiopian research team, piled into a Land Rover and rumbled over dusty red dirt roads. We passed lines of women in rubber shoes bent under loads of pottery and water and babies, throngs of children in braids and rags, and old men leaning on staffs, driving cattle to distant grass. When we arrived at the day’s study site, we’d head straight to the kabelli, the town center, where families gathered to have their eyes examined and swabbed. In return, they received a dose of antibiotic that would hopefully prevent further trachoma. As a side study we would be recording data, looking for a relationship between malnutrition and trachoma infection in kids. My job mainly involved measuring children—weight, height, and circumference of the arm and head.
The children—and many of their parents—were both fascinated and terrified by my husband and me. Ethiopia isn’t bustling with tourism even in its tourism districts, let alone in the country’s farmland. Most of our study subjects had never seen white people before. Their touching us or our touching them was often followed by a scream of both terror and glee. If there was a school nearby, the students would swarm by the hundreds. They played the same game in every village—see how close they could crowd the white strangers before the school-master picked up a stick. Then there would be happy shrieks while the kids dashed away as he chased them, snapping at their legs with his makeshift whip.
I had never seen anyone like these Ethiopians either, and was just as curious. Many days, however, I felt more overwhelmed than curious. We were in Southern Ethiopia, Sir Geldof territory. While some families fared better than others, many children looked the Western-created stereotype with filthy faces and flies. One three-year-old boy’s skin was so infected that his tiny fingers had webbed into a mitt.
Malnutrition carries all children down the same road. It is so rigidly patterned that I could recognize its degrees of severity, as charted in Andy’s textbooks, without weighing the child on a scale. When humans have almost nothing to eat, our bodies save even the most meager meals for the brain. Chubby baby thighs and arms melt into stick legs with knobby knees and hunched, feeble shoulders struggle to balance oversized heads. Next, the stomach starts to swell with gas. And if the rains (or the World Food Programme) fail to come, the head stops growing too. Kwashiorkor, protein malnutrition, ultimately sets in. Hair fades—becomes thin and red, so brittle that it crumbles in your fingers. The body swells not with fat and muscle, but with fluid. Eyes are no longer desperate; they’re dull. Death follows.
I ached to help—to feed, to clothe, to heal, to teach, to build, to . . . anything. My frustration at the gulf between the opportunity and privilege I had at home and the lack of it here, combined with my utter inability to actually relieve their suffering, translated into guilt. I hadn’t included this part in my exotic hero-adventure fantasy. Because I couldn’t swoop in for the rescue, I defensively recoiled from their culture in exasperated criticism: Why wouldn’t this oldest of civilizations have come up with a way to keep choking wood smoke out of their huts? How could someone ever believe that burning round marks in the back of her neck would help heal trachoma? Why would a nation stand by as their government, year after year, allowed some ethnic groups plenty, but allowed others to starve?
White, educated, and certainly by comparison, wealthy, I thought I must have something big to give. What made this misconception worse was that it seemed to be the perspective of many Ethiopians too.
In one village, the school director approached us while we were doing exams. Andy exited, as usual, when he smelled solicitation, so I heard this man out myself. He explained the needs of the school’s HIV club for support. They could use anything, even tires for their bikes. Would we give some money? I told him the line I’d rehearsed: my husband and I have decided while we are here that we are only supporting the organization we are with, as we are unable to support every worthy cause. Half valid, completely lame. The excuse was not new to either of us.
Refusing to be rejected, he politely asked if we were with the Lions Club. No, I told him, this was a research project, not a charity organization. Did I have contact with other organizations? Would I let them know about the school’s need? His broad request was my escape. Sure, I said. How could someone contact him? Was there a telephone number? A post office box, I asked?
He more snorted than laughed, and explained carefully that this was a remote area; there were no telephones. If people would come to the school, they could talk in his office. Then he thanked me and left. The request was so polite and formal. My heart ached with his sincerity. Lots of people asked us for money, but this man was different. He wasn’t begging. He was filling out a grant application.
Slowly, but with unmistakable topography, I allowed my own Great Rift Valley to grow between me and these farmers. My self-warming ideas about helping were turning cold, even in the heat of the oncoming dry season. The sheer vastness of the need shrank my steadily dwindling sense of heroic destiny to the point that I was now convinced I really had nothing to give. With every interaction, the conflict between inflated expectations of helping and the sense of becoming a helpless target chipped at my dignity. I became lonely for people who neither wanted something from me, nor wanted to laugh at me.
One day a woman and her family sat against the mud-brick community center waiting to be examined. She pulled out a long, brown, sweet-potato-shaped breast from her collar to console the child in her lap. Her baby whimpered into it, tugging and squeezing. When we finished the exam and she stood to go, I walked a few steps with them as I often did, speaking one of the only local words I knew—tossimo, tossimo—thank you in Wolaytinga.
The woman took my hand and held it for a moment, thanking me back. Her stooped mother looked up at me and touched her inflamed eyes, saying something in Wolaytinga. I cupped her cheeks in my hand. Was she telling me they were sore or that she was blind? In my own language, I apologized for not being able to help, for being useless for anything besides whipping crowds of children into a frenzy.
“Tossimo, tossimo,” she said in return. She placed her hand on top of mine, pressing my hand into her cheek, then took it in both of hers and kissed it. It made my own eyes water. I’d done nothing to deserve her gratitude; all I had done was purchase a plane ticket.
And yet, I felt more hopeful and able than I had in weeks. Was this just the seductive power of gratitude? Or was it that, on some tender plane, our joined hands had crossed the gulf between us and leveled the ground? In raw sisterhood we stood as eternal equals. It had nothing to do with seeing beyond being American or Ethiopian, white or black, well-fed or hungry, whole or sick. It was that suddenly the story wasn’t about me. We were two women, both daughters of a Heavenly Father who has the same desires for both of us: our growth, our happiness, a little trust in Him that He knows what He’s doing.
There is an Ethiopian proverb that says, “The little stars will always shine while the great sun is often eclipsed.” When I arrived in Ethiopia, I assumed I would be a big sun. When I left, my adventure story was eclipsed by a new narrative, one of human beings on the earth, trying to let through a little light.