We rattle down the washed-out road from Welkite to Gunchire as the sun slips behind the eucalyptus groves and kisses the horizon. Kilometers are marked in clusters of thatched-roofed huts and mosque minarets. I’m jostled side to side, and every pothole we hit sends a jolt through my lower back.
“How much farther?” I ask.
“About 10 kilometers,” Aschalew says, as if I have the ability to convert rickety kilometers to some measurement of time. He laughs, “What’s wrong? This road is not smooth enough for you?”
I tell him it is fine, and his eyebrows lift. The edges of his mouth, too. He says, “I know you are lying, my friend.” He changes the subject as if to distract me from the road. “Do you remember the first time we met?”
“Yes,” I say, recalling that night almost four years gone by.
We were there, my wife and I, in a small Ozark chapel during the summer of 2009. A group of Ethiopian adoptive parents and orphan care advocates had come together to hear of the work of Kidmia, a small Ethiopian ministry to orphans, located in Gunchire, Ethiopia.
Amber and I sat near the front, listening as Aschalew Abebe explained the work of Kidmia. A tall, slender-faced man, Aschalew commanded the room with an easy charisma.
We canceled our adoption, and began looking for a way to advocate for the vulnerable Ethiopian children who would never be adopted.
His smile wide, he told us of his conversion to Christianity, how upon committing his life to Jesus, he’d decided to care for the most vulnerable people of all. He’d pursued excellence in education and occupation for the cause of the orphan, he said. This experience prepared him for the special task of ministering to the vulnerable children of Gunchire through Kidmia.
“There are 5 million orphans or vulnerable children in Ethiopia,” Aschalew said. “Some of these children are double orphans, without [any] surviving parents. Others have parents who struggle to provide the basic necessities.” His smile dissolved and his expression flattened as he leaned into the audience. “Adoption,” he said, “will never solve the crisis, and Kidmia works to keep children from entering the government orphan care system.”
After the presentation, Amber and I made a beeline for the podium. We had planned to adopt an Ethiopian orphan, we said, and were neck-deep in paperwork when we heard the faint whisper of the Spirit telling us, Consider another way. We canceled our adoption, relinquished the dream of a little girl, and began looking for a way to advocate for the vulnerable Ethiopian children who would never be adopted.
Aschalew listened, put his hands on our shoulders, and drew us in with his unbridled passion as he smiled. “I know you feel like you have lost a daughter,” he said, “but think of the many Ethiopian daughters you will save.”
“It was a good evening, wasn’t it?” I ask, grunting as we hit another pothole.
“Yes, my friend,” he says with a boisterous laugh.
We arrive at the Kidmia care center at dusk and make our way to the eucalyptus grove at the back of the property. With daylight growing thin, we make haste to string hammocks among the trees as the caretakers prepare a traditional meal of lamb tibs and a flatbread called injera.
We retire to our swaying beds after dinner. Lying awake in the dark, I can hear babies cooing and crying as well as nurses singing to them in the huts that line the campus. The hyenas are cackling across the field. Drum beats and gregarious chants rise from the heart of Gunchire and travel the kilometer down to our camp. It is a strange but peaceful lullaby, one that reminds me how far I am from the comfortable notions of home.
The next day, after being awakened by the Muslim call to prayer, we gather around the fire. In the crisp air, we enjoy steaming cups of fresh Ethiopian coffee brought by the caretakers. As Aschalew sits next to me in a flimsy plastic chair, I ask, “Of all the places in Ethiopia, why did Kidmia choose to work in Gunchire? Why this heavily Muslim area?”
“We cannot stop caring for these children. There is too much at risk.”
Solemn-faced, he says, “Let’s meet the people first; then you can ask me again.”
We finish breakfast and pile into the van with the worn-out shocks. “Today, we’ll meet some of the Kidmia families,” Aschalew says. “We cannot take every vulnerable child into the care center, so we have identified 300 in the community. We’re working with their families to make sure that they receive the food, education, and medical care they need.”
We lumber into Gunchire, down its central spine of a road. On both sides, businessmen peddle their wares to passersby. One points to our van. “Chat! Chat!” he calls, shaking a handful of the tobacco-like stimulant. Another holds out used toothbrushes. Farther down, a woman leans against a sign with a large English subtitle that reads, “Crowing Nature for Food Security.” There is, I suppose, a typo in there somewhere.
Gunchire is a hub of commerce, Aschalew says. But it is a poor one. There is a local bank, which is closed, and a micro-lending institution, which charges exorbitant interest rates. I also see a hotel that boasts no visitors. A palpable sense of disadvantage hangs like dust in the air, but the Gurage people mill about, seemingly oblivious of it.
We pull into the town center and walk through a row of green, broad-leaved ensete plants separating the road from a cluster of homes. At once, we’re greeted by a girl with an easy stride and long features. She smiles and welcomes us in Amharic. “This is Madanit Wolde; she is in grade three,” Aschalew says. “She wants to be a medical doctor.”
Madanit’s mother emerges from the hut, a small boy clinging to her skirt, and greets us with a timid smile. Aschalew tells me that her husband has passed away, leaving her to raise Madanit and the little boy, Kareem, alone. She is HIV positive, and when Kidmia identified the family as vulnerable, she was earning less than one dollar a day.
“Kidmia provided her with a donation of traditional clothes, which were hand-made by prisoners at Welkite.” Aschalew tells us she sold these clothes at the local market and reinvested the profits to create a viable business. Kidmia also provides the family with clean water, educational supplies, and much-needed medication. With these necessities, Madanit and Kareem are less vulnerable.
I look at Madanit. She is speaking with one of the social workers, a broad grin on her little face. This girl lives at the frayed end of promise. She knows the kind of poverty foreign to most. Still, she holds extravagant dreams, not unlike those of little girls from the United States—girls with access to better education, better food security, and more stable social structures. She dreams like girls with dolls. With opportunity. With health care.
Aschalew thanks the mother for her time, and we turn and walk across the courtyard. “This is the work of Kidmia,” he says. “Without it, Madanit is at significant risk.”
“At risk from what?” I ask.
“Child trafficking, prostitution, forced marriage, plural Muslim marriage, HIV infection. These are the realities of the children of Gunchire,” he said. “Kidmia helps alleviate these risks and teaches the children the good news of Jesus Christ. Now do you see the answer to your question? Why Gunchire? We come to bring hope to the hopeless.”
“This is why I cannot stop caring for these children,” Aschalew says, still as passionate as he was the night I met him in Arkansas. “This is why the Ethiopian church cannot stop caring for these children. This is why the American church cannot stop caring for these children. There is too much at risk. Now come. We have many sons and daughters to visit today.”
We turn into the heart of Gunchire, and I consider Aschalew. He’s the embodiment of hope for the hopeless. Yes, he is the man who suffers with all the vulnerable children. He pulls ahead and I walk in his footsteps, listening to him share story after story. As the day unfolds, I see it—I am a co-laborer with my Ethiopian brother, and I have much to learn.