Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Afternoon in Ethiopia

There we were, Sunshine and me on a bus in southern Ethiopia with two other families.  We were visiting the families of our sponsor children.  The children whom we had only known through photos and a few sentences that describe their family living situation, their likes/dislikes, etc.  We visited the sponsor children of the other two families first.  Stepping into the homes of these families was emotional.  In their abundance of poverty they overflow with hospitality and kindness.  You are royalty to them.  You are honored as their guest.  Even so, the living conditions and smells and dirt deeply penetrate your senses, deeply penetrate your thoughts, deeply penetrate your heart.

It was our turn to visit our sponsor child's family next.  The child whom we had been sponsoring, I will call him Gwatalo, had moved away from the area shortly before we traveled to Ethiopia.  We weren't sure why he had moved.  We were given another child to sponsor, whom I will call Dregos, and that would be the child we were to visit.  As we were driving, the social worker mentioned we were going to see Gwatalo next.  I told him Gwatalo had moved and we were no longer sponsoring him.  I insisted we were supposed to go see Dregos.  The social worker insisted that Gwatalo had traveled a long distance and was here to be visited by his sponsor family.

Although many of the Ethiopians know English, the conversations generally become very difficult when trying to convey complex concepts or feelings or emotions.  To try and communicate all that was transpiring became impossible.  We had brought gifts for Dregos, not Gwatalo.  We won't have enough gifts for both children.  Is Gwatalo even still part of the sponsorship program?  Would it be better to just skip this house and go to Dregos' house?  What do I say to him since we don't even sponsor him anymore?  My heavily structured mind was reeling with this curve ball and was unsure how to proceed.  Sunshine, however, was certain that we should go visit Gwatalo.  Regardless of what material things we had, we needed to go see him.  So we quickly dug through the gifts we had and split them in two and headed in to see Gwatalo.

As in all houses in Ethiopia, there were no lights.  So as we entered the house, it took a few moments for our eyes to adjust and to begin to make out the dark-skinned silhouettes in the dark room.  With our eyes straining and finally adjusting, we could see a man sitting at a table and sitting next to him was Gwatalo.  We recognized him immediately from the picture we had of him. The man sitting next to him was wearing a suit jacket.  Ethiopians are so respectful of others that they will always wear their best clothes for these types of occasions.

Within minutes, we were immersed into the details of his situation.  This man sitting next to him was his uncle.  This was not Gwatalo's house or even his uncle's house, it was just a house being used for the visit.  The sponsor information regarding his father was correct, his father was no longer living.  We were shocked to find out that his mother had died also.  He and his five siblings had to move away because his parents were dead.  Yes, in a matter of minutes, Gwatalo went from a child we had only known in a picture, to a real child who was sitting next to us, who had been orphaned, who was poor beyond imagination.  And yet Gwatalo was such a normal kid.  He smiled, he was amazed by the crank flashlight we gave him, he was thankful for the blankets and clothes we gave him.  I still can feel his hands inside my hands.  Though dirt penetrated every wrinkle and callous on his hands, they were still the hands of a child, hands similar to my own children.  I couldn't help but think of the Big Fella or of Eddie Joe.

Sunshine and I both were brought to tears at his story.  A story that can be repeated over and over by the many, many children we met.  A story that is so common that it does not even create a pause or emotion from the Ethiopians.  This is life to them.  This is normal.  This is why they have sponsorship programs and why they give their lives to reach out to hundreds of children in this one town alone.

I'm thankful to have met Gwatalo.  I'm thankful to have brought a few gifts to him.  I'm thankful to have had the chance to hold him, to tell him that even though his mom and dad are no longer with him, God loves him and God cares for him.  Even though Gwatalo now lives in an area where there is no sponsorship program, I still pray for him and know that God can reach him no matter where he lives.  God can bring peace to the life of this little boy who lives in untold chaos.  God is the answer to every need he will ever have.  And yet it still pains me to wonder who is holding him now, who is caring for him, who is providing for him?

There are thousands and thousands of Gwatalos in Ethiopia.  What will we do to help?  There are also many, many hurting souls in our own city.  What will we do to help?  How will we be involved?  God is the answer.  He knows the deepest hurts and He alone can heal them.  Whether in remote parts of Africa or in the prosperous areas of our own neighborhoods, He is present, He is working, He is alive.


  1. We are to have a concern for others. Call it love.

  2. Thanks for writing again, Russ, and sharing this heart-wrenching experience. Don't we grow more thankful all the time that God calls Himself the Father of the Fatherless? May He wrap His arms of love around Gwatalos and his five siblings. My heart aches.