As I boarded the Ethiopian Airlines flight, I braced myself for life after I landed. It was the summer of 2010 when I traveled to work at an orphanage in Mekelle, Ethiopia, Operation Rescue: Ethiopia with the non-profit organization Fields of Promise. Before my trip, everyone told me that the experience would be extraordinary, even life-changing. Relatives, close friends, and teachers all advised me that I would never view the world in the same light again. These people knew me well, so I accepted this idea, and it settled snuggly in my mind. Yet, I could not help but wonder whether a two-week trip could change me that much.
I arrived late at night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the capitol city. This first night was the most disorienting part of the entire trip. The drive to the hotel included every hair-raising aspect of Ethiopian driving. As we approached the hotel, there was a shantytown on the right. Just before we turned into the driveway, a blind woman crossed the street. Her eyes were so horribly mutilated, I could not begin to conceptualize how it happened. I had little dinner upon arrival, primarily because I could not understand the menu. As I got ready for bed, I could not use the faucet water to brush my teeth, and I noticed the bed sheets were dirty. Basic amenities I expected in an American hotel, and had taken for granted, seemed luxuries here.
Armed with just a smattering of Tigrinian words, I arrived in Mekelle, Ethiopia the next day. At the orphanage, I served nearly 300 kids between the ages of three and eighteen. Some of them were HIV positive, and all of them were partial or full orphans. I brought essential first aid supplies, clothing, and the makings of a basic carnival for the kids. I helped organize materials, played games with the kids, and doled out countless hugs. Amazingly, once I began helping out at the orphanage, I felt completely oriented. Despite cultural differences, all that really mattered was our human connection. We had the common desire to learn about one another. Tirhas, one of the teen orphans, wanted to know details about American life, from what a “Sweet Sixteen” was to how I felt about having a black president. Six-year-old Betti, an HIV positive orphan, adopted me as her big sister for an afternoon; she needed a hand to hold that day. As soon as I interacted with them person-to-person, the differences in food, language, customs, housing, and government melted away. While working with the children, I found their backgrounds and mine were interesting, but not the focus of our relationship.
It was truly extraordinary to see another culture and do mission work, but the life-changing part of it was simply making the connections to bridge the differences between the people of Mekelle and me. I still think of their faces and stories, and I hope someday to return.