The kids like to color, oh boy do they like to color. Today I had the privilege of coloring Jesus saving Peter from drowning with an incredible little girl named Kalkidan. Kalkidan is a precocious 8 year old who is more adept in the proper use of Crayola crayons than I’ll ever hope to be. She knows about shading, color variations, and how to properly store each instrument back in the box before removing another. In short this young lady knows how to color. I watched in awe as she deftly brought the page to life while her tongue danced on the side of her face in concentration. Near the end, she looked up at me and said “Mr. Chuck, when I get done you tell me it is good and amazing.”
It hit me on the flight over that I was halfway to 104 years of age (oh how the youngin’s in the class like to remind me I’m the oldest) and had never really traveled. Oh sure, I had roughed it once or twice on a cruise ship and even stepped out of my comfort zone at a 5-Star all-inclusive on a Mexican beach. I’ve been to sunny California, Florida, New England, and a lot of places in between but, I never really traveled. “Traveled” in my context means going somewhere where you are not the focus of attention; not the gringo with American dollars, not the tourist, not the guest.
Today, however, I am beginning to see what I’ve been missing all these years. I’m bummed it took so long to do this, but I am thankful it didn’t take longer, or that it never happened at all.
I came to Ethiopia with a pretty pathetic view of what a short term mission trip meant. I was going to help the kids, do good work, show them hope, and help them pick themselves up by their boot straps all with an eye to a better future. Well, this afternoon, 5 days into the trip I realize that maybe I’m the one who needs some help.
One of my primary concerns planning for the big adventure, other than finding the elusive yellow fever vaccine, was making sure I had the right adaptor to charge my iPhone. Heaven forbid I go without an instant connection to Bozeman happenings for two weeks! Sure, I knew to drink (and brush my teeth) with bottled water, but wasn’t sure what happened when instant access to Facebook or worse yet, Instagram, was severed. I was loathe to contemplate such a future. Thankfully however, I’m not addicted to my phone like some of those poor Pokemon Go folks. I only check it a few times a minute for life-safety alerts, critical emails and important texts. But, it was only 16 days so, Africa, here I come.
The main purpose of our trip is to help teach a vacation bible school-type English class to the children of Bring Love In (BLI). BLI is an incredible organization that finds kids in need and works to support those needs by creating forever families. BLI knows the importance of families in a child’s development and that a loving parent/child relationship, too often missing in their lives, is critical as they face the future. New families are made by placing orphans with widows. BLI provides the extra assistance needed (clothing, housing, social services, schooling, etc.) to help while the families provide the love and acceptance so many of these children have missed out on. It’s quite the operation to behold and God’s hand is everywhere.
We do our little part at Safari Academy which is a good hour plus drive from the Well Springs guest house where we’re staying. We do this twice a day through the bustling streets of Addis Ababa. Logan tells me it’s 25 kilometers but I think he’s just trying to make me feel better about the traffic; I’m positive it’s only 5 miles away. Google Addis Ababa traffic and you’ll see what I mean.
But, back to Safari School. Like most other buildings here it is made from concrete and cinder blocks covered with stucco applied smooth as plaster. Its classrooms are brightly painted but fading, and like typical elementary schools back home, their walls are covered with the visual implements of learning; the alphabet in both Amharic and English, colored cutouts of animals, common household objects, parts of the body, and titles of family members (mother, aunt, brothers and sisters). Family means everything here – everything. The layout is simple and utilitarian and ingenious; nothing goes to waste. There is no insulation in the block walls or ceiling, no computer center, the classroom doors are made from repurposed shipping containers with no knobs, and the restrooms are quite different from what our kids are used to back home… I’ll leave it at that. But, no one notices and no one cares; it all works and it all works well. Watching the entire operation hum along fills me with respect for how they operate, watching the kids learn and interact fills me with love for the people that make this happen, and watching the staff and families work together to love and learn together here, now, in this place, fills me with hope.
Concrete is limited to building construction, not walkways, and asphalt is non-existent. The small courtyard is surfaced with red stamped tiles and the larger courtyard, which doubles as a playing field, is covered in a type of ubiquitous crushed gray gravel seen all over Addis. Spontaneous games of football (I called it soccer, but not any more!) break out every time they find something that passes for a ball, and the sounds of laughter fill the air during lunch and game time. It is a wonderful thing to watch: joy and love are everywhere and it is obvious that being at school is a privilege and not to be taken for granted. I wished I had felt a bit more like that growing up.
All our arts and craft supplies, including the Jesus and Peter coloring pages, arrived unscathed and perfectly organized (thank you, Jenn!!). We worked hard to carefully follow the lesson plans within the time allotted, keep the kids focused on the tasks at hand and be ‘good’ teachers. Very quickly however we came to realize that time and presence and love, not a clock, are what’s most important here and now.
So, as our first week of class came to an end, and Kalkidan put the finishing touches on her masterpiece, she looked up at me so proud of what she had created. As the tears welled and I worked to keep my composure, I looked at her and said “Your picture is wonderful, but you, little Kalkidan, are what’s good and amazing”.
My life is forever changed.