Last Day in Dese

I want to tell you a story about an eight-year-old little girl named Sintayehu and a woman named Grace. Both Sintayehu’s mother and father died several years ago from AIDS. She is what the Ethiopian government calls a double orphan. Grace, a member of our team, is an editor of the Stanford newspaper who sponsors five children in Africa, one of whom is Sintayehu. When we first arrived in Dessie, Grace was anxious to see the children she sponsors, but Sintayehu was not there. Grace told me how worried she was of Sintayehu, because she didn’t come to school for the first 3 days that we were there. Finally, on the 4th day, the day before we were going to leave, she came to see Grace, and for the first time the two met. I wasn’t there when they met, but that must have been a happy meeting. That little girl clung to Grace all day Thursday, then on Friday waited eight hours for Grace to be finished with the day’s projects so she could walk her home. I went with Grace and Sintayehu to the place where she was living.

Our walk to her house took about 45 minutes and I don’t remember ever seeing Grace let go of Sintayehu’s hand during that time. Tadessa the social worker for HOPE Enterprises in Dese had found her a nice Christian family and home to live in. The home was made out of concrete, not out of sticks, mud and dirt. They had nice furniture where we sat and listened to Tadessa tell Sintayehu’s story. Sintayehu had suffered an incredible amount of tragedy and loss, malnutrition, abuse, but now Sintayehu was in a good place. She had a home with people who took care of her, was attending school where she was fed two meals a day, and received health care when she needed it. When it was close to the time we needed to leave, Sintayehu crawled into Grace’s lap and started to cry. She must have sensed that we were going to leave. She didn’t cry a loud sobbing sort of cry, her eyes just became very watery. Grace started hugging Sintayehu as if she would never let her go, and started to cry herself.  I was there as if looking through a window where I caught a glimpse of the incredible hand of God loving and working in these two lives. I was there as more of a photo journalist to take pictures than anything else, but I couldn’t even see through the camera lense because I found that I was crying also.

After knowing each other for two short days Grace and Sintayehu who lived thousands of miles and worlds apart had developed a love bond that was so strong that it was like a tearing apart of family members who had known each other all their lives. No, it was something I’ve never seen not even between family members by blood. There was a longing in Sintayehu’s face for her adopted mother, Grace, and an incredible love in Grace’s face for her sponsored daughter, Sintayehu.  It is indescribable and I will never forget it. It was an experience that reminded me of CS Lewis’ description of Gift Love and Need Love between a parent and a child, only this was so much more intense. They say that there will be one story on your mission trip that will break your heart, and for me, this was it.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Surreal is how I would describe it. I was sitting there in this boy’s house with Emily, Sara, and the six guys just hanging out. We were all friends doing what friends do: talking, joking, laughing – just being friends. But I was in Africa with boys from a different country who I had just met, and although they spoke English well, a slight language barrier still existed. Let’s just say that's not something that I do everyday and not something that any of my friends have ever done in their 17 or 18 years of life. It felt so normal, yet unbelievable at the same time; it's hard to describe. It felt awesome just hanging out with the guys in their houses like I would do with my friends back home. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in the world. It was unique: one of a kind.

Not that many American teenagers get to go to another country and just walk around town with teens from that country, or more importantly visit their houses. Walking with the guys and seeing the town first hand with their guidance and not simply through the protective glass windows of a bus was priceless. Even though people stared at Sara, Emily, and me, even though it was a long walk, even though the roads weren't the best, even though it rained and hailed, even though our shoes and pants were soaked and muddy, we didn't care. At home that might have been a recipe for disaster, unhappiness, and complaints, but in Dese it was a blast: a recipe for an unforgettable, amazing, and fun-filled experience.  I am so incredibly grateful that those boys wanted to take us around Dese and show us their houses. Words cannot even describe how fun and exciting it was. It was perfect.