Sunday, March 28, 2010

Tesfaye's Family Reunion Part II - Village Celebration, Gonder, Addis goodbye

As mentioned in some earlier posts, after my first two days in Addis exploring Tesfaye's prior life in the Mercato and spending time with Dr. Rick Hodes at the Mother Theresa Mission and at his home (see Part I post, I had an incredible visit with Tesfaye to his village up North in the Gojaam area for three days, followed by another wonderful day and night in Gondar with Tesfaye, his first time there. In Gondar I had the chance to see the Spread the Love Project addition to the first school launched by Justin, where I was greeted by smiling young faces who made a special appearance at the school even though it was a holiday. I then had three days with Rick and Tesfaye back in Addis before saying my goodbyes.  There has been a lot to try and describe, but for nowI am caught up to the end of our third day at the village (with a few more pictures to add).  I recommend that you take the time to view the video links below, especially both the video of the initial reunion with Tesfaye's mother in town and the video of the reunion with his sister and brother at the village, and any other video links if you have the time.  All together the videos give an interesting look into their village way of life and the celebrations that took place in the village over the three days; the video clips of the Agew tribe chanting and shoulder dancing spontaneously performed in joy over Tesfaye's "rebirth" are quite fascinating, and the Sunday morning Village Church visit video will give you an idea of the affectionate reception Tesfaye experienced from family and friends for 3 days. 

Early in the morning Tesfaye and I caught a flight up to Bahir Dar, about an hour flight north of Addis. Bahir Dar is on Lake Tana, one of the sources of the Blue Nile. We were met there by a driver, Mideo, with a Land Cruiser and another man, Bewoket, who would be able to operate my video camera for a couple of days so that I could focus on the experience without distraction; turns out that was a smart suggestion by Rick.  After a four hour drive, the last bit over unpaved bumpy roads, we finally arrived at Gimjabet, the nearest town to Tesfaye's village of Jomaray Mara.  

Town Reunion - In short order, events began to unfold signalling the beginning of three days of celebrating Tesfaye's return as a man "reborn"I would like to share a video  about the first reunion that Tesfaye had with his mother Yeshi, who made the one and a half hour walk to Gimjabet from their village of Jomaray Mara, as she will often do on Saturday, Market Day ( click following link to see video  Tesfaye's first reunion with his mother and aunt up north). As it is a busy market day we had to make our way through a throng of people towards Meheret's shop  to find his mother. All of a sudden, along the way two women saw Tesfaye and started embracing and kissing him; I was a little slow realizing it for some reason, but it was his mother and an aunt reacting with great joy and amazement and full of gratitude for the miracle from God. This video only covers those initial reunion moments in town. 

Next: the Village Reunion - Before making the hour and a half journey from the town to the village to meet up with  more of his family, we spent an hour or so at this Uncle's house in town where we were served some injerra and celebrated with some gin and home made beer. 

We then drove as far as we could in the land cruiser for about an hour from town over very uneven terrain, at one point needing to get out of the car to try to fill in a bad section of ground with rocks so that we could bridge the gap. After arriving at the lake in the vicinity of the village we took in the lake view and then walked into the grounds of the nearby church where Tesfaye went until around the age of 5; Tesfaye  took a moment to show his respects and make a prayer. Continuing on foot for about 20 minutes on our way to Tesfaye's older brother's house in the village we ran into a group that included the village "Chairman", who took a few minutes to talk about Tesfaye.(click following link to see short Video of The Terrain,Lake and Church) 

Finally, from a distance we could see Tesfaye's brother's house, the one that his brother was able to build as a result of Tesfaye giving him a third of his hard earned savings from the Mercato days, pushing a wheelbarrow and earning one to two dollars a day.
As we approached nearer to his house, I witnessed a very sweet and touching reunion that Tesfaye shared with his very pretty younger sister Fantai, followed by the joyful reunion with his older brother Semenye and some little nieces, nephews of cousins.(click following link to see Video of Tesfaye's Village Reunion with his sister and brother  )  This was followed by a very warm welcome at his brother's mud and twig constructed hut. For the next while we sat around, ate more injerra and drank home
made whiskey (very strong), and as you will see in the Welcome Home video link below, at one point Tesfaye's mother Yeshi spontaneously out of joy began Agew style shoulder dancing and his sister Fantai joined in.  This would be a small taste of what was to come the following afternoon.  I also took the time to wander around the surrounding land and learn a bit about what kind of agricultural products they produce, primarily being maize and some honey. While outside I also asked his brother and mother questions going back to when Tesfaye was 8 years old and inflicted with the TB that crippled his back, as well as asking his brother what he
remembered about their days together in the Mercato in Addis. Still in reminiscing mode, we looked at some old photographs that they had, including a picture of Tesfaye's father, who died when Tesfaye was 9 years old. We then sat around some more and they gave me some of the unpasterurized honey that Tesfaye's brother Semenye produces; quite different to the kind of honey I have at home, but still very tasty. 
(Click on the following link to see Video of The Warm Welcome Home, dancing and honey)

Back to town for the nightIt was getting late so we were escorted by a large entourage back to our SUV and then drove back to town (we all decided that for the next two days instead of driving over rough terrain for an hour we would take the other option and drive out of town for only 15 minutes and then make an hour and fifteen minute walk a different route that the villagers take). Back in town we "checked in" to the
finest one star hotel in town, which costs $1.20 a night. It was a basic room with a bed and acutally fairly clean looking to the eye but wih a smell of dust in the air. There was a communal non-flushing squat style toilet, and a communal shower stall that did not work the 3 days that I was there, leaving me rather grungy at the end with all the dust and sweat to contend with; in a weird sort of way I kind of enjoyed the feeling,
as it brought me back to my extensive days of travel through East Africa and Asia in my early twenties. Being a little hungry I ate a snickers bar that I had bought in Bahir Dar and a little later as we sat around outside I had some sphagetti with a sauce that was too spicy for me. Exhausted, I then went to sleep around 10 o'clock. Tesfaye's younger brother Aserati shared Tesfaye's bed with him; he was not feeling well, as apparently he had a touch of malaria, so Tesfaye wanted him to stay with him and also tried to find medicine for him.

SUNDAY FEBRUARY 28TH, 2010 - Meheret's Shop, Village Church gathering and then afternnoon Celebration  time
 4:30 AM Sunday morning wake up: I woke up in my dusty room in town to the sound of the Muslim
call to morning prayers and a cramp in my calf muscle caused presumably by dehydration. I put on my dirt
crusted pants and  rather than shave with cold water I decided not to shave today, and there was no water for a shower. Nobody else was up yet, so I first stood around outside in the early morning darkness, absorbed  by the faint hypnotic calls eminating from the Minarets in the distance. As the early morning light emerged I wandered out to the unpaved street to take pictures of the morning streetscape.(click following link to see Video of the Sunday Morning streetscape and Visit to Meheret's Shop)  Eventually the rest of my party woke up, and before making the short drive out of town to the starting point for the 1.25 hour walk to the village we went to visit Meheret's kiosk.
Even though all the stores are closed on Sunday, Meheret was happy to show me his shop;   I was very curious to finally see Meheret's store, as Tesfaye and I would spend hours trying to reach him on his mobile phone so that he could get word to Tesfaye's mother to come to town at a prearranged time to speak to Tesfaye ( I believe we were only successful in coordinating this twice when Tesfaye was in Vancouver). Even though it was Sunday morning and shops closed, we did manage to attract a small crowd of (mostly young) curious onlookers.

Around 8:30 AM Sunday morning we started our 1.25 hour walk across the countryside to the village, planning to first stop at the main village Church where most people would be gathering for Sunday prayers.  It was a good thing that we had Meheret making the walk with us, as without someone very familiar with the way we would have had great difficulty getting there, as it is not a defined walking path, you simply make your way across fields and streams. The landscape was quite beautiful, fairly rocky yet green. I took some pictures of the scenery and some of the people we encountered along the way, and then around 9:45 we approached the Church that was located in a wooded area.

The Church experience: As the villagers and Ethiopians in general are very religious, this was an   opportunity for many of the villagers to see Tesfaye for the first time. It was quite a sight, another welcome fit for Royalty, as countless men and women dressed up in their Sunday whites embraced and kissed him endlessly, both on our arrival and departure, to the point where Tesfaye felt his cheeks were rather numb. We took a seat amongst the men on the logs and exchanged greetings, and at one point some of the women started passing around the injerra bread to eveeryone (the women take turns making and bringing it on Sunday mornings). A little while later some of the elders addressed the crowd; one of them talked about Tesfaye and thanked God for the amazing transformation he has had, and said that everyone should give to the Church in gratitude for the miracle(click on following Video link to see Tesfaye's warm welcome at our SUNDAY VILLAGE CHURCH EXPERIENCE ). Tesfaye's older brother kicked off the donations with some more comments thanking God for Tesfaye's "rebirth", and Tesfaye and I followed both followed suit in speaking to the congregation and putting donations into the basket.(Later on at Tesfaye's brother's house we found out that the most donations ever made to the Church were made that morning)  We soon said our goodbyes with waves of people coming forth to embrace Tesfaye, and walked to his older brother's house.

(At church, picture of women distributing injerra bread and women anxious to embrace Tesfaye )

After our wonderful Church experience we walked back to Tesfaye's brother Semenye's house where we spent most of the afternoon. Throughout the afternoon different villagers - family and friends - dropped in to visit and celebrate. They served injerra bread with shiro wat, a vegetarian stew dish. They felt bad that they could not cook me up a "prize" dish such as sheep or chicken, but it is fasting season (orthodox church) which goes on for 40 days ending in Easter, during which time they do not eat dairy or meat.

I took the time to take a bunch of pictures of family, and I also interviewed on video Tesfaye's mother to capture her memories of what it was like for Tesfaye in the village from the age of 8 to 12 (until he left with his brother to the capital Addis Ababa to seek help) suffering from his TB and back affliction, and interviewed his brother to get his memories about Tesfaye's situation in the village and in the first couple of years in the Mercato. [I remember one story about the bus trip to Addis that Tesfaye took with Semenye: At the time Tesfaye was in great pain from his back and the TB and barely able to walk, to the point he had to be carried on the 1 1/2 hour walk from the village to the town of Gimjabet to catch the bus; on the bus ride Tesfaye was quite ill and the people on the bus told Semenye that he should just forget about Tesfaye and throw him in the river, as he is not going to live.] We also took a walk to see the area in the village where Tesfaye grew up, and looked at some photographs they had of Tesfaye's father, who died when Tesfaye was 9 years old.

Back at Semenye's home, more visitors arrived amidst cries of joy and bringing homemade whiskey and bottled gin. Soon I witnessed a most unique and fascinating sight - an incredible group display of Agew singing and dancing broke out in the joy of the moment. and went on for a very long time. In the end Tesfaye and I were pulled into the circle to participate. I found the unusual way in which they are able to rhythmically move their shoulders to be quite difficult to duplicate but I tried my best, much to their amusement. (Click on the following link to see a video of the AGEW SONG AND DANCE CELEBRATION)The men do it in a much more forceful manner than the women, and I am sure that if could do it like them I would immediately need a chiropractic adjustment for parts of my back and neck that would be out of joint.

Sitting around, even though I do not know more than a few words of Agew, I had a great time interacting with Tesfaye's younger aunt Sowuneut, who was also laughing and joking around with me. Tesfaye and I also brought up with his mother Yeshi her desire to marry off Tesfae's 12 year old sister Fantai. Tesfaye had called me a few weeks earlier to voice his concern about this and the fact that she is too young to be married and has to finish her schooling.  The stated reason is that Yeshi wants to see Fantai have a wedding ceremony before she dies (she is 46), and she said she could take her back after a couple of weeks and she could continue going to school. Anyway, it seems like Yeshi will abandon the idea of marrying off Fantai for now.

As the afternoon wound down they all stood up but insisted that Tesfaye and I remain seated, as they conducted some kind of special prayer for us. We then made the long walk back to our pickup point on the road, escorted by a bunch of the family and curious young followers picked up along the way, and I had a bag of candies with me that I distributed to all the youth. Back in town sitting outside at the hotel I showed some pictures and videos of Tesfaye's stay in Vancouver that were on my computer to a few interested members of our party. I was dying for a shower to rinse off all of the dust from the village and the town, but even if I was game for a cold water shower in the cool of the night, there was no water flow anyway.

I woke up early again, before dawn, and had another Snickers chocolate bar for breakfast. As my beard was getting itchy I decided to "bite the bullet" and shave today with cold drinking water. For the last time we then made the trek out to the village, this time in the direction of Tesfaye's younger aunt, my favourite of the Aunts, Sowuneut's house. As I walked and took in the rather beautiful landscape I reflected on the rather simple and difficult life the villagers live in terms of the obvious lack of luxury or even basic amenities, yet how happy the people seem to be. I don't think that electiricity will make it to village anytime soon, and they are not using internet or mobile phones out there either (mind you, mobile phones in the last year are gaining use in the town and making life easier for the towns people and business people in many ways). It makes you realize how complicated our own lives in the Western world have become, and how perhaps simplifiying some of the clutter in our lives even a little could yield a bit more happiness.

Anyway, it was a little closer walk to the Aunt's house, and as we sat around we were served injerra with potatoes and sauce, and coffee with the full Ethiopian style preparation. Unfortunately, Sowuneut's husband suffers from paralysis in his left hand and partial paralysis in his left leg, from a fall he experienced from an unknown cause (perhaps a stroke); Tesfaye and I were not quite sure what we could do, but we would discuss it with Dr. Rick when we get back to Addis.  Tesfaye's mother and stepfather and older brother Semenye were at the Aunt's home, and also two of the Aunt's daughter's. The little one was very cute, and the bigger one was sweet and always wanted her photo taken. After a while I went to visit the village school, which was fairly large with a number of decent size buildings, to see Tesfaye's sister and two youngest brothers. We got a warm greeting from each of their classes, and then Fantai had a break so she joined us on our way back to Sowuneut's house. Upon arrival we had another toast with a shot of gin, and took more pictures when Sowuneut's 17 year old son arrived with his bicycyle.

And then it was time for us to be on our way back to town to make the four hour ride back to the city of Bahir Dar. We all did some more joking around and then, after three most memorable days in the village, said some words of farewell and exchanged warm embraces. However, most of them accompanied us on the long walk back to the road for our 2:30 pm pick up by the Land Cruiser, and so it was then and there that we said our last goodbyes to Tesfaye's family. As our truck pulled away and my view of the family slowly faded into the distance, I was very sad that my village family reunion visit had come to an end but so grateful that I had the opportunity to enjoy this once in a lifetime experience. Tesfaye and I had often talked about me joining him in Ethiopia for the first reunion but, as he told me after the visit, he and his family never really thought that I would come (no Westerners had been to the village before me), and I didn't know when I could realistically fit it in. I am so glad that I followed through on the plan, as it was incredibly rewarding to witness the family's and entire village's reaction to seeing Tesfaye for the first time post-surgery standing upright and to participate in the three days of celebrating Tesfaye's "rebirth". The family and all the villagers were so warm and friendly and nice to be around. I wonder, when will I see them again?

Gary in his malaria net in Bahir Dar

(Coming soon: A night in Bahir Dar, 24 hours in Gondar visiting Spread the Love Project school expansion, friend Workie,JDC clinic and Fassil castle, and my last three days in Addis with Rick and Tesfaye)

(See Part I post below for details and videos about our first couple of days in Addis exploring Tesfaye's prior life in the Mercato and spending time with Dr. Rick Hodes at the Mother Theresa Mission and at his home)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tesfaye's Family Reunion Part I - Arrival, his life in the Mercato, Dr. Hodes etc.

Note:  I was in Ethiopia to join in Tesfaye's family reunion (Feb. 26 to March 7, 2010) and in this post I have covered in some detail the first two days in Addis with Tesfaye and Dr. Rick Hodes, including my thoughts on arrival, my time getting a glimpse into Tesfaye's past life in the Mercato, and spending time with Dr. Rick Hodes at the Mother Theresa mission and his home.  My three day family reunion experience in Tesfaye's village, our visit to Gonder and last couple of days in Addis will be covered in a subsequent separate post.

I hope you enjoy reading about this wonderful experience. I suggest it will be helpful for the reader to again read Tesfaye's life history as gathered by Chloe Malle and reproduced down the right hand side of this blog, since during my visit I made a point of going to see first hand many of the key places that played a central role in Tesfaye's life journey to find help, to help me get at least some picture or sense of his life before I met him at Dr. Rick's house.

(Interesting videos are linked into the body of the post, any comments can be made by clicking on the post comment line, pictures can be enlarged by double clicking on them, and a link to my "Family Reunion Photo Album is both at the top of the page above and at the bottom of the page, which will be added to from time to time through the course of this week )


It feels like it took forever to get here (I left Vancouver the afternoon of Feb.22nd), but as I look out the window of the airplane as the new morning dawns I am excited to see we are flying over northern Ethiopia towards Addis. With the early morning light starting to bathe the hilly terrain below in that pinkish clay colour hue that comes out in the satellite maps that I have studied in preparation for this trip, I realize that in only three short days I will find myself in a small village somewhere below. As we get a little lower I see the narrow serpentine roads and paths that wind through the countryside dotted with thousands of tiny villages like Tesfaye's; something like 95% of Ethiopia's 80 million population lives in the countryside. Though over my years of travel in the developing world I have visited many villages in remote areas, as we are beginning our descent into the capital city Addis Ababa, a certain feeling of uncertainty about what exactly lies ahead gnaws at me.

As I look out the window again I see one of my favourite scenes, where for only a short time just a few long rays of sun poke through the clouds and shine on a very confined section of the earth like a spotlight (maybe it comes from all that reading of the Old Testament in elementary school in preparation for the international bible quiz competition, but it always conjures up biblical images in my mind of the Lord sending a message to the people). Lots of thoughts run through my mind. I think about the strange twists and turns that life presents us, and the events that led me and my family to Tesfaye. Out of all the many sad tales that exist here in Ethiopia, who knows why it was our paths that crossed and ultimately linked together, changing his life and ours in the process.

I had arranged for someone to pick me up at the airport on arrival and to bring Tesfaye with him. After my long journey there was nothing better than to be greeted by Tesfaye with his warm, smiling face. Even though I had not been with him since the end of October, nor had I been in Addis since two years ago, it really felt like the proverbial "just yesterday" that I had been in Addis seeing him. We first went straight from the airport to the Sheraton hotel where I was staying. Although I had slept minimally the last couple of days I decided to make an effort to stay up until later. Tesfaye and I went up to my room for a few minutes for me to freshen up; while up there we took a moment on the balcony to survey the Addis landscape as we overlooked the grounds of the beautiful Sheraton. The luxury level of the Sheraton in Addis, up to now at least, really stands alone amongst its peers and is an anomaly in the country; none of the other cities have anything coming close. (I am told Addis has a couple of more new luxury type hotels currently under construction.) As we stood there Tesfaye pointed out in the distance the market area, the small "Mercato", where he lived his first four years in Addis; he also pointed out the "Black Lion Hospital", one of the two hospitals that turned Tesfaye away without help. After that brief interlude we started on our way to Tesfaye's place, as I was curious to see this "apartment" that he is sharing with another one of Rick's spine cases, Aselefo, who had successful surgery in Ghana around the time that Tesfaye had his in Vancouver (being deemed too complex for the state of Ghanian post surgical care).

The driver who picked me up at the airport then took Tesfaye and me to Tesfaye's place. I had heard about him sharing an apartment with Aselefo but it was not quite what I imagined. It appears to be relatively new construction in not a bad neighbourhood that is maybe a 10 or 15 minute walk to Rick's house, where he used to stay; Rick was under great pressure from his landlord to reduce the number of people (close to 20) he has lodging in the space he is renting. Anyway, Tesfaye lives in a self-contained compound where a few families live in a few small one story concrete structures. Tesfaye and Aselefo share one small room with just enough room for their two small beds and a small night stand; they keep their clothes in a suitcase. There is another small room with a table for them to do some homework on. The bathroom and cooking room are communal.

I then unloaded the backpack I brought for the four day trip North to the village and Gondar, which I had filled temporarily on the way over from Vancouver, at Tesfaye's request, with a bunch of tuna snack packs and a new pair of black running shoes for him. His neighbours in the compound all seemed friendly, and there was a very cute two year old boy named Binyam who was fascinated by a greeting card that Haley and Jim had sent for Tesfaye, which made a very funny Mexican type cry and laughing sound when opened. He did not want to let go of that card and wanted to hang around us.

Visiting Tesfaye's School
After stopping for a nearby for a quick lunch consisting of a tuna sandwich (tuna is quite popular in Ethiopia not just in sandwiches but also in things like spaghetti sauce and on pizzas) I wanted to go see where Tesfaye is going to school now. It was actually a nicer and more modern looking school facility than I anticipated.We first dropped in on Tesfaye's math class and met some of his classmates, and it was clear they liked Tesfaye a lot. His teacher said he works hard and is in the top middle of his class. His English teacher was also very complimentary. As this was a new school for him this year they were not familiar with his past or what his back was like before, so they just learned about what he went through through an amharic language essay assignment he was given in which he wrote about his Vancouver experience. I was also able to get a glance at his report card which showed his standing, grades and some very nice comments.

On the way to taking Tesfaye to Dr. Rick's house we made a brief stop at the office of Kibran Tours as it is quite close to Rick's house. I wanted to meet the manager Hana Girma who had been helping me coordinate some of my flights and travel arrangements surrounding the village visit. I was familiar with Kibran Tours from my initial visit three years ago with the Vancouver Federation mission I was on, and used them again for a few things on my return visit two years ago. For anyone wanting to go to Ethiopia I highly recommend using Kibran Tours to help with your trip planning and arrangements, as they are definitely one of the best Ethiopian tour companies that is also regularly engaged by the most well known international travel planners.

Exhaustion caught up to me so after dropping Tesfaye off at Rick's I went back to the Sheraton to rest. I dozed off but was woken up by the driver two hours later, as he thought we had a specific appointment for him to pick me up to go to Rick's. My brain in a complete fog I manage to jump into the shower and then head over to Rick's house to see the whole gang that I last saw two years ago. It was great to see everybody, including Asmera, who spent 3 days in New York last October with me, Nanci and Tesfaye (; she looked great in the new glasses we were able to order for her in New York and she was very happy with the prescription. I was hoping to be able to wait long enough for Rick to arrive at the house from the airport, as he was just coming back from a busy two week trip to the USA, but I was just too tired to wait any longer.

I went back to the Sheraton and ended up in the small bar as it was still serving snack food, and after about a half hour I look up and to my suprise I see Rick walking in looking for me; after landing he came for a swim and shower (this is the one regular escape activity for him in Addis that I am aware of) and hoping to find me.  We talked for about an hour about family and other things and I caught up on what he is working on these days: I heard about a huge head tumour case that grew aggresively in the last two years and was successfully operated on in the USA; he told me how he spent 7 hours with Dr. Boachie the Ghanian spine surgeon based in NY going over the waitlist for spine operations in Ghana and how the next batch of 15 out of a waitlist of over 100 was selected, with one of them funded at this point - it costs about $13,000 US dollars to do each one in Ghana; there are also a number of rheumatic heart cases slated to go to India for surgery at a cost of anywhere from $1500 to $5500. We talked again about the potential fundraising effort I am hoping to carry out in Vancouver in the fall to enable some of those operations to take place. We also talked about other initiatives such as schools and scholarships, and whether or not it would be more worthwhile to try to bring up the
level of care in Ethiopia rather than export the surgeries (the former being ultimately a desirable longer term goal but not easily done); and finally we talked about the April 14 debut on HBO of the half hour documentary movie done on hiim caled "Making the Crooked Straight", and the upcoming launch on April 13th in NY of the new book about him written by Marilyn Berger Hewett called "This is a Soul" (I got to skim a pre-release version of the book the next night when I went to Rick's for his famous Friday night Shabbat dinners).  In connection with that he will be interviewed on a number of shows including Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper and the Huffington Report, with the possibility of Oprah as well.


Mid-morning Rick picked me up to accompany him on his rounds at the Mother Theresa Mission in Addis. As he had been in the USA for the last couple of weeks he expected a pretty heavy backlog of new patients waiting for him, but the security guard wasn't sure if Rick would be there the first day back from the trip so he told them to come on Saturday. Although I am very comfortable now when I visit the Mission, having gone there a number of times with Rick on my two earlier visits to Ethiopia and even more so on this one, you can never really get used to the sights and stories found amongst the hundreds of men, women and children that end up there either on a short or long term basis. Through the wonderful dedication of  Dr. Rick and the nuns and many volunteers that give of their time there, there are a number of good news stories that come out of there, but certainly many sad ones as well. The Mother Theresa Mission is in general quite amazing: everyone gets good care and it is very clean, including the kitchen.  Rick showed me a new donated water purification unit that can be installed for about $3500, giving purified water that the residents can retrieve from a nearby waterline.

We spent a couple of hours there dealing with existing cases, including one in process where the 12 year old son of a policeman has a dangerous heart condition that was only discovered through the good fortune of being examined by Rick one day at the Mission and Rick recognizing an unusual sounding heart. It seems that in the course of having a lung condition treated a vital pulmonary artery had in error been tied off with potentially fatal consequences.  Rick is currently working on obtaining corrective surgery for him in the USA, not wanting to chance having this procedure done in Ethiopia by the same people that caused the problem that went undetected. There was also an adorable looking young girl with good English skills that looked like she was straight out of a Gap Kids brochure who was there to see Rick. As it turns out she is one of Rick's patients that went to California for heart surgery and spent a few months there living with a family, and had a lovely printed book of picture memories from her stay there. (Note: Mother Theresa Mission is one place where pictures are not taken)

On this visit I wanted to take the opportunity to get a glimpse of  Tesfaye's past life in the Mercato, where he spent his first four years in Addis living and peddling his wares out of a wheelbarrow (see his Life History in the side column) while trying to find help. Tesfaye came to meet us at the Mission with Fitsum, another of Rick's back patients who had surgery in Ghana even though he is a little older that the typical one accepted by Dr. Boachie. Fitsum has good English skills and had been studying French, but for now is in a nursing program.

So Tesfaye, Fitsum, Bayele (one of Rick's assitants) and I then made our way by local collective taxi service up to the small Mercato area. I enjoyed getting the local flavour by going the shared taxi route (click following link for video:arriving at the Mercato and beginning to explore).  For the next two hours I
was able to see the streets where Tesfaye pushed his wheelbarrow making one or two dollars a day selling
gum, kleenex pens and the like, see one of the places he lived for a couple of the years he was there, and the night school where he attended some classes. The friendly school watchman who had been working there almost 27 years remembered Tesfaye well and said he was eager to learn. The whole time we were accompanied by Tesfaye's relative Aendalamaw from his village that also has been in Addis for five years living in the Mercato and going to school, where he is currently in Grade 12 (not that common in Ethiopia), speaks good English, and stands first in his class.
He is very polite and gave me a couple of his beautifully decorated pens that he makes himself and sells to earn some money. We always drew the attention of curious yet friendly onlookers of all ages. I can tell you that many of the people we encountered there remembered Tesfaye from those days of being completely bent over horizontal to the ground, and their reaction to the way he now looks was the same we experienced throughout my trip: "he looks amazing - he is reborn - it is a miracle from God!"   

Although Tesfaye had described to me what kind of  conditions he lived in at the Mercato, to see it in person brought his descriptions to life. For anyone, let alone someone with Tesfaye's extreme pain and discomfort, to work and live like that is something hard for someone living in the Western world to relate to; although he told me slept on a floor with around 20 others for the equivalent of 10 cents a night, I did not quite picture that it was a cramped 2nd level dirt floor of a small space which he would access by a small stick ladder (click following link for video of Tesfaye's living quarters in his Mercato days). As I have said from the beginning of this blog, Tesfaye has been through quite the journey getting to the point he is at now.
It really is quite remarkable that a very sick 12 year old straight from a remote village in the north, with a very debilitating back condition and initially unable to speak the local dialect, could survive and live in that environment for four years with his perpetual smile on his face. I have learned a lot from this young man. 

As we left our visit to the compound where he lived in the Mercato we ran into a young woman who also remembered Tesfaye from his days of being totally bent over and who was now amazed to see how he looks now. She was carrying a very cute young boy not even two years old and told us that she named him Obama - another sign of the widespread world popularity that President Obama enjoyed, at least then. 

After spending that most interesting and enlightening afternoon learning about Tesfaye's life for 4 years in the Mercato I went back to my hotel to freshen up before going to attend Shabbat dinner at Rick's house. This was the first time that the timing worked out for me to be able to attend a Shabbat dinner at his house, although I had seen movie footage and heard about thes dinners. Although Rick is an observant Orthodox Jew, he has modified his method of observing to take into account his life in Ethiopia, which includes 20 or so young Ethiopians of different religions living  under his roof. Therefore as a group song he sings the non-donominational "If I had a Hammer" while standing in a circle holding hands where very colourful head coverings, followed by the traditional Hebrew blessing on the Children, prayer for the sick, and blessing over the Challah bread. If there is anyone Jewish or otherwise with no place to go for Friday night dinner or interested in coming Rick will invite them. One guest this night was a 27 year old Jewish woman from Washington, Mollie, who works with the USA refugee asylum department in Washington and currently in Ethiopia for six weeks with her team doing field interviews; as it turns out she went to Mcgill University in Montreal for undergrad and knows some friends of my daughter Haley who went there.  There was also a church group from Spokane Washington involved in some church sponsored school in Ethiopia  that Rick met on the airplane the day before and invited to come to dinner (Click following link for Friday evening Shabbat dinner at Dr. Rick Hodes' home).

After the songs and prayers it is a potluck Ethiopian food dinner for everyone, self-serve and find any place you want to sit.  It really is a warm, amusing and relaxing way to spend Shabbat dinner in Ethiopia. Rick has a nice light-hearted and relaxed manner of interacting with the gang of "kids" that live with him, the same style of bedside manner that I have also observed on the many occasions I have accompanied him.

(To be continued.  by way of separate post,  the 3 day Village visit and Family reunion)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tesfaye's family reunion - what an experience!

Wednesday March 3rd, 2010: I am back in Addis Ababa after an incredible visit with Tesfaye to his village for three days, followed by another wonderful day in Gondar with Tesfaye, his first time there. It appears that I got lucky and have access to the blog from here for now, but I don't have time to update now all that happenned.

In the village it was three days of celebrating Tesfaye's return as a man "reborn"; it was like witnessing the visit of royalty, with myself being treated like part of the royal party as well.   In Gondar I had the chance to see the Spread the Love Project addition to the first school launched by Justin, where I was greeted by smiling young faces who made a special appearance at the school even though it was a holiday.

I hope over the course of the next couple of days and more to be able to give some details and upload some images. Stay tuned, there is a lot to try and describe.