The following is the first in a series of day-in-the-life writings through the eyes of children from around Ethiopia, the situations are real, the settings true, the words are mine.
The cold wet air blows through an open crack in the window like a howling beast. I bite down hard on my lip to hold back a scream and curl my small body closer to Selamwit a girl who is just a little bigger than me. She arrived at the orphanage about a week ago and has not stopped crying since she came, I don’t know why she is here, but she says it’s something about her father loosing his mind. I feel sad for her, I feel sad for everyone who lives here with me.
She is warm, and I want to wrap my body up closer to tell her that it’s all going to be okay, I want to tell her that all the kids who come here stop crying eventually
‘We are your new family’ I try to say with my body.
After a quick moment where she seems to like my embrace, she pushes away. She does not go far because there is nowhere else to go in this bed, but far enough to make me feel alone again in this sea of bodies.
I pull the thin blanket up across my face and squeeze my eyes shut, I am strong, I am a fighter, I am alone in a bed with four other girls, the more I squeeze shut the more safe I can create.
Dear world, do you care about me? Do you know that I am here? Do you know my real name? Who am I?
The hurts swirl around inside me but I can’t put words to them.
Morning has come, the orange smog stained sun is beginning to cast shadows across the bright green walls in our room making funny shapes out of the handprints and dirty smudges that run across the lower part of the boundaries of my life like a cage that won’t let me out.
One of the women who works here in the mornings comes into our room and calls out to everyone that Breakfast has been served.
“Get dressed girls, you have to leave for school in thirty minutes.” She says in flat uninterested tone. Years ago I would have reached for her, some of the nannies are nice and will spend time with us, but I have learned that the pain of holding my hands to someone who is too busy to stop is too great, and I stopped reaching.
Several large plates are strewn across a long row of tables, each of them is piled high with rolls of injera that are spotted with a spicy kind of tomato sauce, I reach through the clamoring hands and grab a small piece and take it over to a corner of the room where I can watch all of the commotion without being right in the middle.
“Kalkidan is a cry baby!” One of the bigger girls shouts out from the end of the table as she glares across the room at Kalkidan who’s eyes are turned towards the ground, her shoulders forward in a defeated slump.
I rise from my seat and make my way through the maze of noise and come over to where Kalkidan is sitting, she is much older than me. “Are you okay?” I ask as I place my small body between her torn jeans. “Yes sweetie” She says, as her hand wraps tightly around my waist and pulls me in. “I am just mad at some of the other big girls today” “Why?” I ask, as I place another piece of injera into my mouth. “They were making fun of my crying in my bed last night after they took my brother away to the boys orphanage, they said I was being a sissy”
“Oh” I say, and I give her the biggest hug I can make with my small body. “I don’t know if I have a brother” I say, she hugs back. I feel safe.
Just then the front door swings open and reveals a policeman in a blue uniform, in his arms he is holding a dirt covered blanket in such a way that even though we can not see what is inside, we all know what he has brought, this happens a few times every day and everyone is so used to new babies coming in that in a brief moment everyone is back to their breakfast as quickly as it took to glance towards the door. Not me though, I rise quickly from my place in Kalkidan’s lap and run over to the policeman, gesturing him to lower himself and let me see the baby. I know it’s silly but, I still think every time a new child comes that I will somehow get to know a little more about my own story.
No one knows how old I am, and they can’t remember when I got here. One of the nannies who takes care of us picked my name, but she is gone now, she died from something, I don’t know what. If I try real hard I can remember that I had a family, I can remember sitting on the sidewalk with my mother as she asked people walking by if they could give us money, I even think I remember that she was always holding a baby in her arms, but I am not sure.
The policeman lowers his body down by my side and reveals a tiny scrunched up face. “Is it a girl?” I ask. “No, it is a boy, we found him on the sidewalk this morning” He says, and then disappears up the stairs to the place where all of the babies sleep, as he makes his way one step at a time he passes one of the nannies who works upstairs, she has a small bundle in her hands as well, but I can tell by the way she is holding it I can tell that something is not right. “That is the seventh one this month” She says as she passes by the policeman who has backed his body up against the wall in uncomfortable stiffness, “So many are too weak when they come in, and they don’t eat”
I raise my hand when the teacher asks if any of us know how many people live in Ethiopia. “85 million” I say, pride bursting across my face. “That is right Magadis, but can you tell me how many people live in Addis Ababa as well?” “Um…” I say, unable to produce an answer. “It’s 4 million” a boy shouts out from behind me.
At lunchtime school is over and I walk with the other kids back to our orphanage, there are many us that go to the same school and we all walk at the same time towards home. Some of the kids run ahead, but I walk slowly as I look around me to see if I can find Kalkidan, I want to hold her hand while we walk. Kalkidan and her brother have been at the orphanage for longer than I have, and I know she is very sad that her brother had to leave. They say that all the boys who get old have to leave eventually.
I wish that Dawit did not get old.
Finally I find her at the back of the group and I grasp tightly to her hand, we don’t say anything, but I know that she likes it. I like it.
As we round the corner and go up through the gate I see a van parked outside the big building where I sleep, several children are getting out. At first I think maybe it’s another bus from the countryside, but as we walk closer I see a small girl who lived here with me before, her name is Almaz and she is the same size as me. “Almaz!” I yell at the top of my lungs “What are you doing?” I ask as I drop the stack of papers I was holding and rush up to embrace her. “There was a bad man at the orphanage where they took me, and he took all of the money that we were supposed to use to pay the rent” She says, as several other girls start to gather around her with all sorts of questions. “Will you stay now” someone asks. “They did not tell me” She says, as she nudges a rock along on the ground with her foot. “They came in this morning and closed the orphanage and took all of us here.” “We are happy you are here” Kalkidan says as she reaches out to grab Almaz’s hand. Behind us I can hear the director, she is talking to the woman who drove the van and seems to be angry. “I already have almost 400 children!” She says, why can’t these places do their job and k….” the rest of the sentence is cut off as all the children around me turn to run towards the dining room.
After lunch we are free to do what we want on the compound, most of us play in our rooms, or out on the dirt, I am really good at a game that we play with the rocks. Several girls gather around and we get a game going. For a moment I feel happy. The sun shines, and all of us giggle and laugh at the funny stories Almaz tells us about the things that she saw on TV at her other orphanage, “Did they really have a big TV that was on all day?” I ask. “Yeah, and there are people who live in houses on the TV that are as big as this whole compound, one small family, and they have a whole bunch of cars, and even birds that live in cages inside their houses!” None of this sounds real to me, but Almaz is sure of what she saw, and it makes me smile.
The sun is gone, and one of the nannies stands at the door to our room. “It’s time to go to sleep” She says and then quickly disappears walking on to another door where she repeats the same message. Almaz is in my bed tonight, it’s a little tighter now but I like it, she is nice and we are all happy that she is back home now.
“I am glad you are here” I say as I slide my tiny body underneath the blanket. “I am glad too” She says and the room falls quiet.
As soon as the light goes out I start to wander in my thoughts, the same as I do every night, I wonder where I came from, I wonder if my mother is still alive, and I think if maybe there is someone else out there who is my brother or sister. Just like last night, none of it makes sense, and all I get is sad when I think about it. I bite my lip to hold back tears and pull on the same smile that works good to make it all feel better.
Tomorrow is another day, and I look forward to bringing Almaz back to school with me, she is in my same class and I am sure the other kids will be surprised to see her, I know that she will have lots more stories to tell us.