The big big day: visiting our Ethiopian family

In February 2014, we took our daughters back to Ethiopia for the first time, since their adoption in 2009. This is one of many blog posts we have written about our family’s homeland trip. I also go to Ethiopia every year with our charity, Vulnerable Children Society, so there are additional blogposts from my trips to Ethiopia to enjoy!

Yesterday was a big big day for our family. We don’t share the details of our girls’ Ethiopian family publicly, but suffice to say, we have an open adoption, and huge extended family in Ethiopia.

With any large family, there are bouts of drama, and our Ethiopian family is no exception. It’s hard sometimes navigating the politics and cultural expectations, when you just drop in for two days from across the globe. I’m sure we made mistakes… But I also know we have clear cultural and familial ties because of these visits, and the letters and photos send back and forth, in between.

We spent the morning deep in the countryside, far far away from the town. One group of the girls’ relations is literally the poorest family I have ever met in Ethiopia. I’ll remind you, that I run a charity that helps poor and vulnerable families. So I’ve seen my share of poverty. But the abject circumstances that they live in are quite astounding. It’s the second time we’ve visited them, and it was a very positive, warm visit. The girls made their best connection there, playing with the children. Sugar especially felt very comfortable.

We make sure the the girls are privy to all of our discussions, so that they understand what we talk about, and hear the stories straight from those involved. The rural family faces the greatest challenges, but it is the one we can’t help. Not at all. Money really doesn’t solve all problems… Even with all our resources, we can’t help a dang bit. It’s so frustrating. Their own Ethiopian family can’t help, and we can’t either. So they stay in these dreadful circumstances, and we just hope that an opportunity to help might present itself next time we visit.

Our other family groups live in suburban and urban areas. The most positive experience for the girls was out in the dusty countryside. But the second was a long visit in a meeting room in our hotel. The key ingredients were that We just had a couple of people involved, so that we got to chat and interact without a lot of observation. Honestly, one thing I find so annoying in Ethiopia is that it’s very hard to have a private conversation, without neighbours, hotel workers and people on the street crowding around. So you have to make your own privacy.

The visit to the suburban house was a case in point.. It was a mess. Our relative carefully arranged for about a thousand distant (and I mean distant) relations to show up at his house, so we were met by 50+ people on arrival. Sugar couldn’t even get out of the car. Spice managed to get through the crowds with grandma and I to the house, where just four or five people crowded in. But there was no way Sugar was getting out of that van. She melted into a puddle of tears on the floors. So we made our apologies and exited. I’m sure they will be talking about our rudeness for years to come. The girls just can’t take that much attention… And it don’t think they should be expected too.

The rest they managed well, though. After an extremelly long day of stress, new people and visiting, they crashed in bed, satisfied. We had seen almost everyone we wanted to see, and it had gone better, in most cases, than we could have asked for.

Sugar said one of her best moments was actually right before her worst. When she didn’t want to get out of the van, we let one of her cousins in to chat. She said “she was super nice, and cute! I know she’s supposed to look like me, but I didn’t realize she would be so smiley and nice. When I was scared to get out of the van, she gave me a big hug.”

Sugar’s favourite moment was out in the countryside, visiting with a younger relative as well. “She has two dogs, just like us… Even a puppy! And I really like it that she looks so much like me.”

I asked the girls for advice, for other kids who might be visiting birth family. Sugar said: “It can be kinda scary, but after you are there for a while, you can relax. Then you can talk and visit. Afterwards, even if it was scary, you feel good.”

Spice: “You don’t have to be scared, because your family will keep you safe… But seeing your birth family can be pretty nervous. Before, you don’t know what’s going to happen. If they are really excited, it gets scary. But if they are calm and you get to visit, you really enjoy it. I’m glad I saw my family.”

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