After leaving Addis, Carly and I spent an awesome weekend in the south. We hung out with some of my favorite people, Chase, Campbell, Ellie and Emily. We toured Arba Minch and took a boat ride to see the largest crocodiles in the world. Hippos, storks and eagles hung out side by side. This was Africa. Fisherman in papyrus boats fished alongside the bank—looking for a catch that can grow to be over 200 pounds. I asked our guide how many fisherman are killed annually by the Crocodiles and Hippos.
He said, “one or two.”
We hiked to Chencha, a highland town sitting close to 10,000 feet. We toured the park, saw hot springs, baboons and some incredible views. Arba Minch may be the most perfectly placed city in Africa.
From Arba Minch we had a few stops before settling down in Bonga. First, all the volunteers were gathering in the lake resort town of Awassa to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. It coincided with a half marathon I had been training hard for. However, the night before the race I came down with the flu and couldn’t run.
Our next stop was Jimma. The closest large city to Bonga, Jimma should be an oasis for me. Swimming pools, pizza, hot showers. Yet, I’m never happy to be there. It’s dirty and loud. The kids are horrible and men harass women and foreigners. The bus station represents all the worst parts of Ethiopia. Its an unforgiving town, gritty, filled with pick pocketers.
Operation Smile was coming to Jimma and had asked for some volunteers. Because Carly and I were passing through, I thought we should help for a few days.
Previously, Operation Smile for me was not real. It was that organization that fixed kids lips. I had seen their advertisements. Perhaps I had thought about it in passing. I never allowed the idea of the organization to sink in. It was just a collection of before and after pictures. A little Asian girl with a new smile, right? A schema that remained as such, not indecent but not human either. Thinking back on this previous categorization makes me realize how easy it is to not care.
It’s like watching a great movie or show, ‘The Wire’ or ‘Arrested Development’ for a second time. You catch some of the things you missed the first time around. Things you missed when you were too busy closing the gaps of a stories arc. Too concerned with writing your own narrative to focus on the smaller details.
But ignorance is bliss. If we allowed ourselves to become emotionally attached to everyone, every cause, we would not have time to think.
Yet our ignorance is almost mandatory. There are too many causes, and one person can only do so much. So we forget about all of them and focus on today.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. I haven’t reached my conclusion because I haven’t arrived at one yet. All I know is that a few months ago, Operation Smile was just a leaflet. And now it has a face. It has names and tears and smiles. I think this is what every cause needs. They need a name and a face that demands your full attention. Operation Smile made me wonder what else I’m missing.
The first day was tough. I was translating between the doctors and the patients. Simple questions. What’s your name? What is your child’s name. Were you taking any medication during pregnancy? In your opinion, why did this happen? Did you arrive by bus or donkey?
I took a quick break. I tracked down Carly who was on the verge of tears. The kids had gotten to her. Little girls and boys with cleft lips. They already had nothing, but to be born this way was simply cruel. It was a heavy day. This was tough for anyone but especially her. She gets emotionally attached to places and vibes. Her pictures were weighing heavily on her mind. There was so much sadness and anxiety in the air. It was palpable. And yet, this was offset by the genuine positivity of the people. Being here was a reminder of how good we had it. Carly could not believe how happy these kids were who had been given nothing.
One girl, about 13 years old was self conscious to smile, but sometimes you can’t hold it in. Her smile was crooked, asymmetric. The most beautiful smile in the world.
We passed out toys to the kids. Carly took the best photo I’ve ever seen. An adorable girl with a cleft lip blowing bubbles. Her entire face brimming with unbridled joy. (To see more great photos from Ethiopia, check out her blog…www.carlyarnwineblog.com)
Back to the interviews–
“Simih Man No?” –what is your name, I asked to a kid about the age of seven.
“Chigir” He replied. My jaw dropped. Chigir means problem.
Later that day I turned to an Ethiopian volunteer. I told her I had tried to track down children with cleft lips or palates in my town. But I had no luck. Perhaps there were no children in Bonga with cleft lips. Dave even went to the hospital to ask. Quickly she replied, “that’s because these kids never see the light of day.”
Sure enough, I found out today that there are more than 8 kids around Bonga with Cleft lips. My friend Yidne took them to Addis for surgery last week. I had never seen one of them.
A full week of surgery followed the interviews and medical checks. My friend Chigir was one of the first patients headed for surgery. He had traveled four days by bus to come to Jimma. I hung out in the post surgery room. I waited for hours with the most anxious parents you can imagine. Or grandparents. The first child had been abandoned by his mother and father. When he came out of surgery, his grandfather could not stop crying. He told me over and over, “Praise God. Finally my child is beautiful. Praise God”
And in 45 minutes, his grandson’s life was changed forever. Previously, his future had a low ceiling. He was likely working in the home as an indentured servant of sorts. Speaking would be difficult. Friends were unlikely, as was any formal schooling. 45 minutes later, that ceiling was removed.
Carly and I had planned on staying for two days. We stayed for five. The week was life changing for the both of us. It had a profound impact on what I consider to be worthwhile. To witness from a few inches away– the first instant a child looked in the mirror with happiness, smiling and crying instantaneously. Grandparents rejoicing. A life entirely changed in an hour. A servant becoming a child. There are no words for this kind of miracle.
I got to know the volunteers and doctors who have already realized this. The salt of the earth. I was most impressed by the doctors. Giving up time and money to do the most selfless work. They worked around the clock in an attempt to fit in as many surgeries as possible. Over 100 cleft lips and palates were fixed that week by just a few doctors. Twenty surgeries every day, lasting up to an hour and a half each.
I caught up with one of the Doctors who was drinking tea. Sometimes you just know when someone is a great person. In his book, “blink” Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes this takes 2 seconds. Now I already knew this Doctor was a great person. He was here after all.
But it was something in his demeanor that made me realize he was a special person. I wanted to let him know how thankful the patients were for his service. I told him about the first surgery, the child who had been abandoned.
I told him how being there was such a personal pleasure. How speaking the language gave me extra insight. I told him about how the grandfather had started crying, thanking god for giving him a beautiful new child.
The doctor started choking up. He started crying as he scolded me for getting to his emotions. He explained that as a doctor he rarely gets to hear those stories. It’s just in and out and he misses the human element. He said hearing that story makes all the hard work worthwhile. Then he said something I’ll never forget:
“Coming here is a drug. It’s medicine for the soul. It really is a drug”
Let’s all get high.