We went to visit the government orphanages today.
The one where they keep the babies, no cameras were allowed. So I can’t post a photograph of the police van driving up as soon as we arrived, nor the police women who jumped out of the back of it with a five day old baby girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, who had been abandoned at a hospital. Which happens sometimes as many as five times a day, we were told.
I can’t show you a picture of the bleak room we entered where fifty or so children, all dressed exactly alike in white tshirts and blue pants, immediately surrounded us as we walked in. Have you ever thrown a piece of bread in a pond just to watch the ducks fight each other for it? Imagine that, but with toddlers, literally crawling our legs. They swarmed all of us, including my children, but we mothers were attacked the most voraciously, so desperate were they for a mother’s embrace. I can’t show you the face of one of them, a boy I think, as I held him tightly, but imagine the purest joy you’ve ever seen. Then another climbed my leg and I held one in each arm as they clung to me, burying their faces in my neck until they pulled away and laughed.
And I’m sorry I can’t show you a picture of the bright sunny small room at the top of the stairs where the walls were lined with cribs. Even if I could, you couldn’t hear what I heard, which, aside from the caretakers chatting to each other, was silence. Except for one chubby little girl who must have been new to the orphanage and therefore still mistakenly believed that if she cried, someone might come. She sat whimpering in her crib with a confused look on her face. In the picture I can’t show you you’d see that they were all clean and had dry diapers and were fed and appeared healthy, including the newly born, yet already orphaned babies sleeping wrapped in blankets. The other three in the small room, old enough to sit or stand, just stared at us, silently. All of them curious, except for one.
I can’t show you his picture. But he was sitting up, so he must have been about eight months old. He was wearing a hot pink sweatshirt with an American label and a diaper and he had those beautiful Ethiopian almond eyes. He did not look at us. He stared straight ahead, at nothing. I can’t show you a picture of what it looks like for tiny almond shaped eyes to be completely hopeless. I can tell you though that when I reached for him, he flinched. But as I continued to hold my arms out, he cautiously rocked his little body closer, still not looking at me. And when I picked him up he melted into my chest completely and very soon I could tell that his breathing had regulated to mine. And he felt like he was mine.
But then I had to put him down. And he cried, probably for the first time in a long time he cried, painfully cried, and I looked desperately at one of the caretakers begging her with my eyes to please, just hold him. And she did, but she almost immediately put him back in his crib. I can’t show you a picture of him banging his head against the sides of the crib in frustration. Or of the worker scooting him back and shaking her finger and fussing at him in Amharic.
Imagine him going silent again. Imagine him staring, at nothing, again.
I can’t show you a picture of the next room, which was sunny and bright, where twenty or so cribs lined the perimeter and were also paired in a line down the center, with two to four infants in each crib. You can’t see that the mattresses were raised too high for most of the children, who should have been crawling out at their ages, but weren’t. Imagine them all beautiful, perfect. Imagine half of them napping. The other half sat or laid in their cribs, empty except for their tiny bodies. No toys. Most of them were under one year, only three seemed older than that. Twin little girls were in one crib who may have been two. One little girl seemed at least three, and she sat in her crib, making no noise, just smiling shyly, on the too-high mattress.
I can’t show you a photo of my son, my firstborn, going from crib to crib, tickling, hugging, kissing, playing patty cake with each baby, just as had been done to him every day of his infancy. I can’t show you how their eyes lit up as he bent his blond head over them and gave them each a nickname: Smiley, Cutie, Jailbreak. How they tried to sit up and reach out their little brown hands to touch him. How they drooled and smiled toothless smiles at him. How their coos and giggles broke the silence in the room of fifty babies. How when he left them, they looked disappointed, but not surprised.
I’m sorry, but I can’t show you any pictures of this because the government wouldn’t let us take any photographs.