The Adoption Express
Cover Image for The Adoption Express

The Adoption Express

I jolted awake in the dark. My forehead hurt, and though I couldn’t see it, there was a likely a greasy, sweaty spot on the tray table folded up in front of me.

I am a tall man, and can’t usually sleep on planes, but I had passed straight out slumped forward against the seat in front of me. My neck ached.

I was in the middle seat of five, far back in coach. I don’t get claustrophobic, but on awakening, there was a sharp moment of adrenaline. It took longer than felt comfortable to remember where I was and why I was on a packed plane in the darkness. We had come into rough air, and all around me you could hear the squeaking and shuddering as every seat and panel in the plane rubbed against its neighbor or tugged at the bolts holding it down. Only the dim aisle lights showed the swaying heads and gripping hands on the armrests.

It was hot in the closely packed seats at the back of the plane. The bathrooms were closed from the turbulence, but the shaking had awakened colons throughout the plane. Sweat brought with it the unique tang of chilis and chickpeas and spices in the delicious East African food we had all been eating. Each sudden shock of air went into the wings and came out in gasps from men and women awake in the darkness.

I had been through rough flights before, but one thing was different on this run. All around me in the darkness, babies and young children were screaming. Being trapped on a flight near a crying kid is a nightmare for many travelers. This wasn’t just one loud family, though. There were children everywhere.

I was in the air over Sudan, and though you could not see it in the darkness, this whole plane was filled with white parents and black children. This was the Adoption Express on its way back to Europe from Addis Ababa. These terrified children, many from rural villages, were going through an incomprehensible experience, and the world that waited for them at the end of this flight was likely to be no less strange.

At the end of this flight, and the next one, and the one after that, I would be back in Colorado. There, back then, my wife was waiting. She worked for an orphan care agency, and we often talked about these kids getting a better life after they were pulled from the crippling poverty of Africa.

We had not even been married a year then. The novelty of sharing a bed with someone else would keep us awake long into the night. In the darkness we would lie awake, looking at lines of light cast across the ceiling through the blinds. For hours we would talk, tugging at the unsolvable knot of global poverty and dreaming about all the places we hadn’t seen in the world yet.

My mind drifted back to a few days ago in that blue Ford truck that had trundled us all around the countryside. Driving to a village outside of Addis Ababa, we had passed through a grove of dense forest quite different from the arid grasslands that had slid by the windows of our pickup all morning. It was still early in the day, and as we passed through the trees, children in school uniforms kept materializing out of the trees. They all turned down the road in the same direction, heading to the local school.

“They live out there” one of our hosts said to us. “Oh,” I said, naively. “Is there another village out there?” Our host turned in his seat and gave me a long look. “No. They live OUT there” I looked again at the trees. More children joined the procession. His meaning was now clear. Even the mud houses we had seen along the road were a relative luxury here. For some of these children, the comforts of home and family were only the faintest of dreams.

On that trip our handlers would tell us about “meat day” in the villages. It was the day when one lone and unfortunate animal would be sacrificed so the whole community would eat the only meat they could afford. It only happened once a year.

Sitting in the comfortable center of North America, the efforts of relief agencies and the black and white relationship of Western resources supposedly making things better in poor corners of the world seemed so easy to understand. Here in the Horn of Africa, I had seen a fuller picture. It wasn’t that western resources didn’t help … it was just that things were more complicated.

On that trip I would hear for the first time about women giving up their kids for adoption to feed their remaining children. The money for adoptions was so great and the desire for western couples to “do their part” so strong that there was a financial incentive for parents to make the heart wrenching decision to choose which child to give away.

It was also on that trip that I would first learn about the destructive effects of urban migration. Parents desperate for work were flowing into cities all over Africa, and the children who came with them would be at the mercy of a host of new influences. Street gangs were growing. Even the kids begging and asking us to buy gum were often just workers in a highly exploitative informal economy.

I also heard the desperate pleas of local church leaders in pressed shirts sitting by the open windows of their white stucco-ed offices. They would tell us with a dark irony how little it would take to radically transform the life of a child or a community. Talk of success stories would be mingled with tales of mismanagement and good intensions gone bad and piles of money vanishing into the void of corruption and confusion that can accompany transnational efforts to change lives.

It had been a strange week leading up to the moment I stepped back into the Lufthansa departure lounge. Suddenly plopped back into the familiar, Western, nearly clinical tidiness of the lounge, I had been suddenly struck by seeing my fellow travelers. All along the wall they were grouped the same in threes and fours; a white woman and a white man and with them one or two very disoriented Ethiopian children.

That moment was many years ago. I wonder about those children, the older of whom would be adults now. Who knew the places these kids were going? How many are now bankers and doctors and engineers?

Life and circumstances can hold you tightly, but when you pull up the anchor, there is no telling where the winds of life will take you. I will never forget the shock many years later when, on a snowy, sleeting, stormy winter night in rural Iceland my wife and I walked into the only lit restaurant for miles. We would have been happy with the surprisingly crave-worthy gas station sandwiches found across the island. There would have been no surprise even if it was an Italian or a French restaurant holding down this intersection in the dark interior of Iceland. Instead, it was an Ethiopian joint.

As the door closed behind us, the Nordic night disappeared and we were swallowed in the warmth and welcoming equatorial hospitality of injera and piles of delicious meats and vegetables. The walls were filled with wooden or woven artifacts lifted from the south and tucked up here in one warm, bright room just under the arctic circle. When the food finally hit the table, I was immediately transported to the noisy open-air diners I had visited on the long roads outside of Addis Ababa. At the first bite, in my mind I was ducking out of the blistering equatorial sun toward a rough table under a wide veranda rather than hiding from wrath of a storm filling the endless artic night.

This comically out of place restaurant was run by an Icelandic man and his Ethiopian wife. They had met in Addis years ago. She talked about going back to Ethiopia and how much had changed. We all wondered at the sometimes strange and wonderful things that happen when cultures and people from “over there” find roots in new soil.

Back on that dark, hot flight, I wondered if a firm hold in a new land be the fate of these kids? What did they remember of the home they had left on that plane taking them away from everything they had ever known? How many stayed in their new countries? How many of these children, orphans in name, but with living parents, would ever return to Africa?

What could they have known of the paths that waited for them?

For that matter, what could my wife and I have known of the path that would lie ahead of us? We thought we had so many things to anchor us back then. We c ould never have believed the road ahead of us would slowly become two paths. For years we would desperately try to walk together, hands held over the widening gap until souls and fingers lost touch when the gulf became too wide.

None of us knew these things then, rattling along in the dark as women prayed in Amharic and babies cried their way to the promised salvation of a new life abroad.