In July, I flew back to Addis Ababa with our oldest son, Seth. We joined Lee, who was already there, and we brought Yosef and Daniel to our hotel. They learned that very afternoon that we would be their family. The Gizaw brothers, their friend from the orphanage, Hailegabriel, and Lee's friend Ezra Silk, had such an uproarious time together in two hotel rooms that a gentleman from Nigeria, a United Nations official occupying the room next door, was obliged to call the front desk more than once to plead for quiet.
One evening, after a long day of sightseeing and soccer and frisbee, Seth herded Yosef into the bathroom, turned on the shower, pantomimed what was required, and withdrew.
A few minutes later, Yosef came dancing out of the bathroom dripping wet and stark naked.
Seth shooed him back into the bathroom, took Yosef's boxer shorts, threw them in after him, and closed the door again.
Yosef danced back out into the room, dripping wet and with the boxer shorts on his head.
He had selected two from among the dozen words of English he knew. As he leapt wildly into the room, he asked, "YOU READY?"
Lee later said of the boys: "These are the two happiest human beings I've ever seen in my life."
THE BIG NUMBERS
Most conversations about the orphan crisis in Africa begin and end with the big numbers.
12,000,000 orphans today, in some estimates; 18,000,000 orphans in the near future; 25 million people infected with HIV today in Africa; fewer than 20 percent, continent-wide, with access to the life-saving medicines, thus more orphans to come. Adding in the numbers of children orphaned by TB, malaria, hunger, and war, estimates reach dizzying statistics like 45,000,000 children between newborn and 15 growing up without one or both parents.
One day, several years ago, I looked at these big numbers and thought, "Could you adopt one of these children?" The notion of thinking about just one child gave me a way in, past the numbers with all the zeroes.
The notion of writing about one, or about just a few children, was a similar impulse.
It's impossible to care about 12 million of anything. Human beings simply aren't wired to process data to this extent.
But we are very well prepared to understand one or two or half-a-dozen stories. My own family has ducked behind the big numbers by bringing a few children home; my book sneaks past the big numbers by making the intimate acquaintance of one foster mother, and observing the gales of child-life blowing back and forth across her dusty compound.
On my first return visit to Addis Ababa after the book was completed, I prepared to enjoy the children's company without relentlessly noting, memorizing, listening closer, gathering.
In the five years I'd been traveling to Ethiopia ? in the three years that I became a regular visitor to the little orphanage hidden within tall corrugated-tin walls ? I dragged camera bags large and small, notebooks and pens, briefcases and backpacks.
This time, I thought, I will just live among them. I will just be.
But I found, this past July, that it isn't easy to turn off the internal journalistic mechanisms of watching and noting. Everywhere I turned, there were scenes; every toddler, raising its arms to be lifted, came with a story. Every glance down the road told my trained eye that all was not normal here; this ancient and handsome country was under siege. Against my own intentions, I gathered scenes and anecdotes.
Two beggars held down regular spots on the muddy shoulder of the road across from my small hotel. Every morning, I opened the curtains and they were there, squatting between the paved road and a line of parked transport trucks.
In hot sunshine or grey downpour, the two young women ? in flip-flops and long shawls ? were there. One nursed a baby while keeping her four-year-old son away from speeding cars; the other had a son of about three. The women squatted ten yards apart, in competition for the occasional hand-out from strangers. Two of the truck's tires had no hubcaps, and each little boy had claimed a truck tire as his hide-out. Each climbed up into the tire wheel and played that it was a fort, or reclined to enjoy the view, or had a bite of lunch.
One morning, I heard crying in the street. I ran to the window and saw what had happened: the four-year-old had usurped the three-year-old’s tire. While the younger boy stomped about screaming, the older boy ignored him. I saw the young women look at each other. They stood up and met halfway. Gently they extricated the hijacker and showed him to his tire; they restored the displaced boy to his rightful tire. Then they stood chatting, one with a baby on her hip. They looked like young mothers at a playground or a preschool anywhere in the world.
Statistics suggest they were likely widows of AIDS, both possibly HIV-positive. One, two, or all three of their children might be HIV-positive as well. Once they had been housewives or had had jobs; widowhood, stigma, and weakness had deprived them of their livelihoods. They visited together for another moment, before the obligations of earning a living drew each back to her accustomed spot in the mud, where she resumed squatting and begging.
When I think of those big numbers now ? the 12 million ? the 12 followed by six zeroes ? I see those zeroes as the huge tires of a cross-continental truck. Inside the wheel of each of those tremendous zeroes, a little boy or girl is playing.
BUT NO FERRETS
"How can it be possible," my children are asking, "that all these years, whenever we ask if we can have a ferret, you say, 'No, they're too much trouble,' but when Lee calls from Ethiopia to ask if we can have two more brothers, you say 'OK'!?"
"That is odd," I have to agree.
"And they’re really coming, Daniel and Yosef?"
"Yes, they're coming."
"So, can we have a ferret?"
"They're too much trouble."