The day that won’t be topped

Today was the big one – that day where it all clicked. I get that some of you might be skimming through the Ethiopia stories if you usually come here for sarcasm, alcoholism, gay jokes, and suburbia and that’s absolutely fine. I get it. All I ask is that you bear with me for this one post and really let it sink in. Today was the day that I caught myself standing in a circle of incredible kids, talking to the people who are helping them rebuild their lives, and trying not to be the overemotional white guy in Africa that I always knew I would be. Since they had to deal with me, I’m hoping you can do the same.

“This morning we’re going to go play soccer with the kids in the program.”

Fuck. Not only did they send a white guy to Africa to sweat nonstop for two weeks (best detox ever), they also sent a gay guy to go play sports with a crowd of kids who think every adult male is David Beckham. I automatically assumed that within five minutes of arriving, I would take a soccer ball to the face, twist my ankle, get laughed at, pee my pants, cry and be sent home for embarrassing War Child. It was inevitable and made even worse by the fact that the soccer pitch was actually the size of about four football fields with hundreds of people playing in dozens of games left, right and center. As someone who gets nervous whenever someone says ‘locker room’, this scale of athletics gave me hives.

But when I got there, it was pretty clear I wouldn’t be playing soccer. I was too busy talking to friends from the coffee ceremony, letting kids compare their arms to mine because I practically glow in the sunlight and not in a ‘dreamy’ Twilight-sort of way, and soaking up every second I got to spend with the kids in War Child’s program. I would have hung out with them all day if I could have but I should probably start by explaining what ‘the program’ actually is.

This was probably the hardest thing for me to understand before I got here because, to be honest, I can’t say I really understood what War Child did. I know I probably should have figured that out before getting on a plane, but whatever, I’m fully aware of my own pitfalls. The bottom line is that this isn’t some ‘for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day’ bullshit, this isn’t some lofty exercise in fundraising where money donated just disappears into an administrative abyss or corrupt government pocketbooks, and this isn’t a system of hand-outs that fosters crippling dependencies. So what is it? Here’s the general idea:

War Child partners with a local organization that employs local people to help in specific communities around the world. This makes sure that the people doing the work know the culture, the community and the people better than anyone else; that the program creates local jobs and creates legitimate connections between people rather than just white folk coming in to ‘fix’ everything; that the local organizations build their own skills and long-term capabilities by working with War Child employees; and that eventually the program will be self-sustaining on a local level so that War Child’s involvement can be phased out all together.

In Addis Ababa, this partnership provides homes, food, education and recreational activities for kids orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Right now 150 kids are living on their own in 39 houses, going to school every day, receiving regular tutoring, job training and family counseling. Older siblings commit to the responsibility of raising their younger siblings, giving up typical teenaged social lives so they can get a career and learn how to support the household. It’s a big task but an important one since this is the only way the younger kids will be able to get their own education. It creates sustainability within the home and eventually independence as kids ‘graduate’ from the program and are ready to take charge in their own lives as hairdressers, nurses, IT consultants, and tradespeople.

I spoke to a ton of these kids today while I was avoiding the utter embarrassment of playing sports in public. Before this program, they were depressed and hopeless. You know how we were all told we could do anything if we set our mind to it? These kids were being told they were going to die in a gutter just like their parents. I’m serious. Even though most of these kids are completely healthy, the community shut them out after their folks died. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t see their future, they didn’t HAVE a future. Imagine knowing you’re pretty much finished at the age of six, or having to look at your younger sister and tell her she has to go out and find money however she can or else she’ll die. It’s completely fucked up.

But today, they were standing here, feeling good, feeling happy, and feeling proud that they’re on track to not only take care of themselves, but to have the skills and strength to protect their younger brothers and sisters from what happens to so many others. A young girl I met today was in school to become a nurse. When I asked her if it was hard work she said it came really easy to her – all she needed was for someone to teach her. Another guy, a total ladies man, is close to finishing up at the hairdressing program and he already has the swagger that would make me want to make tracks for his shop although I don’t think I could pull off his signature dreads.

These aren’t the kids you see on TV sitting on the side of the road with flies on their cheeks. These are kids who are being given a chance and are squeezing every last drop of opportunity out of it.

Five years ago, none of the other community soccer teams would play against these kids. Today? They won 5-0, mostly because I stayed the hell out of their way, but also because this program has taken them from AIDS-orphaned kids to just kids. Actually no…not just kids – kids who are fighting hard for change, who decided to grow up fast so their siblings don’t have to, and who in five years time will have accomplished more than most of us could imagine doing if the roles were reversed.

So that’s it. That’s the big picture that I finally understand and while all I really want to do right now is spend more time with them, I’m off to do some touring of a northern region of the country for a few days before I see them again. I probably won’t have internet until mid-week but before I go, I wanted to let you know that I’d really like to end this trip with a donation to War Child both in thanks of giving me this experience and in hopes of seeing more kids in more countries getting this chance. I’m not going to campaign, I’m not going to sell cupcakes in shorty-shorts, I’m not going to hassle or beg, I’m just putting it out there this one time to see what happens. No matter what, War Child can count on my own humble donation and any support you’d like to toss into the pot.

Yes – I know that many of you are struggling in your own right and that’s okay. We’re all students and young professionals living paycheck to paycheck and I refuse to put any pressure or guilt on you. But last year we managed to raise over $2,000 for a great cause slowly but surely with $5, $10 and even $20 donations. Plus, I know very well that there are more established readers out there who can appreciate what it was like to be able to give their own kids the support they needed to be self-sufficient, or who understand what it’s like to be born with more of a chance in life than the kids here solely based on geography.

That’s my one appeal. I’ll be happily accepting donations through PayPal (use the button) for the rest of the week. I’m going to keep the total amount private because I really don’t want this entire experience to be about money, and quite frankly I’ll be happy even if my donation is the only one just knowing that some of you were able to get educated with me through this experience. Hell, I’m already happy because I didn’t embarrass myself on the soccer field.