Shaking the Ethiopian baby tree
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia:
For several minutes, the entrance of the chic Lime Tree restaurant becomes a colourful spectacle the Ethiopian bar kittens caressing cellphones and the finger-snap attentive waiters milling about can’t ignore.
They arrive in the arms of their new parents.
Or on foot, in new white sneakers, their little black hands held aloft in the palm of their new white mommy or daddy.
An infant Ethiopian girl, in a pink toque, arrives limp on the shoulder of one white man.
A boy no older than three arrives soon after, all nerves and unsure steps, the emotional distance between him and the heavy white woman he’s with bigger than their difference in size. Some white couples have two babies, one for both husband and wife to hold.
In all, 13 Ethiopian children come through the doors, leaving the six-lane main street and its ragged army of children beggars behind for the Lime Tree’s inner sanctum, with its attached bookstore, signs advertising expensive yoga classes and its free Wi-Fi connection.
The scene is becoming common in Addis Ababa, the new American superstore for buying babies.
Later, at the nearby Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place Guesthouse, Denise Thompson is preparing Bisrat and Yordanos — the two four-year-old fraternal twins she and her husband have just adopted — for bed.
“Ethiopia is really quickly becoming popular because their restrictions are some of the fewest,” says the 37-year-old mother.
“Ethiopia is fast. You don’t have to be here for a long amount of time.”
She’s part of a similar ‘adoption group’ to the one seen earlier at the restaurant, having come three weeks ago from Scio, Oregon, with three other adopting families from across the United States to retrieve Ethiopian children.
In adoption speak, Ethiopia is a “no-visit” country.
For an American to adopt here, all that’s required is filling out paperwork, an interview and background check, an adoption agency fee of between $9,000 and $35,000 and a wait of about three months.
Once an adoption is approved, an escort can be hired (at extra cost) and your new Ethiopian infant — available as young as four-months old — can be flown to you via the nearest international airport to your home.
Those wishing to fetch their babies themselves enjoy similar expediency.
Once an adoption is approved by Ethiopia, it’s possible to arrive in Addis Ababa on, say, a Saturday, take possession of your child on Sunday and be back in North America by mid-day Monday.
For comparison, Kazakhstan requires an adopting family to live in the country for eight to 12 weeks to bond with their new child.
Russia and several other former Soviet states require two visits. Mexico is a “three-visit” country.
“That’s a huge commitment,” says Thompson, who concedes her family’s income makes international adoption something you have to shop around.
The pretty, blond-haired mother of two children, aged 13 and 10, recently remarried but is unable to have more children of her own.
The fact she has biological children makes her uncompetitive on adoption queues in the US.
But she and her husband still considered adopting a child at home, only to meet families who have later lost their adopted children to their birth parents through court battles.
“We didn’t always want to live in fear of that knock on the door,” she says.
Last year, the Thompsons adopted a four-year-old girl from China.
They wanted a brother for her, says Thompson, something boy-crazed China can’t accommodate.
And, even if it could, the country has raised the bar for adopters to almost comic levels.
At six feet, five inches tall and 260 pounds, Thompson’s husband’s body mass index is now considered too high.
The family also now makes too little money, according to the Chinese government.
Ethiopia doesn’t ask such questions.
For comparison, it requires only a letter from a bank stating you’re a customer, but not the actual account balance.
Few other African countries even have formal adoption regulations.
When the agency rang and said “twins,” the Thompsons said, “Sure.”
Thompson is still waiting, “in-country,” as she calls it, holding out for past three weeks for paperwork in the US, not Ethiopia, to be approved.
Her husband recently returned home with her daughter, son, and mother, leaving her with her boys and her father.
It’s a hassle, but in some ways, an unexpected blessing, says Thompson.
What was supposed to be a one-week trip to retrieve the boys has turned into a crash course in Ethiopian culture.
“Ethiopia is part of them,” she says, as Bisrat and Yordanos cycle through another round of their A, B, C’s, then talk excitedly with each other in Amharic, Ethiopia’s lingua franca. “Nothing will change that.”
She has learned subtleties of their culture that she hopes to keep for her twins, who won’t be finding Ethiopian connections easily in Scio, a mostly white Baptist Christian town of 600 people.
Thompson also plans to learn to cook injera, Ethiopia’s staple unleavened bread that is eaten with almost religious regularity here. She hopes the boys will keep speaking Amharic.
And the original plan to change their names has been dropped.
She says this as she reflects on what she calls “Hilton adopters” — Americans who arrive here, stay at the trademark hotel, get driven around the city to do necessary paperwork and then quickly fly out.
“They never leave the Hilton hotel compound while they’re here. They’re missing out, and missing out for their kids.”
This immodesty of the ever-present Western baby trade in Addis Ababa forces non-adopting visitors to confront their own opinions on it.
Does Ethiopia’s heart-wrenching poverty, the stinking, plastic-coated filth of its rivers, the barren farms in its countryside and the staggering number of people with blindness or disfigurations in its towns, make such easy baby adopting OK?
Are we to trust that the Ethiopian government is really looking out for its kids? That all children being offered for adoption are genuine orphans and not orphans for profit?
Bisrat and Yordanos have siblings, says Thompson. She knows their parents are still alive, but has been told they were placed briefly into an orphanage because of “poverty.”
It’s a term that sounds awfully relative when adopters from the richest nation on Earth are queuing for kids.
But it’s a description that’s, undeniably, accurate for many people here.
Thompson thinks about it, often.
But she remains secure in the paperwork required from the Ethiopian government, and the large number of children of similar age to her two boys waiting for new families at the orphanages, rather than simply those in-demand newborns.
“They’re not considered ‘marketable,’ if you can describe it that way,” she says of Bisrat and Yordanos.
“If they were baby girls I would be more worried.”
This is former Yukon News reporter Tim Querengesser’s final Africa Dispatch column.