A little girl who still waits
Two years ago God called Mark and I to go to Uganda. On paper, we were ready to adopt. We had been working with an adoption agency and waiting for a referral. And then one day in January 2011, God told us to go to Uganda.
We bought plane tickets, packed our suitcases and said goodbye to our three little boys. Specifically, God called us to visit orphanages, churches, hospitals and ministries caring for children affected by HIV and AIDS. We had a heart to tell the truth: these kids can be adopted. We were among a growing number of families open to adopting positive children. We were hopeful that the journey would lead us a little closer to our child. But more than anything, we just wanted to share our hearts. The trip led us to our daughter Gabrielle. The trip also led us to another little girl we’ll call Hope.
Hope was living at an orphanage in Uganda. She was four years old. She had been living at the orphanage since she was a baby, when she lost her mother to AIDS. When we visited Hope’s orphanage for the first time, we were blown away. Compared to the orphanages we had visited in Kampala, it seemed like paradise. It was surrounded by farms, tea plantations and small villages. The children lived in relative comfort. They attended school, had plenty to eat, received excellent medical care and enjoyed many of the extras typical of American childhood: movies, soda, swimming, horseback riding. The orphanage had placed many of its youngest children for international adoption. We were the first family to ask about adopting a child with a special need.
When we visited the orphanage the first time, the staff carefully protected the children. We were impressed by the character of the leaders as well as the quality of the care the children received. We decided to move forward to adopting from this orphanage. A few weeks later, we were given a referral for a four year old girl with big brown eyes and a shy smile.
We submit paperwork to the Ugandan courts for both Gabrielle and Hope the same week. We assumed we would receive a court date for both girls around the same time. We traveled to Uganda and went to court for Gabrielle quickly, but we continued to wait for a court date for Hope. After two months of waiting in Uganda as a family of six, Mark took our boys home. He had to return to work in Seattle. Gabrielle and I continued to wait for a court date to adopt Hope in Uganda.
As we were waiting, I wrote the following about my experience:
I have been in Africa for six weeks. Six weeks of watching the sun rise over the lush green hills dotted with acacia and mango trees. Six weeks of listening to rain pound on metal roofs. Six weeks of scrubbing red mud off my feet at night. Six weeks of eating ripe banana, mango and pineapple every day. Six weeks of mostly cold showers that actually feel good at the end of hot, humid days.
I am still waiting for the news that we have a court hearing for this little girl whose name means hope…
Now my mom, Nancy, and I are staying at the orphanage where Hope is living. We are living in a simple but well stocked guest house at the edge of the property. The house has a giant front porch that looks out over a beautiful jungle. We can watch monkeys and birds in the giant trees as we drink coffee in the morning.
Today is cloudy. Last night there was a wild storm, with rain, lightening, thunder and wind. This morning is calm and quiet. From our house we can see the children who live at the orphanage do their morning chores. Girls mop the red dirt from the floors. Boys use machetes to cut the grass. Bigger children hold smaller children’s hands. Girls and boys as young as four years do their own laundry. When the chores are done, the children will go play. There is no school this month as the kids are on a spring holiday. The kids climb trees with incredible skill. There are small fruits that grow high in the tops of trees in front of their homes and the little girls, sometimes just five or six years old, will climb to the top of the trees, wiggle out on the branches until they bend towards the ground, pick fruit and jump to the ground.
Older children play soccer and basketball. Sometimes there is an organized game of capture the flag. Occasionally the kids are allowed to go play in the mud after it rains. The return covered from head to toe in dust and clay. On hot afternoons, the children rest, read books or occasionally watch a movie. Our little Truth loves to swing.
After nearly three months of visiting Truth and then staying with her at the orphanage, we were still waiting for a court date. With no good news, we made the decision to return to Seattle and to wait at home. Saying goodbye to Hope is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Here is what I wrote shortly after I left her at the orphanage:
Hope will stay here in Uganda, surrounded by jungles full of monkeys and birds, fields growing sugar cane and lush tea plantations. Life here is simple and peaceful. Every morning the children wake up and do their chores: washing laundry, sweeping and mopping the floors, cutting the grass with long-handled machetes. When chores are done, the children play games and read books in the shade. Once or twice a week, they gather together to watch a movie. Around one the children have lunch: beans, greens with ground nut sauce or cabbage with tomato, avocado and posho, a staple food made from ground corn. After lunch the little ones take a nap while the older kids play. Late in the afternoon, when the sun begins to melt into the western horizon, the children gather on the soccer field, basketball court and playground. They dance and sing, run and climb trees. They build houses out of sheets and kitchens out of sticks, pretending to have mothers and fathers and homes. When it gets dark, the children bathe in cold showers, eat dinner, do devotions with the house mamas and then go to bed.
Here our little one’s needs will be met, although in her little eyes I see sadness and longing. As we have spent time together over the last two months, Hope has slowly warmed up to me. About two weeks ago, she was sick and in pain. I sat with her for about an hour. She would not talk with me; she would not even look at me. But I sat with her, holding her hand, rubbing her back and her head, telling her that she was special and I wanted her to feel better.
I imagine this felt a little like having a mother. For a little girl who lost her mom to AIDS when she was a baby, I imagine my presence felt both comforting and terrifying. I suppose even her desire to be loved and nurtured was overwhelming. As I watched her silently cry, thankful that we were alone and it was quiet for maybe an hour, I prayed that somehow God would knit our hearts together.
Since that day, Hope has started to talk with me. She asks me to take her photo. She lets me paint her fingernails and holds my hand. She smiles at me and seems to understand that what we have is growing to be special. But sometimes I see the same fear. When we drive away from the orphanage, the look on her face breaks my heart. Every time we drive into town, she wonders if I will come back. Or if I will leave her forever, as most visitors do. And as her mother did.
In just a few days I will leave. When we leave, however, I will promise her to come back and I will keep that promise. I don’t know if I will come back in a few weeks or a few months, but I will come back. Though she doesn’t know what it means, she will have a mother. She will have a family.
This time of leaving Hope is giving me a deeper understanding of what it was like for Jesus to leave his people. Jesus’ heart was broken for his followers, knowing how they would struggle to believe in him after he was gone, knowing they would suffer and feel alone, knowing they would wonder if he was really coming back. I feel the same way about Hope. As hard as it is for me to leave her, my heart is broken knowing she will feel sad, lonely, afraid and uncertain if I will keep my promise to return. But I am determined to keep my promise. And God – much more so – is determined to keep his. What a blessing that God would use this painful time to teach me about his heart.
To make a long story short, we never received a court date for Hope. As we waited for a court date, we began to wonder why the orphanage was full of children who were not orphans – most of the children had biological families living in the nearby villages. As we realized that the orphanage had not made much of an effort to reunite this little girl with her family, we began to ask more questions about the little girl’s history . When we asked them about these things, they responded in anger. They said our questions revealed a lack of trust. They threatened that unless we could trust how they were handling the adoption, we could not adopt Truth – and we realized that we could not in good conscience move forward.
It took seven weeks for Hope to give me a hug. On the day I said goodbye – the day I promised I would come back – she did not want to let go.
We were left with a suitcase still packed. With a closet full of clothes and shoes. With a bed neatly made and her pictures on our walls. And we were left with broken hearts – and many questions.
A year and a half later, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Hope. I don’t know that I will ever totally at peace with what happened. The injustice of this experience has compelled me to learn everything I can about adoption and orphan care. In a sense, I believe that God is redeeming what we lost through this. But at the same time, I know that Hope is still growing up in an orphanage.* The orphanage where she is living is about as good as orphanages can be – and yet she doesn’t have a mother and a father. She is growing up without the love, affection, security and identity provided by a family.
If I have learned one thing over the last 18 months of research, it is this: kids need families. To deprive a child the opportunity to grow up in a family is an injustice. And I am not just talking about international adoption. Most of the world’s can be cared for in their own families and communities – and in many ways orphanages create orphans.
*Shortly after I wrote this post in 2012, I was contacted by the family who was able to adopt Hope. We praise God that she is home with a family who loves her and continue to pray for her often.