Visiting Our Daughters’ Birth Families in Ethiopia
Image credit: Marika Lindholm
Considerations for visiting your child’s country of origin
Our family recently made the journey to Ethiopia to visit with my 10- and 12-year-old daughters’ birth families. It was a trip I’d been thinking about since they were first adopted more than a decade ago. When I was deciding whether to make the trip, many practical and emotional considerations weighed heavily on me. In the end, I felt it was important to offer the girls the opportunity to establish a relationship with their birth families and forge a personal connection with their heritage.
Thoughtful planning and honest conversations helped us prepare for the trip, and the generous, joyous spirit of the Ethiopian people made it a life-changing experience for the whole family. I hope that others planning similar journeys can learn from our experience to make their own trips as comfortable and rewarding as possible.
The closer we got to departure, the more anxious my daughters became about reuniting with their families. They asked lots of questions, which I always answered honestly (even though sometimes I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear). We were set to travel right after a lengthy and devastating drought, so I couldn’t reassure my daughters that all their family members were doing well. Fortunately, we found both families in good health.
Typical questions that swirl in the minds of adoptees include: Why was I given up? Who are my biological mother, father, and siblings? Are they alive? Are they sick or starving? Will they be happy to see me?
I prepared my daughters by explaining that we would try to find out as much as possible, but that there was a good chance not all their questions would be answered. Instead, I focused on the information they would get, such as seeing their birth country and experiencing local customs firsthand. Some of their fears were very easy to address, but I would never have known about them without encouraging my daughters to ask me anything about the trip—no matter how silly or small.
One of my daughters shared that she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by showing affection or deep connection to members of her birth family. I reassured her that the more people she loves and who love her, the better. There are no limits to how much love a heart can hold.
We gave ourselves plenty of time to get ready for the trip—there’s no need for the added stress that comes with last-minute scrambling.
For those planning for similar trips, I advise you to research what documents and immunizations you may need before traveling. You will need passports, of course, and you may need to bring your children’s birth certificates as well. If your kids are applying for their first passport, there are special rules to keep in mind.
Visiting any developing country also requires an immunization check. I made sure we were all up to date on our routine vaccinations, then made appointments for yellow fever and typhoid shots. We also took malaria pills and brought a Z-Pak antibiotic, just in case.
When it came time to pack, we were practical and took cultural customs into account. In Ethiopia, women and girls dress modestly, so we followed suit, leaving short shorts and sleeveless shirts at home. Bring shoes that you can easily rinse off after walking on wet, unpaved roads. Once you’re dusty and dirty, it may be tough to find soap, toilet paper, or even water. We found that toting wipes, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer was necessary to make this (literally) sticky situation as comfortable as possible.
Finally, familiarize yourself with your accommodations so you know what to expect. Even if the house or hotel where you will be staying has electricity, power outages may occur, so bring a travel flashlight or headlamp along as a precaution.
Small irritations that my kids tolerated
Prepare to be patient with your kids (and yourself) as you all adjust to a very different land. For us, the inability to access the Internet resulted in a major whine fest. Fortunately, this subsided once the kids realized that simply looking out the van window revealed a colorful and chaotic scene that was completely new to them. The squat toilets were initially a source of amusement, but the adventure got old fast. The girls became jealous of the boys in the family, who did their business along the side of the road like all Ethiopian men.
Forging cultural adventures
On your own journey, I advise you to take every opportunity you can to introduce your kids to the local culture and landscape.
Ethiopian tradition dictates that meals be eaten by hand, a custom my kids totally enjoyed. They loved using injera, a spongy, sour bread, to sop up their meat, lentils, cabbage, and potatoes. My young archeologists also enjoyed seeing Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton who resides at the national museum in Addis Ababa.
The kids were awed by the dramatically different landscapes in Ethiopia, taking photos of the verdant hills and farmland dotted with tukuls (straw huts). And, because kids will be kids, they laughed themselves silly at the monkeys who frolicked in trees overhead and tried to steal our food. The fact that these naughty primates had “blue balls” delighted my tweens to no end. They still giggle at the memory. (Oops—now I am, too.)
What I could have done better
I wish I had better prepared the kids for the cultural rituals we took part in, such as ceremonial handwashing before each meal and greeting family with kisses on each cheek. They stumbled awkwardly through these experiences the first few times, but eventually got the hang of it.
Every family we visited performed a coffee ceremony—the coffee brewed in front of us and then presented with pride. None of us drink coffee, but we realized almost immediately that it would be rude to decline. It was delicious, and almost made a coffee drinker out of me, but the kids seemed freaked out by the formality.
On a serious note, I wish I had discussed the reality of poverty in Ethiopia with my kids more frankly. However, I have no regrets that they experienced this social issue firsthand, as they now have a different perspective on the comfort of their lives back at home.
Watching my daughters being smothered in love was by far the most memorable part of our trip. After trekking to their remote family villages, we were met with flowers and fanfare suitable for returning heroes. Kisses and blessings flowed abundantly. We shared homemade bread and honey while relatives of all ages applauded each nugget the translator shared about our daughters. The generosity and joy displayed by these families that have so little and gave so much is unforgettable. Tears, hugs, and a promise to return punctuated our incredible journey.
A trip like this may stir feelings of sadness and anger or trigger a temporary regression. These feelings may not be immediate, but they are to be expected.
I encourage you to encourage and welcome such expressions of emotion. Be there to listen and support your child as she or he grapples with a host of feelings. Let your child know that these feelings are valid and that you want to know about them.
A trip like this doesn’t cause the innate sadness of loss or the anger of abandonment; rather, it becomes a conduit to working through feelings with which almost all adopted children contend. In other words, a journey back home can actually serve as a huge step forward in an adopted child’s self-awareness and development.
A sociologist who taught at Northwestern University for over a decade, Marika Lindholm is the founder of ESME, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, a confidential community of support and connection for Solo Moms.
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