Some people struggle remembering much from their childhood. I am not one of those people. My first memory brings me back to the age of 3, and I recall vivid details about many life experiences from that point forward. Being raised in Finland and Ethiopia for the majority of my childhood years, I am grateful for the exposure I had to different ways of living. Though I was unable to process much of what I saw around me in Ethiopia due to my age, I have the opportunity now to go through many of the mental snapshots from those years and process them as an adult.
One of these snapshots involves our car stopping at traffic lights in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. A swarm of children would often bang on the windows, begging for money. This shocked me when we first moved there, but eventually I developed the hurtful skill of not looking into their eyes but acting as if they did not even exist. Such situations are difficult to navigate through as an adult, let alone as a child. These memories still haunt me.
Many of those kids were the same age as I was. None of us has chosen what country we would be born in or how much money or opportunity would be available to us. We all probably liked stickers and toys and climbing trees. We all needed love and a parent to set healthy boundaries. So much between me and them was the same. But we were separated by a window pane.
I recently read a heart-wrenching article on the prostitution of children in Ethiopia. It talks about how traffickers will go into impoverished, remote villages and purchase children for under $5.00 from families who either do not know what is going to happen to their child in the city, or are too desperate to care. Often children would run away from their homes due to abuse or lack of opportunity and take a bus to the Mercado Bus Station in the heart of Addis, where predators would then exploit their vulnerability and sell them into the sex trade. I remember buying a black leather backpack, which I still have, from that same Mercado. There I was as a 10 year-old, negotiating a price for a backpack – my only concern being that a higher price would prevent me from buying candy later – while girls my age in that same market were negotiating a price from men who were going to use and abuse them – their concerns being disease, or pain, or beatings from their pimp if they did not bring in enough cash.
One of the only times I felt truly unsafe in my years of living in Addis was when I decided to walk home at dusk from my horse riding lessons instead of waiting for my dad to pick me up. Our house was only a 10 minute walk away, but I remember feeling the eyes of men on me as I began to run, their whistles and comments chasing after me as my heart pounded in my chest. Yet this was what many children my age endured on a daily basis.
Why me? Why them? As I say grace over my meals, I truly feel that I am receiving grace. There are so many in the world whose lack of food on the table drives them to do desperate things. There are so many children who are driven into horrific situations because their parents are abusive, or so broken themselves that they can’t even begin to understand how to care for another human being.
I still struggle with why I have been given so much, while so many children in the city I have so many fond childhood memories in are living lives of absolute horror. Where are the girls who were forced to sell their bodies on the same day as I bought my backpack at the Mercado? Are they servicing men in the oil fields of Sudan? Have they been sold to Saudi Arabian families as house servants or sex slaves? Are they even alive?
As I sit here in a comfortable coffee shop listening to Michael Buble and drinking a warm cup of tea, I can’t help but wonder.
One thing I do know – I have been given a stewardship and a responsibility to love others. And not in the emotional, “fuzzy” sense of the word, but in the live-sacrificially-give-generously-act-courageously sense of the word. My husband and I are still trying to figure out what this looks like, practically, in our daily lives. I refuse to waste the opportunity I have been given to make a difference in this world, if only to honour those I ignored for years on the other side of the window pane.
For those of you know who know me, please hold me accountable to this.