“Wait what???? You did???”
No matter who it is, everyone always has the same response when I tell them: shocked incredulity.
“Yes. I first went over when I was nine-months old and we lived there off and on until I was eight.”
My response is also always the same, at this point it has become pretty much a memorized routine. But I guess to people who have spent most, if not all, of their lives in Omaha, Nebraska, growing up in Ethiopia is a pretty big surprise. When many people hear about Ethiopia they think about the famine the country faced in the past or whatever generic image of Africa they picked up from a combination of National Geographic or commercials for foreign aid. My memories of the country are full of the beautiful greenery, the open hospitality, and the delicious food.
As I get older and move further and further away from a period of time where I was not a resident of the United States, the topic of my upbringing comes up less and less. An event that was once such a huge part of my life seems to become less significant and has been relegated to a random fact for the “Two Truths and a Lie” ice breaker. However, there was a time when Ethiopia consumed my entire identity.
I came by this identity like the kings and queens of old: through inheritance. My mother was born in Ethiopia to two missionaries who led Bible studies and worked in local clinics. From her birth to the age of about 16, Ethiopia was her home. This all changed when the communist uprising in the country led to increased hatred for Americans and her mother was shot one night by a three men looking for her father, forcing the family to leave the missionary compound and eventually the country. However, Ethiopia was still important to my mother and after I was born (the situation in the country had calmed down a lot) my parents followed in my grandparent’s footsteps and became missionaries, taking me and my brother along with them.
I only spent a total of five years living in Ethiopia. From nine months to almost three and then again from about five to eight years old. However, even when we were in America, Ethiopia consumed my life. The first time we came back, we spent much of the time raising support to return, traveling across the country to different churches and telling our story to ask for donations. I was a MK (missionary kid) and knew a very different experience from the kids around me. At this point, my parents also started homeschooling us because the schools near where we lived in Columbia, South Carolina where not very good.
When I was five, we returned to Ethiopia. When we arrived in the country, I didn’t remember anything of my previous time there, but Ethiopia quickly became home. We didn’t have a TV and the only books and audio tapes we had were whatever we brought with us, so most of my days were spent playing outside with my older brother and whatever other MKs were our neighbors in the missionary compound. We had a whole world to explore that, to my nostalgic mind, never seemed to grow boring and one of the places we lived even had a mango tree in the front yard which proved a steady stream of ripe mangoes that could be eaten whenever.
We returned to the states suddenly. There were some complications when my mother became pregnant with my youngest sister. Coming back to the U.S. was a difficult transition for me. Although I was technically a citizen of the U.S., Ethiopia was my home. Anything with a connection to Ethiopia from rocks I had found there to toys I had while there became instantly valuable and I refused to throw out anything. For years my family talked about going back, but family mental health issues and a falling out with our previous missionary organization prevented that from happening and we never did return.
I felt lost for a very long time. But then I grew up. I got friends in Omaha (although this took many years) and I became comfortable with my life. The desire to return receded and what had once felt like an empty hole in my life disappeared. And then I traveled to South Africa this summer. Although the country is different from Ethiopia in culture and climate, working with the students there and talking with the locals about the struggle the faced awoke the fire inside me to return to the place that was once my home and in some way, help the community that was so important to me. Who knows what the future holds, but maybe I will follow in the footsteps of my parents and grandparents and return to a country that was once the only home I ever wanted to know.