I remember once, years ago, when we were still young and naive and new to missions, we took our youth group to an orphanage at Christmastime. We had all our students bring toothbrushes and socks and toys to our house, and we made up those "Christmas shoe boxes" for the orphans. Our group of about 30 or so youth brought in enough stuff to put together about 150 boxes. We were all so excited. We couldn't wait to see the orphans' eyes light up.
It was so long ago that I don't even remember the name of the orphanage. We eagerly handed out our boxes, waiting for the eyes to light up. But it didn't happen. The children accepted the boxes, and then sat there. There were no shouts of joy, no excited chatter. In fact, a lot of the children didn't even open the boxes until we opened them for them. But even then, they were far more interested in the cookies and juice.
We spent some time with the kids that day. We toured the orphanage. The kids slept on bare mattresses, sometimes two to a bed. There were no toys. There was no playground. The ceiling sagged from leaks that had never been fixed.
And then I realized: They had no sense of ownership. We could hand them a box of toys and call it their own, but these kids knew better. They owned nothing. An older and wiser missionary filled me in: As soon as we would leave, the older kids would be grabbing all of the stuff from the little kids to sell at school. Or perhaps the orphanage directors would confiscate the little scented soaps and the brightly colored toothbrushes for themselves. After all, their lives aren't much better.
If you think Annie had a hard-knock life, you should get to know the life of your average African orphan. Perhaps my description of Forever Angels Baby Home gave you the wrong impression. The orphans that go there? The luckiest in all of Tanzania. But they can only take fifty. Fifty out of millions of orphans in Tanzania. And even then, they can only stay until they are 4 or 5 years old.
Most of the time, my kids are just my kids. I usually forget they are adopted. I almost always forget the life they might have had. And when I really let myself think about it, it sucks the life out of me.
Certain children in our family have issues with bed-wetting. Do you know what happens to the average bed-wetter in Tanzania? Culturally? The child is forced to carry his mattress on his head, parading about while the rest of the children sing a mocking song. Thus, I can only imagine what it's like for an orphan with this problem. Who would have patiently and kindly helped my children work through this issue? What would have happened to their tender hearts if they had been unceasingly mocked over something they couldn't control?
My little Josiah thrives on physical affection. He pastes himself to me regularly, throughout the day. He adores being tickled. How would he have been different if there had been no one to hug him? My Gracie has had a number of fears that needed reassuring. What if there had been no one to reassure her? My Lily is a fighter. She is strong-willed, just like me. What would have happened to her if she had ever realized that she didn't have anything to fight for?
There are something like 20 million orphans in Africa. I can't possibly wrap my head around that number. Twenty million children who have no one to kiss them goodnight, let them choose their school backpack, check their shoes to see if they are getting too tight. No Daddy to tell the little girls they are beautiful or teach the little boys how to respect women. No Mommy to blow on the skinned knee or make sure they are eating healthy or get up in the middle of the night when they are crying.
"For every orphan turning up in a northern-hemisphere household--winning the spelling bee, winning the cross-country race, joining the Boy Scouts, learning to rollerblade, playing the trumpet or the violin--ten thousand African children remain behind alone." (There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene)
In Tanzania, it's more like one hundred thousand left alone for each one who is adopted, and that's including adoption by anyone, not just northern-hemisphere households. No one is adopting these children. Very few of those who are willing are allowed to adopt. And those who are are allowed, are not willing.
It's one thing when they are just faceless children without names, personalities, fears, talents, or shoe sizes. But it hits you completely differently when they are Grace, Josiah, and Lily, and they are asleep in the next room.