A few weeks into my first full-time salaried position at a public radio station in Connecticut, my friend Teresa called me at work. For that last four years I’d been watching Teresa and Peter’s two little boys on nights and weekends, and now they were heading to Ethiopia to complete their family with the adoption of their daughter.
“I know you just started over there, but we’d love for you to come with us.”
Without a moment of hesitation I thanked Teresa and wholeheartedly agreed to the family trip. I hung up overjoyed and a bit overwhelmed.
At the time, my boss and I shared an office and she knew right away that whatever just happened was very good.
“I know it’s really soon for vacation time, but the Imhoffs just asked me to go to Ethiopia with them next month. I’ll be gone for just over two weeks. I understand if that changes things here, but…”
It didn’t change anything. My boss saw it the same way: I had to go.
Ethiopia changed me.
Prior to landing in Addis-Ababa I’d never seen (let alone landed on) a dirt runway. Never eaten (or seen or heard of) injera. Never been to an orphanage. Never seen or touched or smelled poverty. Never (that I can remember) had someone roll a mouthful of food together and then feed it to me with her right hand. Never mixed Coke-a-Cola with red wine. Never been with children who’d never seen (or touched) white skin or long, straight, blonde hair. Never seen a bible story come to life – until Teresa and I witnessed an entire village (near the mouth of the Nile) feed and clothe a frail, elderly woman who walked through their packed Sunday service naked and shaking.
Never recognized my privilege or connected so deeply with my compassion.
Early Saturday evening I got my makeup done by a friend who was working at a boutique on Newbury Street. I was just a few hours away from telling a story in front of 1200 or so people at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre, and my friend lovingly agreed to get me stage ready.
As a thank you to my friend (and her employer), I splurged on a new lip stick (so red!) and a new foundation. The purchases represented a major upgrade to my makeup game.
Early in my walk back to the theatre it started to rain, so I decided to splurge again – this time on an Uber.
A few moments after picking me up, the driver, Mohammed and I got into a conversation about accents and he was certain I wouldn’t be able to place his.
“That’s easy,” I said. “Is your first language Amharic?”
“How did you know that I am Ethiopian?”
For the rest of our ride together I shared what his country taught me in my early twenties, and he shared with me how happy he was to reminisce about growing up on the Nile, and Lalibela, and the nutritional value of injera.
By the time we reached the theatre I felt even more prepared for my main stage storytelling debut, thanked Mohammed for the safe delivery and good conversation and on our ways we went.
The next morning, after a performance I was proud of and an after-party that went past midnight, I realized I’d left the little blue bag with my makeup splurge in the backseat of Mohammed’s SUV.
As a long shot, I left him a message through Uber, and a few moments later Mohammed called me back and we made a plan to meet up in Cambridge.
“Thank you SO much,” I said once we met. “I’ve NEVER spent this much on makeup before and I’m super grateful for the additional trip to get it back to me.”
“As soon as I picked up my next passenger,” Mohammed said, “I saw it back there and immediately thought, oh no, this is Amanda’s. I must save it for her.”
Then, without having said it in conversation for more than a decade, I recalled one of the two Amharic words I managed to pick up: “Ameseginalehu.”
With a gorgeous smile, Mohammed responded: “You’re welcome.”
And I was reminded how those things – that are truly yours – can often find a way to return to you.
PS – The other Amharic word I learned was “conjo” – which means beautiful