Out of Africa
By Julia Spalding, © Indianapolis Monthly, February 1993. Reprinted with permission.
Seven-year-old Kelemework Tariku-Shotts darts around a room like Carl Lewis in Health-Tex. A high school physics teacher might attribute her non-stop energy to changes in altitude: after growing up in thin-aired Ethiopia, 8,000 feet above sea level, Kelemework takes to the oxygen-rich United States like something out of a Road Runner cartoon.
Then again, it could be that Kelemework now gets three meals a day, a warm bed at night, and a glass of clean water whenever she asks for one. These sound basic, but not less than two years ago the youngster choked down boiled grass and chewed on roots to stay alive. On the streets of the Ethiopian capitol of Addis Ababa, where the starving eat anything that looks like food.
Today, in her first-grade wisdom, Kelemework seems to understand the scope of her tremendous good fortune. At least once a month, the Kingsway Christian school student – who spoke no English when she came to the United States one and a half years ago – takes a break from watching Home Alone (her favorite video), reading to her dolls and begging her parents for a trip to Disneyland to tell Cheryl Shotts, the person she calls Mommy, "I never knew life could be this good."
You might remember Cheryl as the Indianapolis woman who, seven years ago, adopted a starving Arab boy named Mohammed after she saw him interviewed on 60 Minutes. Today, she and her husband Charlie run an international adoption agency called Americans For African Adoptions (AFAA), risking life and limb to help kids in some of the remotest, most dangerous places on earth. The two floors of their tan, aluminum-sided home on the far west side serve as their headquarters, but the Shottses have visited Africa so many times that it feels almost like home. "Actually, I feel safer walking around over there than I do over here sometimes," says Charlie. You get the occasional person who bumps into you at the market and tries to take your wallet, but all you have to do when that happens is yell real loud."
Last month, as American troops and international aid agencies struggled to bring food and order to the nation of Somalia, a much smaller relief force – namely Charlie – journeyed into that East African nation on his own. He expects to remain there for much of February, setting up an office through which American families can adopt African orphans. He and his wife operate from an Ethiopian man’s house under a similar arrangement.
To keep up on events that hardly draw a glance from most Americans, Cheryl scours four newslalers a day, plus Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, African Report, African News and World Monitor – which explains why she knew about the problems in Somalia long before they became front-page news. "Somalia has been bothering us for a long time," she says. In November, the former free-lance public relations consultant visited two refugee camps on the eastern border of Ethiopia to talk to administrators about arranging for adoptions for orphaned refugees. Though the camps provided decent living quarters – by refugee camp standards – the images of destitution and humiliation still haunt Cheryl. For starters, since all water used inside the camp comes by truck from CARE, some inhabitants have gone six to seven years without showers. "These are well-educated people who once had regular kitchens and bathrooms," says Cheryl, who comes off as a cross between Sally Struthers and Norma Rae. "Now they’re reduced to cooking over an open fire and squatting in a ditch."
The Shottses realize their efforts in Somalia could prove more challenging than they’ve ever encountered, since the country has neither a governement nor a U.S. Embassy. But challenge is something they expect in their line of work. To date, the Shottses have helped find homes for 59 African children, including the most recent addition to their own growing family, Kelemework.
Cheryl first laid eyes on the child several years ago, while walking down Winston Churchill Boulevard in Addis Ababa with a camera and a translator. She noticed a group of little boys playing in the street, pulled out her telephoto lens to take a picture and became mesmerized by what she saw. "There was this mind bogglingly beautiful little girl, right in the middle," she recalls. "I’m watching her through the telephoto lens and she has the saddest look in the world on her face." The little boys giggled and screeched as Cheryl approached the group, but the one girl seemed unfazed at having the exotic foreigner give her ten minutes of attention. Worried that the child had become so lethargic from lack of food that she couldn’t respond, Cheryl rolled a ball – a coveted toy in Ethiopia – across the ground to her. All Cheryl got in return was a vacant stare. "That really got my attention, that I couldn’t get this child to react," she says.
Back in the United States, Cheryl developed her photos and placed the picture of the little girl on her desk, where – for reasons she can’t explain – it remained for the rest of the year, until she grabbed it on her way out the door for her next visit to Ethiopia. "I don’t single out a child like that very often," Cheryl says. But I had looked at that photo every day for a year."
While in Ethiopia, she showed the photograph to people on the streets of Addis Ababa, asking if they knew where the child lived. She wanted to find the parents so she could set up a $25 sponsorship to provide the girl with food and perhaps some schooling. "The translator started showing adults the picture and no one knew her," Cheryl says. "I told him to show it to a child. He did, and this little girl started screaming in her language, ‘My friend! My friend!’"
The little girl came back minutes later with Kelemework and her mother, a street beggar who sold chick peas – and carried another baby on her back. Suffering from pneumonia, an infected foot and diarrhea, Kelemework looked even worse than before. Cheryl felt as if she had found a lost puppy.
With the mother’s permission, Cherly took the child to a doctor then back to her hotel. Filthy and dressed in what would pass for a dust rag in this country, Kelemework walked thorugh the hotel lobby with her head down. "She was very embarrassed," says Cheryl, who cleaned her up, threw away her clothes and gave her a new dress and a little rubber doll. "As soon as I did that, her shoulders went back and her eyes lit up," Cheryl says. "I took her down to the restaurant and she sat there like a little princess."
A week before her flight back to the United States, Cheryl took the youngster for a checkup, and the American doctor merely shook his head. "He said, ‘Now look what you’ve done. She’s fine and healthy, and where do you think she’s going to go from here? All you did was prolong her misery. You should have just let her die.’" He explained that he had worked in Ethiopia long enough to know that you can’t save every child. If they’re really going downhill, he advised, just let them go.
Cheryl (who carries toys in her purse while overseas so she can play with children on the streets) told the doctor she couldn’t just leave the child to die. The doctor replied, "Then get her out of here."
In seven days, Cheryl completed the necessary paperwork (a task that ususally drags on for about four months) obtained a visitor’s visa for Kelemework and permission from the overjoyed mother to take her child to America. Nevertheless, as a mother herself, Cheryl says taking Kelemework away from her natural mother was one of the hardest things she has ever done. "It absolutely killed me," she says. "I cried, she cried, and Kelem cried when it was time to leave." Actually, the child’s mother, a petite woman named Truework, first suggested that the child go back to America. During one of her visits, she nervously told the translaotor to "just take" her daughter. "I told her I couldn’t do that, and she started crying," Cheryl says. Truework told her that Kelemework would die in Ethiopia, not necessarily from famine. She feared the child would go outside to play one day and get shot.
Today, Truwork receives a monthly stipend to support her and Kelemework’s younger half sister, and gets regular monthly reports on her daughter’s progress in America – receiving everything from photographs to medical records. I’m constantly asking her if there’s anything I should be doing differently for our daughter," says Cheryl, who even asked for permission to get the child’s ears pierced.
Known to brag about how lucky she is to have two mothers who love her, Kelemework goes through phases when she desperately misses the mom she left behind. "Whenever she says she misses her mother, I tell her to close her tight tight tight and give me a big hug. But it isn’t for me. It’s for her mother," Cheryl says.
In spite of the Shottses’ good intentions, a handful of people view everything they’ve done over the last decade as a gross misdeed. A segment of the black community, for example, wonders what business the white couple has raising African and Arab children. Other critics simply give the family disapproving looks at the mall. "And we just smile," says Cheryl, who adds that she rarely feels obligated to explain the situation to strangers who look at her oddly. "I don’t have time to anymore to answer to any negative questions or comments. You don’t have to approve of what I’m doing."