Operation: Find the Smiles

I got a call Sunday night from an Ethiopian friend I had met, who does work with Operation Smile. He said he was in Jimma, and tomorrow he was going out to look for kids who had cleft palates. Did I want to come?

I threw some stuff in a bag and left the next morning. I got into Jimma at 10 a.m. and met Teddy in his car on the road leading to Jimma. Off we went.

There was a file he had with a photo of 3 siblings, all of whom had cleft palates. I was expecting babies… children even. These siblings were adolescents, maybe even adults. Two boys and one girl, all looking down or to the side, averting their vacant eyes from the camera. Teddy talked to them two years ago when they were in Jimma, waiting for the surgery that would fix their birth defects. He said they were ridiculed as children and never left the house. I could see the truth of it written in their frozen faces.

Luckily, Operation Smile was able to perform the operation, and now we were on a mission to find them for a follow-up. The home-of-record written on their file was Limu Genet, a town 2 hours off the paved road from Jimma.

The road to Limu Genet was dusty, but infinitely more comfortable than our usual methods of transport. We got to there around noon, and met up with Chris, another Peace Corps volunteer who lives there. We started showing the photo and asking around. A lot of people got excited, and swore they knew the girl but not the boys. One man was so confident that he jumped in the car to show us the way; 17 kilometers in the direction we just came from.

Back on the dirt road, we arrived in another small village and started asking around. This time people got even more excited, and soon formed a massive crowd around Teddy and the photo. They knew the girl they said, but not the boys. It was sort of perplexing, since they were all siblings. Why did they only know the girl? Either way, another man was so confident that he also jumped in the car. And off we went.

If the dirt road was a little rugged, the next roads we traveled on were complete off-roading. We took little paths winding up and down the jagged village side. I watched from the passenger seat, gripping the door handle and trying not to imagine what would happen if the car broke down. At one point we came upon a small river. Teddy drove right up and was ready to forge it. I was certain we’d get stuck. He asked a naked man to our right, who was bathing, is this ok? Yeah, fine, the man said. And forward we went. To my relief, we made it through.

It was nearly 2 in the afternoon when we reached the next village. We pulled out the photo and asked around. Some people thought maybe they knew the girl. No one knew the boys. Another confident man jumped in, and we continued on.

A little farther in, we came upon a leckso bet– a giant tent set up for funerals. Teddy and the men got out and started asking around. Chris and I stayed in the car. Slowly, kids started emerging from small mud huts around us. Some came with giant, excited smiles, while others had wide, frightened eyes. We greeted them, and they turned their timid faces. We sat for awhile, staring at each other.

Soon a farmer came to the window. Unlike any farmer I had ever met, he spoke a little English. We told him our names, where we’re from and what we’re doing here. He asked if we’d had lunch; Chris eagerly replied no. It had been hours since breakfast and we were both fully aware of our location in the middle of nowhere. The farmer disappeared, and returned with four small bananas. Chris divvied them up, two and two, and I tasted the sweetest banana I’ve ever had in my life. Not the local Kenya variety that I expected, nor the farenji variety that we usually see in American stores. This sweet variety had a smooth, glossy peel and was delicious. I saved the second one for Teddy, but eagerly devoured it when he passed.

The guys got back in the car, and we drove a little closer to the leckso bet. The girl happened to be at the funeral, and emerged to speak with us. It turns out she was not the girl we were looking for, but instead another who had a cleft palate. She told us that she knows the family we were searching for, and that these three siblings live nearby on the opposite side of a dividing river. In order to reach it, we would have to return to Jimma and take the road from another direction. We thanked her and left.

Tomorrow, Teddy said. Tomorrow is a new day.

We went back through the bumpy roads and dropped off the men we had gathered along the way. It was 5:30 when we arrived back in Jimma. Famished and ready for dinner, we ordered almost a kilo of t’ibs (roasted meat) between the two of us.

The next day we started off again, this time in the other direction. Our new adventure was very similar to the last, but ended more abruptly. The best advice we got was from a farmer who said to come back tomorrow, when it’s market day. The people from the remote villages will surely come to town.

That was all we needed to hear. We headed out and called it a day. Teddy needed to leave for Addis Wednesday, so that would be his last and final attempt to search for them. I headed back to Agaro and wished him luck.

Unfortunately he never found the siblings, but we got quite an adventure out of it. I hope that they’re out there somewhere, living their lives in the sun.

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