Not Enough Space
White. That is the first color I notice as I enter Target. The floors are a gleaming white. The walls are a passive white. The rows of food, makeup, shoes, toys, gadgets, books, movies, music, and clothes are spotlessly white. It is as if Target is boldly proclaiming, “Look how powerful we are – we can keep even the floor perfectly white.” This is not what I am used to. As I walk around in a daze, a few people scuttle around with their heads buried in floorlength shopping lists. No one looks at me; no one smiles. Everyone is too busy. Abruptly, a sharp voice breaks through the quiet. “You know what sucks?” a teenager, huddled in front of the flashy Lady Gaga cd display, complains to her friend. “My iPod is running out of space.” I stare in shock at the girl with her Hollister shorts, glistening hair, and flawless makeup. She notices my stare and frown angrily at me. Ducking down my head, I catch a glance of my fingernails. I notice the Ethiopian dirt still stuck stubbornly underneath my nails. In Ethiopia, it seemed normal to have dirty fingernails, but inside Target next to this girl, I feel strangely out of place. As my gaze lingers on my fingernails, I’m transported back to that mud and straw church in Kore, Ethiopia.
With a sinking feeling in my chest, I grimly counted the number of Ethiopian children packed into the sweltering, dusty, windowless Sunday school “room.” Perched on the rough wooden benches or on a sibling’s lap, at least thirty had to have been there. I sighed, for we only had twenty-five coloring pages. Reluctantly, I began to pass them out and asked the older ones to share with their younger brothers or sisters. The babies with no precious Adam and Eve coloring page stared up at me in bewilderment as they watched their older siblings viciously attack the unsuspecting mother and father of the world with crayons. Soon, dirty Crayola wrappers littered the packed dirt floor. Someone had tried to make the ground look cozier by covering the sun-baked dirt floor with a blue tarp, but after years of constant use, the edges were frayed and gaping holes had appeared throughout. My eyes traveled from the floor up to the walls of our structure. Like most houses I had seen in Ethiopia, these walls were made of a mixture of mud, straw, and animal waste held together by a weak bamboo frame. Once again, a well-meaning church member had attempted to warm the Sunday school room by hanging up a faded timeline of the Old Testament. The smiling, white, Americanized faces, though a normal sight in Minnesota churches, looked strange and foreign in this dark room. Suddenly, a little girl in a bedraggled, browned tutu started crying. Because we could not speak to each other, she simply pointed to the big boy next to her. At my stern look, he sorrowfully opened his clenched fist to reveal five precious, broken crayons. I motioned for him to give two back to his sister and then returned to the rusty, rickety table I had been sitting on. Guiltily, I thought of our bucket of crayons back at home. No one wanted them but we always forgot to throw them away, so they sat in a dark cupboard collecting dust. Here, the sticks of colored wax were cherished, protected, and fought over.
My reflection shattered when I felt someone’s inquisitive eyes on me. I glanced up and caught the eye of yet another tiny girl wearing a long black skirt, ragged green t-shirt, and a denim jacket with an optimistic bunch of white cloth flowers sewn on. Her broad forehead accentuated her deep, solemn, wistful eyes. In broken Amharic, I asked for her name. “Semae manow?” I tried to click and gasp like I had heard Ethiopians pronounce it. She giggled timidly and replied, “Sarah. I speak English.” As I took a step toward her, she shrunk back into the giggly group of girls behind her. “How old are you?” I asked slowly. My guess is eight. I thought. She looks the same size as my brother. “Turteen,” she pronounced painfully. I looked at her tiny frame in shock. “Thirteen?!” I gasped. There was no way. She nodded, and I felt tears prick my eyes. With her tiny wrists swallowed up by her sleeves and her shrunken body hidden in her jacket, this thirteen year-old girl was the size of my eight year-old brother. Her thin hand tugged gently at my sleeve. “I want to be a pilot when I grow up!” she whispered proudly. I grinned, thankful to change the topic. “Why?” I inquired. “So I can leave Ethiopia,” she stated matter-of-factly. And as I looked around the room at thirty little kids covered in dust, and recalled the despair of thousands of homeless people I had seen, as well as smelled the cloud of dirt and waste that covered them, and the staggering statistics like five million orphans in Ethiopia, I suddenly realized that Sarah would never leave Ethiopia. She would never be an airline pilot. Even if she did, there would be millions of kids in her country who would not. In two years, when most girls her age are learning how to drive, she will be learning how to parent.
That is what I remembered as I heard this teenage girl in Target spilling out her many woes to her sympathetic friend. My anger grew as I walked by the school supply section and saw bins filled with boxes and boxes of crayons. No one saw the crayons, and no one cared; there were no boys running around Target, greedily hoarding their precious five crayons. That, for some reason, made me angry. Ethiopia had changed me. That mud and straw hut with thirty dirt-covered and dirt-poor kids had rescued me from a typical self-absorbed life by opening my eyes to the suffering that is so foreign to America. I glanced back one last time at the girl with everything, worried about her sleek, shiny, and now full, iPod. That could have been me.