Connections: Summer Camp

One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Ethiopia is also one of the world’s poorest countries

The Ethiopian-American population of the United States is 2 million, with Ethiopians second only to Nigerians among people of African origin. The number is significant even given Ethiopia’s current population of an incredible 104,396,011, as estimated by the United Nations.

One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Ethiopia is also one of the world’s poorest countries, with per capita annual income estimated to be $590. Primarily agricultural, it has experienced hunger and poverty for most of its long history and malnutrition in children remains prevalent. That is probably the most common public face of Ethiopia, but those who know the country think of its grand history, of castles and the Queen of Sheba, when the subject comes up. Ethiopia became Ethiopia (Abyssynia) a thousand years before Christ was born, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity began when Europeans were still pagans. 

Parents brought their kids to the ninth annual Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp in Virginia last weekend so the kids could get to know others who share their heritage, and so the whole family could learn more about the culture of their roots. Mekdes Bekele, an Ethiopian-American who had herself struggled to raise a bicultural child, founded the camp and has met its complicated challenges remarkably well.

I was privileged to be one of six grandparents among the 215 adults and 160 children there last weekend, and I was constantly surprised by the range of programs available for children, who ranged from toddlers through high school. Most of the children were adopted from Ethiopia. Several older teenagers were returnees who had become counselors-in-training. There were plenty of games (not just soccer), lessons in traditional dancing, music-making, pottery, fishing, swimming, cooking, hair and skin care sessions, storytelling, and lessons in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language.

While the kids were busy, adults could enjoy Ethiopian coffee, made with ceremony while sitting on the ground, or attend discussions on such topics as raising first-generation Americans, traveling in Ethiopia, and mindful parenting. They also could try some Ethiopian dancing, pottery-making, and cooking of their own. An adult program that mimicked one for the kids was an introduction to spoken Amharic, and I have to admit to being phonetically challenged, or, to put it mildly, a slow learner. I did learn that many words are differentiated by gender, as well as to say the words for “hi,” “peace,” “okay,” and “it is.” Other adults went on to speak in simple sentences.

Because I had gone with my daughter to Ethiopia when she adopted her second child, I was familiar with the grain called teff, which is cooked into the traditional Ethiopian flatbread called injera, with which one scoops up food from the plate with fingers. As it turned out, I enjoyed the two Ethiopian meals we were served much more than the American fare.

The program for adults that I found most moving was presented by four women in their 20s, who shared, often tearfully, personal stories about how they had been treated by other children as well as adults while growing up in this country, and the overwhelming challenges of trying to figure out what their identity was in America.

An emanation of human warmth had been evident from the moment we arrived at the camp. It was symbolized for me by a sweet 41/2-year-old Ethiopian child who spent a lot of time playing with my granddaughter. This little girl didn’t have much English, but she heard my grandchildren saying hello to me and quickly figured out what my name had to be. Thank you, Amara, for calling out “Grandma” whenever we met.