The whole world in her home

Journalist Melissa Fay Greene talks about the enormity of the African AIDS crisis and why, as the mother of five, she decided to adopt four Ethiopian orphans.

Published September 12, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

For Melissa Fay Greene, the enormity of the AIDS orphan crisis in Africa became impossible to ignore one Sunday morning in August 2000. After reading an article in the New York Times estimating that more than 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa had lost parents to AIDS -- and that by 2010 those figures were expected to rise to between 25 million and 50 million -- Greene wondered who was going to raise 12 million children. Admitting that she and her attorney husband in Atlanta were being driven cheerfully "insane" by their five kids, Greene asked, "Who will offer grief counseling to 12, 15, 18, 36 million children? Who will help them avoid lives of servitude or prostitution? Who will pass on to them the traditions of culture and religion, of history and government, of craft and profession? Who will help them grow up, choose the right person to marry, find work, and learn to parent their own children?"

These questions sent Greene, now 53, on a journey as both an adoptive parent and a journalist. Since that Sunday morning, she and her husband have adopted two Ethiopian orphans, with two more on the way.

This month, Bloomsbury has published Greene's fourth book of nonfiction, "There Is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue Africa's Children." Greene, who has twice seen her work nominated for the National Book Award, is not the titular woman. Instead, it is Haregewoin Teferra who gives a human face to the havoc AIDS has wreaked on an entire continent. A middle-class, middle-aged Ethiopian, Teferra is as surprised as anyone to find herself running an orphanage out of her home in Addis Ababa. In 1990, Teferra's husband unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the age of 54; eight years later, her adult daughter, the mother of an infant, died of AIDS. Overcome with grief, Teferra prepared to move into a hut on the grounds of a cemetery and live in seclusion. Instead, the director of a Catholic charity asked if she'd consider staying where she was and taking in a 15-year-old AIDS orphan. One orphan became two, and then four, and then -- despite disapproving friends and little to no government assistance -- 80. Some of these orphans were HIV-positive, some not. With the expansion of the orphanage came problems for Teferra, which Greene does not shy away from describing: Teferra was accused of child trafficking and also of negligence in ignoring claims from orphans that an orphanage employee molested them. These charges led to Teferra's arrest, though she eventually was exonerated.

In addition to chronicling Teferra's story, Greene provides a scientific and cultural history of AIDS -- one in which she makes withering assessments of government leaders and pharmaceutical companies -- and also a history of Ethiopia. But Greene is too shrewd a storyteller to think that it's statistics that will motivate people to act, or even make them cry. Without a doubt, this is a three-hankie read, but it's because of the stories about individuals: of those who, like Teferra, have upended their stable lives in order to help those less lucky; of the orphans themselves, among whom it is not uncommon for a 7-year-old to single-handedly raise a 5-year-old; of the adoptive families in America who, in cross-cultural run-ins worthy of a sitcom, must politely decline their new son's offer to butcher a cow for dinner, or explain to their new daughter that there is no need, in Snellville, Ga., to watch out for hyenas when using the bathroom at night.

Both in print and in conversation, Greene comes off as very much a mom. She is perceptive, compassionate and clearly tickled by a good fart joke: Although the Ethiopians are famously well-mannered, she can't resist bringing whoopee cushions as gifts for children at one orphanage. Indeed, it is the combination of Greene's maternal tendencies and narrative gifts that make her the ideal person to tell this timely story.

What do you think motivated Haregewoin Teferra to give her entire life to taking care of these children?

I think in Haregewoin's case, she was absolutely up against the wall. Grief had completely ruined her life, and she was going to need to leave the world as a result. She could no longer live without her husband and her daughter. That component of the story is so powerful and universal. I think a lot of people have found that the only way to survive is to start reaching out to others and trying to love other people. The children saved Haregewoin as much as she saved them.

How did you cross paths with Haregewoin?

I had heard she had these containers, like a trailer off the back of a truck, and she would cut a door in the container. People were calling her "the Container Lady" and thought she was living in the container with the children. But she wasn't -- she was using that as a dining hall and classroom.

I asked Good Housekeeping if I could do a story for them about her. Good Housekeeping had never done an international story, ever, but they said OK, they would try it.

The response [to the story] was tremendous. Good Housekeeping readers from all over the country sent contributions, $10 and $25 at a time, saying, "We had no idea this was happening." Haregewoin was so encouraged by that. It emboldened her to keep talking to me.

And yet, while you were in the process of writing a book in which Haregewoin plays a huge role as a heroine, things temporarily unraveled at her orphanage. What was that like?

Last September, I first heard that there were accusations that child molestation had taken place in her compound, it was overcrowded, there were too many kids in each bunk, there were too many kids everywhere.

I did not mention it to my editors at that time because I wanted to be able to confirm it myself and figure out what was happening. I went over to Ethiopia, got what I thought was the story, came back, and then in December, she was arrested. The book was due Dec. 15. And Dec. 14, Haregewoin called me from prison. So then there was a frantic scramble on my part to get on top of events and to deal with my own disappointment and fury.

When I connected with Haregewoin again, I understood what had happened and I felt that I didn't have her wrong. This stuff was not her fault. She wasn't getting any help from the government or anywhere. She was taking in all these kids.

I had to forgive Haregewoin, see her as human, understand that she's more interesting not being a saint, and realize that I sort of messed up because I did think I was writing about a saint. So I had to rewrite the book, starting from the beginning.

By the time you began reporting this book, you already had adopted a son from Bulgaria and a daughter from Ethiopia, in addition to your four biological children. How did you initially become interested in international adoption?

At 42, I thought, if my husband and I are going to have another child, this is the time. I have to do it. Should I do it? And we didn't. I thought, we've got our four, they're great, it's enough already. By [the time I was] 46, our daughter Molly was starting to apply to colleges and we suddenly realized this was all going to end. It'd all been so incredibly fun and crazy and nice and she was going to leave. And we got kind of this panicky feeling of empty nest that we were going to be down to just three. At some point, my husband said, "Listen, if we want more children, we can adopt." I'm sure he just tossed it out to comfort me.

One day I sat at the computer and I typed in "adoption" and suddenly I realized that the entire Internet had been invented for international adoption. I learned about the Internet at the same time that I learned about international adoption. At that point, Bulgaria displayed photos of children in orphanages who needed families, and I came across the picture of this little boy who became our son. He was just a sweet little guy, 4 years old, and needed a family and so we followed all the steps. At the moment that we brought him home [less than a year later], I had this science fiction feeling like I had pushed something on the computer and he'd come out of the screen.

Then a couple of years later, [our son] Seth was ready to go off to college and we thought, Oh God, no! Another one? You've taken Molly, leave us someone! So we started thinking about adoption again at the moment that, for me, the headlines hit the kitchen table: Africa is a continent of orphans. So I just thought, if we're really going to adopt again, could we bring in one of these children?

Was your interest in AIDS orphans originally as an adoptive parent rather than as a journalist?

I sort of used journalism as a cover. I would say, outside a really close circle of friendship, people thought I was sent on these interesting assignments by the New Yorker and the New York Times and Good Housekeeping, and while I was over there, I would meet some nice little kid I didn't feel like I could leave behind. But that was a total deception. I didn't want people to think I was completely insane. But in each case, we already were doing the adoption and the article was a way for me to go over and do more research in something that passionately interested me.

I wrote about AIDS orphans for the New York Times Magazine feeling really humble that I was not an epidemiologist, a doctor or a social scientist. I had none of the criteria. But I was a firsthand witness. I could look at something and say what it was I was looking at. I thought, I can tell stories. Even here, I can tell stories. And that's useful.

What's it like preparing to adopt your eighth and ninth children?

It's ridiculous. I almost hate to mention it. It sounds like more than it feels like. We had neighbors years ago in Rome, Ga., who had eight children, and I never thought we would pass that family, ever, ever, in a million billion years. They had eight children and we had a newborn, and the newborn was just about to undo me. I found the change from zero to one to be so gigantic and so difficult and impossible and wonderful, but exhausting, and I was hallucinating from the sleep deprivation. That change from zero to one -- nothing else has compared to that. So going from four to five or five to six -- once you survive zero to one, I found it manageable. Plus we're not bringing in little babies, and not everyone lives at home.

My husband and I went pretty quickly from thinking, How could we possibly do this? to How could we not do this? Because we know we can do it. By our Atlanta Midtown standards, it's a lot of kids and it'll be a little crowded and crazy, but by the standards of where the kids are, it's going to be Disney World here. For them, we live in the Disney World castle.

You tackle the science and politics behind the AIDS crisis in Africa, and your portrayal of pharmaceutical companies is incredibly damning. You speak particularly critically of companies like Glaxo Wellcome and Bristol-Myers Squibb who for years protected their patents through legal maneuvering, made drugs expensive, argued that they had to keep prices high because of the cost of research even though most research was government-funded -- and made outrageous profits.

World-record-shattering profits were made on these drugs while people died. People in the know, looking at that, have said, "These were crimes against humanity." There have been all these arguments by the pharmaceutical companies about why it doesn't boil down to giving the drugs to people. But when you're on the ground over there, the only thing that matters is getting the drugs to people. Everything else can follow from that.

It was life-changing what I saw when I went over [to Ethiopia] the first time, especially the orphanages of the HIV-positive children where they were all going to die -- these were just orphanages that were hospices. We talked to the director of one of those orphanages and asked him what would he do if he had money. And he said he would immediately bring in more children. And we said, "What if it was a choice between buying medicine and bringing in more children?" And he said, "I'd bring in more children." And we were incredibly shocked. But what he saw was children dying on the streets, so he thought the most good he could do was let the children at least die in a loving circumstance.

Are things still as bad as they were five or 10 years ago?

Progress has been made. The "3 by 5 Initiative" [an initiative by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization to get 3 million people in developing countries on anti-AIDS drugs by 2005], even though it failed to meet its target, still got hundreds of thousands of people on drug treatment. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William J. Clinton Foundation are reaching tens of thousands of people with the actual drugs that you would get if you lived in Chicago or Las Vegas.

What's going to happen down the road a few years is that people will start to build up immunities to those drugs and need the second-line drugs, and those second-line drugs still have the high price tags on them. But we're not at that crisis yet.

You point out that one misperception Americans have is that we're a leader, in financial terms, in fighting AIDS and HIV. But though the United States does in fact give the most foreign aid money of any country in dollars (over $75 million between 2002 and 2005) -- it gives one of the lowest GNP percentages (0.1575 percent).

We're pathetic in that respect. And we don't know it about ourselves. We think that we're so generous and that we're holding up the world, but we're not.

You present a few theories about how HIV first spread, and you seem to favor the theory that, with the introduction of antibiotics to Africa in the 1950s, HIV spread through hundreds of thousands of unsterilized needle injections.

I found trusted experts who believe that is definitely the direction of the inquiry. But the force of the research now is behind finding a cure or a vaccine. There are not many people interested in how this happened. But it's also possible that the answer is so terrible, if it's truly the result of well-intentioned but misguided health campaigns. That's a tragic answer. And it's still going on.

There are regions where safe sex is increasing, condom use is increasing, sexually transmitted diseases are falling -- and HIV is off the charts. That's not explained by sexual behavior. One of the things people think is that AIDS is spreading out of control because of some African hypersexual behaviors. But researchers into sexual behaviors find African men have fewer lifetime partners than American men.

Was your goal in writing this book to move Americans to adopt an orphan themselves? To donate money? Or merely to be more aware of the situation?

I don't want to promote adoption as the major answer to AIDS in Africa because there's no way enough families around the world will open their homes to these children. That's doomed to failure.

I hope to be working against paradigm. The paradigm of Ethiopia is, People are starving and/or People are very fast runners. A lot of the major newspaper coverage begins with images like that. In Haregewoin Teferra, there's the story of a middle-class educated women whose husband was the high school principal and she too is suffering.

And on the most elementary level, I would love people to read this and think, "Oh my God, they're just like us! What's going on is as if my partner and I died and left our children orphans." The first step is to feel it as an emergency happening to people like yourself.

In the book you describe a white father from Vermont who wonders, when traveling with his wife to Ethiopia to pick up their new daughter, whether there's an imperialist angle to these adoptions. What's the answer to his question?

Of course one has mixed feelings looking at international adoption. You weigh what the child is losing: connection to culture and history and language and religion and art and literature. A child is losing the world into which the child was born. And that is almost always a loss. It's hard to offset that. A child is losing the right to grow up in a family that looks like the child, the child is losing the possibility of going out for dinner on a Tuesday night with his or her parents and not having people look over at the odd configuration of that family. It's not all good news, and the fact is that people can have incredibly happy and wonderful childhoods outside the U.S. In fact, on every trip I've taken into rural Ethiopia, I've had the same thought looking around, which is, if you could have enough food, schools and medicine, this would rival any childhood on earth -- the freedom of being out on this beautiful landscape and riding a donkey and chasing the geese and climbing a tree and running across the fields with your friends and swimming in a lake. It's a Huckleberry Finn childhood -- if there were food, medicine and schools. And parents.

But all of that is swept off the board when a child is orphaned in a poor country. Then you ask what can you do to make up for what the child has now lost? And what you can offer the child is a new family. And a new family trumps just about everything else. I can't imagine a child on earth who would rather be speaking their native language in the impoverished orphanage in Romania or Bulgaria or China or Cambodia or Vietnam or Ethiopia rather than learn English with a suburban family in, you know, Dallas. The tradeoff wins out.

It's a truism in the adoption world that people walking around with their adopted babies or children have observers come up and say, "She's so lucky, he's so lucky," and the adoptive mom or dad says, "No, I'm the lucky one." But what I've learned is that the true answer is, "You're right. This child has won the lottery. This is a lucky child."

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels "Prep" and "American Wife."

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Adoption Africa Aids