What do you wear to meet your father for the first time? It's 5:30 P.M. local time. I am in a room in the Ambasoira Hotel, in the center of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. I arrived three days ago, after nearly thirty years of waiting. I left this place when I was six months old and have not returned until now. My cousin Manna has just called to say he will be here to pick me up in a taxi in ten minutes' time. From the Ambasoira we will drive through the center of Asmara, along the palm-tree-lined Liberation Avenue, and across town to the area of Mai Tameni. Waiting for me in Mai Tameni are my father, three brothers, and a sister, none of whom I have ever met. Some women plan their wedding day from the moment they are old enough to draw a white dress. I have always planned this moment.
The first step in finding my birth family was telling my dad I was planning to go to Eritrea. Tracing my birth family felt like the most disloyal thing I could do. I hate it when people call my dad my "adoptive" dad: it feels like they are dismissing him, relegating him to second best. But telling him I wanted to trace my birth family was like the ultimate betrayal: "Thanks for choosing me, thanks for looking after me for the last thirty years, but I've decided that my life just isn't complete until I meet the people that couldn't even be bothered to keep me." That's what telling him felt like.
The tracing dilemma goes to the heart of what it means to be adopted. Questions of blood and identity, of what makes someone family and what it means to be a parent, or a child, all come to a head when tracing is brought into an already heady mix. If my birth father is still alive, whose child am I?
So here's the scenario: you tell your parents you want to trace; they take it badly, your relationship is ruined; you then go and find your birth parents, but they don't want to know you — and bingo, you're back where you started, parentless, only you're too old for an orphanage. That's why so many adoptees trace in secret. Not because we're naturally sneaky or manipulative, not because we're "ungrateful little shits" (what one friend was called when she told her mother she wanted to trace), but because we live in fear of rocking the parental boat.
But not telling my dad was never really an option, partly due to my particular circumstances. I was born in 1974, in a hidmo (a large hut) in a village outside Keren, Eritrea. To those who have never heard of it, I describe Eritrea as running along the coast of the Horn of Africa, looking out across the Red Sea, and sharing borders with Ethiopia, Sudan, and Djibouti. Eritrea is roughly the same size as Pennsylvania, but with a population of just 3.5 million (roughly that of Los Angeles). Even by African standards Eritrea has not had an easy time of it. From the sixteenth century, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, to the nineteenth-century "Scramble for Africa," when Eritrea became an Italian colony, this small country has constantly had to fight for its right to exist. Everyone wants a piece of it. The piece they want in particular tends to be Massawa, the port once known as the "Pearl of the Red Sea," which has been held variously by the Portuguese, Arabs, and Egyptians, as well as the Turks, British, Italians, and, of course, the Ethiopians.
I say "and of course" the Ethiopians because that's the reply I tend to get when I tell people where I'm from — "Ah yes, isn't Eritrea part of Ethiopia?" Hardly. At the last count approximately eighty thousand people have died in the struggle for Eritrea's independence from Ethiopia, a battle that, lasting over thirty years and with flare-ups as recently as 2000, holds the dubious honor of being Africa's longest war.
In 1941, after nearly half a century of Italian rule, the British took control of Eritrea as occupied enemy territory. They held it until 1952, when, courtesy of the United Nations, Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia under the sovereignty of the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Soon after, Eritrean leaders were booted out of office and Amharic (Ethiopian) replaced Tigrinya (Eritrean) and Arabic as the official language. In 1962, as a final insult to the country's people, Selassie annexed Eritrea and made it a province of Ethiopia. The country had been swallowed up completely and no longer existed on maps of Africa. By the early 1960s, after years of being ignored by the international community, Eritrean resistance to Ethiopian rule ("the Struggle") had truly begun. It was a wholly uneven battle, however: Eritrea's tiny guerrilla force against Ethiopia's comparatively massive army, which was funded by two superpowers (the Americans and then the Russians). The war, and the famine and poverty that came with it, emptied the country (even today, a third of the population is living in exile) and filled the orphanages. Finally, in 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) took Asmara, and Eritrea won its independence.
In 1974 my dad was teaching politics at the University of Khartoum, nearby in Sudan. His wife, Marya, was doing volunteer work with Catholic nuns, also in Khartoum. The nuns told Marya about the orphanage in Eritrea and she decided to pay a visit. She left with me. Long before the images of Romanian orphanages started a trend, long before the Chinese baby girl scandals in the tabloids, long before it was fashionable, I was adopted because my parents "wanted to make a difference." The orphanage told Marya I had no family: my mother had died in childbirth, my father not long after. I weighed five and a half pounds, was malnourished, and was covered in chicken pox. If she did not take me, the orphanage said, I'd probably be dead in six months.
I went with her to Khartoum; she guessed I was about six months old.
Four years later, Marya, a loving but deeply depressed woman, took an overdose. My dad wanted to return to England, but was anxious about taking a young child there while he didn't have any means of support. It was decided I should go to stay with family friends while my dad sorted himself out. Nothing strange there, then — apart from the fact that these friends lived in Norway.
A few months in Norway turned into a couple of years, due to the combined bureaucracy of immigration and international adoption. By the time my dad came to get me, I was fluent in Norwegian. Only. I have plenty of memories from Norway — sleighing in the winter, picnics in the summer. To this day I take childish pride in the fact that the Norwegian national day is near my own birthday on the calendar.
"The Norway years," as I call them, are something of a red herring in my life. Though happy, my memories run like a silent film. Hardly surprising, really, as I can't speak Norwegian any more — there wasn't much call for it in Manchester, England. After what seemed like an eternity, my dad came to get me at Stavanger, the small Norwegian port where I was living. I went from there to Manchester. I have no idea how I coped. My oldest school friend remembers me not speaking English ("We just thought you were speaking some weird African language"). To me the memory is less clear; it's more a general feeling of confusion that accompanies a lot of my early school memories.
My dad was now a lecturer in government at Manchester University, and Eritrea was one of his areas of expertise. The next decade or so was blissfully "normal": my dad remarried, he and his wife had two children, I picked up a Manchester accent. All the while, I studiously ignored any attempts my dad made at trying to teach me about my heritage. "I'm not Eritrean, I'm just black" was my favorite line.
Then came 1991, and Eritrean liberation. On May 24, 1993, independence was declared (after a referendum in which 99.81 percent voted in favor). The guerrilla fighters whom my dad had gotten to know in the 1970s were now ministers in the postliberation government. My dad, along with many other long-term supporters of the Struggle, was invited to the celebrations by the new regime. During the trip, on a whim, he decided to visit the orphanage. An En- glish priest, who also happened to be paying a visit, accompanied him. To my dad's surprise, the orphanage was still there, as was Sister Gabriella, the nun who had arranged my adoption. After a chat and a tour of the orphanage, my dad left, leaving Sister Gabriella with a recent photograph of me for old times' sake, and thinking no more of it.
Months later, back in Manchester, the priest got in touch with my father. The nun had spoken to him after my dad had left — you could call it a confession. I wasn't an orphan. Not only was my father alive, but I had at least one older brother, who, it seemed, had been brought up in the orphanage. A few months later another letter came from the priest: this time, with a letter enclosed from my older brother.
This letter has taken on almost mystical properties. I've read it so often, looking for clues, for answers. For some sense of who my father and my brother are. For a sense of who I am. When I first received the letter it was so powerful, so charged, I couldn't read it without breaking down. My dad gave it me when I was back in Manchester during a break from my studies at Liverpool University, where I was finishing a sociology degree. Back in Liverpool, alone with the explosive letter, I felt completely at sea. What was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to reply? How? What do you say to a brother you've never met? To a brother who, by the sound of things, got "left behind." To a brother whose mother died giving birth to a sister who was whisked off to a life of relative ease. While I was coming to grips with fast food, rah-rah skirts, and Enid Blyton, they were coping with war, famine, and drought.
Yet he was my brother and I felt overwhelmed at the thought of someone who shared my genes. There was a gulf between us but, ultimately, we had the same parents, we were from the same place. If we met, would there be a connection, an invisible bond because we were brother and sister? Would we smile the same, laugh the same, cry the same? Or was this man, connected to me only by blood, no more than a stranger?
I already had a brother in Manchester, whom I'd known every day of his life. I might not share genes with Tom, but I couldn't love him more. I shared a history with him. I was his sister. I didn't just feel proud of his achievements; I felt envy when he brought home "A" grades and relief that I had a fourteen-year head start on him. Surely that proved our credentials as siblings.
One was white and English, the other was black and Eritrean, but which one was my true brother?
To my shame, the only way I could deal with the letter was to ignore it. I hid it away, reading it only occasionally, when I was alone and sure I wouldn't disturb anyone with my crying. It moved with me, from house to house, in a box full of keepsakes. I'd go for months without taking it out, worried that if I did I wouldn't be able to put it back again. I decided that I should probably concentrate on my degree, and then deal with the letter afterward. Degree completed, I reasoned it was probably best if I didn't act on the letter until I'd finished my postgraduate course. Postgraduate course finished, I thought I should probably focus all my energy on getting a job. After all, what would have been the point of all that waiting if I then went and blew it by not getting a decent job? I might as well have "dealt" with the letter as soon as I'd received it, in that case.
Incidentally, my excuses weren't always career-oriented. Depending on my circumstances, I'd regularly swing from deciding I should wait until I had the support of a stable relationship, to thinking this was a mission best accomplished when I was single, without the distractions of a boyfriend. Dealing with the letter, like the letter itself, became an almost abstract idea. By "dealing with it," I knew I meant tracing my birth family, and after that, I just didn't know. Never mind a can of worms, this felt more like I was teetering on the edge of an abyss. Once I went over, there would be no going back, but boy what a ride it would be if I made it to the other side. And just imagine how I'd feel if I lived to tell the tale!
My birth family had tried to contact me and I had ignored them. I thought I was just waiting, but I now realize that by doing nothing, I was effectively making a decision. But doing nothing is not the easy way out I thought it was. I don't know if it was that I'd run out of excuses, or that I'd stopped making them. But over the last twelve months things had changed, and doing nothing was no longer an option. My main fear had shifted from "What if they reject me?" to "What if I've left it too late?" The letter, written nine years ago, might have frozen them in my mind, but their lives would have moved on. I had to face the very real possibility that, assuming he was alive at the time of the letter, my birth father had died during the time it had taken for me to get my head around his existence. The big difference was that it was a risk I was now willing to take. In fact it was a risk that was highly preferable to the alternative: a lifetime of wondering, What if?
So I set the ball rolling. I told my dad I wanted to trace. There must have been something in the air, because my dad then told me that Fessehaie, an Eritrean friend of his in London, had called him a couple of weeks before to say he had been contacted by a friend and relative of his wife, Wozenet. This man's family had a "missing" daughter, thought to have been adopted from the Asmara orphanage by an English academic. My dad gave me Fessehaie's number and I called him up and arranged to visit him at home, in Finsbury Park, north London. Five days later, there I was in Fessehaie's living room, being told I had a cousin in London. I left in a state of shock, having arranged, through Fessehaie, to meet my cousin at Chiswick Park tube station the following Sunday.
Copyright © 2005 by Hannah Pool