The smells never leave you.
Perhaps more than any other sense, the sense of smell is the most memorable to me. Since I was a child, I have associated smells with so much of my experience…the warm tobacco pipe smoke of my grandfather wafting through the air in his woodshop. The sterile smell of the hospital delivery room where I met my first son. The smell of the woods behind my childhood home, wrought with the musty fragrance of leaves, earth, and the damp bark of the trees. The freshness of the cold, winter air when I first opened the car door after a long drive to Ohio for Christmas. The sense of smell has a funny way of reminding us that what we experienced was real. It was lucid. And it sticks with us.
For the most part, I know where to store these memories. I have a place tucked away in the folds of my brain where I can compartmentalize them if necessary.
The smells of Ethiopia are different.
I will never forget the initial rush of air hitting my face after leaving the plane on my first trip…hints of tilled earth, diesel exhaust, and coffee. There was a rawness and a wildness to it that I simply cannot put into sufficient words. But I knew immediately two things: that it would forever be seared into my memory, and that it would bid me to return for the rest of my life. Even in this first interaction between my senses and that country, I was forever changed.
The smells didn’t stop. With each passing hour and day, new and varied smells filled my nostrils. There was the smell of my first coffee ceremony…burnt wood, roasting beans, and incense. The fabric swaying in the dry breeze rushing through the market shops. The passing of a herd of goats, marked with pink exes for identification…pungent and beautiful.
Sometimes the smells were gut-wrenching.
The upper floor of Kidane Mihret orphanage, overflowing with the odor of cloth diapers, meager servings of oatmeal and bread, and an unidentifiable yet overtly human smell. It was here where I associated “the least of these” with a scent. The smell of Korah, a village on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, sustained mainly by the existence of the city’s landfill. It is here where countless inhabitants scour the city’s waste in the hopes of making their own living, either through material or food scavenging. This, the decomposing mountain of the city’s unwanted, is the smell of destitution.
But amongst all the poverty and the smells of desolation and decay, I have smelled more hope and joy than I ever thought possible. I smelled it in the pot of kik wot, a lentil bean stew, boiling over on Alem’s hot plate stove. I smelled it on Yili’s shirt as I hugged him goodbye. I have smelled joy in the hospitality my wife and I were shown by Medihanet on the floor of her home over a fresh jerbena of coffee and the best popcorn I have ever tasted. The warm fragrance of joy present in Misikir’s smile every time our team walked through the gate of the Carry 117 compound was unmistakable and unforgettable.
The smell of joy permeates that place.
It is this kind of specific joy that calls me back. While many often go to Ethiopia with the hopes and expectation of ministering to others less fortunate, very few expect to be impacted so deeply by the beautiful people they meet.
Soul poverty is real.
And it runs much more rampant on the streets and in the suburbs of New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Atlanta than I have ever found in the back alleys, villages and markets of Addis.
The odor of the most destitute places on earth will never outweigh the stench of an impoverished soul.
This is why I go. The pain, the joy, the heartbreak, the peace, the wildest range of emotions I have ever experienced. It can all be found in the going. And I must go.