Heran Tadesse has the graceful confidence of someone who is used to being a muse. I first met her at a breastfeeding group I was running in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. She was hard to place; she has the strong nose and fine features of an Ethiopian, but back then she wore her hair in Rastafarian-style dreads and speaks with the Dutch accent of her adoptive Netherlands. She has an astonishing adoption story.
“My adoptive mother didn’t know the whole truth about why I was put up for adoption so they really believed that I was an orphan. I certainly thought I was. I used to cry myself to sleep at night about the idea that I had brothers and sisters in Ethiopia and that they were starving. It really touched me. As a teenager, I had emotional issues with bonding and trusting people. I tested my adoptive mother to the maximum. It got to the point where I used to think ‘Why would you even let me back into your house?’ but she always did. It took me years to understand that her love was just unconditional.”
Heran’s Dutch parents adopted another child, a boy who became her brother. One day, a relative of his made contact, and since he was travelling to Ethiopia, Heran’s adoptive mother suggested that he take photos of her to her orphanage to see if anyone recognised her.
“The relative went to the orphanage and showed them the photo of me and straightaway they went ‘Oh yes, we know Heran’s mother! She lives over there!’ He immediately got hold of her phone number and showed her my pictures.”
“When he told me, at first I didn’t believe it. ‘My mother has been alive and well these past 17 years? I have a brother? No, I don’t believe it.’ Then they showed me a picture of her. And I went, ‘OK, now I believe you.’ She looked just like me when she was younger.”
“I had no idea what to do with the information. I mean, what should I do? Call her and go, ‘Hi Mom!’ So I just didn’t do anything. I just put it in a corner and ignored it for a couple of months. And then suddenly one night, in the middle of the night, she called, from Ethiopia.”
“It’s me! I’m your mother! I love you! Please call me! Please write me!”
If Heran’s remarkable story were fiction, it would be unbelievable. I first heard it when I talked to Heran about her adoption experience as part of my research for my novel, Open My Eyes That I May See Marvellous Things. I was volunteering as a lactation consultant at a public hospital and my novel is written as a response to the experience of working alongside abandoned and orphaned babies.
In my book, Mariam, a midwife who was adopted to the UK as a child returns to her birth country to work. Rather than finding her birth mother, though, she meets an abandoned premature baby. She embarks on a plan to keep the baby alive by holding it next to her skin, in kangaroo care, underestimating the transformative effect that holding the baby will have on her, or how it will awaken her own surpressed feelings of abandonment.
While Heran’s face graces the cover of my novel, my heroine, Mariam’s story is different. At the start of my book, she’s in denial about her history of abandonment. Fighting for the baby she has fallen in love with will mean fighting many of her own demons.
Heran, however, was far from being abandoned. She was never meant to be given up for adoption. As her father later wrote to her, “you had both your mother and father. You were not an orphan. I wanted to take care of you. I wanted to be your father in your life.”
Like many other women at that time, Heran’s mother, a poor woman who was not married to her father, placed Heran in the orphanage, thinking it a temporary measure, a way to keep Heran fed and schooled while she could look for a job. Later, she was devastated and relieved to hear that Heran had been adopted abroad. A few years later, Heran’s mother re-married a wealthy man, and swore to him that when Heran turned 18 she would find out where her daughter was. As it turned out, Heran found her first.
After her mother’s phone call, they started writing, and sending each other videos.
“She is just a joker, an entertainer, absolutely free, absolutely not the traditional Ethiopian woman. I remember the moment that she arrived at the Schipol airport for the first time. I was looking through the glass door, remembering the images from the video with her in a traditional dress. Then I saw her with high heels and a fashionable skirt; she comes over to my Dutch mother and they start hugging, then they both start crying and I’m just looking at them and thinking, ‘My mothers…This concept opened up space in my head and heart. Mothers!”
Heran now lives in her birth mother’s house in Addis Ababa with her Ethiopian husband and three children. “I want my children to know their language and culture, because growing up in the Netherlands in a small village as a black person, I used to be teased. I was the only black girl at my primary school and my high school and even at university, and I just never wanted that for my children.”
Heran is a co-founder and co-manager of a child-care facility in Addis, the Regina Family center, a yoga teacher, and runs monthly breastfeeding gatherings at the British Embassy, where she also manages the social club. She is also on the adoptee advisory board of Ethiopian Adoption Connection, an organisation that helps re-connect Ethiopian parents with grown up children who were adopted out of the country as babies.
She is critical of international adoption.
“Let’s look again at the convention on the rights of the child. What about the right to grow up with one’s biological parents? If the unfair distribution of wealth globally is an issue, we should address that. If a single mother needs temporarily financial support, find ways to support the birth mother! If a child is born outside of a marriage, taboos should be addressed.
This does not mean I do not love my adoptive family but I, like so many other adoptees from Ethiopia, did not need to be adopted. My father wanted to take care of me. My mother wanted me close to her. She just did not have the financial means.”
Alice Allan’s novel, ‘Open my Eyes That I May See Marvellous Things’ is published by Pinter and Martin, and available from pinterandmartin.com, wordery.com and from Amazon.