Making Books and Art With Children in Ethiopia

If we fail to educate little children, if we fail to put books in their hands, then we fail to create a foundation for them to rise out of poverty and oppression. What will there be to build on?


© Maureen McCauley Evans

We were a core group of 8, most of us artists or writers, 6 from the US and 2 from Ethiopia. Just over a month ago, we traveled together from Addis to Maji, a small, rural area about 350 miles southwest of the Ethiopian capital, then back to Addis. We were part of an Ethiopian Odyssey, one goal of which was to create colorful, culturally appropriate books for young children in Ethiopia.

While we were traveling to and from Maji, and during our week there, all of us were writing, sketching, drawing, taking photos, and reflecting on what and who we saw. Ethiopia Reads has been a trailblazer in raising awareness about literacy and libraries for children. Long time Ethiopia Reads leader and prolific author Jane Kurtz, a pivotal Odyssey crew members, spoke at a well-attended public lecture in Addis about the tremendous need for colorful, culturally appropriate books for pre-readers, the toddlers and little kids who can (must) engage with books that start them on the path to reading. The books for these early readers are scarce in Ethiopia, and we are hoping to change that.


Jane Kurtz and Caroline Kurtz, a dynamic duo. © Maureen McCauley Evans

On Saturday February 6, we had an amazing book-making event. Children from the International Community School in Addis attended; they were Ethiopian, Canadian, American, Indian, Chinese, and more. Ethiopian children who are part of one of Ethiopia Reads’ Addis libraries also came for the “field trip” by bus. Some had lots of experience with art; some had none at all.


© Maureen McCauley Evans

Our goal was to talk with the kids: How do we write stories? And then: Let’s make  illustrations! We worked with a Ethiopian proverbs, including “Turina keessatt killen millaan adeemti. By persevering, the egg walks on legs.” The kids did all kinds of drawings as they figured out how to tell stories.


© Maureen McCauley Evans


© Maureen McCauley Evans

I worked with dozens of children using tissue paper collage. They used their imaginations and their life experiences to make rockets, flowers, spiders, butterflies, mountains, trees, and more.


© Maureen McCauley Evans

tissue paper collage

© Maureen McCauley Evans


© Maureen McCauley Evans

Now our task is to take the stories and art of these young people and create books that will be in (we hope) at least two languages, English and Amharic, but also in many of the other languages spoken and read in Ethiopia. We will put the books in the libraries of Ethiopia Reads, and (we hope) in other sites as well. It’s a big, costly project. My fellow travelers on the Ethiopian Odyssey are up for the challenge. The art created and donated by Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Yacob Bizuneh, and Nahosenay Negussie as a result of our time in Maji and on the road will be exhibited and sold this fall.


L-r: Nahosenay Negussie, Stephanie Schlatter, Troy Zaushny, Jacob Bizuneh; in Maji January 2016 © Maureen McCauley Evans

My photographs will also be donated for this fundraising effort to bring books to little children. This is one:


© Maureen McCauley Evans

I will post more info about the exhibitions as we nail down dates and venues. On one level, this was a life-changing adventure by artists to create books by children for children in Ethiopia. On another level, it’s a way to create hope. It is, maybe, a way to build a world that is based in literacy and beauty. Small steps, I know. Still.








Beautiful Women, Ugly Realities: Miss America and Miss Saigon

Anyone in any combination of interracial family (marriage, adoption, in-laws, godchildren, beloveds, whatever) becomes attuned to racism in a special way: when we love someone, it’s painful to feel they are being judged by race alone, or to see that their racial group is being disparaged, excluded, or condemned.

For those of us born, raised, and imbued in white privilege, awareness of racism has a particular poignancy–we don’t experience racism often ourselves. I know that I’m sometimes treated in a store very differently than how my daughters or sons are, for example. That’s a trivial example, in light of violent acts, civil rights violations, housing discrimination, and so on.

Yet that’s the point perhaps.  It’s the seemingly trivial things, the ones where people say “Oh, you’re overreacting” that add up and evolve into the big, ugly ones.

So as a nice, white, middle-aged woman, who has had her fair share of privilege just for being born white, and who loves beyond words her children and grandchild of color, I’m writing today about beauty and racism.

This one goes out especially for folks like me, adoptive parents of children from a mother of another color:

Racism is alive and well.

Two current examples:

Miss America: Nina Davuluri, our newly crowned beauty queen, was born in exotic Syracuse, New York. She won, and immediately a big, ugly, racist backlash began on social media.

Here’s a good article from the beauty pageant magazine Forbes: “Why We Need An Indian Miss America.”

It’s important to speak out, and also to listen.

Miss Saigon: This hugely successful play has been presented around the world since it premiered in 1989. It also has been highly controversial.

The poet/spoken word artist/more Bao Phi has written this beautiful, powerful post called War Before Memory: A Vietnamese American Protest Organizer’s History Against Miss Saigon.

Here is an excerpt, describing a recent protest against the upcoming production of Miss Saigon at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, MN:

The President and CEO of the Ordway, a white woman, suggests that we all see the show so that it can provoke feelings in us. Though several of us have in fact seen the play, I can’t help it. “My entire family was almost wiped out in that war,” I blurt out. “You think I need to go see your play in order to have my emotions provoked?” There goes my resolve to avoid losing my cool.

 I feel raw. Can barely sit still. I want to vent, to rage, to add my perspective as a Vietnamese person, but I also don’t want to dominate the conversation. I listen to several Asian American women talk about how men assume they or their mothers are prostitutes, or see them as submissive sex objects who will do anything for a white man – a behavior that Miss Saigon reinforces. David Mura is there. His daughter has graduated college. My daughter, not yet four years old, is at home. Her middle name is the Japanese name of Esther Suzuki, who died shortly after the second protest of Miss Saigon at the Ordway.

His whole post is prose, it’s poetry, it’s powerful.

I had posted on my blog here about Miss Saigon, and the protest about its Ordway staging. Really, though, I was primarily writing about the production of “How To Be A Korean Woman,” the nearly sold-out, one-woman play, written and performed by Sun-Mee Chomet at the Guthrie Theater. I’ll be attending the play Sunday afternoon, and then participating on the post-play discussion panel following the performance. Here’s the blurb for the discussion: “Moving Forward: Grappling with Unknowns and Never-Will-Be-Knowns” with Michelle K. Johnson and Maureen McCauley Evans. Michelle K. Johnson works for the State of Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District (Hennepin County) as the Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Coordinator. Maureen McCauley Evans is an artist, writer, and editor who spent many years involved with adoption professionally.

Michelle is a transracial adoptee. I feel confident we will talk about race, adoption, and their intersection, as those are all parts of Sun-Mee’s work.

I recognize these are all hard things to talk about sometimes, but they are important. And I’m grateful to those who are speaking out against racism, and helping me learn.

I’ll close today with the words of a brilliant Middle Eastern poet:

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
– Rumi


Shorn Dignity: The Value of Hair

Photo from

Photo from

We white adoptive parents of Ethiopian children have, I believe, a responsibility to care for our children’s hair in a way that honors not just the hair texture but the heritage of the child.

Among the punishments that Larry and Carri Williams meted out was shaving the head of their adopted daughter Hana. Testimony in the ongoing assault-murder trial suggested that   Hana’s head was shaved at least twice, maybe 3 times.

The reasons given were lice, a fungal infection, and punishment.

My 4 kids (2 boys, 2 girls) all had lice in elementary school, as did their friends. Lice are unpleasant and inconvenient, and relatively common, whether one’s children are black, white, or other. There is no reason to shave a young girl’s head, and I know of no one who has ever done so. Commercial and natural products abound for treatment of lice.

As to the fungal infection–maybe a patch of hair would have to be removed, but the notion of shaving all the head seems unnecessary, and indeed punitive.

This brings us to the testimony of one of the Williams’ biological children, who said that her parents had shaved Hana’s hair because Hana had clipped the grass too short, or had failed to rinse the shampoo out of her hair completely.

In any case, their action was punitive, disproportionate, and cruel. Shaving Hana’s hair as a punishment stole from Hana her dignity and her beauty. It was a cruelty that she would be constantly reminded of when she looked in the mirror, or when others looked at her.

Long hair and braiding are the norms of an Ethiopian girl’s life (and that’s true of black girls in America too). It’s a social norm, generally a mother-daughter ritual, especially when the child is young.

I’ve seen in the court documents and elsewhere that Hana loved to braid her hair. I’ve no doubt that is true. I also know that braiding one’s own hair is possible, but that having someone else braid it is easier, and is a part of black culture.

Hair is a huge part of identity, beauty, history, and heritage.

In the case of adopting older children, understanding this reality may be especially important. Adoption agencies need to emphasize the importance and techniques of caring for black children’s hair. This should be a serious part of the adoptive parent preparation process.

Knowing how to braid or cornrow, knowing good strategies for scalp treatment, knowing what caps to use at night: these aren’t intuitive, and we white adoptive parents may need to learn new skills when adopting black children.

A whole cottage industry has evolved around hair care, some especially geared to adoptive parents. Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care is one example.

The best resources of course are people who live where the children are being raised. For Hana, this would have been women from the Ethiopian community, who could have braided Hana’s hair and shown Carri and her daughters how to braid as well. It’s another, aching part of the tragedy that this never happened.

I’d argue that we adoptive moms need to care for our children’s hair the same way it would have been cared for in their family/culture of origin, by their first mothers. We need to ask how to do it, and to embrace that knowledge not as a chore or burden, but as a gift.

Swimming Along With African-American Beauty

All four of my kids are excellent swimmers, which makes them unusual among African-Americans. Some reports indicate that 70% of African-Americans and 60% of Latinos cannot swim. According to the Center for Disease Control, between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The disparity is widest among children 5-14 years old.

The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range.

There are lots of complicated historical, socioeconomic, and other reasons for the lack of swimming among African-Americans.  It’s quite different from tennis or golf (which also have low proportions of African-Americans participating), because there’s not so much danger of dying in those activities.

I would of course like to see all these sports and activities embraced by all sorts of people, having fun and being safe.

My daughter Adanech and son Chris, when they were in elementary school, were on the swim team for our town’s swim club.  Let’s just say it was fairly easy to locate them in the well-populated team picture.

Adanech, now 24,  has continued to use swimming as exercise, and even more intentionally as a stress reliever. I admire that. My granddaughter Zariyah loves the water, especially if her uncle Sean is there.


Z is wearing a swim cap here, as she usually does, as many swimmers do.

My experience with my daughters and with their black girlfriends when they were growing up–and still today–was that hair was a factor in swimming. Unlike many white, Asian, or Latina girls, these girls did not always freely jump in the water, especially not if they’d spent some serious time and money on their hair (via chemicals, flat irons, hairdryers, curlers, braids, weave, beads, more). The impact of chlorinated water on chemically treated hair can be especially damaging, no doubt.

Seeing hair as a gift and not a burden is one of the responsibilities, I believe, of white parents of black children. Yes, we need to learn how to care for it, comb it, celebrate it.  We need to associate their hair not with inconvenience or tears or time-consuming chores, but with positive energy and beauty.

And we need to encourage our children to swim, with swim caps if needed (that don’t pull out hair at the hairline), with styles that work well in water, with hair protected before and after swimming from the chlorine (conditioner matters), and with confidence that they can do it.  As the poet Rumi wrote, “Today, let us swim wildly, joyously in gratitude.”

Iman, Zariyah, and Racism’s Chokehold on Beauty and Ballet

My granddaughter Zariyah was a model for a Black History Month project titled “Because of Them, We Can.” Iconic African-Americans (the Obamas, Malcolm X, Alice Walker, Myrlie Evers, Langston Hughes, many more) are quoted, and a photo of a child appears with the quote. It’s a lovely series.

IMG_7599Iman (aka David Bowie’s wife) is an astonishingly beautiful, accomplished woman. Since I am a brassy gramma, I sent the photo of Z along with a brief message to Iman on Facebook. I got a classy message back: “I’m honored beyond belief! Thank you!” I am among her 40,000 FB fans, but she wrote to me directly.  Please–let me labor under that illusion.

Today, this was posted on Iman’s page:


We can chat about art and creative license in high fashion, about controversial ways to get attention, about the role of blackface in American history, about the scarcity of models of color on haute couture runways. It’s all tangled together.

The biggest challenge, at the end of the day and debate, is for me what it says to young girls of color about their beauty and its value to the world. Racism has beauty in a chokehold.

An example:

Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson was the first African-American to be named a principal in a major ballet company (Houston Ballet). That was in 1990, a mere 127 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. About 6 generations worth. What additional groundbreaking might we expect in our society in another 127 years, by 2140?

In the meantime, there are still very few black ballerinas, especially in major dance companies. Many continue told they are not “right” for classical ballet, but one wonders how clearly they are seen beyond the color of their skin.

I’d like to note and honor two other remarkable ballerinas. One is the recently deceased Maria Tallchief, considered America’s first prima ballerina and the first Native American to hold that title. The other is Michaela de Prince, a Sierrra Leone adoptee who was told as a child she couldn’t be in the Nutcracker because of her race; she’s now performing with the newly relaunched Dance Theater of Harlem.

To go full circle here, Iman Cosmetics is the 2013 Beauty Sponsor of the Dance Theater.

My granddaughter Zariyah is not yet fully aware of the power of racism in the United States today. She dances for the joy of it, and her long arms and legs are, to me, elegantly right for ballet.

IMG_7961I’m so grateful to those who’ve blazed incredible paths, at great cost, in the name of art and of what is beautiful and right.