In the film of The Constant Gardener, there’s a scene where British diplomat Justin Quayle realizes his heart has been softened beyond the protocols and policies of his job. On a Sudanese airstrip, a small girl cuts her way through the grass, legs milling around as she runs towards Justin’s departing plane. “If we could just save one,” Justin pleads to the pilot, hoping to take her on board.
The pilot shakes his head, his expression of pity more at the hopelessness of Justin’s request rather than the plight of the girl. Something within Justin has left him, his guarded facade has been breached at last by this continent. His heart is now open, human, reaching with his words to save this tiny, dark girl threatened by war, her figure silhouetted against the grasslands, watching as the plane takes off to Nairobi.
And so it is with Mariam, a British midwife when she is confronted with T’irunesh, a young women who delivers her baby prematurely in Addis Ababa’s public hospital. There is a brief moment when Mariam looks into T’irunesh’s eyes and realizes that it had never occurred to her to keep this baby. Mariam is yet to realise that in that instance, begins the journey where she too will find that this continent has a way of dismantling her guard. Abandoned by her own mother as an infant in Ethiopia and then adopted to the UK, Mariam tells herself that Tirunesh’s story has nothing to do with hers. Events such as this are common on the ward. Tirunesh inevitably disappears.
The hospital administration makes plans to discharge the baby to the public orphanage but Mariam finds herself drawn to the baby girl, now named Merkato after the main market area her mother said she was from. But the neonatal ward is already crowded with babies such as these and the hospital staff have an air of fatality that has set in in the face of so much disease. Her colleagues look critically upon her. Why is Mariam, Ethiopian born but with foreign ways, trying to save this baby, premature and abandoned when there is already so much suffering here? Mariam pleads with Dr Tadesse, the senior neonatologist, persuading him to allow baby Merkato to stay. Mariam plans to administer skin-to-skin contact to the baby, instead of placing her in the incubators or ‘isolettes’ – the crueler, more clinical way of caring for neonates where only the strongest or the blessed will survive – a way more inline with Ethiopian traditions of leaving things to fate or God.
Mariam had initially requested Sierra Leone for her placement abroad but had been sent instead to Ethiopia, a place she had been avoiding as her country of birth. She told herself it was no big deal; that she had no yearning or identity crisis to explore. But Ethiopia has got under her skin. Its people with slanting, distrustful eyes, the old Italianate villas, the smell of coffee and woodsmoke, all mingle with her consciousness. Now she is nearing the end of her two years in country, she finds herself embroiled in her desire for John, an emotionally unavailable British surgeon and her crusade to save baby Merkato from first, death and now, the orphanage. But first she must find the courage to face her own history: of her birth mother who abandoned her to a Sidama orphanage when she was just one year old and the pain she hides inside of being unable to recall her birth mother’s face.
Through Mariam’s story, the book skillfully portrays the atmosphere and idiosyncracies of Ethiopia, portraying a place rich in history and culture but poor in so many other ways; a place bent on modernizing while remaining devoutly traditional, fervently religious, cruel, harsh and benevolent all in a single breath. These things sing from the pages and characters, pulling the reader in and giving a sense of the conflicts and contradictions that make up society.
Despite loving the main body of the book and I felt angry when I got to the final page. Other writings on adoptee reunions with birth families give a wide range of experiences from joy, disappointment, bewilderment or more unwanted grief but I still felt cheated out of a happy ending. It seemed that not everything had been explored, that stones were left unturned. Even though Mariam had almost completed an important part of her journey as a person and had a sense of moving on from the exquisite pain of her earliest days, I was profoundly dissatisfied. Prior to that, perfect it had been a perfect read. The descriptions of Addis: the cypresses, the air after the rainy season that scorches and is then cold, the sour, distrustfulness of the hospital doctors, beneath which hides kind hearts, they had all spoken to me from the page. As an adoptive parent I had placed my own emotional investment in Mariam’s journey which seemed to be only beginning. There’s a success in the writing here in how much the story got under my skin but I was left initially feeling profoundly let down.
I had to sleep on this book before realising that perhaps happy endings aren’t necessarily the goal. In any case, this would have conflicted with Mariam’s own belief that life doesn’t always come full circle. This doesn’t mean that there herein lies no value in a journey. Mariam becomes open to love and a sense of her own history. Perhaps the real meaning of the book is this. There’s a scene in the where Mariam’s Ethiopian friend Betty tells her she has to stop building walls to keep pain out. “To be vulnerable is the hardest thing in the world. You will want to die. But then, you will be more alive.”
If we open ourselves to our own pains, then only then can we grow and heal. That is Mariam’s Ethiopian journey but there is a truth in here for everyone.
Open my Eyes is by Alice Allan and published by Pinter and Martin