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A Crushing Choice for Ethiopian Mothers With HIV

They left her here two years ago, and soon afterward died of AIDS-related illnesses.

The small girl with wavy brown hair is friendly and smart. She plants little white flowers outside the cement buildings of her group home. Eight children -- four in each room -- live with the group's resident "mother."

Wosene Maru cares for orphans whose parents have succumbed to AIDS. "They are still just kids," she said. "I know they don't have anybody." (Photos Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

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One afternoon, Radeat sang a song about a girl who wakes up one morning to find she has only arms and legs. A bird has flown away with her heart. The girl in the song says her body is healthy, but she misses her heart and asks the bird to return it.

The words and sad melody have made the song one of Radeat's favorites. She is healthy but, like the others in her group, she misses her parents' love.

Wosene Maru, 35, is the only adult some of the children have known. She cares for them, reminding them to brush their teeth and clean their clothes. She reads to them at night.

She used to work as a nanny for American diplomats. This job pays far less, but she feels she's needed far more.

"They are still just kids," Maru said, hugging one. "I know they don't have anybody."

One child tugged on her skirt and asked, "Please make us nice food," then smiled as the others joined in. "You are so nice to us."

All over the capital, women like Maru are helping children orphaned by AIDS. And unlike in many countries in Africa, orphanages here don't carry a stigma. Wealthy Ethiopians raise funds or open homes for the children, giving them hope when relatives don't want to care for them.

Tamrat started as a volunteer after she finished college. She had a neighbor who died alone of HIV, her twin babies left outside in the cold evening air.

"I started collecting one birr [about 11 cents] from everyone I knew," she said, referring to the country's currency. Tamrat said she kept at it because she felt proud to help her country. She recently named a 14-month-old child who was left at the doorstep "God's Work," or Yeabsira in Amharic, the Ethiopian language.

But sometimes her work makes her question her judgment. Children dropped off at the orphanage can grow hysterical, sending others into a panic. Recently, Tamrat had to start a new policy, telling parents they should bring their children in to play a few times and then, on the last day, just leave quietly. Later, the children are told that their parents are dying.

"I don't know which way is better," she said. "It's too hard, either way."

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