December 22, 2008
Grace at work
Inhofe's adopted grandchild: a special place in his heart
By: Wayne Greene, Editorial Writer
Published: Sunday, December 21, 2008
If you want to see a different side of Jim Inhofe, ask him about Zegita.
Zegita is Inhofe's 7-year-old granddaughter.
Inhofe loves all 12 of his grandchildren, but Zegita has a very special story, and it's clear when he speaks of her that there's something more in his relationship with her.
She is his adopted grandchild, his genius grandchild, his African grandchild, a wonder in the way she joined the family and in everything she has achieved since.
In 2001, one of Inhofe's daughters, Molly Rapert, and her husband Jimmy, decided they wanted to adopt a daughter. They had three sons.
Rapert says she speaks openly of her daughter's life because adoption is such an important issue to her.
For various reasons, the Raperts decided that an international adoption was the best choice for their family, and Inhofe's years of work on the behalf of Africa led them to consider adopting a child there.
And then the politics of the situation occurred to them. Imagine the image of the conservative southern white U.S. senator and his black granddaughter. They called Inhofe to talk about it.
"His first words to me were 'This is absolutely the right thing to do,' " Rapert said.
He introduced her to Tekle Selassie, a Christian living in Ethiopia and working to improve conditions there.
Not long later, Selassie e-mailed her that he had found a child in a local orphanage that he thought would work for them.
They said yes, sight unseen.
At the age of 3 days Zegita had been abandoned in an impoverished Addis Ababa neighborhood. A social worker found her in a dirt alley and took her to a local orphanage, where she was slowly brought back to health with an intravenous feeding tube that went into her scalp.
There were 42 children and four beds at the orphanage. The other children were kept in buckets. They got one bottle of milk a day. The healthy children were also given an avocado.
When the Raperts first saw their daughter she was 7 months old. She weighed 11 pounds.
Selassie helped them through the Ethiopian immigration bureaucracy. At a key point, in the office of an Ethiopian immigration official, he was asked if the child would be raised as a Christian.
He knew that if he answered yes, it could slow or kill the adoption, but he answered truthfully.
The adoption official asked him if he believed in Jesus, and again, he took the risk and said that he did.
She looked both ways, opened a drawer, pulled out a Bible and asked if he would pray with her. He did.
Rapert says she sees nothing less than grace at work in the adoption.
"God's hand was at work. We see it at every step in the process," she said.
Inhofe visited the Tulsa World editorial board earlier this month, and he talked about what you would expect: the president-elect, the auto bailout, his recent trip to Afghanistan - important issues of public policy all.
Then he mentioned Zegita - Z girl as he calls her, as he is "Popi" to her - and a different aura filled him. He pulled out his BlackBerry and started reading year-old e-mails from Rapert and telling his own Zegita stories.
He talks about her standardized test scores. She's reading above the seventh grade level.
He tells the story of his family finding her in the Ethiopian orphanage where she slept in a bucket.
Do you have time to look at some pictures?
Here she is at the National Prayer Breakfast, where her speech was a big hit. She's been invited back again next year.
"For real," Inhofe said, grinning and nodding his head with the certainty of a grandpa. "She is a genius."
In the world of politics, Jim Inhofe is as aggressive as any person you'll ever meet.
He ardently believes in what he stands for, and won't back down from a fight.
Oppose him and you better be ready to rumble.
But, when the topic turns to Zegita, you see a different side.
A trite tale? Sure.
Everyone loves their grandchildren, don't they? All grandpas think their little ones are special, geniuses all.
But that's a bit of what's special about seeing Inhofe talk about Zegita. It's in those moments that you realize that the partisan street fighter image is just that, image.
Inside, he's really just Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma grandfather.