Yesterday was a very strange day. I woke up in the morning to discover that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. In a world which is increasingly dependent on cross cultural collaborations from globally minded citizens who are deeply connected to their local communities, it feels very odd and unsettling to know that my own country has chosen to take a far more isolationist approach to its future. Like many of my peers, I felt extremely shocked and sad at the result. I had a good chat with Yared, Dr Worku and Jess about it before we started our meeting to discuss another draft of the strategic plan that Dr Worku is developing for the School of St Yared. Despite a collective disbelief with the world’s events, it was, nonetheless, a very useful and productive session, and it is very exciting to know that a clear roadmap for the next five years of the school’s development is in the pipeline.
Yesterday afternoon put everything into perspective for me though, and brought my attention right back to the incredible impact that The School of St Yared has on its local community, and the urgent need we have to ensure we can secure sustainable funding for the school’s future.
With Yared to guide me and translate, I went to visit my sponsor child, Workadise and his family. Workadise is in the Upper Kindergarten – the picture above shows him enjoying a tasty snack at school. When he grows up, he wants to become a doctor – all the children in his local area nickname him ‘the doctor’ at the moment. His father is a local priest and his mother, who is ill, stays at home. He has four sisters and one older brother – who is the only member of the family who makes any income to support them. I knew most of this before I arrived thanks to the student profile I received when I made the decision to sponsor him last August. Despite knowing this, and despite knowing how poor the children that the school supports are – most families have a total income of less than 200 birr ($13AUD) per week, nothing prepared me for how powerful an experience it would be to visit his home in person.
Benji drove us up to Farensay, the hillside district where many of The School of St Yared students come from. We stopped where the road ended, a busy square with lots of ladies selling vegetables on the street. The place was buzzing with young people socializing and minding herds of donkeys and goats. We walked along a narrow cobbled street where Workadise, in a bright red hoodie, was waiting for us, and greeted us with a great big smile. He is a very sweet little boy, extremely bright and very perceptive, always wanting to be respectful but also have fun.
He guided us to the end of the street to a hilly area of grazing land, scattered with livestock and divided by streams – their nearest water supply. It felt a very long way from the Addis Ababa I have been living in for the last three weeks. We had to jump across two such streams to reach the cluster of small single story mud houses on the far side. It’s the route Workadise has to take every day to get to the school bus stop. A couple of toddlers with big eyes and beautiful smiles, (one in particular had an incredible afro) were playing outside as we arrived. A woman was cooking in the communal ‘kitchen’ that several families share – an open air enclosure made out of thin tree branches containing a small charcoal stove. A girl (one of Workadise’s sisters) was washing her face in a small bowl of water outside a tiny mud hut with crumbling walls, which turned out to be their home.
We went inside and I found myself sitting in a tiny, very dark room with space for one double bed and a single mattress. This tiny space is Workadise’s entire home. One corner of the wall had caved in some time in the past, and the family had repaired it with a large sheet of plastic instead. Workadise’s school bag was propped up proudly above the single bed, which he shares with his five siblings. The family clearly values it, and everything it represents.
After a few minutes talking with Workadise and his sister – who attends a local government school and is about to enter Grade 10 – his mother came into the house. She was clearly in a lot of pain, and showed Yared her foot, which was extremely swollen. Yared explained to me that, as she does not have shoes, she had picked up a flesh eating worm that lives in animal dung. The worm had worked its way through her foot, and was now living inside her, making her whole leg extremely painful, and causing her great difficulty to walk. Yared told me that the worms are very common, and that he had suffered from them himself many times when he was living on the streets. She can’t afford to go to the doctor, so Yared advised her to wash her feet with warm salt water, as this often encourages the worms to come out.
Workadise’s home. We are sitting on his parents’ bed, and his mum is sitting on the bed that all six children share. To her right, you can see the Guiness Book of World Records.
I’d brought some gifts with me for the family, but seeing how much suffering Workadise’s mum was in, made my gifts feel pretty arbitrary in comparison to her acute needs. She seemed exhausted – I really hope that I can help her get access to the medical attention she so urgently requires. In the meantime, I gave her a large piece of thick cotton fabric covered in Kangaroo designs that I’d picked up from Utopia Goods in Sydney. I hope she can use it as another layer of blanket to keep the family warm. I also gave them some Palmolive soap – they are one of my clients back at GPY&R in Sydney – it feels a lifetime away at the moment.
For Workadise, I’d bought the 2016 Guiness Book of World Records, a shiny bright yellow book with lots of engaging pictures which I hope will inspire him, giving him windows into other parts of the world and the impressive (and sometimes ridiculous) feats that people can achieve if they put their mind to it. He absolutely loved it and immediately started browsing through the pages. As his English improves he’ll be able to learn from it too. I think it might be the first book that the family has ever owned – there was nothing in the house which wasn’t purely functional (other than great vats of holy water that his father uses as a priest.) He was extremely grateful, and I hope that my sponsorship will help him to turn his, and his family’s life around.
I spoke with his mother and told her that I would sponsor Workadise through his entire 14 years of education at the school. I’ve always planned that this would be the commitment that I would make, but seeing just how little the family has, and how hard life is for them makes me even more determined to ensure that Workadise has a good education. If he does want to become a doctor one day, then I hope that I can help him get here. Seeing his mother suffering directly made me realize just how important this will be for him. Through education and access to useful skills and opportunities, Workadise can help lift his family out of poverty, and hopefully give a family of his own a much brighter future one day. It’s a lot of responsibility for a six year old!
Every single one of the students at the School of St Yared comes from a similar background. Every single student is a small beacon of hope for their families, an opportunity for a better future, a source of much pride in their lives. Workadise is so resilent and happy, despite having so very little at home. When I see the students at school, I see bright, confident, happy little individuals who are excited about what the future holds for them, eager to learn and extremely proud of their school. It is difficult to understand what their life is like at home, and how much of an achievement it is that each of them is able to attend the school at all. Each has been selected for their hunger for learning and their family’s poverty level from hundreds, sometimes thousands of other hopeful five year olds and their families. Each each leaves tiny, cold ramshackle mud houses every morning to walk, sometimes for up to 45 minutes, to get the bus to school. Seeing Workadise at home really made me realize what a lifeline the school is for the families it serves and what a privilege it is to be able to help to change his future and help raise awareness about the future of the school.
As the school grows, there is going to be increasing need to find more people to sponsor more students. As the Ethiopian economy grows and inflation rises, it is becoming more expensive to provide the excellent level of education to each student – the current cost of sponsoring a child does not cover the full expense of educating them, and we need to find ways to fill the gap. Part of what I have done since I have been here is to develop new models of sponsorship that will hopefully help to solve this problem and provide different entry points for philanthropic individuals who care about fighting poverty through education to support the school. It’s still a work in progress and needs approval from key stakeholders, so watch this space.
Regardless, sponsoring a child’s education is probably the most useful, impactful and direct way that you can truly help to transform a child’s life and the life of their family forever. In this increasingly fractured world, we need to ensure that we give children the skills to become the next generation of problem solvers and peace keepers. By sponsoring a child at The School of St Yared, you won’t just give a child a basic education, you will guarantee that one of the poorest and brightest children in Ethiopia has access to a brilliant holistic education, a nurturing, safe school environment and enough food and healthcare provision to ensure they lead healthy, happy lives. If you are interested in finding out more about sponsoring a student at the school, (it costs just under $5 or £2.50 per day ) – please email firstname.lastname@example.org.