The more Ethiopian families I've met and the longer the time apart from my family grows, I find myself increasingly wondering about how the girls are doing in school. Did Laurel have a good day? Was the special Italian, art, music, or gym? [I can never keep the schedule straight.] What songs did Violet sing today at circle? All of what I envision -- the shiny classrooms, piles of books, and endless snack supply -- lies in stark contrast to what I'm seeing on the ground in Ethiopia, whether at traditional schools or at the Population Council's safe learning spaces for girls suffering in urban slums. The program is called BiruhTesfa (bright future), and I really need to tell you about it today.
BiruhTesfa is a US-supported program; they focus on helping girls who are young (7-24 years old), uneducated, and have moved from rural areas to urban slums to earn wages. These girls subsequently are vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. Girls are recruited to the program by community mentors who have the challenging job of convincing "host" families (I'm not sure what else to call them...these girls are essentially domestic slaves) to release the girls for two hours each weekday. Through BiruhTesfa, girls receive literacy, life, and livelihood skills, as well as education about HIV and reproductive health (HIV/AIDS services are provided by PEPFAR). BiruhTesfa also gives girls the opportunity to have peers and make friends, something completely absent from the rest of their waking hours as domestic servants.
I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to be able to hold it together on this visit. As I said, I've been thinking about my girls so much. But on visiting each of the three classrooms, I brightened -- seeing the joy and hope on the girls' faces as they talked about what they loved studying (e.g., Amharic, English, science, math), what they hoped to be (e.g., pilot, doctor, engineer, driver, teacher, community mentor for BiruhTesfa), and what the best/worst parts of their days are (unanimously, best = being at school, worst = work hours). Believe me, these girls still have serious challenges in front of them, but they seem so determined to make change. (And I'll be following up on how to help with this program soon.)
My last visit was the 7-10 year old classroom. I braced myself. I saw Laurel's face in each bright face that smiled back at me. I felt myself overwhelmed with admiration for these girls who could so easily offer open, welcoming smiles to strangers when they have endured so much hardship.
And then as we were telling the kids what we did for work (they were curious!), my friend Liz piped up to the translator and told her it was my birthday. The woman clapped her hands and said "birthday!" to the kids and the kids clapped their hands, laughed, and immediately broke into Happy Birthday. The delightful Jeannine Harvey captured the end of the song:
I cried (profusely...you just can't see it in the brief clip). I told the teacher to tell the kids that they just gave me the biggest gift since I was missing my own kids so much that day. I was struck by the universal joy in that song. I ache for a bright future for each and every one of those girls. And after tonight's activity, I have even more hope that they will get there (shared via the soundclip below):
What an honor it was to be with these children.
I'm in Ethiopia at the kind invitation and expense of The ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan, advocacy organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. ONE works to convince governments (the US, as well as others) to invest in smart programs that help to eliminate poverty and preventable disease in a sustainable way. ONE never asks for your money, simply your voice.