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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Big Dreams, Tough Reality

Ethiopia’s university students confront a fast-changing society

The traditions of Addis Ababa University’s main campus, Sidist Kilo, may not rival those of Paris’s Left Bank or Cambridge’s Harvard Square. But on this late December afternoon, before Addis Ababa’s chilly night air clenches its grip on pedestrian activity, the scene certainly captures much of the same energy. Vendors hawk the remainder of their newspapers. Blue and white minibuses leapfrog one another for passengers. Scruffy shoeshine boys solicit one last customer. And booksellers stand over their textbook-covered tarps talking up their inventory. Amid all the hustle and bustle, groups of university students — Ethiopia’s brightest young minds — mill about, chatting and making plans.

Getachew Tamiru, a slender 21-year-old with a confident air, fits right in. Despite his rural roots, he sports an urban ease. He totes a heavy shoulder bag, texts away on his cell phone and exchanges trademarked handshakes with friends. He smiles often and laughs effortlessly. From outward appearances, Mr. Getachew, as do his friends, shows no signs of life’s many hardships.

As the sun sets, he and his pals meander down dimly lit Algeria Street to a nearby cafe. There, they delight in a Sunday evening ritual of coffee and conversation. Sipping on macchiatos made from Ethiopia’s finest beans (which top anything Paris’s Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore serves up), they chat philosophically about the many issues of the day — politics, faith, university life, globalization, relationships and family. But the topic that arises most often and with the greatest sense of urgency is employment. Their angst is palpable.

A recent graduate in journalism and communications, Getachew Tamiru defends why he recently attended an information session about the student visa application process at the United States Embassy. Given his current options, he, as with the majority of his peers, longs to go abroad. He needs the money and work experience. But he remains adamant about returning some day to help his country.

“There are no jobs to be found where I come from,” explains Mr. Getachew, who hails from a rural town in Ethiopia’s western region, some 370 miles from the capital.

“And there are no jobs here. I finished third in my program out of a hundred. I received a very high distinction. But now what?”

His friends Burka and Zinash, both in their last year, shake their heads in agreement. Harboring no illusions, they know in a few short months upon graduation they will be in Getachew Tamiru’s shoes, hitting the ground with a thump rather than running.

The group wraps up the discussion and heads back to the campus dormitories for the night. As he has done every night since graduating, Mr. Getachew accompanies them, slipping by the security officers at the main gate. His friends have laid out a spare mattress for him on their dorm-room floor — the only soft landing Mr. Getachew has had since earning his degree.

For young adults around the globe, higher education plays a pivotal role in establishing identity and fostering intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual growth. It is one of life’s major crossroads, where youth enter adulthood and where critical choices are made that will chart the course of a young person’s future — professionally as well as personally. It is a time to explore passions and cement a belief system. It offers an occasion to carve a professional niche, exercise personal freedoms and challenge the status quo.

For Ethiopia’s young adults, the same holds true. But in a context distinctly Ethiopian, the college experience comes laden with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. These young adults are coming of age in a rapidly changing society. For them, college also places them in a constant tug of war between the traditional and communal agrarian way of life most knew as children and a fast-paced Western lifestyle, with its focus on personal freedom and consumerism. Family pressure to remain close to home contends with economic pressure to grab that travel visa and seek better career opportunities abroad.

From the moment first-year students step foot on campus, new and intense challenges blindside them, particularly for those from Ethiopia’s isolated rural areas. Competition among students is fierce and comes at them from all directions, whether academic, cultural, economic, political, social or spiritual. Students living on or off campus find themselves on their own and away from their families for the first time. Many never have budgeted expenses nor have they shopped for food, cooked or done laundry. Without family rules, obligations and support, some will succumb to one or more of the pitfalls lurking everywhere — from drug abuse to time or money mismanagement to abusive relationships and harassment.

Recognizing these challenges, Ethiopia’s Orthodox and Catholic churches have beefed up their chaplaincy programs at universities across the country to help students adjust to, cope with and ultimately flourish in their new environment. They encourage students to make time for personal and spiritual reflection as well as offer them a comfort zone — or “belongingness,” as Jesuit Father Groum Tesfaye, who heads the Catholic chaplaincy at Addis Ababa University, likes to say.

Chaplaincy programs also help students affirm their identity. Addis Ababa University, like most Ethiopian universities, is a microcosm of the country’s extraordinary religious and ethnic diversity. Its student body includes men and women from many of the country’s more than 80 ethnic groups and all of its major religions — Animist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Until college, most Ethiopian students never before experienced the country’s diversity on such a scale. This diversity, combined with Addis Ababa’s fast-paced urban environment, often bewilders new students.

“In my mind, it’s always two things,” explains Abba (“Father” in the Amharic language of the country) Groum about the mission of the chaplaincy he founded a decade ago. “First, we want our kids to know that to be a university student in the context of one of the poorest Third World countries is a privilege. We tell them, `Many have contributed to your coming here, so make the best use out of it and give service back to them.’ And second, it’s a point of reference and identity. Out of that, having the same faith, we can reflect on the same principles, reflect on everyday life at a personal, local community, national and international level. So we aim for that, and we remind them that the best way to be a good apostle is to be a good student.”

One Tuesday night, echoes from a booming loudspeaker at St. Mark’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church — located on the edge of the main campus of Addis Ababa University — could be heard for blocks. Visible through the gate, about a thousand students gather in the open-air courtyard around a preacher who is delivering a fever-pitched sermon using a microphone. To his right sit hundreds of young women dressed in traditional white sashes, listening with rapt attention. To his left, hundreds of young men hang on his every word.

“Spirituality has to be practiced! It’s not just knowledge-based!” exhorts the preacher. “Be wary of superficiality! Don’t just accept what society offers you!”

The students listening to the sermon belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox student association Mahibere Kidusan, or “Fellowship of Saints,” which holds weekly meetings such as this one. Organized under the Sunday School Department of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Mahibere Kidusan has chapters in some 20 universities across Ethiopia as well as in other African countries, in Europe and in the United States. Some 80,000 Ethiopian Orthodox students are currently enrolled in its three-year church education program, which runs parallel to the university’s academic curriculum.

The size and global reach of its deeply committed membership are all the more impressive since Mahibere Kidusan obtained its official license only 18 years ago. Almost a testament to its prominence, a nearly finished seven-story building close to campus will house its headquarters.

Among the devoted members is 19-year-old Dadhita Gadissa. A third-year student of the Oromo language, she says she looks forward to her weekly Mahibere Kidusan meeting.

“As freshers [freshman] from the country, we didn’t feel at home here at the university,” says Ms. Dadhita, casting a glance at her good friend standing next to her, Aynafew Dadhi. “But Mahibere Kidusan helped us get acquainted, make friends, feel welcome. Everything was new for us. Mahibere Kidusan helped teach us how to behave and shape our moral behavior.”

Ms. Aynafew adds, “It’s given us a chance to know more about God and what his will is for us.”

Mahibere Kidusan champions the Orthodox faith as a bulwark against society’s many temptations. More controversially, it views the Orthodox Church as a bastion of traditional Ethiopian culture and identity — distinct from the West and the East — that its members should embrace and protect from outside influences. The message resonates strongly with today’s Ethiopian Orthodox youth, who bear witness to their rapidly changing society.

“Globalization is every country coming together as one village,” explains Daniel Tesfaye, the organization’s 32-year-old general secretary. “But the cultures of the East or West aren’t similar to ours. Yet they are disseminated to students [as such] through media.

“This will have an effect on their identity. They will lose their identity. They will lose their culture. Economically, technologically, I can name things for which globalization has had a positive contribution to our country. But in terms of culture, in terms of identity, in terms of other things, it hasn’t.”

Mahibere Kidusan is not without its critics. Its views and practices have raised eyebrows among church leaders and laity alike. Some outside observers denounce its operations as secretive, its members as overly emotional and its message as hard-line and intolerant.

Well aware of the criticism, Daniel Tesfaye stresses that though Mahibere Kidusan encourages members to focus on Ethiopian culture before consuming Western music, films, food and other cultural imports, it does not espouse cultural isolationism.

“As long as you’re living in this world, you have to cope with this environment,” says the general secretary, who holds degrees in applied trade policy and economics from Addis Ababa University.

“So even if Ethiopia is lacking economically or in other things, we’re living equally with American society. We have to compete with these individuals or peoples. We can’t isolate Ethiopia or our students from this world. They have to screen, select or identify what is suitable for their life or suitable for their country. Everything is not best. Everything is not okay. Always, they have to make a choice. That’s what our Jesus, our God says. Everything is possible. But you have to select what is better for your life.”

About 30 miles south of the capital, the Galilee Center in Debre Zeit is the picture of pastoral beauty. It sits perched on a hillside overlooking a stunning crater lake. Blooming bougainvillea adorn the grounds. Close-cropped lawns invite a stroll. But the tranquil setting does little to assuage the unsettled minds of the young adults gathered there for a retreat one afternoon recently. Moderated by Abba Groum, the discussion skips around the room.

“My parents are regressive. I’m progressive,” says Derebew Ashebir, a graduate student in philosophy and a member of the Christian Lay Community. “They’re nostalgic. They don’t need progress. They want to continue the way their parents lived. I’m not fond of that life. I want to change that.”

Across the room, Getachew Tamiru raises his hand. Abba Tesfaye nods his way. “There’s the independent self and the interdependent self,” philosophizes Mr. Getachew, who when a student coordinated the Addis Ababa University chapter of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

“A child wants to lead his own life. But here in Ethiopia, we’re raised to help our parents and our siblings. It’s a backward-looking life. … In other societies, children are raised to worry and care for their children, for future generations.”

Ms. Derebew grabs the mantle from Mr. Getachew and does not let go. “The new generation wants to live an American or European life. If you work here, the wage is very small. So you can’t live the life of Americans unless you have a good job. And for many graduates, they’re afraid to go and work in the countryside. They are attached to life in Addis Ababa, where there’s music, good food, macchiatos and cappuccinos — civilization in a broader sense.

“I’ve seen classmates use drugs and become addicted. Our parents were strict when they raised us. We didn’t go out. It was school and home. That was it. At university, we’re free. There are parties and qat [a plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant], which makes you want to smoke and drink and stay out late. … It’s easy to lose spirituality.”

As if on cue, Abba Groum inserts himself.

“That’s true. I’m seeing people who have no knowledge of the capital city and are unaware of urban life until they come to university. This changes the whole dynamic,” the Jesuit adds. “More and more, I see many staying after graduation, which was not happening when I was a student.

“But the economic reality of Ethiopia remains the same. It’s the great preoccupation in the lives and minds of our students. Life’s becoming more expensive. And finding a job after graduation is a crisis unlike before.”

The Qeddase (or eucharistic liturgy) celebrating a feast day dedicated to the Virgin Mary has just concluded at Bata Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa. The church doors swing open and sunlight floods the candlelit interior, making visible clouds of incense. All at once, the faithful stream into the morning sunshine. Among them is Abebe Solomon, a lanky 23-year-old. Considering his circumstances, the young man has little to celebrate nor enough means to feast.

A physical education student at Kotebe College of Teacher Education, he lives hand-to-mouth with his three sisters and one brother in a tiny two-room apartment. He moved to Addis Ababa from the countryside five years ago to pursue his education. Repeatedly, however, he has had to suspend his studies; he is unable to afford the cost of tuition, which seems to rise every year. Between job hunting and studying, Mr. Abebe has little time for a social life, and not enough money even to consider a family.

“Girlfriend?” he asks. “I have nothing. How can I reach for her? My education is my girlfriend,” he laughs.

Heading toward Addis Ababa University’s campus, and in no rush to get home, Mr. Abebe dips into a cafe popular with students for a cup of tea.

Unable to make ends meet, he admits he is struggling. He cannot turn to his parents for help — they are subsistent farmers with whom he has limited contact.

“I can’t talk about that,” he says when prodded about his parents.

At the moment, Mr. Abebe cannot find a job that pays enough for him to support himself and finance his education.

“I can wait tables, but that’s only 80 birr per month. That’s not even $8! I can do better reading.”

He cannot even afford to job hunt using the computers at an Internet cafe. Because, “at 12 birr per hour [about $1],” he says, “that’s the price of supper.”

Despite his decidedly bleak situation, Mr. Abebe remains thankful for what he has and hopeful about his future.

“I always pray. I’m free of addiction,” he says. “Some go chew qat and party. Others are holy and go to Mahibere Kidusan. I’m in between. But internally, I support Mahibere Kidusan. God helps me.

“I dream of only one thing,” continues the young man, “education.”

With that, Abebe Solomon waves over the young waiter, drops a few birr on the table and heads out the door. Outside, he starts up a conversation with a youth selling phone cards on the corner. He happens to be Abebe Solomon’s 18-year-old cousin, Getamesay Ararsa, a once promising student who dropped out of school last year to help support his family.

Some people never lose sight of their dreams. But for many more, life’s ups and downs force them to compromise or at least reconsider theirs.

How long will Abebe Solomon be able to hold onto his dream?

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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