The regions surrounding Addis Ababa are home primarily to agricultural and pastoral communities. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Students learn trades such as hairdressing in the salon at the Kidist Mariam Center in Meki, Ethiopia. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Cooking classes at the Kidist Mariam Center teach recipes, techniques, discipline and more. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Lensa Tolosa sits while a fellow student braids her hair in the salon. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Students participate in a traditional coffee ceremony. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Serkalem Keder, an aspiring pastry chef, loves to bake cakes. Wearing a smile and a hairnet, the slender 22-year-old gushes about her dream job, which she hopes to land with skills learned at the Kidist Mariam Center.
For the last seven months, Ms. Keder has been taking cooking classes at this facility operated by the Community of St. Paul in the Ethiopian town of Meki, about 80 miles south of the capital Addis Ababa.
Before she enrolled at the center, Ms. Keder had few hopes for a bright future. Defying her parents’ wishes, she had left home to work in Saudi Arabia. “My family is poor,” she says. “That was the only option to change our life.”
But life there was not what she expected.
“I never rested for two years,” she says. “You feel like you’re a thing and not a human being; you’re a slave.” She says she was constantly afraid of beatings, sexual harassment and other forms of exploitation or mistreatment.
Finally, she begged her employers until they agreed to let her take a holiday in Ethiopia. Once she returned to her home soil, she never looked back.
Now, she spends her days studying diligently at Kidist Mariam (“Holy Mary” in Amharic).
Since February 2016, this center has offered professional training courses to young women — and a few men — in Meki. Some 120 students currently study cooking, sewing and hairdressing. Most of them dropped out of school at an early age, as they could not afford to finish their studies — either for a lack of resources or because the girls had to take on domestic duties. Without professional skills, however, they were unable to find a decent job.
Serkalem Keder’s story is not uncommon among young people in Meki. In this bustling town of about 40,000 inhabitants, the dream lies beyond the border. Despite remarkable economic growth within the last few years — which saw Ethiopia top the list of the world’s fastest growing economies in 2017 — Ethiopia is still plagued by poverty. A third of its population lives below the poverty line. Many Ethiopians contend the country’s economic growth and success have not reached all segments of society, setting off protests in which some have ended in violence and death. And so for many Ethiopians, emigration appears the only way to a better life.
But here, at a center named for the Mother of God, they are finding possibility and hope — and seeing a future full of promise.
Today, Ms. Keder and her classmates flit about the kitchen, working on a meal to impress the neighbors who have come to the center for lunch.
Guests include many local workers, including those from the pediatric clinic and Meki Catholic School. Each day, they enjoy a good meal under a tent surrounded by flowers.
Shambel Zeleke, the teacher, supervises the routine. Mr. Zeleke has been teaching at the center since it began its cooking program. Under his guidance, the students have learned to prepare from scratch dishes such as lasagna, gnocchi, Spanish omelettes and pizza. His recipes often draw on the nationality of the volunteers who come to the center. “The students understand quickly,” he says.
“They learn how to be efficient, and how to avoid throwing away cooked things,” he adds. In the spotless kitchen, the students divide up the work, with each chopping, mixing or undertaking various other preparations as needed.
Even though he works more than 60 miles from his home in the town of Shashemane, where he lives with his family, Mr. Zeleke says he does not want to search for another job; Kidist Mariam means too much to him.
“We’re changing the lives of the people. Most of the girls come from a poor background, they have complicated lives.”
To change such lives, the center extends help to those unable to pay.
“The center is trying to help the poorest of the poor. We sponsor the most vulnerable,” he says. Those who can afford tuition pay 70 birrs (less than $3) per month.
This approach, he reports, has succeeded in making a lasting impact. “Many of them find a job after the training.”
Mr. Zeleke loves to tell the story of Emebet Mekonen, a 40-year-old woman who lived in Bahrain for eight years, earning a living by preparing sandwiches in a restaurant. She came back home to Ethiopia and started training at the center a few years ago. Now, she herself teaches there. “She’s now supporting the others,” Mr. Zeleke says proudly.
On a typical morning in Emebet Mekonen’s classroom, one can see the former sandwichmaker at work. Her classroom is almost completely silent as her nine students, ranging from 18 to 27 years old, focus on their work — a first-level, six-month course covering the basics of spices, soup, pasta, fish, bread and cake.
Adjoining the classroom, the kitchen is immaculate. A window overlooks a vegetable garden where students grow lettuce, zucchini, peas and fennel. Fruit trees grow further out in the compound, yielding oranges, bananas, mangoes and papayas.
But before learning to prepare all these foods, the students must first clean and prepare the kitchen and themselves — washing their hands, cutting their nails and covering their hair. “The basic hygiene rules,” Ms. Mekonen says simply.
Through her class, the former migrant worker hopes to impart more than just how to cook. “I teach them to stay here in Ethiopia,” she says.
“Meki is a small place. A lot of people want to migrate.” When she went to Bahrain, she says, she thought life would be better there. She takes time to tell her students what she has been through.
“When you go outside, there are a lot of problems. Those people can be hard. They’re throwing people from upstairs. They lock the door so that you can’t go outside. They throw hot water on you. You don’t have time to rest. Some people come home with a broken leg or back.”
Of course, she acknowledges that joblessness can propel people farther afield in search of opportunities. However, she says, “I would not recommend going to any other country.”
Girma Takele, the 29-year-old coordinator of the Kidist Mariam Center, says social pressures at home frequently contribute to the problem of migrant labor, and often along gender lines.
“Families here use their girls to generate income — sending them to Arab countries or somewhere else to work as housemaids.”
Mr. Takele has deep personal ties to the community of St. Paul, which supported him when he was a neglected child without a mother or father. This inspired him to dedicate his life to helping others, in turn.
In today’s world, he says, the primary goal of the center must be skills training. “The second goal is women’s empowerment,” he says. Women are marginalized in many ways, he says, which highlights the importance of offering ways to improve their lives and dignity.
“We want to make them feel special — to give them confidence.”
Educational programs are key to this process. According to the Demographic and Health Survey Program’s 2016 report on Ethiopia, compiled in cooperation with the Central Statistics Agency in Addis Ababa, about half of females age 6 or older have attended school, compared with about two-thirds of males. Although primary-school attendance rates in cities are roughly equal, disparities come into sharp relief in populations further above the age of 16, and farther from urban centers.
“Being a woman in our culture is a burden,” says 20-year-old Rehedet Salomon. “We are not free to do whatever we want. We can’t walk alone at night. We have so many responsibilities and duties.”
The short, slender young woman with curly hair says she had no money to go to school when her father died, so she had to drop out at an early age. At the center, Ms. Salomon is now taking an introductory course in sewing — a possible route to security and stability.
All around her, the center bustles with constant activity. This morning, second-level students completed a major project, distributing uniforms they made to students of neighboring schools. Now, while Ms. Salomon concentrates on a pattern at the sewing table, a young woman next to her takes the measurements of a student with a small waist. Farther away, a group of a dozen young women sell garments they made at their cooperative, where they utilize the skills they learned in class.
“It’s a miracle for me to be here,” says Ms. Salomon.
The student says she likes Kidist Mariam Center because she also learns discipline, etiquette and morals. She moreover appreciates what the Catholic program has been doing for the community.
“They don’t select people; they’re not forcing anybody to share their religion.”
Every Monday morning, the students gather in the center’s chapel to pray. This is time Lensa Tolosa treasures. Today, sitting in the center’s salon while another student braids her hair, Ms. Tolosa remembers how she used to pray often when she was in Beirut, asking God to protect her.
She migrated to Lebanon to earn money for her brothers, who had dropped out of school because their family could not afford tuition. She returned to Ethiopia overwhelmed by fear, depression and stress.
“Before, I was confused,” she says. “Now, I’m settled and focused. Here, the students try to help one another by sharing similar experiences.” Many take classes for half the day and work the other half. They strive to take control of their lives and to be self-sufficient.
This is exactly what Abune Abraham Desta of the Latin Apostolic Vicariate of Meki envisioned. The 66-year-old bishop donated part of the compound belonging to the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Help of Christians to start the Kidist Mariam Center.
“My duty,” he says, “is to work with people for integral human development — both spiritual and material.”
He explains why the work of the center is so important. “First,” he says, “helping women is helping the family, the society. They’re the ones who bear the burden in our country. Secondly, culturally, a lot of pressure is put on women here. I wanted them to get some good skills.”
Abune Abraham describes his efforts over the last 16 years in Meki as “a small contribution” — compared both to the sum of needs, and “the long faith journey” of the Catholic Church in the region over the last century.
“The work we do for the poor people, for the children, the orphans, the food insecure communities is appreciated. My job is not only for the Catholics,” he says, who make up less than 1 percent of Ethiopia’s population. “My job is not only going to the confession box to hear confessions.”
It is a job that continues to face great challenges — notably, a lack of resources.
“We are lucky to be part of this universal church, and I believe in God’s Providence,” the bishop says. “But we have to struggle every day.”
Migrant labor trends pose another challenge, fueled by what he describes as a lack of awareness.
“People think across the ocean there is something better — greener pastures,” he says. “They have no idea the difficulties they are going to face.” The Meki Catholic Secretariat also helps people returning from abroad to reunite with their family.
Abune Abraham really believes in the power of education to turn this tide — “the best gift to give youngsters nowadays,” he says.
“Education is the only way you can change people’s lives,” he continues. “You can’t change them just with charity.”
His great hope is to create job opportunities for young women though this center, so they will stay in Ethiopia. “I want them to do something in their homeland,” the bishop says, “to do something with dignity.”
Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa, where she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other publications.