Asela orphanage alumnus Matheas Hussein studies music at Addis Ababa University. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Solomon Feseha records music at his studio. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Budding artists at work in the Asela orphanage school. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Students at the Asela orphanage prepare for careers in the skilled trades. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
At first blush, Solomon Feseha epitomizes a growing class of creative young professionals in today’s Ethiopia. A painter and musician, the 27-year-old manages a small recording studio, though he also earns a comfortable living from the brisk sale of his artwork. But Mr. Feseha is exceptional. He lives in the provincial town of Asela, some 100 miles south of Ethiopia’s bustling capital city of Addis Ababa. And he works from a wheelchair.
At 6 weeks old, he received a routine vaccination, causing a reaction that endangered his life. Ultimately, the inoculation damaged his nervous system, paralyzing him from the waist down.
“The injection made me spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair,” said Mr. Feseha.
Unable to meet the special needs of their disabled son, his parents placed him in a Catholic child care facility at the age of 3. After primary school, they enrolled him in a secondary school in Asela (which doubles as an orphanage) administered by the Consolata Fathers, a Catholic community of brothers and priests.
Under their guidance, Solomon Feseha continued his formal education, taking advantage of the school’s extensive fine arts and music course offerings. Proving to be both a gifted painter and musician, he pursued a career in the arts after completing high school. He now earns more than $200 a month — a considerable salary in Ethiopia — selling his religious icons and producing music. In addition, he performs at venues in the surrounding area and gives lessons in traditional Ethiopian music to local musicians.
Not everyone in Ethiopia is as fortunate as Solomon Feseha, who is one of an estimated seven million Ethiopians living with a disability. For many, life begins with the bitter experience of neglect: Parents, overwhelmed by the responsibility necessary to care for their special needs child or fearful of stigmas associated with the handicapped, abandon their children. A fortunate few find refuge in modest facilities, all of which are strapped for funds.
Since the Consolata Fathers opened the doors of the Asela school and orphanage some 28 years ago, more than 500 boys — abandoned and often disabled — have graduated. The facility now cares for more than 150 children with diverse backgrounds from the Ethiopian region of Oromia, meeting the full range of their basic needs as well as providing them with a reputable education.
Chief among the facility’s accomplishments has been the quality schooling it offers to all its children. The general curriculum centers on traditional academic subjects, preparing most students for a high school diploma.
For those students better suited for a skilled trade, the Consolata Fathers have in recent years developed a vocational training program that offers a variety of specializations, including wood and metal works, auto mechanics, house painting and sewing. The vocational program prepares students for a certificate of technical expertise in an elected trade skill rather than the conventional high school diploma. Students in the vocational programs receive instruction from highly qualified professionals in the field and use state-of-the-art machinery, which has been installed on the premises.
The work of the Consolata community in Asela, particularly its vocational program at the school, has gained a solid reputation throughout the region. Employers hold the school in high esteem. And most students find jobs in the fields for which they are trained soon after they earn their certificates.
Animated by the entrepreneurial spirit, some graduates prefer to build their own businesses with the skills they acquired at the orphanage school.
One innovative group of graduates — about 12 of them — moved to Addis Ababa and created their own “cooperative.” They now make office and school furniture, church pews and altars, metalwork cabinets and desks and just about every other type of furnishing imaginable. Cooperative participants divide their profits, splitting half the earnings between them as salary and reinvesting the other half back into the business.
A cart driver and Asela resident, Ayenachew Negussie, envies the orphans’ opportunities. “Sometimes I wish I could’ve had the same opportunity to make myself an expert in one or two fields of study,” he lamented.
Asela’s orphanage school owes a good deal of its recent success to Father Renato Saudelli, I.M.C., who was appointed its director in 1991. An ardent advocate for sustainable development, Father Saudelli has integrated vocational skills training with the school’s academic curriculum so every student has a better chance at succeeding once they enter the work force.
Father Saudelli’s legacy, however, has been his work with the fine arts and music programs at the school. Thanks to his tireless efforts, these programs have thrived in recent years.
An artist himself, the Italian-born priest threw his weight behind the school’s art program the moment he assumed leadership responsibilities. With honest effort, patience, individual attention and, of course, the best available art materials, Father Saudelli believes all children can discover the joy of, as well as their unique talent for, creating art. For this reason, he encourages the disabled children to take advantage of the art program. Artistic expression using one’s hands, he believes, can help instill a sense of pride, particularly in those who may be physically handicapped in other ways.
The school’s music program, which Father Saudelli vigorously supports in tandem with the fine arts program, has also come into its own under the priest’s direction. A growing number of alumni have chosen to pursue careers in music, and many more have found inspiration through their musical training.
Graduates of the Asela orphanage school, Fitsum Teshome and Matheas Hussein exemplify the success of the school’s fine arts and music programs. A promising artist, Mr. Teshome currently studies at Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts and is earning the highest marks among other third-year students. He regularly exhibits his work and recently sold 24 paintings at a considerable profit during a two-month vacation — an outstanding achievement for such a young artist.
“This is the beginning of my journey toward success. I sacrificed a great deal to be accepted at the School of Fine Arts and I did it. My life is now full and meaningful,” he said. “I never thought I’d be earning money for my artwork and scoring such good marks at school. I am now living my dream.”
A prospective graduate of the Yared Music School at Addis Ababa University, Matheas Hussein plays part-time in a local band, Harlem Jazz, which enjoys some celebrity in Addis Ababa. After graduating from the Consolata Fathers’ school, Mr. Hussein was recruited by a private college. His passion for music, however, led him to the Yared Music School. He persistently applied for admission, never losing hope. Finally, after three years, he was accepted to the program.
For some, such as Mr. Hussein, finding one’s niche after graduation is a lesson in life’s hardships.
“I felt like I was abandoned twice to the street — first by my parents and then by my charity home,” Mr. Hussein recalled.
When students of the orphanage graduate, roughly at 17 years of age, they are given $555 to assist them in their transition to early adulthood. In a country where the average annual income is $100, this sum is not insignificant. Concerns raised by former residents do not question the generosity of the Consolata Fathers, but the lack of instruction in money management and other life skills at the orphanage.
Father Saudelli acknowledges these shortcomings and expresses concern about the fate of youths leaving the insular world of the orphanage at such a young age.
“There should be a way that the students in need continue to receive assistance even after leaving,” said Father Saudelli. “The children inside and outside the home should be supported in a number of ways to ensure they mature into productive members of society.
“We cannot throw them out on the street before they are psychologically prepared for life,” he added.
For his part, the Consolata priest does what he can to extend his loving concern beyond the orphanage walls. Though his options are limited, he has been known to use his own contacts to secure additional sources of support for former students. For instance, he regularly purchases their artwork for reasonable prices and in turn resells them in Europe for a profit. He then gives the earnings back to the respective artists to supplement their income.
As the cost of living in Ethiopia rises, funding levels for the Asela orphanage remain unchanged. As a result, the quality of life at the orphanage is deteriorating slowly.
For the past 27 years, major sources of revenue include grants from CNEWA and the Consolata Fathers, but the Italian missionary community is withdrawing gradually from its involvement with the orphanage. Most recently, the Consolata Fathers handed over the reins of day-to-day management to the Daughters of St. Anne, who work in a number of apostolates throughout the Apostolic Prefecture of Meki.
The support provided by CNEWA is no longer enough to cover the institution’s operating costs said Sister Margaretha Akale, the orphanage’s new general manager.
As funding for the school and orphanage dwindles, concerns over whether the facility will be able to provide its high quality services in the future are mounting. For 15-year-old Ashenafy, one of the 66 children now living there, the home’s continued existence is vital if he is ever to fulfill his dream of becoming a successful musician.
While the orphanage aspires to remain self-sufficient, additional support from the Ethiopian government and other donors may be necessary to keep its doors open. Recently, Leulseged Bundie, an official at the Oromia Labor and Social Affairs Bureau, affirmed the government’s commitment to working with the Catholic institution to support orphans and children with disabilities. Some former students have also expressed a serious interest in establishing an alumni association aimed at raising money for the orphanage and school.
Luckily for those living at the orphanage, humanitarians like Father Renato Saudelli and Sister Margaretha Akale have made it their lives’ work to care for them and to provide them with the education and skills necessary to help them realize their dreams.
“The kids are our children and our hope,” said Sister Margaretha, “we cannot leave them alone.”
Reporter Sisay Abebe and photojournalist Petterik Wiggers cover northeast Africa from Addis Ababa.