Seeing Possibilities in Ethiopia

In the Winter edition of ONE, James Jeffrey takes readers to a remarkable school in Ethiopia.

In the Winter edition of ONE, James Jeffrey takes readers to a remarkable school in Ethiopia serving young people who are visually impaired. Here are some other details about students who have the “future at their fingertips”:

“Seulam neuw,” I say in my British-accented Amharic (which tends to confuse most Ethiopians) to three boys, arms around shoulders, coming toward me along the school walk way.

It’s a ubiquitous phrase in Ethiopia expressing a range of greetings from “Peace” to “What’s up?” to “How you doing?”

Out shoot three hands into the air in front of the three blind school boys. I make my way along, each squeeze of a hand resulting in a smile and further polite Amharic words of greeting back at me.

Once you’re beyond formalities at Shashemene Boarding School for the Blind, the boys are much more forthright than the girls in making new acquaintances. Before I know it, a crowd of energized youngsters are clustered around me.

“I’m a tall guy,” I offer, my choices of Amharic ice breakers being limited.

Standing on tip-toes and stretching arms high in the air, the boys still can’t quite scale my height.

Petterik, the photographer I’m working with, comes to their aid, lifting them in the air so they can place a hand on top of my head. They return to the ground satisfied.

During such moments among the school’s students, smiling becomes contagious, youth and energy working its usual uplifting tonic. But at other times during my visit I experienced a range of quite different emotions.

Sometimes, surrounded by so many with disabilities, especially when struck so young, I felt sadness, perhaps mingled with guilt. Ethiopia can be a frustrating place to live and work, and I’m not immune from complaining: the glacial bureaucracy, the unreliably slow Internet, the power cuts.

But when faced with children coping, and succeeding, in a sightless world, such complaints become more than churlish.

I also felt anger. Anger at the overarching situation of these children and the sisters looking after them. For there’s no local help, no assistance from the government — its only involvement comes from taking increasing taxes.

Ethiopia undoubtedly still contains soul-crushing poverty for too many. But at the same time, significant wealth is being generated for some. Not far away, at Lake Langano, is a hotel resort built by Haile Selassie, the famous Ethiopian marathon runner. Guests at the hotel include wealthy Ethiopians reaping rewards from the growing economy. None have ever visited the school.

During afternoon coffee and biscuits at the sisters’ residence, a short walk from the school, Sister Ana described to me an attempted day trip to a beach at Lake Langano.

Upon arriving they were informed the entrance fee for each student was 100 Ethiopian birr, a sizeable sum — many Ethiopians earn about 30 birr for a day’s wage.

The possibility of making an exception for a busload of blind students didn’t come into it. They had to turn back.

In Western countries such as my home, the UK, there’s an ongoing heated debate about overseas aid being too large.

Such money could certainly be better managed, but I’ll gladly see foreign donations continue to a small embattled group of sisters and teachers doing their best to help the needy, destitute and forgotten of society.

Read more in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE.

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