June 7, 2016
By Dr. Hawani Negussie
We called the school principal to inform her that we were going to be a bit late and she gave the driver land marks on how to find the school, nodding his head and repeatedly saying “awon awekewalhu” and spitting out ‘eshi, eshi eshi”…. he looked at me and said “it’s by your grandfathers house, where you eat lunch every Saturday”….
The familiarity and the closeness made me grin, it was at the footsteps of where I ate lunch every Saturday, a tradition started even before I was born…. and there, a block before, I noticed something I never paid attention to before, a metal sign with an arrow pointing to a neighborhood road that read “ Fregenet Kidan Lehitsanat”. I hopped off the car and walked to the large metal gate. The guard opened the smaller part of the door and asked how he could help but was already pointing his hands to the office; I guess the former was out of habit. I saw children in their uniform playing, some kicking ball, others lined up to use a small play structure, a few leaning against the walls watching others play. There was a glance, a giggle thrown in my direction which I returned eagerly, wanting to be devoured in their world still. I was quickly aware how different this school was from the one I visited the day before, the one that caters to those with money, those left with so much after they’re filled.
The director came and met me as she ushered me to her office she let me know a mother who consented to the interview was waiting for me, she had her netela over her head which was wrapped in a black shawl…she rose up, gave me her hand and bowed down burying her head quickly next to her hand. Our Selamta took place…moments as humble as these haunt me….I have been away from such gentleness for much too long. I looked forward to hearing my language as I started to ask questions, every answer swallowing me in her gestures, she would tilt her head from side to side, her ears almost kissing the Gebir of her Netela resting on her shoulders…. I watched her.
In our conversations about the school, she shared her children attended Fregenet and felt this was Godsend, what the school has provided, she is forever in debt. She described how she only has a second grade education and growing up in the northern part of Ethiopia, work took away her childhood, there was a dull back and forth movement with her answers and once in a while she would raise her hands up shaking off the Netela draping over it, as she waves it off, you could see the tattoo around her wrist. She talked about how her children wouldn’t turn out like her, how she believed they were going to go further than she was ever able to because of this opportunity, this oasis of a school. I enjoyed her excitement, her dreams for her children, her love for their future, I enjoyed how she lived part of her missing childhood through them, I imagined her peaking at blackboards when dropping them off and looking at their homework’s at night, silently making up for lost dreams, in her wish well. I thanked her, we departed in the same manner we greeted each other…. our heads buried closer to our hands……
The director came and escorted me around the school, by now it was lunch time and there was the usual buzz of noise children make, a universal hummm, with bubbles of laughter, few were running around from bench to bench like bees. As they finish they would make their way up to a sink where five girls were involved in washing the dish by recycling the water in basins. This was their responsibility, as the director explained, everyone has a chore, to teach them a lesson on taking care of what little they have,….they had laughter on their face…..She explained that food was part of the program, as many of these children come from very compromised and disadvantaged communities, households where love permeates every corner of a one room living quarters, but nothing else to fill the space, limited food, limited clothes, limited everything, but dreams, dreams were made here. Their acceptance verified by the local municipality as needed to ensure the poorest of the poor are given this rare chance, this opportunity of going to school, to laugh and watch others laugh, to make memories that otherwise would be absent or cut short in primary grades, to hum at the lunch tables and eat alphabets in class.
On the side of the school, there were service quarters including a kitchen, three ladies were sitting with a pile of green beans at their foot, cutting the ends and throwing it in large metal bowl and they make sure the children eat healthy foods, veggies are a staple along with Enjera and other dairy products when available and affordable. We walked to another side of the school where there was more land than classrooms, a place where an expansion has been thought of. In the middle of this dry land, I saw the Ethiopian flag up in the sky, dancing to the winds song, the irony of it all brought up a well of tears, this has been happening more often as I am well aware the end of my stay in my Ethiopia, my time in the back of classrooms with learners, dreamers and gigglers is coming to an end. The older classrooms were located here, there were only two rooms with the basics, one black board, wall, floor, tables, chairs, a teacher and children…..the windows were open and could easily see the blackboard and lines of children facing the voice of the instructor teaching words and sentences…..encouraging students’ to come to his side and shed their answers, a true testament of what teaching looks like bare, unrehearsed, that instructing others is more about inspiring imagination than gadgets wielding, connecting to students through their knowledge such as this one was rare….these moments steal me,…..we were a distraction as those giggles which I have become so fond of started to defeat the order of the class. We apologized and started my way back to the food area.
The director suggested we see the library. The library was located on the side of the street, she further explained it not only serves the students but was a resource for the neighborhood. After the usual exchange of Selamta with the person managing it, we were informed of the progress they were making, adding more computers, growing the library etc. I was impressed because it showed how kindness overcomes obstacles; how giving to others with less than yours will ultimately, undoubtedly triumph all ill. I stood there between rows of books trying to find my story, wondering if some day, I too will end up with the great ones……like those ladies piling string beans, like the teacher with a student besides him, like the librarian welcoming new and old readers, like the mother with the greatest hopes and dreams for her children…