In 7th grade I wrote a research report on Ethiopia. I’m not entirely sure why I had such an interest. Maybe because it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Or maybe because of the short life expectancy. Or maybe because there are so many strange and unusual untreated diseases in this East African country. Or maybe because Ethiopia’s heritage is strongly linked to that of the Jews. But I honestly have no good reason for why Ethiopia struck me more than other African countries which are in bad shape with similar conditions. But strangely, my interest persisted. I finally decided to pursue this curiosity and venture to Ethiopia. I was going to go to East Africa and volunteer at a school and through that, witness the Ethiopian life. So I left Denver at the end of June of 2011 for three incredible weeks.
When I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, my friend, Jared and I were greeted at the airport by our hostess. There is no other word than crazy to describe the car ride home from the airport to the guesthouse. My eyes were accosted with jarring sights of filth and ramshackle structures, shacks and stands where people lived and worked. Donkeys competed with people in a free for all; people wrapped in rags, or less than rags, some barefoot; some dressed nicely and wearing shoes. People herding donkeys and carrying babies on their back; kids shoveling piles of dirt; young boys shining shoes. Literally, people piled on top of each other sleeping on the side walk. And a lot of cars driving very carefully in order to avoid accidents because there are no traffic signals what so ever. People walk in the middle of the street and go and come as they please. In the midst of this seeming chaos there were many restaurants and stores that looked very functional and well maintained. I found all this to be very shocking because I had never seen anything like it. But little did I know, I was in for a lot more.
After a couple days in Ethiopia, I started acclimating to life there. Suddenly, walking on the dirt roads and climbing on rocks barefoot was normal. Seeing donkeys and sheep in the middle of the street was nothing unusual. A young child roaming the streets unattended by an adult felt ordinary. Even though I became accustomed to this very different culture, there were some things I witnessed, that I will never forget. One afternoon, a friend we made in Ethiopia took Jared and me to the Merkato, the largest market in Africa. As we were leaving, we saw a man. At first glance, his face just looked unusually large and a little deformed, but nothing that I hadn’t seen before. As I got closer, it looked as if he had a second head under his face with a huge opening from which his innards were emanating. I squinted my eyes as hard as I possible could so as not to stare and walked away; not out of disgust, but out of confusion and sorrow.
My primary goal on this trip was to acquire a new perspective and immerse myself in Ethiopian life. I accomplished this by volunteering at The Fregenet Foundation. The Fregenet Foundation is a nonprofit designed for kids Kindergarten through 4th grade who come from families with little or no income. Many of the kids come from scarred backgrounds and receive most of their necessities from the Fregenet School. I predicted that these would be very troubled and depressed kids. How could one live in these conditions and be happy? We opened the gate to the school and within minutes I was surrounded with kids extending their hands, wearing smiles that stretched across their faces, and looking at us with glowing eyes. There were no official classes or schedules while we were there because they were on their winter break, so Jared and I could do whatever we wanted with the students. I was instructed to expose them to as much English as possible, so I taught them vocabulary, songs, and games. We played soccer basketball, volleyball, experimented with crayons, markers, finger paint, and watercolors, danced, climbed on the jungle gym, went up and down the slide numerous times, pretended to wear really fancy clothing and put on a fashion show, and mostly exchanged a lot of affection. The students would literally fight over holding my hand, hanging on to my arms and legs, sitting next to me, and standing by me when we were singing, dancing, and playing games. Towards the end of the day when they were sent home, I was again, smothered with handshakes, hugs, and kisses. These kids were literally the sweetest people I have ever met and I could not believe how quickly and deeply I bonded with them without a common language. Spending time with the students at the Fregenet Foundation open my eyes to a whole different way of life, play, and happiness.
Looking back at my trip, I can know understand all of my inquires of Ethiopia I had back in 7th grade: why it is such a poor country with so many untreated illnesses, and how Jewish heritage is so strongly connected with Ethiopia. While I now have a more in depth understanding of not only Ethiopia but also world poverty in general, I have made life long connections with the people of Ethiopia and the students of the Fregenet Foundation. Those connections are more precious that words can describe and will forever keep me dedicated to Ethiopia.
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