by Rediate Tekeste

Growing up Ethiopian-American in Middle America, I was only aware of a small part of my Ethiopian culture. In fall 2010 I decided to move Ethiopia for a few months to volunteer and work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and immerse myself in a culture that was still mysterious to me. I moved everything into storage and began a journey to discover my country, my people and ultimately myself.

I started by working at World Vision as a Communication Journalism Officer, where I first met the team from 10x10; now I’m at Selam Children’s Village as a Communication Officer. As a communications professional my job is to tell the stories of the girls, women, and families who have been helped by these NGOs. I have been able to see parts of the country, meet inspiring people, and witness their struggles and successes. I’ve sat in grass huts and interviewed women who work for every meal, who eat once a day, who raise children with almost nothing, yet who have a positive outlook, joy, and drive for life I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.

One of the first interviews I conducted was with a 12 year-old girl, Tsehi (Sunshine) who was raised in a nomadic family. World Vision had built a local school, which encouraged the nomadic tribe to stay in the area and give their children a chance to be educated. Tsehi reached to be top of her class in no time and received amazing scores on every national test. During the interview she spoke English to me (which is very rare, especially in rural areas) and was able to hold a conversation with confidence. I was impressed with her poise, especially since she was clothed in torn pants and no shoes. At the end of the interview she asked ‘if I had ever seen a girl like her, born and raised in Ethiopia, in a rural area, from a poor family, become a successful person.’ I paused, realizing at that point how much girls like her need role models, and told her about my family of strong, Ethiopian-born and raised women…women who had carried water on their backs just like her, women who had raised children while studying, women who had studied by candle light with no electricity, women who chose to focus on education and chose to succeed. Her curious eyes lit up and I saw first-hand what an empowered girl looks like.

My story is different; I was born in Ethiopia but raised in the States and was blessed to come from a family who encouraged me to learn in school, from life, in relationships and from every experience. A combination of my family’s support and my innate curiosity led me back to Ethiopia today. Working at Selam Children’s Village I see how empowering all marginalized people, from orphaned children to elderly women, starts with education. Selam supports education in their primary and secondary schools, in vocational trainings at their college, in life skills for the children they raise, and in business training for their employees. With this support, children who have lost both parents to famine, drought, war or AIDS rise up and start successful businesses.  People who were hired as day laborers became department managers. Girls from nomadic families go to college and become professionals.  but at the base of it all I have seen dedicated workers in both World Vision and Selam that choose to see the change that has already taken place and more importantly the potential that the people and the country has.

I have been changed by my experiences here in Ethiopia. I realize that opportunity is more than a blessing.  It’s also a debt I owe. I have an obligation to help others. Any assistance I give will be oil in the fire the people I meet here already have to succeed. It is no secret that in any developing nation striving for a better future there are many challenges; bureaucracy, cultural barriers, lack of all resources and even a mindset that doesn’t see how things can change… but Ethiopian girls and women make themselves better daughters, students, mothers and people for themselves, but also to support and change their family, their neighbors, their friends, and eventually their country.  I’m glad I can help tell their stories.