It had rained in the night and was threatening more, but we were able to negotiate what mud there was. In the rainy season (May-September) roads are impassable and Becky cannot make it to the villages. From Debre Berhan we were on winding dirt roads. Our driver slowed for ruts and hair-pin curves.
Views of the surrounding hills and valleys were stunning. Farms dotted the countryside. Each one had a cluster of round huts made from dirt and grass with cone-shaped thatched roofs. The circular design withstands heavy wind and rain. Without chimneys the smoke infiltrates the thatch and helps ward off insects. The huts were used to live in, keep their livestock, or store grain, food for the cows, or dried cow dung. Hedges of cactus or prickly bushes surrounded each group of huts.
An hour and a half later, we stopped in Ankober. After talking with the Ministry of Education and picking up an interpreter we drove down a steep windy road through the mist to Aliyu Amba. We passed several groups of camels which are used instead of donkeys to carry goods and supplies. It was probably ten degrees warmer in the valley. The bougainvillea were in bloom; the pink blossoms a contrast to the mud and wattle houses.
We met with several of the girls in Aliyu Amba. They were thrilled to see Becky because they know she loves them and provides them the means to stay in school and succeed. We asked each of them what they had done over the summer. The girl ranked number one last year in ninth grade had stayed with her aunt in Aliyu Amba and read books from the school library. Another had copied notes from the books loaned by the school. Several girls had helped out on the family farm. Two had cooked for their father and brothers. One had worked as a day laborer trying to find work wherever she could. Their favorite subjects ranged from Chemistry to Reading. All had passed on to tenth grade and wanted to do well, pass the National Exam, and continue on to Preparatory School.
After being in Trampled Rose for a year, they had more confidence and could look us in the eye rather than burying their faces in their hands. They still spoke softly and some could converse with us in English. The traditional greeting is to grab the person’s right hand or touch right wrists together and lean in and touch right shoulder to shoulder or to kiss alternating each cheek three times. These girls kept alternating up to six or seven times. It was as if they didn’t want to let go, but let go we must. We were able to give each girl at this school disposable sanitary napkins, and two sets of underwear.
We didn’t want to leave, but one girl took us to the room she rented in a family’s compound. The dirt floor room was approximately ten feet by ten feet; enough space for a mattress and bedding, a large basket to hold injera (the staple Ethiopian food), her school books and a small table. Since she had been in the program for a year, she was able to budget her money and buy a tarp for the floor and a small brazier. She had also brightened the room by crocheting light green doilies and covers for her bed and table. Girls may also have a single electric bulb dangling from the ceiling but electricity is inconsistent.
Their school uniforms are white with a black skirt. It is amazing they can keep the shirts clean and white. They have no running water and must haul water from the village well.
Money from Trampled Rose is deposited in the local bank. Girls can withdraw money from their account to pay for books and school uniforms. Each month they need to budget their money to pay for school supplies, rent, and food. A school uniform costs $15 U.S.
The main staple of their diet, injera, is a form of bread made from the teff flour. It is mixed with water, left to ferment three days, and cooked on a round flat pan over charcoal. This bread is stored in a basket in her rented room. Injera is sour tasting and often served with raw or cooked meat or eggs. According to their Orthodox Christian beliefs Wednesdays and Fridays are considered fasting days which means the people cannot eat meat or meat products. Then injera is served with vegetables or a spicy lentil sauce. Meat, eggs and vegetables are expensive but if the girl budgets wisely, she can add protein to her diet.
In a small shop, the school officials treated us to coffee served in small cups with sugar. We also had delicious wheat bread baked in round loaves. For the full coffee ceremony, freshly cut grass is scattered on the ground for a festive look and to bring in the fragrance of nature. The beans are roasted on a small brazier, ground in a mortar, boiled in a clay pot with a round bottom (so it can fit in the coals), and served in small cups. Sometimes cardamom is added. The cups are collected, the coffee boiled a second time and served again. This happens three times and is often served with bread, popcorn, or roasted barley.
Back up the hill an hour and a half to Ankober we treated several men from the Department of Education to lunch. The Ethiopians eat with their hands. The injera acts as a kind of spoon. The men had injera with cooked meat while we had injera with eggs. Below the restaurant was the bank. Luckily they had a connection and Becky could transfer Trampled Rose funds allowing the girls immediate access to their money.
Again we interviewed the girls to see how they spent their summer. Most helped their parents or grandparents on the farm, took care of the goats, cows, and sheep, and made injera. Some borrowed books for the tenth grade and read them to prepare for their next year in school. All had passed the ninth grade. They talked about how far they had to walk to school, some as much as four and a half hours. They said they love Becky and want to change their lives for the better. They hope for support so they can continue their studies, pass the National Exam and eventually make it to the University. One wants to be a doctor, another a teacher. One is an orphan, an AIDs victim from her mother who died of the disease. She needs extra funding to pay for the medicine. She is so grateful to be a part of the Trampled Rose program. She just hopes she can get a decent job and support herself.
Again, it was hard to leave, but with rain still threatening we needed to get back to Debre Berhan by dark. After another brisk walk around town, we snacked on peanut butter, bananas, cheese and bread, and headed for bed, a bit dirty perhaps but satisfied knowing these girls will have the means and desire to succeed.
On our way back to Addis Ababa, we stopped at Sheno, where 50 girls are newly sponsored this year and interviewed them one-by-one. Education and school officials, women teachers, and two of the girls serve on a selection committee. The criteria includes if the girl has no parents, if she is handicapped, her family’s economic situation is low, and how far she would have to walk to school. With Trampled Rose support, each girl will receive sufficient funds to rent a room near the school, buy a school uniform and materials, receive menstrual supplies (so she doesn’t miss one week out of four), and buy food.
We met up with a Peace Corps volunteer, Alexandria, who is starting her second year at the school. A new volunteer is also teaching English but at the Preparatory School (11th and 12th grades). Alex said the best thing about her job last year was that the ninth grade students she taught can now converse with her in English.
Sheno is an unusual place because it is the intersection of two main groups of people in Ethiopia, the Amharas and the Oromos. The Amharas believe themselves to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba thus entitling them to the blessings of the throne of David. They speak the main language of Ethiopia, Amharic. The second group is the Oromos, the largest group of Ethiopia located mostly in the central and southwest part of the country. They speak Oromifa.
Many people in this area can switch between the two languages in the same conversation but many others, although they live next door to each other, cannot understand each other. The school has both Amharic and Oromo students. Classes may be taught in Amharic, Oromifa, or English which makes learning Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics difficult.
Ethiopians, male and female, love to dance. Their unique dance consists of juddering the shoulders up and down, back and forth, without moving the hips or legs. Becky is quite good and, although I am not good, the people love it when we join in.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity plays a big role in most of the people’s lives, although Muslims also live in the villages in harmony with the Christians. Ethiopia was the second country, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity as the state religion. Churches are circular or octagonal and made of three parts: the inner, mostly holy center of the circle, where the priests chant for hours and have an elevated seat in the center. Women and men worship standing up in separate parts of the circle surrounding the center. Outside worshipers may approach the church with covered heads and bow with their foreheads touching the stone walls. On special saints’ days the villagers wear white scarves and attend church services. Worshipers come and go. During special holidays (Christ’s Baptism, Easter, Finding of the True Cross, Christmas) the people stand for hours. Some bring canes or walking sticks to support themselves.
Meskel is a colorful holiday celebrated in September. A queen in the fourth century dreamed the smoke of a great fire would lead her to the true cross. The fire is lit and the dancing and singing begin. A yellow flower that blooms at this time is also called the Meskel because it looks life a flame in the fields.
Ethiopian culture is fascinating, but the highlight of the trip was the girls.
The difference between girls just starting the Trampled Rose program and those who have been in it a year is heartwarming. The second year students stand taller, have more confidence, seem healthier, and laugh more easily. With Becky and me in the village in person, they have a better understanding that it is not just money helping them stay in school but actual people that care about them and want them to succeed. Thank you for supporting them.