ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – On Saturday, I woke up bright and early at 5:30 AM to leave for my first shift as a volunteer/English/Music teacher at Menagesha – the Cheshire Services Rehabilitation Facility for children with disabilities. I caught a mini-bus to Meskal Square where I boarded the Cheshire Services employee bus which transports all of the Cheshire employees to Menagesha from Addis and then back to Addis at the end of the shift. Menagesha is about 25 km away from Addis and the bus leaves Meskal Square about 6:45 AM. The bus was really nice, unlike any of the mini-buses or local transport I had taken so far. In fact, it was reminiscent of a Greyhound bus back home with plush seats and head rests. As expected, I fell asleep and awoke 1 hour later to find myself at Menagesha.
The first order of the day was to meet with the teacher at Menagesha who taught the children math and languages during the week. I was told that I would teach my class from 9 to 10:15 AM. For the first hour (i.e. from 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM), I worked in the handicraft room with the children. The children taught me how to make woven bags, wallets, purses etc. One of the children also told me that he would show me how to use the sewing machine next week. I told him that I barely passed sewing in Grade 9 and this was after my sewing teacher had practically made my whole final project for me. The craft room was such a treat and reminded me of the many crafts that my mom taught me when I was a child.
At 9 AM, I started to teach my first English class which included about 40 students ranging in age from 4 years old to about 15 years old. The levels of English comprehension also varied from child to child with some children being quite fluent in English and others wanting to learn the basics. I started off with some easy conversational questions including asking the children to tell the group their names, their hometowns etc. The children are all from outside of Addis and while they are staying at Menagesha, they often do not have much (or any contact) with their family. The children were all very happy to talk about their hometowns and tell me about themselves. I told them a bit about life in Canada which generated a number of questions, especially from the older children – about the weather in Canada, whether the people were nice, what it was like compared to Ethiopia etc. They asked how I traveled from Canada to Ethiopia – by boat or plane?
It was fascinating to hear all of their questions and to engage them in conversation. It was often hard to communicate though given the linguistic barriers and the teacher (Hailu) who teaches the class throughout the week served as a translator. This linguistic barrier is further complicated by the fact that all of the children do not speak Amharic, as they are from different regions of Ethiopia with different linguistic traditions.
Afterwards, I taught them a song that I learned when I was taking music/human values classes in Canada. I wrote the lyrics on the blackboard and the children who could read English automatically lifted their voices in order to serve as beacons for the children who could not read. Eventually, after about 5 or 6 go-arounds on the song, the children were good to go and really enjoyed it. They also learned all of the actions that went with the song. I was so impressed.
They then asked me what type of music I liked and I told them that I really enjoyed Teddy Afro and his song Ababaiyo. The children were thrilled and then one child counted the beat and the entire class burst into a rousing rendition of Ababaiyo complete with the rhythmic clapping beat that is so central to the song. I was so touched and they could tell I was totally enjoying it. It was like a musical where suddenly the entire cast bursts into song! No joke.
After class, the kids were so sweet and wanted to visit with me. It was not the gawking or over-inquisitiveness that I often encounter in Addis when some people are fascinated by the “farenji”, but instead it was a genuine concern and outpouring of love. I ended up playing soccer with some of the kids. Yes – you all read that correctly. I played a sport. I was actually running around on a field kicking a soccer ball. Luckily the traumatic memories of my one year in soccer in Grade 4 did not come flooding back. I then had a chance to play table tennis with one of the kids.
Apparently, word spread that there was this farenji teaching music and English lessons to the children. You see, many of the children at Menagesha are confined to their beds, as they have just underwent surgical procedures that require them to remain on strict bed-rest for a long time. These children heard that I had given a class and asked that I come and visit them also. It was so wonderful to meet these kids. As I mentioned earlier, I was super nervous about what it would be like to teach given the huge linguistic barriers (with me knowing virtually no Amharic).
The children in the recovery wing were super awesome. They could sense that I was not sure how to communicate with them. They pointed to different things around the room and taught me how to say them in Amharic. They taught me how to count to one million in Amharic (not each and every number but the main numbers i.e. 1 to 100, 1000, 10000, 100000, and 1000000). They taught me about colours and animals and furniture and the corresponding words in Amharic. They would repeat words with difficult pronunciations to make sure I understood them correctly. At 11:45 AM, it was time for their lunch and it was time for me to leave to catch my bus back to Addis which departed at noon. The children insisted that I stay and have lunch with them and when I told them I would come back next week, each one of them called me to come close and gave me a huge hug. It took everything in me not to burst into tears (which admittedly did happen on my walk back to the bus).
These children, full of love, laughter and light, have touched my heart in a way that I cannot even begin to express, just by accepting me so unconditionally. On Saturday morning, I traveled to Menagesha hoping to help in some small way. The truth is that I did nothing. These children helped me. They taught me Amharic. They got me to play soccer (I know – shocking!). They got me to laugh. They sang me Ababaiyo. They got me to see that life, with its many obstacles and complexities, is so precious. They are absolutely incredible and I am so grateful to them.
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The writer is a lawyer from Saskatchewan, Canada, who is currently in Ethiopia on an international placement. Menagesha is a rehabilitation facility which helps children during their post-surgery rehabilitation. Most of the children face a permanent physical disability and the center specializes in working with these children. The center includes physical rehabilitation services, a department which builds wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and assistive footwear devices. The children are also given daily instruction both in subjects such as English and arithmetic but also in life skills and art. The children typically arrive at Menagesha immediately after their surgery and remain there for a period of 4-6 months for post-surgery rehabilitation.