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Fast Forward through Life

Everyone asks me how I got into doing work in Africa. Most people follow up that question- spoken or unspoken- with why would someone like you want to spend so much of your life in Africa. I guess it is rather strange. A middle class retired educator packs up and leaves her family for the unknown, for not only another culture but a challenging life far from home.

Well I can’t explain it in one sentence. But I can tell you some of it.

When I was young, I went to a school that was dedicated to service. Our motto on our uniforms was, “Action not Words”. We were taught to live our faith and to help others as a fundamental part of our life. One day in 6th grade a visitor came to speak with us. She had been a missionary in Nigeria. She made it clear that she was a teacher. That was her primary function there. She taught children to give them a good education like we were getting. She was not there to convert them but to educate them. What was so powerful was her love of her work. She loved the place, the culture, and most of all the children. She kept saying how they loved to learn, that they were such a pleasure to teach, and how their work ethnic and dedication to their studies should be an inspiration to all of us. I was very impressed with this but couldn’t help but wonder, what they were really like. Did they really love to study and work hard? Did they play or have conflicts in the playground? I thought about it and wondered and wanted to see for myself.

Fast forward. In high school I had a Latin teacher who had taught in Nigeria. She was now permanently dark skinned and she said the same thing as the first visitor. These students were well behaved. She never had to tell them to stop talking in class (she always had to tell us to stop talking). I tried to imagine them. How could they be the perfect student? She peaked my curiosity. And I never dreamed that one day I would be saying the same thing to my grandchildren.

Now fast forward again. In my junior year of college I transferred schools and was assigned a roommate from Uganda. I was shocked – rather stunned. I had no idea how to relate to this person. I quickly discovered that it was very hard to get to know a person from another culture- that is “really know”. She would laugh at weird times and I didn’t understand why. I was confused about some of her habits and attitudes. I would complain to my mother and she would tell me, “You will learn to get along”. Will I did. But they end of the semester we were inseparable and became the closest of friends. I learned so much from Anita Kabenge and she revived my interest and curiosity about seeing Africa. During my senior year I applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted to go to Ethiopia to teach English. But in the end I didn’t go – for many reasons- and always wondered what it would have been like.

Again fast forward. After doing some social work and directing an early childhood program, I became a reading teacher on Long Island in New York, teaching children from nursery school through grade 12 over the years. I loved working with students and parents, helping them unlock the written code and discover the joys and power of reading and writing. I also loved working with teachers and sharing ideas and resources as to how to reach every student and support their success. I then went into administration, thinking I could reach more children, becoming a Language Arts Director and an Elementary Principal. But eventually I felt a calling to do something more, to share my skills and all that I had learned about the teaching/ learning process.

One day I was talking about education and looked at the New York Times Education Section. I saw an ad for Teachers for Africa Program. I applied just for the sake of it. And one fateful day in April 2003 I received a call from the director asking me if I wanted to work in Ethiopia. I was shocked. After so many years, Ethiopia. I guess I was really supposed to go to Ethiopia, only 36 years later. So I said yes.

As I waited the few months to start my new life, some people were very skeptical. Some worried about dangers and thought of a million disasters that could happen. Some thought I was nuts and was “one of the worst decision makers” in the world. Some were excited and supported. I was curious.

But once I got there, I instantly fell in love. I loved the people, the culture, the sense of history and tradition, the feeling of belonging in a community. I saw things that were shocking and it was very hard to adjust to a world where everything you can imagine is different. But I thrived in the challenge. In the end, the most powerful motivator to me was the children. I would see 95 students in one class yet all seemed eager to learn, children with no shoes and in rags but full of smiles, houses with no lights or water yet the warmest welcomes you could imagine, girls walking miles to fetch water and carrying it home- you can’t believe the heavy load they carried. I was constantly pleasantly surprised and constantly puzzled at the same time. But I knew I all my experiences teaching many children in different context could be used here to make a difference. I felt that once I saw the reality I could never just go home and forget it. There was never a moment of doubt. This is what I had to do. I had to try to make a difference, to support the education system so these children could have a brighter tomorrow for themselves and their community. I knew- this is where I belonged. 


Teachers for Africa Video

This lively h2 Empower video, created by Greg Blank, discusses what h2 Empower is doing in Ethiopia and Burundi and how we began. Part 2 took place at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington, New York. This video also shows cilps of a wonderful Ethiopian film, LAMB, at a fundraising event. Friends of h2 Empower were interviewed and share their insights about our work. I hope you enjoy these videos.


Girls Power! Empower our Girls!

This picture is of “my girls”. These amazing young ladies were 6-8th grade volunteers at the library in Hosanna, Ethiopia. They came to the library every day and wanted to help do anything. Before you know it they were always in my office- the storage room - looking for something to do. I found a book for them to look through. It showed how to tie scarves in different designs. Again before you know it they were creating a fashion show, taking all my scarfs and creating fabulous new looks. They surprised me since they were from such a remote and isolated place. But I guess fashion travels everywhere. Next I gave them a book to read. It was a favorite of mine- an Ethiopian picture book about a girl who wanted to be an astronaut and took everyday objects and used her imagination to create a space ship and planets and more. I read it to them and asked them if they liked it. They all looked blank. It occurred to me that the English and concepts were probably too foreign so I explained why I liked the book- strong girl, powerful imagination, dreams of the future. They all started beaming. Then I asked each one to read a page. They were doing better each go round. We were having a parent’s day and I invited them to read the book to the school community. I wasn’t sure if they could and didn’t have time to practice it with them. As the day came I was worried that it would be confusing to the parents and boring reading all those pages. Then to my surprised, 2 girls came to the microphone. They had broken the book down to a sort of “drama” and each read a section. It flowed. They read perfectly. It was interesting. They had practiced and created a presentation themselves. They didn’t need me at all. Needless to say I was beyond proud of them. But also amazed at what they could do on their own, just given access and a bit of support. I always had believed that the talented young people here could accomplish anything but to see it in action. A powerful motivator for me.

When I think of “my girls” I think of the great potential that all girls have and how important it is to give them a good education so they can build a good life for themselves and their families. But so many girls in this region don’t make it. Only 54% of the girls in primary school pass the 8th grade state exam and can move on to 9th grade.  

One time I asked local teachers in Hosanna to brainstorm reasons why girls don’t stay in school. The reasons they listed were exactly what plagues so many girls around the world. Top on the list was family responsibilities, early marriage, lack of freedom of religion, female circumcision, biased attitude toward women and lack of conducive environment. In Ethiopia early marriage could mean age 11 and in some areas even 8 years old. Girls often have to stop going to class to walk miles to fetch water or care for younger siblings. 80% of the girls in the rural areas of the county have suffered an FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). These girls deserve a safer and better life. The government agrees making FGM illegal and calling it a “harmful traditional practice”. But it still exists. Being from the West it is hard to imagine the challenges these girls have to overcome. Changing cultural attitude and practice is not simple and will not happen easily. But changes can happen.

H2 Empower is committed to work with the girls themselves and their school leaders to support their needs and find ways to help them complete their education.  Support our Girls Power Campaign. Give our girls a future.


A Dream Realized

I again find myself living in Hosanna, working at the library and setting up many programs for the community. The library has always been my heart. Now when I go, it is filled with students. The main room sometimes has not a seat left open. Everyone is studying for their national exams at the end of May. They are high school students, 10th, 11th and 12th grade students, male and female. All using the “reference books” donated by last year’s 12th grade students. It is touching to see how dedicated they are. They all have such aspirations, airplane engineer, doctor, pilot, and lawyer. They clearly know that their future depends on their doing well in the exams. Here there are high stakes exams. If you do well, you will have college free. If you do well you can go up through PhD. Free. Room board, tuition. Not much food, not an easy life but it is there if you are willing to try hard and sacrifice. The library provides a safe, quiet space to study and books to use to prepare. I never thought about this service but the students’ did. I was always afraid that we were working so hard to build the building I was wondering if anyone would use it. Now I see I did not have to worry. 

The young children come too. Every day the kindergarten class comes to the library. It is like a field trip for them. We have all types of books. We need to get more board books for them. We have small little rubber colorful cars, trucks and planes that everyone loves. It was so cute to see them all taking the plane and pretending to make it fly. Just like our youngsters do. We have a two wooden puzzles but we need more. There are 12 tables of children. We need at least one puzzle for each table. Then we have 3 trays of wooden blocks. We hope to get more trays of blocks for them too. They didn’t even know what to do with them.  We now have a puppet theater and lots of puppets. My next goal is to do a small training of the Kindergarten teachers and the first grade teachers and show them what they can do in the library with their children. We are hoping to get a CD player and play children’s music for them to sing along. They can use the felt letters that a volunteer so generously cut for them. And we have so many colorful books to read and to see in 3 languages, Amharic, the working language of Ethiopia, Hadyssa, the local language, and English. They need all three and are tested on them all to get into 9th grade.  There is so much potential and so much that can be done. Now that I am here for a while, we can do a lot to get the young children involved.

It is great to see the Library Cub students every day. There are 6th and 8th grade girls. They love to come to “my room”, the store. It is a good size room with lots of books and now a printer and other things like soccer balls we will be distributing and lovely skirts that someone made for us to give to needy children.  We have DVD’s and VHS tapes to show the young children, students and adults to learn English and to have fun. We are hoping to have a movie night and show children movies on a regular basis in the children’s room. The Library Club happens to be all girls. They come every day and help me organize the books and materials. They are practicing to do a performance for the parents. They have created a little fashion show from a book of different ways to accessorize with scarfs and they will take turns reading a book about a girl with an imagination. They are a delight and made me many drawings yesterday for my bedroom.

Now thanks to the contribution of many we will have a computer room at the library. We had an office used by a supervisor. But we knocked down the wall and will have 25 computers networked with a server. Everyone is VERY excited. We already have a staff person, with a degree in Computer Science from Addis. Fitsum has agreed to come to Hosanna and has been a terrific help already in so many ways. The town will pay for the monthly internet starting July and the parents have agreed to pay for the internet from now until June. The town added another librarian, so now there are 4, two each shift and an ICT person, all town employees. Everyone is so supportive and excited to be able to use the computers for the first time.

This simple report doesn’t begin to convey the impact that the library has had. The government now claims it is the only town with a modern library in the southern state. The teachers get to come and read books on the subject they teach. The administration has put it in their evaluation of teachers, - they are expected to come to the library to read books. The youth have a quiet place there they can study and have textbooks that they don’t have for themselves. The young children have a fun place to learn and create. And me, I am touched so deeply every day by the gratitude and outpouring of love by everyone. I am filled with hope for this wonderful community and the youth. They have a good chance in life and are willing to work hard to grab it. I feel blessed to be a part of this process and so grateful to all of our supporters who have helped make this happen. I Hope you can feel the joy too!!


Between the Centuries 

n Hosanna, the streets are filled with wooden carts pulled 
Taking donated books to their school
by donkeys, small "bajas" which are like a motorcycle pulling a wagon that holds 3 thin people, cows on their way to graze and hundreds of people walking everywhere. When I come home to Long Island, there is no one walking unless they are on an exercise plan. New cars stream by with lights or stop signs on almost every block. In Addis Ababa most cars are over 25 years old and there are only 7 stop lights for a huge modern city of 5 million people but now with  highways and asphalt roads. 
Life in the countryside is generally the same as it has been for a LONG time. Farming is the same in Ethiopia for hundreds if not thousands of years. Children go to school where their "exercise book", which is a book to copy from the board and a mandatory pen.  There are no book reports because there are no books to read. There are no pages of ditto worksheets for homework because there are no copy machines or electricity or paper in classrooms. When you buy coffee at the market, someone has to spend hours picking out every bean because it just came from the farm and has stones and small twigs in the one kilo bag.
Now let's think about technology. In NY everything is wireless, our houses, stores. Almost everywhere you go, you can get WiFi.  In Ethiopia the government offices use cables attached to the computers for better antivirus protection and more reliable service - except when the electricity goes out, which is often- and then they just sit and wait for hours to get back to work.
We want to bring the people of Hosanna a way to connect with the world beyond their farm and rural city- to a world with millions of people, different cultures and ideas and access to unlimited knowledge and skills. HOW? Through technology! We have built into the community library a large computer room now filled with tables and chairs. We have 5 computers to start but we are ready for 23. Then a whole classroom of students can come in at once. Then the high school students, who come to study, can spend some time doing research and learning to surf the web. Then the library visitors, who want books that we don't have, can find information on the internet. How amazing is this! We can be there for everyone. I was lucky to meet a man who can network them all, put in education software and install many sites that don't require the internet. The town is hiring an ICT expert to manage / train the users.
We can transform the lives of these talented yet  isolated people, to bring them skills and knowledge that they can use for themselves to solve their own problems and transform their world. 

 Every time I visit, the library children come to me and say, "I heard you  were getting us computers. When will they be there?" One of the  experienced teachers told me "I just want to have my hands on a  computer before I die". The head of the education bureau told all the  town's educators at an official meeting that we are getting them all  computers so that they can bring the children and teachers into the 21st century.
I am hoping we can develop this VERY soon and am VERY excited to see  the children and adults gaining new skills and knowledge and making global connections with us all.