It’s the only African country that was never colonized. Over 90 languages are spoken there. Known as the “cradle of humanity,” Ethiopia is the latest destination option for ME to WE travellers.

By Eric Morrison


Tsigeba Village, Ethiopia.

After three hours on a road that felt more like a rocky stream bed run dry, the first trucks in our convoy stopped. We were only partway down the seemingly endless switchbacks. Up ahead there was some sort of commotion. Rhythmic chanting, blowing horns and beating drums, intermingled with calls to prayer.

We got out to see a crowd spread across the road. The whole village of Tsigeba, in the northeastern part of Ethiopia’s Tigray province, had walked two kilometres up a mountain road to meet us and bring us to the official opening of their new school.

Together, our small group of foreigners and the boisterous crowd wound down the switchbacks.

It felt chaotic and joyful—the manifestation of partnership come alive, the intersection of those who know Ethiopia deeply with those who are committed to learning and supporting development, education and opportunity.

I ended up in the midst of this celebration as a WE Charity board member. An international non-profit, WE is welcoming Ethiopia as the ninth WE Villages country to continue the mandate of holistic, sustainable development work. In Ethiopia, WE has merged with imagine1day, a non-profit responsible for bringing quality education to the country’s rural population.

The vision of Canadian businessman and philanthropist Chip Wilson—founder of Lululemon—and his wife, Shannon, imagine1day has spent a decade training teachers and implementing educational programs in the Tigray and Oromia regions. In order to continue to improve and expand its programs in Ethiopia, imagine1day merged with WE in 2017.

The purpose of this trip to Ethiopia was both fact-finding and relationship building for the WE team and three board members (one being me). We spent nine days in the country, visiting the capital city, Addis Ababa, and two villages in the north, assessing the projects with WE’s Ethiopia country director Seid Aman, a recent addition to the WE team. Having led imagine1day’s work in Ethiopia since its inception, Seid is an old hand in his new role.

When we arrived at the freshly painted new school, the students came out to greet us. Each had a visitor’s name handwritten on a white paper and a red flower to present to their designated guest. Flower in one hand, a young girl took me by my free hand and walked me to the small, dusty open area in front of the school, where the crowd watched as flags were raised and celebratory speeches were delivered.

Next, we were escorted to a viewing stand—some benches placed on a flat plateau that falls away into the valley. There, acacia trees made a low cover that kept the sun off guests—regional education officials, the school principal and a crowd of residents from all over the valley. More than 150 people were in attendance.

To understand the importance of this celebration, one need only trace the lack of access to quality education once faced by those who live in the area.

Before the new school was built, children in the village would walk up to five kilometres a day over rough hillside trails to attend school. In the rural areas of Ethiopia, approximately 36 per cent of children are out of school and just over 50 per cent of students complete their primary education. Boys are pulled out to help with animals or family farms. Girls miss class to get water from distant sources, if they don’t drop out due to early marriage or because they begin menstruating and there are no quality toilets on the school grounds.

The old school was rundown—with a leaky roof and mud floors and walls that meant sound travelled between classrooms. Books were in limited supply and the quality of learning suffered. Keeping teachers was difficult.

The new school and a new well change all this. The end product of a fundraising campaign led by Run for Water, an Abbotsford, B.C.-based charity also travelling with us, the new resources allow girls to focus their attention on class and bring water home at the end of the day.

WE will continue imagine1day’s foundational support in teacher training, and ensure the school has access to essential resources—like the new library room. The training extends beyond teachers, as Seid points out, the organization has been working with local and state leaders to facilitate goal-setting workshops—professional-development opportunities often unavailable in remote rural settings.

Ethiopia may be best remembered in the West for famines and Live Aid, the Bob Geldof-led worldwide aid concert. But that was 30 years ago and only told one part of the story—the reality is different. In 2017, Ethiopia was reported to have the fastest-growing economy in the world, according to the World Bank. It’s on track to remain the fastest in Africa in 2018. However, the building boom in the capital, Addis Ababa, hasn’t made its way to the more remote parts of some provinces. Slightly under 30 per cent of Ethiopians live on less than $1.90 USD per day. Eighty per cent of the population lives in rural areas, and many children must stay home to help their families instead of attending school. This is why WE is working with people in rural areas.

On the second day in Tsigeba, we spent time in the classrooms getting to know the students by colouring and playing games with them. I taught a keen wide-eyed girl and a somewhat shy pair of boys how to play “rock, paper, scissors.” A crowd stood around, wondering what I was doing. One boy picked it up very quickly, but the other boy was a bit more timid. Still, when he won he smiled broadly.

Feeling like you’re coming in first should go beyond games. Here, WE wants to put community youth in first place when it comes to key priorities, like access to education.

We had seen this promise in action the previous day, in the village of Gereb Abdela. There, the school built by imagine1day has been open for a year. In a true partnership, the village contributed 20 per cent of the funds for the school, as well as donating some of their own land to create a communal garden.

Looking around the school in Gereb Abdela, we could see the potential of a resourced learning environment. The science classroom was vivid, with biology posters and a map of the solar system on the walls. The library is stocked with books. The older students in Grade 7 and 8 showed us science projects designed to help their village. One student came up with an electric barley grinder, made with bottles and tin. We wonder what the students in Tsigeba will come up with.

On our final day in Tsigeba, we had a remarkable look at the past in the present.

As a group, we climbed 2,500 metres to visit people who have lived for centuries in caves overlooking the village. We started down the rough path to the stream in the valley below—in the past, this was the route that girls took twice a day to fetch water from the river. Then we walked back up the other side in the dry heat, past a few goats being herded along on the scrubby hillside.

At the top of the next ridge, below the base of a cliff, we met nine families of 45 people who have built their homes, lean-to shelters one with the rock, under an overhang of the cliff. When asked why they stay in such a remote place, one leader explained that their ancestors have lived here for 2,000 years—it’s their home. Families farm small terraces on the hills, threshing grain by hand and using the wind to separate the wheat from the chaff, before grinding it two-handed, using a large stone on top of a flat rock. The grain is sold at the nearest market—a 10-hour walk away.

During the visit, we are shown how to cook shiro, an Ethiopian vegetable dish, using a small metal fire container with a few sticks as fuel that doesn’t have a chimney to take the smoke outside.

We are welcomed with the friendliness one would show a well-liked next-door neighbour. Some of the kids now walk down into a nearby school, their parents keen for their children to access a formal education.

The hope for these projects is that by adding the other pillars of the WE Villages sustainable development model—health, agriculture and income opportunity—to the two already in progress—water and education—even more progress can be made. The opening of the new school in Tsigeba signals a shift in the area—since it opened student enrollment has increased to over 75 per cent. This year, WE is starting construction on the five school campuses deemed the most in need of infrastructure. This includes classrooms, a library, playgrounds and latrines, as well as access to clean water, as was done in Tsigeba.

In addition, ME to WE is starting trips for youth travellers to be part of the work being done and to get to know this remarkable country.

As for me, I will never forget my experience here. This day—this trip—is one I never could have imagined.

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