Alyssa is a good friend of the7dayringproject. During the summer of 2016, Alyssa had the opportunity to work for imagine1day, the not-for-profit we partner with, in Ethiopia. We asked her to write about her experience and how it impacted her. The following post is a collection of her thoughts and photos.
I’ve always had an independent spirit. Like many kids growing up in North America, my parents raised me to be strong and determined and boundless in the dreams I set out to achieve. As a toddler, I used to yell “self!” whenever my parents tried to help me with something, asserting that I could tie my shoes or brush my teeth on my own. But this summer, through an internship with imagine1day in Ethiopia, I learned that self-sufficiency wasn’t what it was worked up to be. I learned that we, alone, are not enough, not nearly as much as what we are together. I learned that the success or privilege that I enjoy in life is not a product of my own effort, but a rich rendering of the sacrifice and work of those who went before me.
I’m a daughter of a German mother and an Ethiopian father, raised in Vancouver, BC, a mish-mash upbringing that spanned language and culture, and inspired a passion for learning about the world. My dad is from a little town called Shashemane in southern Ethiopia, and taking his example, I’ve always taken pride in my Ethiopian heritage and the beauty and strength of the country. When I applied for an internship with imagine1day, I was so excited to be a part of an organization that is empowering young Ethiopians to achieve their goals, but I had no idea just how much I would learn about my family, my country, and myself.
My dad moved to Canada alone when he was seventeen years old. It was the height of the civil war in the 1970s, and violence was ripping the country apart. Hearing my aunt and my Emaye (the Amharic word for “mom”… it’s what we call our Grandma) talk about that time, I realized that it was the ultimate sacrifice, the most difficult decision, to send their son away to the safety of Canada so that he could seek a better life. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for my dad and his parents to say goodbye at the airport, not knowing when or if they would see each other again. My Emaye is this tiny, feisty Ethiopian woman, constantly thinking of others, and always giving, worrying, fussing and loving. When I visited her over the summer, she was always asking if I was warm enough, if I had enough to eat, or if was doing okay. Her courage, and my dad’s courage as he stepped into a completely unfamiliar life, will always inspire me. This was the inspiration I held on to as I stumbled through adjusting to life in Ethiopia over the summer, thrown into a new culture, a new language, and constant feelings of discomfort and inadequacy that forced me to stretch and grow and learn.
Life in Ethiopia taught me the true meaning of the term “just roll with it”. From daily mountain commutes on overstuffed buses (aka, fifteen-passenger vans) filled with people, babies, instruments, food, and live animals, to creatively overcoming language barriers, to adapting to a more relaxed sense of time, to saying yes to all sometimes unidentifiable (but always delicious) food, to learning how to be the only recognizable “ferenji” (foreigner) in town… I learned what I was capable of. And crucially, I came to appreciate and be okay with leaning on other people. I realize that I would not have had anywhere near the same experience if it wasn’t for the support of my family, the friends that I met along the way, and the amazing staff at imagine1day.
This collective mentality and understanding of the role that we all play in each other’s lives was common in the people and communities I met in Ethiopia. I learned to identify myself in the context of my family, as people would understand who I was if I introduced myself as the daughter of Aklilu or the granddaughter of Mulatu Baffa. In Ethiopia, your lineage determines how others see you, and you are loved because of the collective character of your family, not just whether you have earned the love. Distant relatives or friends of the family that I had never met before would take me in and invite me over, lavishing extreme generosity on someone who was effectively a stranger to them.
Through my work with imagine1day, I encountered this community-oriented mindset in many situations, but two distinct moments stood out for me.
Near the beginning of my internship, I spent time at a primary school in the remote community of Maykoho, in northern Ethiopia. After a bumpy drive over switchbacks and a half-hour scramble down a rocky mountain path, we eventually made it to the school, the only large structure in a hilly landscape of green fields and small huts. Greeting me at the cluster of three rough buildings, the principal took me past the library, which they don’t use because they don’t have books to fill it with, to one of the classrooms. I stepped inside, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, the first thing I noticed was that one of the walls was almost completely destroyed. I was told that because the school is constructed out of mud and rocks, this happens often. When the rains come, they come right through the huge hole on to students’ notebooks as they write. In the dry season, the wind whips through and picks up dust from the dirt floor, blowing it into their eyes. But the community is committed to providing for their children’s education, so much so that they constructed this school on their own, without any governmental or outside financial support. Tsegaye, the local priest, told me that every time the school needs to be repaired, the community comes together to donate land, money, and labour. For 12 years, they built and rebuilt and rebuilt, even with the knowledge that the next season might bring the same problems. The conditions these students are in- exposed to the elements, sitting on stones, writing on their knees, no water, no books – I can’t imagine learning like this. But Rahel, a grade six student, told me that she comes to class every day, working hard in her English class so that one day she can become a teacher.
I also spent some time with some of imagine1day’s high school scholarship students, like those whose high school education was funded through the amazing achievements of the7dayringproject. One of the girls, her name is Kidan, was a world-changer in the making- a girl who saw a need beyond herself. Her focus? Deforestation. Not only was she aware of the issue, but she was already taking steps to solve it by planting trees at her school, explaining to her friends why the environment is important, and working towards going to university to study plant biology. And I was just standing there, thinking “wow, here is a girl whose experience of the world has been limited to the village she grew up in, a girl who has enough obstacles to overcome in her own life, and yet she’s committed to solving an issue that affects people on a global scale”.
As a Canadian, and especially as a student, I tend to measure myself in terms of my achievements. The grades I receive, the skills I have developed, the number of friends I have, the way I present myself…the list goes on. But after a summer in Ethiopia, I have begun to understand how if we only perceive our success as a result of our own efforts, we miss the wider, wilder tapestry of the threads of lives that have influenced and played roles in who we are. I think of the sacrifices that my family made so that I could enjoy the life I have. The generosity of the friends and family and coworkers that I met during my time in Ethiopia this year. The selfless determination of a community in Maykuho to see their children have a chance to go to school. The desire of a young Ethiopian girl to see the world change for the better. The myth of independence is a society that tells us that we can achieve our goals on our own. In understanding how our lives are interdependent, we can begin to understand the impact of those whom we’ve relied on over the course of our journey, and how we can become a positive part of the journey of others. I think this is what I so appreciate about imagine1day’s operational model: their vision is to see a global community come together to empower each other, working together to transform lives. Working in Ethiopia taught me that I’m not, and will never be, self-sufficient. Like when I was a kid, I am still strong and determined, but I know now that I am a product of those that went before me, and that my value lies in the interconnectivity of the community that surrounds me.
And Ethiopia? I’ll be back soon.
Administration + Communications Intern at imagine1day