I spent five weeks with five other incredible volunteers, four amazing Daughters of Charity, one compassionate Vincentian priest, hundreds of wonderfully enthusiastic and loving students, and a beautiful, hospitable city. We did our best to teach English (the language of instruction in secondary education in Ethiopia). I taught in a very, VERY small classroom in a brand new school located in Tulema. Tulema is a “leprosy village” in Jimma. It is a place that the Daughters of Charity secured for the hundreds of people whose families have been affected by leprosy. The Daughters have helped them build homes, gain livelihoods, and participate in a top quality Montesorri kindergarten program at a school in Tulema (education is a top priority for all of the families — parents and siblings will do everything in their power to help their children get a good education). Prior to the establishment of Tulema, people who had leprosy and their families were living in the Catholic cemetery, as they were designated “the living dead.” Though there are only four or five active cases of leprosy in Tulema, and the disease is completely contained, the children and grandchildren of those who have and had leprosy are still ostracized. Everyone who is able in Tulema, including children, do all that they can to earn money to make a living. I would regularly see my students selling tissues and chewing gum or shining shoes on the streets outside of class time. Despite their concerted efforts, many, if not all, of the families are struggling to meet their basic needs. On top of all this, HIV/AIDS is devestating this community, as it is in so many communities in Africa and around the world.
Though every day in Tulema is a battle, a spirit of determination, joy, and love is palpable the moment you step foot on the mud path that leads to it (and I mean muddy… cars cannot drive down it, and we saw a number of horses and mules get stuck… we, thus, invested in some beautiful knee-high boots. Thankfully, our students met us at the beginning of the road each morning and helped us traverse it with as much ease as possible (for “farenges,” that is). I had sixty first and second grade students. And while I sincerely love all of you, they are my new favorite people, and I miss them SO MUCH. I don’t even know how to begin to express how much I love these kids and this community (so much for that English degree). If this is any indication, I got physically ill the moment I left Jimma, and I am still experiencing the remants of that illness a week later.
Anyway, if you’re still reading this very long email, here is a little story from my journal…Pardon the writing — it is a bit raw.
“Today was our last day of classes in Tulema. We decided to do a short review of what we had learned and to take our pictures together. After class, we had a coffee ceremony held by a few of Krissy’s 5th graders. Apparently they wanted to give us something, so Sr. Tsige suggested a coffee ceremony. They pooled their money to purchase the bunna (coffee), dabo (bread), and a small amount of candy, popcorn, and animal cracker-like cookies. Two of the girls wore their feast day dresses. We all gathered around as they finished the preparations and began to serve (with their ever-present, unbounded, famous Ethiopian hospitality).
After a few minutes, Awel (one of my second grade students) who was leaning on me throughout the ceremony, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Alicia, what is this?” I looked over at him to see that he was holding a small heart-shaped cookie. A big smile spread across my face.
At the end of every class, I would call up each student to the door, give him/her a sticker and a hug and a kiss, and ask her/him a question from that day’s class. The last few days of class we worked on the question and answer, “What is this?” “This is a ________.” I also had a large number of heart stickers, so we learned the word for “heart” and that people drew them to say “I love you” (in Amharic it is Wah – de – shar – lo
Awel paricularly enjoyed our one-on-one time at the door, and he LOVED the hearts. Each time I gave him one, he pulled down the collar of his shirt to reveal a large heart shape scar on the upper part of his chest, indicating for me to place the heart sticker in the middle of his scar. As I did so, I would ask, “What is this?” In his sweet voice, he’d reply, “This is a heart.” Then, I would say “I love you” and give hima big hug and kiss on the cheek, sending him out the door.
So, when Awel asked me “What is this?” as he held out his cookie to me, I thought of all those moments over the last five weeks. Fighting back tears, I said, “This is a heart.” Then, Awel very quietly said, “I love you,” and he placed his cookie, the only cookie he had received, in my mouth and rested his hand on my shoulder.
Feeding someone is a customary gesture of care, compassion, and love. For these past five weeks our souls have been well-fed by this community teeming with love.
As I think about this brief, special moment with Awel today, I am reminded of the anxiety I felt before I left the states for Jimma. Tears streamed down my face as I literally flew over my home in Stewartville, watching it slowly disappear from view, and wondering why I was traveling half way across the world to teach English. I was doubting my abilities, my strength, and I was fearful that I would fall in love with a community that I would have to leave in five weeks.
Though I did not master English language instruction (or even come close), and I did continue to question the effects of my presence there, I gradually overcame my fear of falling in love with this community that I would to leave. This is because I knew I would never leave them, and they could never leave me. Just as Awel and I literally and figuratively exchanged hearts, I know a part of me will stay in Jimma and a part of Jimma will stay with me.
People say this all the time… and I’ve said it before, as well, about different communities I’ve visited and loved over the years, but I have never felt such an immense love and such a deep sense of connection to a community as I do to this one. I have a feeling this love is going to contiue to lead me back to Jimma and down the muddy path to Tulema over and over again.”
This is just a small sampling of stories and people who made this time in Jimma truly life-altering… Perhaps I’ll send another when my eyes dry (if that ever happens).