Tag Archives: Art Aid for Tesfa

Merkato: Not Your Ordinary School


Old Sarum is one of The Tesfa Foundation’s pre-schools, and a very dear one to me. The students there have virtually nothing in material terms, and yet they have so much to share.

The school is located in the crowded, bustling, often rough streets of Merkato, in Ethiopia’s capital city. The Merkato district is basically a giant open-air market sprinkled with slums. It is the neediest part of the city that I’ve come across.

It’s impossible to grasp the extent of the poverty that exists there, without seeing it for yourself. I’ve brought several fellow westerners to the area, and I’ve watched the pain of others’ suffering wash over their unexpecting faces every time.

Merkato can be a difficult place to live and a dangerous place to raise a family. Despite   parents’ best intentions, when faced with the choice between survival and sending their children to school, they choose survival. Instead of getting an education, many Merkato children end up getting sent to work, or out to beg on the streets just to help make ends meet at home.

I believe that by engaging these children early, when they’re 4-6 years old, we give them a huge head start in life. By providing them with the opportunity to attend school, we increase their chances of continuing their education and staying off the streets.

Formal education is not a given for many Ethiopians. Less than half of the country’s eligible children are currently enrolled in school. Putting a school in a place where there otherwise would be none empowers the entire community. These children wear the pride of their community when they come to school, well groomed, with their hair beautifully braided or otherwise meticulously combed. They may wear the same dress or suit every day, but they wear them with the dignity and pride of their family’s most prized possession. Parents will scrape and save for weeks, even months to provide such luxuries for their children.  

I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of my students’ parents, and to visit their humble homes–tiny one-room mud huts topped with corrugated tin roofs, furnished with a single bed and very little else. I’ve heard rats run across the roofs, and I’ve been bitten by my share of fleas during these visits. But I don’t dare feel bad, despite the discomfort. How could I?  

This is what my sweet students call home. This is life, as they know it. I’m thankful they aren’t familiar with the modern conveniences they’re lacking–like running water and indoor toilets.  

These children have taught me many valuable lessons. Whenever I feel cold, hungry or otherwise uncomfortable–I think of my students and am reminded that I really have nothing to complain about, ever! They’ve shown me the meaning of true community. They literally depend each other for survival. I can’t even remember the last conversation I had with my neighbor.

The students have taught me the value of simply being. They’ve never been exposed to the constant electronic stimulation that pelts American children daily. There are no Game Boys, iPhones, or other electronics here to hold their attention. Their parents don’t play movies to pacify them during dinner or car rides. As a result, they’ve learned to sit still, entertain themselves and just be.

Last but not least, these kids have opened my eyes to fearlessness. They approach their art projects with complete abandon. They’ve not yet learned to fear negative criticism or rejection of their work, so they create for the sake of creation–for the sheer joy of discovering what their little hands can do.

These are a few of the gifts these children have given me–which compels me to give back to them, in every way I can. They have little in regards to material possessions and, they’re happy. Their smiles are contagious. We’ve all heard the old adage, “money can’t buy happiness,” and my years of working in Ethiopia have confirmed this truth for me. These children also know how to love. Every time I walk in through the school doors, I’m blasted with the full force of their love. They fling their arms around my neck, kissing my hands and cheeks, flashing beautifully bright smiles as they reach their tiny little hands out to disappear into mine. After about five minutes of this, I’m levitating–questioning everything I ever believed about success, materialism, and that slippery word, “happiness.”

If you’ve not yet experienced life in Merkato, or Ethiopia, or any other third-world country, I invite you. Don’t take my word for it,  come see it for yourself. Words and photos can help tell part of the story, but it’s never the whole story. There are just some things beyond imagining. We need to experience them personally in order to begin to understand. You may not find all of the answers you seek, but you can begin to live the questions, instead of merely asking them. Take a journey like this, and you’ll be forever changed. I can promise you this, and I know the sweet children will make sure of it too!

Government schools in Ethiopia… the good the bad, and the unknown


A Day at Addis Tesfa

We all have heard to be leery of African governments–a true enough statement, but here’s the catch. The governments run the schools. What we all care about is that children have access the basic right to education. Quality of education is the question.

The Tesfa Foundation has focused on providing early childhood education: catch them when they are young and make an impact before something less desirable finds them. When The Tesfa Foundation was founded 8 years ago, the government did not provide any educational options for the youngest age group (4-6).  As of this year the government does (in a limited, start-up way). So the question remains, does it make sense to try to partner with the government to help them serve this age group? I do not have answers for you but I can tell you what I experienced.

I arrived at Addis Tesfa on a beautiful sunny December day, ready to provide an art experience for 120 children. What? 120? Kindergarteners? I thought, I might be out of my league here, but they are planning on me and I cannot disappoint 120 precious little ones, can I?

No, in the end I could not. The Tesfa Foundation/Ethiopia Reads office provided me with extra helpers, and we agreed to do our best. The most children I have ever taught at one time was 60; I told everyone, “We have to get creative here and divide into groups.”

We were able to fit all the children comfortably in one room, all 120. In a government school this was possible? Yes, thanks to the Ethiopia Reads beautiful new library we were all able to gather together. This is not typical at all of a government school, making organizations like Ethiopia Reads so valuable, even necessary.

The theme of the day was flowers. Flowers were chosen to honor Noel Cunningham, a dear one who passed just before my visit to Addis Tesfa and who the library at this school was dedicated to. Flowers are also something the children are familiar with and that their city Addis Ababa (translated as New Flower) is named after; that allowed me to tie in some history and cultural pride. 

We started with a little song and dance to warm the kids up and break down any inhibitions they might have. These kids had never had an art lesson before, and I wanted them to feel open and excited about this experience. Then we sat at our desks to draw our first flowers in color, and I quickly saw some students had honored their need to create and had been exploring drawing with their pencils. I knew this because some of the drawings were so advanced.

After our warm-up in the library we broke up into groups. Before I move on… I don’t think I have mentioned how much fun we are were having by now. Pure joy!

We did two main art projects rotating the children by groups. Some sang and danced in a circle while waiting their turn to paint. Four large canvases were set out on the lawn. Each canvas had enough room for 5 students at a time to work on it. Each child got a plate of paint and a brush, and they worked together until the canvas was covered in five different shades of paint. Then rocks and leaves were used as stamps to create flowers over the under-painting.  By the end, the children had the sense of accomplishment that comes from working together and a new beautiful painting to decorate their library.

Meanwhile, inside the library, a local Ethiopian artist named Aklilu was working with the kids on a flower project where children became the “canvas.”  They used flowers and plants from what they found outside the school to turn themselves into beautiful flowers. The idea was to get them to think about the things around them every day that they can create with. They don’t have to wait for art class to be creative.  All one needs is imagination.

We gathered back in the library when our art was finished, and the children showed off their beautiful new space to me. We had them chose books and it was beautiful to watch their attention become absorbed by the magic of books. One child proudly showed me his new library card, complete with a sweet little picture. The librarian was beaming with pride as the children were so obviously enjoying this special place.

This experience did not nicely wrap-up the government partnerships vs. donor-supported school debate for me. There were older children aggressively trying to take our supplies and encroaching on our space, making me wonder about whether kindergarten children should be in the same school as these older children. The quality of things outside the library walls had so much to be desired. Basic sanitation being at the top of the list. I am used to, and perhaps spoiled by working in Tesfa schools. Our teachers are so well trained, this I can’t stress enough. We have training systems in place and–a real luxury in Ethiopia– we have staff loyalty. People who have been with us for years and understand the importance of quality control. Most important we have given our staff pride in what they do and it shows. The schools are clean, and safe. In Tesfa schools the little ones have the safety of being the only kids in the school and know they can count on no older aggressive bullying, an important issue in a country that has typically operated in a very top-down way.

For me the debate is still on the table as to how we fit in with these new government kindergarten programs. There is no doubt that the organization that I have been a part of for 5 years now, The Tesfa Foundation, runs a far superior school to ones run by the Ethiopian government. On the other side of the coin, do we really want to leave children in government schools to fend for themselves?  Where can we have the most impact with limited dollars and staff hours in 2012 and beyond?