July 29, 2014
We walk onto the empty basketball court of the new school for only a second before the children flood out of a single classroom to greet us. They carry flowers and drawings that read “Welcome America and Ireland!” and “We are thankful! Welcome!” – gifts to their special friends. The older ones start to cry as they greet Willie, Susan and Veronica with tight hugs and blessings; for, without them, they would not be here. The Ambo Lazarist Catholic School for the Deaf would not exist, and they would still be without an education.
Hundreds of hands fly around me in a beautifully-rythmic symphony.
“How are you?” their hands, forming a jellyfish, move upwards from their shoulders
“God is good.” an open-palmed hand – as if you were praying – that slowly flicks backward toward your face before its fingers come to your chin and move outward
We expected 15, but here we find maybe 50 of all ages, each one wanting a handshake or the proper Ethiopian greeting: a firm handshake followed by three hugs/shoulder taps that alternate sides. Tap – tap – tap.
We shuffle into the classroom to find that some of the children are hearing. This is a two-month sign language class held in the summer months by the Ambo Lazarist Catholic School for the Deaf in an effort to expose the community to the growing culture. I am shocked – I have never seen anything like this before.
As we walk into the classroom, the kids wave their hands – here, here! Sit with me! They introduce themselves and watch our hands as we learn the signs of the day with them. Good morning. How are you? My name is _____. I am from America. Ireland. Ethiopia.
Our day here is short. Today, we are only here to introduce ourselves, meet our new friends, and see the school grounds so many have worked for so long to create. We meet the Deaf students, who cannot express their gratitude enough. Their wishes for a school just three and a half years ago were granted in just two. Since then, one student has graduated from Addis Ababa University and will begin teaching at the school this upcoming session – becoming an inspiration and a role model for each of the other students looking to do the same.
They watch us as we talk, follow us from spot to spot, and burst into giggles at our smiles. We tell them we will be back tomorrow but find it hard to walk away from their waving “I love you’s.”
July 30, 2014
At 8:30 a.m. we pack our bags and head across the street to the school, expecting about a half an hour to prep before our first day with the kids. Instead, we find 64 smiling faces already awaiting our arrival. They are both big and small, ranging from ages 3-30, hearing and Deaf, but all are just as eager to learn. We quickly realize they come early just to ensure a seat after their long trek to school. Some walk an hour or two just for the promise of education. Confined to just one classroom where all 70+ kids are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, eventually we must turn some away simply because of a lack of space. It breaks my heart.
This thirst for education is everywhere, it seems – our other roommates at the seminary are teaching English down the street and report back similar numbers. However, the number of hearing kids who show up to our class, eager to learn signs to bring back home, shocks me. No where else do you see this, and I love it.
We split into three groups for our first icebreaker – children, Deaf adults, and hearing adults – and instantly the basketball court erupts into laughter as we break out the infamous “Elephant Game.” One person is elected to stand in the middle, and he or she spins around at random, pointing at people on the outer layer who then try to hastily form an elephant before the time is up. Those chosen create make-shift trunks out of their arms while their neighbors rush to cup their ears, forming an elephant’s face. Mess up? Well, you’re out, and the game gets smaller and smaller and faster and faster. Those eliminated stay among the outer layer, taunting their friends and jumping with laughter every time someone is caught by surprise. “You’re out!” they exclaim.
After about a half an hour we disperse and head inside for the first day of class. The hearing adults gather in one classroom with Abbiot, the superintendent and one of the head teachers of the school, where they start to learn over 70 words every day. Their class is more intensive, designed for adults who want to rapidly learn sign language, as they will earn a certificate from the school in just two months. And boy, is it rough. Abbiot rarely reviews the signs from day to day, and a vocab list of 70 soon grows to nearly 300. Yet when we ask one of the students on the third day if he really remembers everything, his response is no other than, “Test me. Ask me anything.” And sure enough he remembers each of the signs we throw out at him. I am amazed. They are not forced to come here; each individual signs up of his own free will, simply because he wants to learn. Curious, Willie asks why they are here, and their responses blow me away.
Missing this sign language, I am missing a part of my life. Learning this sign language will fulfill my life. I can talk to my friends and I will know how to communicate. I am so happy to learn this sign language. Thank you for this golden chance.
That they are so open and more than eager to learn sign warms my heart. This is something we rarely see even when Deaf culture is well-established and has a strong presence in an area. Here, however, the community is just beginning to sprout, and still we see their neighbors pulling together to try to understand it and help it thrive.
This is something I will value the most from my trip – to have seen what community support actually looks like, and in a country that many deem to be “uncivilized” and which has “nothing,” nonetheless. I never want to forget it.
The hearing children are the same way, and I am constantly astounded by their success. In a class of about 64, only four are Deaf. The rest travel long ways to learn numbers and colors, animals and family words. “You, you, you!” they scream as I walk up and down the aisles, checking their progress and assisting where I can. They proudly show me their perfect “8’s,” their beaming smiles widening as I reward them with a thumbs up or a high five. Their eagerness is beautiful. Their thirst for education is beautiful.
“That’s all we’re learning today?!” one boy pouts as we break for recess. Later, he will transfer into the hearing adults classroom where he can learn as much as he wants.
Toward the end of the week, we start to conduct mini quizzes, allowing the children to grow confident in their skills by sharing them with the class. Who knows how to sign all of these words? we ask, pointing to a list of ten random vocab words on the blackboard. “Me, me, me!” A hundred hands fly into the air. We alternate boy, girl, boy, girl, and although many of the girls are too shy to come up at first – I don’t know I don’t know – we push until they relent and then beam at their success. Before long every girl is standing up in her seat whenever we ask for a volunteer. This is important, I think, in a society that does not recognize its women. We need to show them that they can; that they, too, are the future.
We press this with the Deaf adults, too. Now that they have an education, they can do anything. On the first day of class, Megan leads them in a discussion about their hopes and dreams for a future. None of them cut themselves short. For many, this school was their first source of real education, but even in their 20s and 30s and at an elementary reading level, they are ambitious and hopeful that their education will help them succeed. They want to be teachers, tailors, hairdressers and athletes. They want to come to America, go to Gallaudet, experience university. To others, their dreams seem like simple achievements; an ordinary pitstop on one’s path through life. But for them, it is what motivates them to continue learning and fighting their way through poverty. What is a simple life to us is extravagant to them, and that is both sad and beautiful and inspiring all at once.
Yet, they find ways to always strive for more. Each student takes part in the Ambo branch of the Ethiopian National Association for the Deaf (ENAD), where they discuss problems within the town and school and how they will try to overcome it. They have goals and dreams; wants and needs. Two more schools – kindergarten through fourth grade, and ninth grade beyond. Right now the Deaf school only services students from fifth to eighth grade simply because of space. This means they’re still lacking in education, forced to attempt to learn in a hearing-only environment for a majority of their life. That is, if they are lucky to even do so. At the outskirts of town, many students walk an hour or two to school every day. What happens if you live farther away than that? They want dormitories, simple barracks where students can live throughout the week so they can learn without stretching themselves thin every morning and every night. And they want more information. What is AIDs awareness? What do I do if I’ve been violated? What opportunities are out there for me? What are my rights? All of this is denied to them simply because of a communication barrier. But they know it, and they’re fighting back.
Toward the end of the week, Willie and I bring them into the library where we find two rows of computers collecting dust simply because no one knows how to use them – a prime example of a misplaced donation. The students crowd around shared computers as we teach them simple tasks on Microsoft Word; how to type a sentence, change its font, size, color and more. They are so grateful for what, to me, is a simple opportunity. Thank you, thank you, I love you, they say again and again and again. Even with three to a computer, they never complain. Instead, they patiently wait for each other to finish, for it to be their turn again, assisting each other whenever they fumble and congratulating each other on a job well done. I have never seen such selflessness. Such pure friendship. Such community. One of the boys has a little more experience than the others and flies through each exercise, but never asks for anything more. Instead, he moves up and down the row asking the others if they need his help and showing them the next steps when I can’t get to them in time. As an artist, he knows a little about WordArt, and he asks me to show him how to use it again when we run out of exercises. The class goes wild. Every student now has to transform their typed name into big, bold, beautiful, sparkling letters – they are hypnotized, entranced in their work even as I tell them it’s time to break for recess – and I am inspired by the joy they find in everything.
More than anything, I fell in love with Ethiopia because of its happy. Whether it comes from watching an old Deaf man with no language happily complete his third loom band within an hour, proudly showing it off to his friends who congratulate him with admiring smiles, or if it comes from the young faces who run up to us on our walks through the town, showing us the signs they remember from class that day, I begin to realize the power of community, of education, and of appreciation of what you have, even in light of what you don’t.
I keep the happiness from Ethiopia in my bones. I ache for it with all of my heart every day. And I thank god that this experience was mine – to share and smile at the success of others and to learn what it looks like to dream and hope and see a future that only builds upon the happiness of now. This is Ethiopia.