I received a ping on a Facebook post about my upcoming trip to Ethiopia by Alice Gugelev, one of the co-founders of the Muskoka/Do Good as You Go Foundation. She asked if I’d like to be connected with one of the partner organizations in Ethiopia during my trip. I was interested – I had profiled the organization last year on the blog after they contacted me through Meet Plan Go. The organization is interesting because they handled voluntourism differently than other organizations. Muskoka asked their partner organizations in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia what they needed and matched volunteers with those skills for a day or a week on their big trips.
Planning to Volunteer
For this big trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, I’m on a work trip, so I had a limited time schedule – just about a half day to do anything – but I wanted to do what I could. In India, some of my favorite experiences while traveler were meeting children and women through volunteer efforts. Alice put me in touch with Elvis, the Africa regional director and we started to plan the day in Ethiopia over Skype and e-mail. He mentioned that I would be working with the Ethiopian Children’s Fund and they would be in contact with me on how I could contribute. He had send them my CV so they were able to review my skills and experience for their village school in Aleltu, an hour outside of Addis Ababa.
A few days later, I received an email from Anna Getaneh, the founder of the Ethiopian Children’s Fund. We discussed ideas on how I could work with them and she decided on an itinerary where I could visit the school and then meet up with her to go over some digital and social media marketing ideas. I was excited by that because I don’t have any experience teaching kids, but I can put out a mean digital marketing plan.
Elvis kept in touch in the weeks and days up to my trip with materials and checklists from Muskoka. I am a consultant so they were helpful and I could see how they would provide materials for volunteers who were not used to going into situations and assist with only a little information. I’ve been a professional consultant for over five years and was confident that, given my discussions with Anna, I could ask her how I could help and then make a few recommendations
Meeting with ECF
Anna and I met at the beginning of my Ethiopian trip in Addis Ababa at the Sheraton. She founded the ECF thirteen years ago and has grown the school from 77 students to 479 students (up to 600 who took part in the meal programs). Anna is originally from Ethiopia and has lived abroad, but was now settled in Addis Ababa with her family. In addition to ECF, Anna also has a fashion business focusing on African designers, runs fundraisers and hosts Ethiopian Fashion week, raises two children, and travels all over the world. She is a force and what I imagine magazines like Fast Company describe as a “change agent.”
In the course of our meeting in Addis, we discussed marketing plans, social media ideas, and the program for my visit to the school in a week after my tour of the north. Anna was enthusiastic and even good-natured about some “homework” recommended. Our meeting felt like any professional engagement I had back home in San Francisco and I felt like I had helped already in a way that was needed. We also agreed to meet after my visit to review any other questions before I left Ethiopia. I went back to my room buzzing with the same energy I get in working on any professional assignment with an interesting problem to solve.
The ECF School Visit
After eight days of touring northern Ethiopia’s historical sites, I was ready for the human connection of the ECF School visit. Anna had arranged a driver to meet me at the Addis airport. On the way out of town, we passed a growing and bulging Addis Ababa. We whizzed past open-air storefronts with mobile phone services, clothing, produce, meat, tires, and assorted electronics; the ubiquitous yellow and green tin sheets that hid the ground level of construction sites and in-progress buildings covered with eucalyptus scaffolding; and commuters waiting in long lines for “blue donkey” buses and “blue mosquito” cabs. After a half hour, the crowds and storefront lessened and the scenery turned to villages and farm fields. Cows and goats were shepherded across the highway. Mud and thatch huts were clustered together next to lush green farm fields. A billboard advertised a Turkish and Ethiopian joint venture commercial center, but no buildings existed, yet.
The ECF school is a large complex with a grade school, a vocational school, administrative offices, a clinic, a library, and a resource center. The school covers eight grades and prepares students for the state exam and public school. Students attend the school completely for free. A clinic provides free health care to the students. A vocational school is opening in September for it’s first class of post-graduate students who will specialize in IT, design, and hospitality.
Anna welcomed me, offered me a coffee, and soon I was off on a tour with Solomon, the school administrator. He had been with the school since 2004 and worked his way up on the organization from a teacher. We met in the lunch room. There were two lunch periods and I witnessed both. About 300 boys and girls in each period picked up silver plates of dark injera bread and a spicy wot sauce from the window and sat down in groups at lunch tables. I stood there smiling for a while, asking Solomon questions like “how long is the school day?” (till 3:00) and “what would the kids be doing if they weren’t in school?” (Manual labor) and “how many girls go to school here?” (About half – -Solomon mentioned that ECF made it a point to ensure half the students were girls).
Finally, I joined a group for lunch and we started pantomiming and practicing the little Amharic I knew and the larger amount of English words they knew. Students learned Amharic, English, and their tribal language. In between bites of lunch, I took pictures, the kids and I huddled around the digital display, and then we took more pictures.
After lunch, Solomon took me on a tour of the school. It was a big day – each grade’s classroom was battling the adjacent grade in an academic competition. Structured in a bracket, competitions took place throughout the year with winning students competing against each other and the ultimate winner declared at the end of the school year.
We popped into classrooms and the tensions were high. Teachers in white coats called on students to solve a math or language question. If a student couldn’t answer it, the question was opened to someone in the class. Students huddled on communal tables and wrote out their answers on notebooks (for the older kids) or slates (for the younger ones). I took pictures and attempted to show a few of the kids pictures I’d taken, something we had just done in the lunch room, but they were having none of that and looked at me with annoyance. Too much was at stake to fool around with pictures.
In the fourth and third grade competition, Solomon and I witnessed an award ceremony. A student had just one that week’s competition and was receiving her applause and prize. She shyly went to the front of the room and accepted one pen, her reward.
After the Visit
After a few hours of touring the classrooms and support buildings, the visit was complete. I thanked Solomon and headed back to the city with the driver. That night, Anna and I met for our final meeting and reviewed her marketing and social media ideas. I answered technology questions and offered up more recommendations. She said that I had helped her with the brief amount of time I was able to give. I was hopeful that we would stay in touch because after 8 days in this country and now the ECF school visit, Ethopia was under my skin. I would come back.
Later, my thoughts went to the kids. Inside the school’s main office was a Nelson Mandela quote,
“Education is the engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.”
Each student was from the nearby village and this school was their only opportunity for education. Education is a light that shines over ignorance in any student’s case, but this school and the ECF program meant the difference between a life of labor and life of professional possibilities for these students. I was lucky enough to have public education from grade school to master’s degree that enabled me to achieve my professional success, travel around the world, and have the confidence to take the opportunities that came my way. I wished much success for these earnest students with their heads bent over math problems, uniformed shoulders rubbing, and feet nudging bandaged backpacks. I appreciated that – as a traveler and volunteer- I could offer my professional skills to the organization and see an organization’s impact with a school visit.
Overall, I am thankful that I was able to meet Alice and Elvis with Muskoka Foundation and Anna and Solomon from ECF and contribute in a very small way to their gigantic efforts of making the world a better place through education and connection.
How You Can “Do Good as You Go”
- Volunteer on your big trip with Muskoka Foundation. If you make it to Ethiopia, definitely ask about ECF!
- Donate to the Ethiopian Children’s Fund and school.
- Like the Ethiopian Children’s Fund on Facebook.