This weekend, I had the privilege of coming back to Addis and spending time at the wonderful Ethiopian Education Foundation (EEF).
If you haven’t heard me drone on about this before, EEF is a small charity which each year identifies a number of kids entering their ‘GCSE’ year, who have performed exceptionally well academically, but who come from conditions of extreme poverty. EEF funds their education at one of the top schools in Addis, and provides hostel accommodation, meals, books and uniforms. Without EEF’s support, these kids, who have such enormous potential, wouldn’t be able to continue their education. But as a result of EEF’s support over recent years, Ethiopia now has more doctors, engineers and economists, contributing to the country’s development.
I spent a few months as one of the EEF hostel managers back in 2014, living and working with the students. And, without exaggeration, it was one of the most rewarding, enlightening and life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. It’s hard to put into words just how inspiring these kids are: despite their struggles in early life, they far outperform their classmates from more privileged backgrounds.
My reason for being back in Addis this weekend, was to help two of the current students prepare for their university application. Yared and Amen have exceptional academic results and this has given them the opportunity to apply for a full scholarship at New York University in Abu Dhabi. We spent the time preparing for their candidate selection weekend.
I enjoyed every minute, working with two such smart, charming kids (and the wonderful Addis EEF manager, Olga). Apart from the usual interview practice and essay preparation, it involved a trip to a restaurant in town for them to taste non Ethiopian cuisine and learn how to use cutlery. (Ethiopian food is all eaten by hand and, given their background, neither had ever had cause to use a knife, fork or spoon before. They’ll need these skills on their trip.) There were loads of laughs and a few false starts. But three hours later, the job was done and we had two (almost) professional international diners.
Each of them has to bring along an ‘object’ to the selection weekend, that tells something about their personality and background. I just loved the ingenuity and creativity of Yared especially, who is passionate about music but, because he couldn’t afford a ‘boombox’, has built his own from scrap materials he’s found in the street. With a briefcase, some battered old speakers and a complicated looking set of wiring, he’s singlehandedly created a superb piece of kit. Provided it doesn’t get mistaken for a bomb on the plane, this will be his object for Abu Dhabi.
Apart from the opportunity to spend time at EEF, I also lapped up the chance to be back in Addis. I still feel a very special attachment. I’m not sure if it’s the depth of history, the diverse mix of cultures from across Ethiopia’s ethnic communities, the wealth of live music around, the fact I feel as safe walking around on my own at night as I do in London, the 1970s Ladas that unflinchingly taxi people through whatever potholes or mud baths the streets throw at them, the beauty and friendliness and honesty of the people, or just my nostalgia and many happy memories. But whatever it is, the minute I head into the city from the airport, I feel an incredible buzz.
Of course, I don’t want to gloss over the sometimes shocking glimpses you get into the extreme poverty that still persists for so many. Or the usual urban challenges of congestion and pollution. But it seems to be an exciting time for Ethiopia, with a new Prime Minister signing peace agreements with neighbours, and the appointment of the first ever female President and Supreme Court President. And despite Addis’s challenges, somehow the pride, the optimism, the vibrancy always shine through and leave me feeling positive and excited about this great city.
As is tradition, I wasn’t allowed to leave the hostel without the usual Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with coffee roasting, popcorn and speeches. With most of the hostel’s 55 or so students gathered together, I as ever found it a pretty emotional send-off. Looking around and thinking about what they have each achieved despite the obstacles they’ve faced, is for me always humbling and very inspiring.
I wish the very best of luck to the Grade 12 students in their important exams this year. And particularly to Yared and Amen in their Abu Dhabi selection weekend.
Meantime, if any of this has piqued your interest and you’d like to find out more about EEF, do drop me a note (and I’ll do a very hard sell on the sponsorship opportunities!).