At the Yesus Mena School for the Deaf, nearly 400 children can finally express their thoughts and feelings — bringing greater hope, and happiness, to their lives.
When Dawit was 3 years old, a mysterious epidemic swept through his village in southern Ethiopia. With the nearest hospital an inaccessible 12 miles away for most families in this impoverished farming community, many parents instead cared for their children at home — hoping and praying for their recovery. But as the community mourned the loss of first one and then another and then another child, Dawit’s mother nursed and comforted her only son — and prepared to say goodbye.
“So many kids died at that time,” Dawit’s mother remembers. “The whole family expected him to die. I was prepared to bury him. He was that sick.” Twelve years have passed since the epidemic that devastated their community. And today, Dawit is a tall, self-assured 15-year-old with a charming, crooked-toothed smile. He is a natural artist, a skilled football player and an aspiring language teacher with an interest in photography.
Dawit survived. But although he didn’t lose his life 12 years ago, he did lose something that he would never get back. His ability to hear.
In 2008, Holt began serving the community where Dawit and his family live in the Kembata-Tembaro zone of southern Ethiopia — a rural region of the country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and 29 percent lives in extreme poverty, earning less than one dollar per day. Here, as throughout Ethiopia, years of civil war and drought have robbed many people of their livelihoods, while famine and illness have robbed many children of their parents.
Holt concentrated our program in Shinshicho, a district capital where goats and cattle still roam the unpaved roads that lead through town, few establishments have electricity or running water and donkeys are the primary mode of transportation. To begin working in Shinshicho and surrounding areas, we hired local social workers who know the language, culture and customs of the community, and sought the guidance of local government and community elders to both identify families and children in greatest need — and partner with us in developing culturally appropriate ways to empower them. With a majority of families relying on subsistence farming for food and income, we provided livestock to help them grow their income and seek greater stability in their lives. For families without land, we equipped them with the tools and resources to start a small business. We built a kindergarten in the community of Wallana and matched children with Holt sponsors who also provided uniforms, books and supplies. And recognizing a gaping need for improved healthcare in the region — a region with one doctor for every 100,000 people — we first renovated a government clinic and then partnered with the community to build a full-service hospital, a massive pink stone structure with a staff of over 170, including eight full-time doctors, who now see up to 200 patients per day from its location in the heart of Shinshicho.
From providing services tailored to meet the needs of individual families to investing in basic infrastructure for the entire community, Holt has through the years helped to address many of the most clear and pressing needs of the people of this deeply impoverished but naturally beautiful region of Ethiopia. Some of the greatest needs were not so obvious, however, when we first began working here in 2008.
“It’s unknown why there is such a high prevalence of deafness in Shinshicho,” says Gelila Yacob, child sponsorship and family strengthening program coordinator at Holt Ethiopia who serves as translator during our visit to the region in June. Gelila is a warm and funny former sociology major who works closely with our partners in the south to ensure sponsors receive timely and quality reports on the children they support.
“Some children are born deaf,” Gelila says, “but many, like Dawit, lose theirhearing later.” No one has ever conducted a research study to determine the cause — though Holt plans to initiate one soon — and few if any of the children have ever seen a hearing specialist. One doctor suggested to Gelila that hearing loss can come from untreated ear infections. Others point to malaria or even malaria medications. And exceptionally high fever is known to cause hearing loss in children as well. “But locals,” Gelila says, “believe it’s because of a curse that others put on you.”
Three years ago, Holt began partnering with the Yesus Mena School forthe Deaf — a school started in 2010 by a retired government official named Abebe Abura who is also the former director of a deaf school in Addis Ababa. When the school first opened, not even Abura knew the extent of the need for sign language-based education in Shinshicho. On the first day, the school had space for 50 students. To everyone’s surprise, over 200 showed up.
Dawit was among the first students to walk through the doors of the then tworoom, mud-walled schoolhouse that was donated by local officials. He was 9 years old.
“I was shocked and angry when I learned that my son wasn’t able to hear,” says Dawit’s mom, a woman with high cheekbones like her son and an upper lip that disappears into an amused expression when she smiles. Although relieved and grateful that he survived his illness, she was devastated when she saw her 3-year-old son no longer trying to speak or responding when she called him.
But perhaps no one was more upset than Dawit, who for six years communicated with his family by pointing and gesturing only.
“My family didn’t understand me,” Dawit signs to his teacher when we interview him outside his classroom at Yesus Mena. “Since they couldn’t understand me before, they only gave me orders — to keep cattle, to do so many household activities. That experience made me angry because they couldn’t understand my feelings.”
For Dawit and many of his fellow students, the opening of this school presented their first opportunity to communicate complex thoughts and emotions. To say I’m hungry or I love you, I’m sorry or I’m in pain.
Many [of the students] are teenagers now, so they went their whole childhood unable to communicate.”
“Previously, the kids were so angry because no one would understand their feelings. They tended to be mad and aggressive,” says Gelila, who has come to know the students well in her four years with Holt Ethiopia. “Many are teenagers now, so they went their whole childhood unable to communicate. The bigger ones are more angry because they kept their feelings inside for such a long period of time.”
Meaza is 14 years old and in grade 4 at Yesus Mena. On the day we meet her, she wears a purple-striped headband over tight braids and a turquoise sweater under the navy blue button-down shirt that’s part of the uniform her sponsor provides. Like Dawit, Meaza had never attended a school before Yesus Mena opened in 2010, when she was 8 years old.
“I used to be so angry I would cry, even in the classroom,” Meaza shares with us as she stands outside her classroom. “I used to be angry because people didn’t understand me.” Meaza emphatically shakes her head, purses her lips into a frown and firmly shakes her finger when her answer to a question is ‘no’ — exaggerated expressions that give a glimpse of how hard she’s had to work to nonverbally communicate her thoughts and feelings.
Meaza still doesn’t understand everything, and her teacher shares that she struggles a bit in school. Meaza fell behind her peers when her parents moved to a neighboring town far from Yesus Mena — causing her to drop out for a year. Day laborers in a sugar plantation, her parents — like most parents in this community — could not afford to send Meaza to school without the support of sponsors. Meaza now lives with her relatives closer to town, but like many of her classmates, she walks over two hours to get to school each day — a sacrifice she makes, she says, because she wants to continue learning.
“I’m not angry anymore,” Meaza signs to her teacher, with a smile that seems to come naturally. Meaza talks of all the friends she has made, how they enjoy studying together and braiding each other’s hair. “I’m so happy,” she says, “now that I am able to communicate.”
Both Meaza and Dawit were fortunate to be among the first class of students at the first school ever to offer sign language-based education in Shinshicho. But when over 200 children arrived at the gate six years ago, teachers and administrators felt devastated to have to turn even a single student away — much less the 150 that exceeded the capacity ofthe two-room school. Immediately, the board of Yesus Mena worked to expand the school, partnering with a German organization to build three solid stone block buildings made up of 14 classrooms that accommodate nearly 500 students.
But as the school grew, so grew the need for teachers and supplies and uniforms for the children. The depth of poverty in this community may have never been quite so apparent as when hundreds of children arrived at the deaf school each day — hungry and exhausted from walking two hours, in clothing so dirty you had no idea what color it was to begin with and holes so large they exposed most of their skin.
“The first time I visited here, it made me cry,” Gelila says as we sit and observe a class. “They barely had clothes or shoes. Some were nearly naked.”
The school’s founder soon realized that classrooms and desks and teachers are meaningless if children have no energy to learn. “Students walk about ten kilometers — ten kilometers!” Abura says emphatically of the six-mile journey some students must walk to get to school every day. “As soon as they arrived at the classrooms, they used to sleep. The first time we came to visit the students, we were just really, really sorry. They came here to learn, but they were sleeping. How should we avoid this, we said.”
Abura is a tall, dignified man who wears a raincoat around his shoulders like a cloak. Both Abura and the chairman of the board drove six hours to thank us for the work Holt has done to strengthen and empower families and children in Abura’s hometown of Shinshicho.
Before Holt came alongside Yesus Mena in 2014, Abura says, they partnered with an organization that provided one cup of tea and one slice of bread for the children every day for a year. At the end of the year, the program abruptly ended when the organization ran out of funding. “We were in trouble!” Abura tells us, punctuating his words with raised arms. “Again, we approached many organizations, including Holt. Holt International promised to support [the students] by providing lunch every day, which is wonderful, wonderful.”
The board chairman, a somewhat intimidating gentleman who serves as the head of Ethiopia’s justice bureau, cuts off Abura to say, matter-of-factly, “If Holt hadn’t helped us to survive, the school would be closed.”
As we speak, two women arrive with lunch for the students carried on a cart pulled by donkeys and begin setting up steaming pots of cabbage, rice, a traditional chickpea stew called shiro, and injera — the spongy bread that Ethiopians eat with most meals.
Since Holt began the feeding program at Yesus Mena two years ago, the students have become very “fat and healthy,” the chairman says — the definition of “fat” in Ethiopia meaning anywhere above underweight. At home, the children likely eat sparingly. But with just one good meal per day, they have more strength and energy to walk to school and learn throughout the day. In their classroom, quiet but for the scrape of chalk, they exuberantly raise and shake their hands for an opportunity to write English letters on the board or sign the Amharic alphabet for their classmates. At lunchtime, the noise level rises to that of a typical playground during recess as they line up to eat and then play in the muddy schoolyard.
Gelila shares some of the additional needs that Holt sponsors meet for the children they support at Yesus Mena — including books, notepads, pens and pencils and crayons, uniforms, art supplies, toys, games and teacher’s aids. With support from sponsors, Holt pays salaries for teachers — all of whom have degrees or training in special education. Some are deaf and some can hear — key for the 97 hearing students in attendance at Yesus Mena.
“The government wants deaf and hearing students to learn together so that it’s normalized,” Gelila explains. “At deaf schools in Addis, the policy is to incorporate 10-15 percent hearing students.” Here, many of the hearing students are siblings of the 395 students who are deaf or have partial hearing.
Enrolling both deaf and hearing students at Yesus Mena underscores the critical importance of inclusive sign language education in a community with such a high prevalence of deafness. And every Saturday, the teachers at Yesus Mena hold sign language class for the parents and family members of the children at the school. Some of them dutifully walk the same six miles their children walk each day, and they sit side by side in the same desks where their children also learn.
After class one Saturday, we visit Dawit and his mother at his home. As they sit facing each other, Dawit’s mom asks her son to demonstrate how he first taught her sign language six years ago when he started school and would eagerly share with his mom and dad what he learned each day. Together, Dawit and his mom count numbers on their fingers and sign the English alphabet. Dawit’s long, lanky arms sit casually perched on his knees and he laughs with his mom as she demonstrates some of the words she knows how to sign — words like tea, milk and wood that are now so simple for them both, but were once so hard to express.
“Previously, it was so difficult to communicate with my son,” Dawit’s mom says of the years before he started school. “I tried to communicate, but not with any formal language.” To say “mother,” she would point to her breast. To say “father,” they had a different gesture.
“It was difficult to express our feelings. Now, I can say everything in detail,” she says with eyes as bright and warm as the hot pink scarf that covers her head.
Dawit says he is no longer angry now that his family understands him. Signing to his teacher, he shares that he is very happy, and that he loves his family. He is also grateful to his sponsors, who have empowered him through the beautiful gift of education. Smiling his adorable, crooked smile, he holds his fingertips to his mouth and slightly bows his head —signing “thank you and God bless you” to his sponsors on the other side of the camera, and the world.
Because her son now has a decent education, Dawit’s mom tells us that she no longer even thinks of her son as a deaf child. She hopes for him to achieve a great goal, to be healthy and to be as successful as children who can hear. “But most of all,” she says, “I wish for him to have a happy life.”
Robin Munro • Managing Editor