From ONE Magazine
photographs by Asrat Habte Mariam
I was born in March 1978 in a small village called Atuy in the Gondar area of the Debre Tabor region of Ethiopia. My father was called Aklogue and my mother Serawube. Until the age of 10, I looked after our cows. My family was one of the poorest in the area so I went to live near the priests as a kolotemari [Orthodox seminarian] learning church subjects and the alphabet and begging for money with others in a group. We wore sheepskins and carried sticks to frighten the dogs. A kolotemari could be from a rich or a poor family, but we all had to beg. After I learned a little within the group, I was ready to be a deacon. I was 12 years old.
In October I walked to Bahir Dar with my friends. It took us two days and we knew nobody in town. We met a very devout man who worked in a factory. We asked him for lodging. He took us to his home and let us stay the night.
After that we stayed at St. Georges Church for four months until we received the diaconate in January from Bishop Mercarios. We had to learn the psalms in Geez [the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian Church] and be able to read them fluently. It was then that I heard my family was desperately looking for me so in February I returned home. Even though we were poor, my family celebrated my return. When I told them how beautiful Bahir Dar was, they said Addis Ababa [the capital of Ethiopia] was far more beautiful. From then on I decided to go to Addis.
I was really keen to go; another boy, who was a bit older and stronger than me, suggested that we go together. We didnt tell our families; we took only our special begging bags and the firm belief that God would provide. People knew we were kolotemari so they were generous to us. On reaching Dajen, however, we realized we were very weak the land was desert-like and the sun was strong. We were melting as we moved across the Nile Gorge.
Eventually we reached the village of Filikilik. We stayed the night and while there we discovered the people spoke a different language. We were frightened we didnt understand anyone and no one understood us. Had we passed Addis? We were scared but determined to continue.
Very early the next morning we went to the church so people knew we were church-going people. As luck would have it, we found some people who spoke Amharic. The priests talked to us and asked us a lot of questions. One of them taught us a few words in Oromiffa, the language of the region. We stayed a day and a night in this mans house and studied the language. After we were sure of the few words we learned we set out again for Addis.
We reached Sululta in June 1990. A kind man gave us one Birr and put us on the No. 30 bus to Addis. We arrived in the middle of the Mercato [a local shopping area]. The number of people and cars frightened us we just stood there, not knowing what to do. We jumped onto a No. 17 bus to escape the noise and arrived at Sedist Kilo. We needed to find a place to sleep for the night. People laughed when they heard us speak; it was obvious we were straight out of the countryside.
We came upon a well-known scoundrel of the area and asked him if he knew where we could stay. He said, No problem, and questioned us, one after the other. We told him we had just arrived in Addis and he took us to Kidane Meheret forest. We were all set to spend the night with this scoundrel in the forest when some people came along and saw us.
Why are you following this bandit? they asked. After hearing our story, the group offered to help us. One dignified lady took us to her house where a group of people was holding a small Christian community meeting. We must have been quite a sight: even after we had washed the group still stared at us in amazement. At first the lady said she could only have us for one night, but in the end she let us stay for three.
After that we went to Medhane Alem Church in Kechene [a very poor area in Addis] where we were allowed a place to stay in the graveyard, in little rooms built over the tombs. When we arrived, some kind people gave us food and bought me a straw mattress to sleep on.
In September 1991, at the start of the school year, I watched every day as the students walked to and from school. They attended Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School, known to many as the little school, although it educated more than one thousand of the most needy children from the poorest parts of Addis. I was jealous of these children so I went to the parish priest of Medhane Alem for help. He was delighted with my interest and arranged night classes for me at another school in the area. Soon this priest, who became my spiritual father, took me to Sister Ayelech, the Director of Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School.
This is my son, he said, Please educate him. Sister Ayelech was touched by my story and gave me some clothes and shoes. She said she would pay my school fee.
By September 1993, at the age of 14, I was a fifth grader at Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School. I was so excited I forgot to eat; after two days I realized I was starving. Sister Ayelech arranged for me to receive a free lunch in school. Another kind woman said she would cook supper for me every night. My studies progressed and through Sister Ayelech I came to know Sister Liz, another Daughter of Charity.
One night, as I prepared for the sixth grade national exam, a gang burst in and stabbed me with a knife. I was unconscious and was taken to the hospital. It was a terrible night, with no one to help me. The following morning I got a message to Sister Ayelech. She was shocked and rushed me to St. Mary Clinic. Clare, the nurse in charge, was also shocked and called a doctor. He said he wouldnt help me. Clare took me to two other hospitals before we reached the Black Lion Hospital. Several doctors saw me and it was through the efforts of Sister Ayelech and Clare that I am alive today. I will never forget their kindness. At one point, Clare even stayed with me until 2:00 A.M. and helped me when I was bedfast. I pray that the good Lord will look after her.
After recovering I continued my studies. I got a 92 percent on the national exam and passed into 7th grade.
During my two years in Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School, I was class monitor and also kept an eye on the small children in the road. The school directors were concerned that the children might have difficulty with languages later on so they brought in foreigners twice a week to teach English. I especially remember Sister Susan, who prepared the drama Jack and the Beanstalk for our class. I played the giant. I also played volleyball in school.
My feelings about Atse Tekle Ghiorgis cannot be put into words. I will never forget the time I spent there 1,000 poor children were gathered there and were fed, clothed, given school supplies, medical help and, above all, an education. In addition, so we wouldnt feel left out during feast day celebrations, we were given the chance to celebrate too. The sisters took me to their houses and I celebrated with them. I enjoyed every minute of those feasts. In those two years, the teachers treated me as a friend, not as a student.
Because I was the first-born child and the only one studying in my family, I went home during the first semester break to see about education for other family members. Sister Tehesh, who was then in charge of my school, gave me some clothes to take to my family. When I left home I wore short trousers and a sheepskin. On my return I wore long pants and my family listened to me with respect. My brother was sent to Bahir Dar to study and the next child, a girl, was sent to town to work for a lady and study part-time.
Gradually I progressed in my studies to 11th grade. The sisters gave me a job at St. Mary School. This allowed me to rent a couple of small rooms. I also brought my 11-year-old sister, who was engaged to be married, down to Addis to study in fourth grade at Atse Tekle Ghiorgis.
I have high hopes for the future. There was no Neighbors Association where I work, but I gathered people together and we had our first meeting this month. I was one of the leaders. I am happy that I have enough for my needs. My salary covers my food, clothes, rent and school fees. I am able to bring my friends to my little house and celebrate with them. I hope God is preparing good things for me. For all this may God look after you and me.