By Jori Epstein
“Eighty percent of Ethiopians grow up illiterate and uneducated,” American physician Rick Hodes told my Yavneh Academy of Dallas student body in 2009.
Inspired by the same drive for advocacy that motivates our journalism careers, Dalit Agronin, Rachel Siegel and I founded the Students4Students Project to combat illiteracy and support education in Third World countries. We deemed it our responsibility as members of society, journalists and Jews to look beyond our comfort zone in hopes of repairing the world. Work with Students4Students gave us experience exploring issues about which we felt passionate and showing an audience (here it was our supporters rather than readers) why they should feel passion, too. With this mindset, we funded the construction of the Sera Warka school in Gondar, Ethiopia which Rick inspired us to support.
In his Dallas speaking engagements, Rick told of his experiences. His work in Ethiopia dates back to the 1980s, spurred by a Fulbright Fellowship and time as a relief worker. In 1990, the Joint Distribution Committee hired him as their medical director for the country, and he became immediately responsible for Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel via “Operation Solomon.” Now, he cares for medical patients suffering severe heart and spine conditions. He’s seen Ethiopian patients for years and lived among them for decades, legitimizing his analysis of the country’s culture and struggles. But still I didn’t understand exactly who the Sera Warka students were, what the Joint Distribution Committee (for whom Rick works and with whom we partnered to build the school) did, or even who exactly Rick was.
As the JDC volunteers organized activities for the Sera Warka students, Jori Epstein runs with some of the younger students through the village.
Until I traveled to Ethiopia and was exposed to the Ethiopian culture, I knew little of their way of life and part of the world. This heightened understanding of human diversity (though I no doubt have much more to learn) will enhance my feature writing, showing others’ responses as I do in the passage from my trip journal below:
Ethiopians are similar to Americans in many ways. As we drive by, kids play soccer and tag. Girls gossip and laugh about the latest rumors they hear. Adults and children alike are intrigued by the new sight that passes them — yes, that’s us — and they stick together in groups as they watch our progress.
Yet despite commonalities, they also differ in many ways.
They certainly have a more resourceful and self-sufficient relationship to the natural world. As our construction guide told us, “I’m well-learned in this. In America, everything is done with machines or precast. But I know how to make the cement. I know how many parts cement, aggregate, sand bags and water constitute each pole.”
And he did.
The women and children carry young ones in cloth slings on their backs. On their heads, they pile heaps of hay, clothing, water jugs and more. Their strength is admirable and balance impeccable. I may curl 17.5 pounds (OK 7.94 kg, as I’m reminded at the Addis Ababa gym) but I doubt I can carry what they do, for as long they do with the composure that they have.
At the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia, Yavneh alumni Jori Epstein, Ilana Wernick, Miles Pulitzer and Zoe Klein board the plane back to Addis Ababa.
I couldn’t and didn’t live in their shoes for eight days, one day or even an hour. I was clearly American, white and financially privileged on this trip. I could afford to travel to their country and then return home. The reverse would be unthinkable.
But I think — and hope — that through my work, learning and interactions with those I visited, that I revealed that I am concerned, passionate, active and engaged in fighting Ethiopian poverty and mobilizing help.
The JDC opened me to a world of women transforming their lives with chicken feed and egg sales resulting from microfinance loans. It taught me that many impoverished Africans walked an average of 91.7 minutes daily to reach a safe water source (James Salzman, “Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water”). They physically lug the jugs home and struggle to support a family with resource limitations most Americans could not imagine. The few thousand dollars the JDC collects for each well shortens their walk and minimizes the dangers that vulnerable women and young girls might face along those walks. The JDC also exposed me to the serious health concerns developing countries face, including tuberculosis of the spine and cardiac disorders. Rick modeled the power that goodwill, perseverance and setting priorities have to literally save lives.
Perhaps most personally meaningful was the work I did laying bricks and mortar at the Chanqua School and playing with students there. I was able to see firsthand the power of education at the Fassiledes and Sera Warka (that’s the Dallas-funded school!) schools. School attendance is not expected, required or even the norm in Ethiopia as it is in the United States. But it clearly empowers children — especially women — when they are able to attend school. It drives their aspirations for a better life, and the hope is that it will improve living standards and broader civic participation in Ethiopia by increasing the number of able community members and leaders. In the Students4Students Sera Warka, this has certainly been the case. Attendance has grown from just 15 students to more than 90, and the farmers who once hesitated to send their students to class now do so much more willingly. Previously uninspired students now dream of being teachers. And the overcapacity school looks for a new building, which Dallas and Austin fundraising efforts work toward accomplishing.
As a journalist, it’s my responsibility to convey these experiences and reflections via words and pictures to those who remain as ignorant about Ethiopian culture as I was before my travels. Raising awareness about the conditions of poverty there, while simultaneously conveying the individuality of each Ethiopian amidst that poverty, are my responsibilities as a writer and a concerned citizen of the world. I penned 60 plus pages detailing my trip and observations in my journal recording each experience as a true journalist should. And I’m working toward supporting a second Sera Warka schoolhouse. But also, I seek to use my understanding and exposure to Third World poverty to fight the battle against local poverty. Working with Dallas and Austin’s homeless newspapers, Street Zine and The Challenger respectively, has been an integral part of my journalism career. Contributing to Dallas’ publication and finding writers from the homeless community for Austin’s, I promote these individuals’ right of expression and preserve their dignity. My experiences in Ethiopia will not just help broaden my own perspective when writing, but also it will allow me to better understand effective tactics of addressing the local poverty situation. As I seek writers from the homeless community and cater to their writing skills accordingly, reflecting on my time in Ethiopia prepares me better for each situation I face.
Jori Esptein is a UT Austin sophomore. For more information or to support the Sera Warka school, contact email@example.com.