During my first visit to Ethiopia I was working with partners from Save the Children and had a chance to visit their programs for vulnerable children.  Some of these children had lost a mother or father due to HIV/AIDS, some had lost both. Some were HIV positive, some were not.  Some had watched their parents die with little help and no pain relief.  While many children facing this situation are taken in to the loving care of the extended African family, these children had fallen through the cracks.  Many of them experienced the  ravages of hunger, poverty and abuse, on top of the pain of parental loss.  The programs we visited were working with these children and their caretakers to assist them with shelter, food, education, health care, psychosocial support, legal assistance, and income generation activities.

Education: The school was made of corrugated tin.  There were about 270 children in three small rooms.  We stooped to enter to find tables in neat lines on the dirt floor, school supplies in good order, and children in matching uniforms singing for us!  As I scanned the room it was like a roomful of kinds anywhere, some singing out of duty, others pure joy.  But it was different than the classrooms I was used to also. Among these children, who are all here because they need some kind of help, a few stood out as needing more. I pause here, because I resist describing the telltale signs of damage on a child. The front room was windowless, but had both a doorway and a hole in the roof to let in light.   We were led in to the room behind, darker still with no egress, where the older children were working on reading and math.  They stood to attention when we entered, except for a girl in the front row who looked to be about nine (likely she was older), who kept at her arithmetic.  She caught me looking at her and offered me her notebook.  Rows of arithmetic.  Getting them right. I looked at the simple structure, breathed in the thick heat in this back room, and wondered at what it would be like to study here all day.  Yet real learning was taking place.

Selling Eggs

Income generation:  We visited an income generation project where the community was keeping chickens and harvesting eggs to eat and sell.   They were doing well and had a big basket of eggs for sale to show for it.

Down the road at the chicken farm we were regaled with the story of how the women were opening a restaurant.  They were so proud to be making money and taking care of their families.

Dance Club

Psychosocial Support-DANCE! We also visited a youth club that is oriented toward providing recreation, psychosocial support and education about how to stay healthy and AIDS free.  This group had specialized in dance,  and they became so good that they won a number of competitions and had had a chance to travel together to Cuba to dance!  The school  drama club joined in with acts and songs related to healthy lifestyles, addressing the stigma that they sometimes experience, and other topics of their choosing.  It was great to see these young people excelling in a physical activity and supporting each other.

School Garden

Food:  While all kinds of food assistance is taking place here, from breakfast programs to food distribution to households, one wonderful and hopeful program we saw was a school garden when children in vulnerable situations grow their own food, learn gardening skills, and benefit from enjoying it also.

It is sobering to know that programs like these are reaching only a small proportion of children who need them. But being with these children, even in this cursory way, made me want to work very hard in the following weeks and months to make a difference for them.
Based on journal entries and emails from February 2007.