‘Education is the great engine to personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that the child of farmworker can become the president of a great nation.”
This quote from Nelson Mandela greets us as we enter the facebrick Ethiopian Children’s Fund (ECF) village in Aleltu, about 45km from the capital city of Addis Ababa.
As we alight from the bus, our eyes are glued to an old hut made of mud and sticks.
“This was our first classroom when we started the school in 1998. We decided to keep it as a sign of how far we have come,” founder of the school Anna Gatenah quickly explains as she notices the confusion on our faces.
Gatenah, a tall, dark-skinned and beautiful former international model, is the daughter of Ethiopian diplomat parents. She was born in Sweden and her glamorous modelling days have taken her all over the world – she has lived in Paris, New York and recently SA, where she has a clothing store.
Dressed smartly and impeccably groomed, the former supermodel is familiar with the most beautiful cities in the world.
But it is here in Aleltu, an historically impoverished community, that she is well and truly home.
You can hear a pin drop. It is very quiet. Learning is in progress.
“This is our new dining hall,” Gatenah points to an incomplete structure.
“Learners used to eat in groups because of a lack of space but soon all the learners will have a meal at the same time.
“We started with just 18 kids. Now we have more than 600 learners. Most of them are orphans.”
It was very difficult back then, says Gatenah, because people in the community were not sure if she’d come to bring a new religion or if she was intending to adopt or take away the kids.
The former cover girl then leads us into one of the lower grade classrooms.
“Good morning, good morning. Welcome, welcome. I am happy to see you,” the class burst into song to greet us.
The group I am with then leaves to visit another class but I stay behind to listen to a boy getting ready to read for the class.
Patiently the teacher waits as he stutters and struggles. Eventually he gets through his fear and reads fluently.
The class applauds and the boy walks proudly back to his chair.
The idea for the school was born 18 years ago when Gatenah was still working and living in Paris.
“I was approached by the non-profit Pharmacies Without Borders to raise funds for medicine and create awareness of East Africa. We came to Ethiopia and stayed at the refugee camp for a week giving out medicine and looking after people. From there a lot of things changed for me.
“I immediately knew that I wanted to do more and get involved,” she explains.
Education is free in Ethiopia but students must buy their own uniforms and stationery.
According to Unicef statistics, the proportion of literate adults in the country stands at just 30 percent and primary school enrolment and attendance is at 84 percent, up from 31 percent in 2005.
The children may still be using slates and lack many resources but Gatenah and her staff’s work at ECF shows glimmers of hope in a country that’s still rebuilding itself as a force in Africa.
I leave to catch up with my group.
We are now in a senior classroom. Gatenah introduces us to the class and asks if anyone has questions.
Dozens of hands go up. A young man sitting at the back of the class goes first.
“What do I have to do to be successful?” he asks us.
The question sounds simple but it is a difficult one to answer considering the boy’s circumstances.
“First you need to study hard and second and most importantly you need to find something that you love and search for talent that you are good at and pursue it.” We are saved by SA television personality Dr Michael Mol, who answers eloquently.
Many more youngsters ask similar questions. It is clear they’re eager to learn and hungry for knowledge.
Then lunchtime arrives. And like moths to a flame, the children flock to the dining hall to receive their free meal.
An extensive tour of the school reveals a library, a computer centre and a resident doctor.
All of this is made possible by the help of generous donors and sponsors.
The school receives nothing from the Ethiopian government.
“In 2010, we had our first graduation and 75 percent of the students received honours and two of our learners got distinctions,” Gatenah says, beaming with pride.
Her parents still live in America. She says there are four million high-profile, educated, skilful and rich Ethiopians living outside their impoverished native country and she believes that if they returned they could make a big difference.
“It won’t be easy but later this year I will be moving back home full-time to continue being part of the development of my country and continue making a difference where I can,” she says.
A proverb reads: “It takes a nation to raise a child.” And it dawns on me that children’s fund is a true reflection of that saying.
With that I am reminded of another quote from Mandela: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural.
“It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.
“Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
I get on the bus as we prepare to leave. I look back at the school and realise that this great generation of children will surely blossom.