It was July 1st that I set of from Dublin Airport full of excitement and I must admit some apprehension! Not afraid of the prospect of the mission itself but simply venturing off into the completely unknown; but it’s okay as it’s adventure I thrive off!
Having received so much support in fundraising from family, friends and the school community here in CCS, I had all my finances in order for the trip. I was going to spend two amazing yet tough weeks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia volunteering with the beautiful orphans in the Sele Enat Mahiber Orphanage. I was one in a group of five that were to work together with a NGO called ‘Projects Abroad.’ We arrived in Ethiopia at an ungodly hour of the morning! On our way to the orphanage where we would be staying we were shocked as we saw people lying on the streets, wrapped up and sleeping. This atmosphere was absolutely breathtaking as everything was completely different; the smells, noises, dogs barking everywhere and the conditions some people were sleeping in. It was extremely hard to hold our tears in! After settling in with my wonderful host family it was time for my first day’s work at the orphanage. I hadn’t even set foot in the place, only to be greeted by crowds of smiling, happy kids who shouted ‘welcome’ and ‘ferenji’ (a derogatory/friendly term for a foreigner).
On the very first day we met Projects Abroad staff members Hanna and Haile (our driver) who took us on a tour of Addis Ababa. It was unbelievable how friendly everyone was; everyone said ‘Hello’ when we walked past them. We went for a spin through the two five-star hotels which made the disparity between the rich and the poor very clear. What made it even more unusual was that outside these fancy hotels were homeless people lying on the grass, face down, sleeping.
Back at the orphanage the children were all so friendly and lovable, I couldn’t believe it. Despite what was going on around them they couldn’t help but smile. The first day we arrived the children all ran up to us asking us the same questions - ‘What’s your name?’, ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘What age are you?’ They were so interested in us and they were amazed by my white skin and curly hair. From that day onward the children amazingly remembered our names and every time they saw us they’d shout to us to come and play with them. As there were five of us, two of us went to work with the younger group, two to work with the older kids.
Our primary objectives there were to increase levels of basic literacy and numeracy whilst encouraging good personal hygiene. Each night we would devise different games and activities suitable to their ages and abilities. Anything from nursery rhymes to creating a ‘Japanese wish tree’; we had to be resourceful with the little we had. Imagination is key! For example, one day I went to the market and bulk bought toothbrushes and toothpaste for the kids. With these we would teach them how to brush their teeth properly, and now that they each had their own toothbrush and paste they could make it a daily routine.
Another day we received donations of new toilet blocks and sinks that were unwanted at a nearby building project. I along with two other lads set about ripping out the completely inadequate existing toilets in order to clean, retile and install the newly donated facilities. Leaving long term improvements like this and painting the special needs room gave me a great feeling of accomplishment.
I found it is often the simplest things that have the most profound effect. Sometimes a simple embrace or kiss or even reading a story in English touches them in ways you never thought possible. They have a deep want as all children do to be loved and cared for, but unfortunately due to their circumstances they don’t have that mother/father figure. All they have is each other, the nannies and us volunteers. This was perhaps the most difficult thing for me to see as I know personally here we have everything we could ever possibly need or want and we don’t give a second thought to most things. It's only when you see what it could be like to grow up in a society where you are unwanted and unsupported that your eyes are opened.
On the flip side, it is heartening to know that some of them will be successfully adopted abroad (mostly to the US). Due to some cases of abuse of Ethiopian orphans in the US, the adoption process has been totally frozen. No more new adoption cases may be put through the courts. It’s sad to see the kids again victims of corruption, greed and bureaucracy. Every day with the kids I made my best effort to make a difference. Even through it was only small and hardly scraped the surface, I left happy knowing that I had done something and left my mark, knowing that someday soon I would return again.
I personally enjoyed spending time with the older kids the most and I grew very attached to one in particular - Kirubel, a twelve-year-old boy. We both share the same dreams and hopes and he had a huge interest in Irish footballers and can even recount stories from our very own Roy Keane! I found it extremely difficult to say goodbye to him when we left, as he shouted, ‘come back Irish’ with tears rolling down his little face.
Overall, they were the best two weeks of my life (and that’s not a cliché, seriously)! I learnt so much about the world and myself; the memories will stay with me forever. Be grateful for what you have and love those around you because at the end of the day we're here for a short time not a long one! If you feel like you’d like to do something similar I strongly encourage you to do so. You’ll thank yourself after!