So That All May See
Ashenda Brings a Community Together
by Brittany Franck (Mekelle 2011–13; PC Response/Mekelle 2014)
In Ethiopia, living with a disability is often extremely challenging. In some communities having a child with a disability results in rejection or ridicule and people with disabilities are stigmatized. Because of this, parents have kept their disabled children hidden in their homes, keeping them away from school or community life. There is an increasing awareness in Ethiopia of the negative effect such practices can have, and efforts are being made at many levels, from bureaus to nongovernmental organizations, to encourage attitude change in communities. As an education PCV, I had the opportunity to be a part of this movement for change.
I was placed in a cluster of schools in Tigray, one of which was a boarding school for the blind. When I first came to the campus, most people in my community were unaware we had a boarding school for the blind in our neighborhood. The children stayed within the confines of the compound, and rarely, if ever, socialized with people from the surrounding community. Little by little I tried to hold events that would bring people from the community onto our campus, or bring our kids into the shared community spaces. We held play days at a local playground, inviting children from the neighborhood to join us in soccer matches and crafts projects. We collaborated with local hospitals and eye clinics to establish links for health care access for the children, and invited local dentists and medical students to offer dental screenings and cleanings in our makeshift clinic.
The female students, however, remained extremely shy, often staying in their dark bedrooms. When the time came to celebrate the cultural holiday Ashenda, the girls asked me if there was a way they could participate. I was excited to work with them on this. Ashenda is an important cultural event in Tigray, when girls and women dress in colorful clothing and dance and sing throughout the town. The regional government also holds a program in Mekelle, the region’s capital, on the first morning of the multi-day holiday and invites local groups to showcase their performances. In the past, women with disabilities were largely excluded from this event; the girls on our campus had never participated in it before.
I had been working with a woman named Genet from the Women with Disabilities Association of Tigray (WWDAT) and together we went into the community to gain support for including women with disabilities in the event. We approached the Regional Culture and Tourism Board, the agency in charge of the event, and requested the inclusion of our group in the program. The Bureau offered their support, donating some funds for girls’ clothes and arranged stage time for the girl to perform. None of the girls owned cultural clothing, so through donations from the US and from our community, we purchased each girl a new dress and a pair of shoes. Since the school has no means of transportation, we weren’t sure how to get the girls into town to get measured for their dresses. But, just in time, a local eye clinic offered us their bus to bring all of the students to town for eye exams, and the dressmaker came to the clinic and measured the girls while they waited. The women of the WWDAT made and donated all of the needed accessories and styled the girls’ hair. We had a coffee ceremony while their hair was being styled, and they chatted in excited voices, feeling each other’s hairstyles and new dresses. The campus had changed noticeably; all of the girls were finally outside of their bedrooms, filling the air with singing and the beating of their new drum while they danced around in a circle.
But Ashenda did not occur that year. Instead the day was the beginning of mourning the death of the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Genet and I went to the campus to offer our support to the girls. Amidst their words about the Prime Minister, one girl said that though they didn’t actually participate in an Ashenda, they finally believed that one day they would.
And they did! My Peace Corps service had ended before Ashenda, but I received a photo of the girls dressed up and finally taking part in the Ashenda program! Genet had taken on the role of organizing their participation, and again the Culture and Tourism Bureau had offered their support.
It is a year later, and I am back in Mekelle as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, working with the Health and Education Bureau to improve the condition of the school, including establishing a clinic, and recruiting and training a nurse.
When Ashenda approached, the girls were eager to start planning their program. Genet took the lead and garnered the support of the Regional Culture and Tourism Board again, and we were able to gain the support of the community again for shoes, a new drum as the old one had finally worn out from use (a great sign!). Our group grew to include 25 girls and women, including students from the School for the Blind, the School for the Deaf and members of WWDAT. What a joy it was to be there dancing with my sisters.
We have a great opportunity as PCVs to contribute to building an inclusive society. We often stand out as PCVs, and though this can have its disadvantages, it can also be a great gift. When I am at the hospital with a group of the children or playing soccer with them, people notice. They might be shy at first, but eventually, people will ask who I am and start talking to the kids or join us in a game. Often people ask me, how can the girls dance or how can the boys play soccer? In response, I invite them to join us, and often this encourages them to realize that the kids at our school are a lot like the kids in their family. Deeply held attitudes usually aren’t changed by a short training or a daylong workshop, but they can be changed as people have the opportunity to interact with people with disabilities and question, within themselves, the attitudes they might have had. There aren’t really measurable inputs and outcomes to attitude change, at least not in the short-term. Over the past three years, Ashenda has shown us that change can happen. Instead of questioning whether they can participate in Ashenda, the girls at the Blind School start preparing as the time approaches, and the Culture and Tourism Bureau does not hesitate in offering support. Our group of girls and women has really grown. I trust that the Ashenda program will continue in the coming years, though finding the budget for transportation and clothing will remain a challenge. I hope though, that as the community’s ideas towards these girls become more positive, this might become less of a challenge.
I am grateful to my community for the time and resources they have given to our projects, the knowledge they have shared with me, and for trusting me to work with them.