Written by John J. Kulczycki, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago
My wife and I have sponsored a child with Plan International USA for many years. After sponsoring a couple of boys, my wife suggested we request a girl as our next sponsored child. Now that our most recent sponsored child, a girl in Cameroon, has graduated, we are requesting that the next child be a girl from Ethiopia.
Many years ago, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia and developed an affection for the country and its people. This was renewed 11 years ago when I re-visited the country with my wife, who also shares these sentiments.
Meanwhile, we have also become convinced of the importance of girls’ education for economic development and social justice. When a recent opportunity arose for me to return to Ethiopia for two weeks with a couple of Peace Corps colleagues, I decided to ask Plan to arrange a visit to its Girls Empowerment Through Education program during my stay.
The highlight of my visit was the opportunity to interact with the students and teachers, as well as with the local Plan staff. At the school I visited, I was greeted by chanting and dancing students, the traditional welcome for an honored guest. Inside the school, a young woman preformed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
But most of all, I valued the opportunity to ask the girls about their needs.
At another school, I was introduced to three mothers participating in Plan’s Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) program and learned how they increased their income so that they could send their children to school.
I enjoyed being able to talk with them, and I drew a laugh when I asked if they give the money they earn to their husbands! No, the money is kept separately, they said.
It was especially touching to hear one woman’s story as we were leaving. She told us that because of her mother’s illness, she has replaced her in the savings group. She had to drop out of school after eighth grade so that she could support her six siblings.
The local Plan staff members then took me to an Ethiopian restaurant for lunch, where I enjoyed not only the traditional food, but also the friendly and informal manner in which the staff treated me. I felt very much at home.
Finally, the staff took me to a Plan project at a rehabilitation center where girls are provided with vocational skills. I visited a salon where the girls practiced hair dressing on each other. After the social worker explained the project to me, she asked if I had any questions for the girls. I had the social worker ask them how many children they wanted to have when they get married, which drew a widespread giggle. The first ones said one or two children. When one said “four,” I responded in Amharic, the local language, “Two is enough,” which again drew a laugh from the girls.
But, most moving of all was when the social worker asked me how many children I have. When I said none, she responded, “These are your children.” I have accepted this mandate and still choke up when I think of it.
After visiting the Plan program and other schools during my stay in Ethiopia, I learned much about the formidable obstacles to girls’ education. Yet, I remain convinced of its importance for Ethiopian and other societies. Plan International and others demonstrate that progress is possible.
For others who wish to visit Plan’s programs, I would advise learning at least a few phrases in the language of the country. Of course, I had the advantage in having lived in Ethiopia for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, though that was many years ago. Also, come armed with a batch of ball point pens to hand out to children when the occasion arises. I enjoyed giving them out during my trip and was always rewarded with smiles and laughter.