From Ambo University to the U.S. Embassy: Wondimalem Geneti

Last year when I first arrived in Ethiopia, I was placed at Ambo University, in the Oromia Region, about a three-hour drive West of the capital, Addis Ababa.  I would spend the next 10 months of my life there, living and teaching, getting to know both myself and Ethiopia through a lens which I had never before focused, with unparalleled insight into a world which has forever changed me.  For most of the year, I lived without water or electricity as well as a systematic blocking of communication including internet and telephone due to the conflicting dynamics of where I lived in relation to the country’s ruling demographic.  This was my new reality and one which admittedly took me quite a while to adjust to.  Looking for and finding solace in my work, I would often retreat to the University campus and the English Department there, hoping to help out others while at the same time looking for assistance myself.

Working under such circumstances, I became close with the Department Head, Mr. Wondimalem Geneti, who helped guide me through the complications associated with Ethiopian education.  More of a friend than a colleague, Wonde showed me around campus, introduced me to others outside our department, and helped me see what was possible despite all of the roadblocks.  Throughout the Semester, I looked to him for guidance and advice, while at the same time encouraging him to apply for U.S. funded scholarships and programs.  He was a true gem of the education system which Ethiopia is capable of producing, and his knowledge, I believed, should be shared across a larger platform than just within the confines of Ambo University.


With help and insistence from my end, and with unmatched initiative and determination from his, Wondimalem applied to the Mandela Washington Fellowship as well as the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship (where he placed third out of hundreds!) while also completing an online program through the American English Institute at the University of Oregon (run in partnership with the U.S. State Department).  Read: this man completed a 10-week online course with an esteemed American university from a place where there was no internet!  I would hear about him going to the office around midnight just to get a signal strong enough to log on and read the material.  At times he would lose weeks, falling off pace, and his Oregon instructor would contact me, but in a country where persistence is everything, Wondimalem finished strong, gaining accolades and graduating with distinction.

In working with the Public Affairs Section at the Embassy, I heard that they were looking for an assistant to help with the educational programming we do across the country with various universities.  Immediately, I recommended Wonde, espousing the virtues of him as not only a colleague at Ambo but more importantly, as someone who understands the landscape of Ethiopia and would continue to be a proponent of strong and innovative ideas as they pertained to tertiary education.  With a background as the coordinator of the Access MicroScholarship Program at Ambo University and with experience working with one of the more demanding people he would ever come across: Me, Wondimalem had already been indoctrinated into the American way of management, understanding that we oftentimes don’t accept the proverbial “don’t worry…tomorrow” attitude, but rather, expect immediate results.

U.S. Embassy, Ethiopia

During my recent conference back in the States, I had to make a telephone call back to Wondimillionare in Ethiopia, and was happy to hear him answer from the friendly confines of the U.S. Embassy!  While I knew of his impending hire, to hear a different tone in his voice on a telephone that actually accepted and received calls was a welcomed directional change along a path which I am sure will be long and full of opportunity.   Returning last week to Addis, it brought a smile to my face to see him sitting there in the Information Resource Center at the Embassy, working away on educational-related activities with a computer which had unlimited internet access.  More than anyone I know, Wonde deserves the tools and infrastructure to help nurture his development, as he will undoubtedly make the most of these opportunities. For if you had told me in the Fall of 2014 when I first arrived that as I prepare to leave Ethiopia in the Summer of 2016, Wondimalem Geneti would have moved from Ambo University to the U.S. Embassy, I would have easily believed it and only wonder why it didn’t happen sooner…


Ethiopian Educational Context in Washington, DC

Last week I had the honor to present at the world’s largest convention for English Teachers at the annual International TESOL Conference in Baltimore.  Speaking on “Gender Empowerment through English Education” on a panel of East African colleagues, I was able to share with a global audience some of the work I am doing with Women’s English Clubs in Ethiopia.  Teaching last year at Ambo University and this year at Dire Dawa University, I have had the chance to identify shortcomings with respect to gender equality in the classroom and in turn aim to promote empowerment through learning opportunities both inside as well as outside of campus.  To be able to share these experiences with English Educators from Asia to Europe as well as numerous ECA State Department colleagues in attendance was more a reflection of the students I work with than of what I have been able to do as an individual.
NVCC Students with Lucy
Northern Virginia Community College
While in the greater Washington, DC area, I also took the opportunity to meet with two esteemed Ethiopians whom I had met previously in Addis.  Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, a Fulbright Scholar in Film Studies, invited me to speak to her class at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) about my experiences teaching and living abroad.  The discussion was not limited to only an Ethiopian context but rather focused on the dichotomies I have seen firsthand teaching on four different continents.  Language is a part of culture and to be able to share my observations from different learning demographics around the globe gives credence to the notion that in fact, the World is our Classroom!
…And Justice For All
Another individual I was able to connect with was Sousena Kebede, an attorney from Addis Ababa who now resides in Alexandria.  With a legal focus on Human Rights, it was a pleasure to speak with her through the lens of an American viewpoint tinted with an Ethiopian shade.  Sousena has worked in both an Ethiopian as well as American context as it pertains to Law, and to compare her field to my familiarity with Education helped to shed light on the important role each plays in terms of sustainable development in both countries.
Cherry Trees/Jefferson Memorial
While there was undoubtedly more to my trip including food, beer, baseball, and even Cherry Blossoms, the underlying parameters of my transcontinental journey were to help bridge the educational and cultural relationship between the U.S. and Ethiopia.   From the professional honor of presenting at TESOL to the personal nature of informal meetings with colleagues, it was nearly two weeks of putting into practice the conference theme: “Reflecting Forward“…