When I began a Women’s English Club at my host institution of Ambo University in 2014, I never thought that it would continue to provide opportunities for all involved over a year later. From seeing President Obama speak at the African Union in 2015 to being on a panel at TESOL as it pertained to the work we are doing in Ethiopia in 2016, I have been honored to be a leader of sorts for these young, empowered women I work with. Wishing to share our success on a larger scale, I wrote a letter to Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) about the work we have done both inside as well as outside the classroom, as she too has vested interest in girls’ education, having started a number of positive initiatives through her capacity as an ambassador of gender equality.
Last week I received a package from the White House addressed to the Women’s Club which included a letter, two signed photos, and a stack of personalized postcards, all of which will act as continued motivation for these young women. Last year I received a letter from my Congressman, but clearly, this trumps that, as the work we do within the Women’s Club is a direct reflection of the priorities of the First Lady and a testament to what empowered students can do, regardless of their circumstances…
My first commitment to Djibouti and the reason I have been able to develop such a close relationship with the country, even more so than Soccer donations, is English Education. Over the course of my two previous visits in 2015 and 2016, I have met with University Instructors, conducted a lesson at an American Library, and likewise been part of a roundtable discussion of educational leaders within the community. Each time I have welcomed the opportunities and grown from the experiences, taking many of the lessons learned back with me to share with my students and colleagues in Ethiopia. Even while back in my host country though, I have aimed to continue a working relationship with the English Language community in Djibouti, and in fact, recently was part of a Webinar between myself and a group of volunteer teachers who share their knowledge with students through an English Language Association.
The Noural-Iman Teacher and Student Association is comprised of teachers who have graduated from the program and in turn given back to their community, hosting classes twice a week for marginalized youth who still have a desire to learn English. Comprised of 12 teachers, this group leads different classes of varying levels through the basic skill sets associated with language acquisition. With an equal number of both male and female teachers, it is inspiring to see such organic leadership displayed in the classroom, with lessons taught that reach far beyond the walls of the school. Inspired by their teachers who were once in the same seats as themselves, it is a lesson for the students in empowerment through education which permeates every class; the students’ vision expanded by what their teachers have been able to accomplish with the tool of English, and following, the painting of broadened horizons for their own future endeavors.
Having met the teachers before virtually through our Webinar, it was obviously a much more fulfilling experience to visit their school in person, helping to solidify our relationship as colleagues, even if they are Djiboutian and I am an American living in Ethiopia. Language shouldn’t recognize boundaries, and the motivation of these teachers likewise knows no limitations. They are creating a model of education of which others should take note, using limited resources coupled with endless determination to make a difference in the lives of the students who the teachers understand are the future of Djibouti, paving the path which will lead the way forward.
Joining me for the school visit was Anne Marie Burk, an English Language Specialist with the U.S. Department of State, on a month-long teaching assignment in Djibouti. With a background in Journalism, this is her second tour of the country, having been before last year in 2015. With experience like myself across a wide array of countries and cultures, she came with an insight which speaks to her professionalism and personality, sharing with the teachers and students alike the importance of English as a mechanism for change. Together, we were admittedly a rare opportunity for this or any school in Djibouti – two established foreign professionals visiting to share ideas and suggestions.
I hope that this was not my last trip to Djibouti, a country I have grown to love, ironically, through my experiences living in Ethiopia. Each time I visit I become more enamored with the people, the culture (and the seafood). So close in proximity yet so different in ideology, it is about a 20-minute flight from my host city of Dire Dawa, yet I always feel that the change in topography, language, religion and even food should require a greater distance. If time and budgets permit, I may try to make one last trip to my neighbor to the North, helping to give credence to the incredible work taking place there at places like Noural-Iman Teacher and Student Association, and to reaffirm my belief that regardless of circumstances or location, empowerment to make a change exists everywhere…
Last week during Ethiopian Easter, I took the opportunity to travel to our neighboring country to the North, Djibouti, to do both educational and cultural outreach. Utilizing a small portion of a $50,000 Nike Soccer Donation I secured, I worked in partnership with the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti to promote gender empowerment through sports, working in conjunction with the nonprofit, Local Initiatives For Education (L.I.F.E.) as well as the Djibouti Football Federation. Early on Thursday morning, before the Sun got mad at me for smiling on a cloudy day, we made our way to the FIFA compound for speeches by local representatives, including Ambassador Kelly who was likewise on hand for the donation ceremony. Members from the Football Federation, the Ministry of Sports, as well as a local girls’ team were also there, everyone excited about the experience to not only share the generous equipment, but moreover, to use the opportunity as a teachable moment for empowering youth through athletic initiatives.
Over the course of my two years in Ethiopia, this was my third time visiting Djibouti, as it is has a draw which only my Soul can understand. Situated on the Gulf of Aden, it embodies a French-infused past with a strong modern Yemeni population. With world-class snorkeling and incredible seafood from those same waters, it is a country which many people couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand. I however have grown to love Djibouti and its people, with a vested interest which grows every time I visit, specifically with respect to the educational sector there and the colleagues I have come to know through my interactions. This time, to couple my past educational-related visits with a donation pertaining to sports, the two complimented each other as they are both pathways to social understanding. I was honored to be a part of this program, and following, to work with such amazing people on this project.
Then donation of cleats, balls and jerseys was from Nike Korea, spearheaded by my friend Mr. Kim whom I came to know during my five years teaching and living on the Peninsula. A literal world and a figurative lifetime away, to have the U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti next to me handing out these gifts was something I never imagined when I was in Korea and something which I believe speaks volumes to this global community of which I am a part. From their end in Djibouti, the project was organized by the Cultural Attaché, Joia Starks, and the IRC Coordinator, Turki Mohamed, both of whom were able to bring everyone together. When I visited earlier this year in January during Ethiopian Christmas, we put the ball in motion (pun intended), culminating with the past week’s programming, a successful partnership for everyone involved.
Even more so than English, Soccer is a global language which stretches across countries and continents, with dialects playing the role of your favorite team. For me personally, the sport had the single largest influence on my youth, with Saturday mornings as a child playing with friends to trips to Europe as a teenager playing with teammates. To this day, regardless of the country I am in anywhere on the globe, at a bar or in a cab, if I bring up the topic of a recent La Liga match or a 1995 trip to I took to Wembley Stadium, I am immediately welcomed into a community which stretches beyond race, religion or language. To share these ideas with marginalized youth on the Horn of Africa, in partnership with colleagues from across the world, is the definition of true education outside the classroom which no syllabus can match. For this I am grateful and hope that through projects like this, I am able to be a part of a lasting legacy on behalf of American, Korean and even Ethiopian people; a cultural ambassador of sorts from these places I live, both learning and teaching with those I cross paths with across the globe…