A Flicker of Candlelight Amid the Darkness

Working to save a lost generation in Ethiopia

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Anduamlak Getnet was too young to remember the night six years ago when he was gently pulled away from his dead mother’s breast. Nor does he remember the moment when his father died – both parents succumbing to AIDS. According to the Ministry of Health, Anduamlak is one of the one million AIDS orphans living in Ethiopia right now. With no social welfare system in place, their childhood memories will be short and not always sweet.

Yet 7-year-old Anduamlak and his brother, Melesa, 10, are more fortunate than many orphans. They moved in with their blind grandmother – their lone relative. She tries her best to help them, but at age 80, disabilities limit her. So rather than care for them, Anduamlak and Melesa care for her. They wash the clothes, prepare the food, scavenge for firewood, water the chat plants and, when they find time, study their textbooks.

In spite of having no parents and no income, and living in a country that the World Food Program claims has the lowest primary education enrollment rate in the world, the brothers actually do study. Anduamlak and Melesa have this opportunity thanks largely to CNEWA’s needy child program. This program, which assists just over 29,000 children in 10 countries, provides assistance – in the form of school tuition, uniforms, materials, food, medical care, counseling and even shelter – to almost 5,000 of the neediest children in Ethiopia.

While the program is funded by generous individuals in the United States it is the religious sisters and lay women working at a grassroots level throughout Ethiopia who drive it. These women direct and staff some 60 orphanages, day care centers, church groups and schools that the needy child program partners in Ethiopia.

They know their community intimately and handpick those families most in need for the program.

Moreover, these women represent the only chance these children have for a future beyond illiteracy and hand-to-mouth survival.

Like candlelight flickering in darkness, they offer a glimmer of hope.

The field. In the Bole section of Addis Ababa, they call it “the field,” an innocent enough name for land long slated as the site of a future sports stadium. However, the sight of trash scraps jumbled together into huts, the sound of rats scratching through debris and the smell of human waste permeating the area violate the senses. A more apt name might well be “the dump where people live.”

Fleeing famine more than 10 years ago, many families migrated to the city in hope of a better life. Hundreds of these families squatted on this wasteland fearfully anticipating the day when the government would arrive with a bulldozer. Daily survival is challenging; so much so, some mothers have resorted to renting their newborns to beggars for a pittance in the hope the child will draw spare change.

At first, the families lived on the land for free, but eventually the government demanded rent. Sister Mary James Clines, a Good Shepherd Sister from Dix Hills, New York, who has worked in Ethiopia for eight years said, “It is hard to believe some of these people are paying rent. I mean I could hear rats. The squatters pay about 50 birr ($6) a month, a lot to them, but at least this is a roof over their heads.”

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Tags: Ethiopia Orphans/Orphanages HIV/AIDS Grassroots Initiative