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Big Dreams, Tough Reality

Ethiopia’s students at a crossroads

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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The traditions of Addis Ababa University’s main campus, Sidist Kilo, may not rival those of Paris’s Left Bank or Cambridge’s Harvard Square. But on this late December afternoon, before Addis Ababa’s chilly night air clenches its grip on pedestrian activity, the scene certainly captures much of the same energy. Vendors hawk the remainder of their newspapers. Blue and white minibuses leapfrog one another for passengers. Scruffy shoeshine boys solicit one last customer. And booksellers stand over their textbook-covered tarps talking up their inventory. Amid all the hustle and bustle, groups of university students — Ethiopia’s brightest young minds — mill about, chatting and making plans.

Getachew Tamiru, a slender 21-year-old with a confident air, fits right in. Despite his rural roots, he sports an urban ease. He totes a heavy shoulder bag, texts away on his cell phone and exchanges trademarked handshakes with friends. He smiles often and laughs effortlessly. From outward appearances, Mr. Getachew, as do his friends, shows no signs of life’s many hardships.

As the sun sets, he and his pals meander down dimly lit Algeria Street to a nearby cafe. There, they delight in a Sunday evening ritual of coffee and conversation. Sipping on macchiatos made from Ethiopia’s finest beans (which top anything Paris’s Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore serves up), they chat philosophically about the many issues of the day — politics, faith, university life, globalization, relationships and family. But the topic that arises most often and with the greatest sense of urgency is employment. Their angst is palpable.

A recent graduate in journalism and communications, Getachew Tamiru defends why he recently attended an information session about the student visa application process at the United States Embassy. Given his current options, he, as with the majority of his peers, longs to go abroad. He needs the money and work experience. But he remains adamant about returning some day to help his country.

“There are no jobs to be found where I come from,” explains Mr. Getachew, who hails from a rural town in Ethiopia’s western region, some 370 miles from the capital.

“And there are no jobs here. I finished third in my program out of a hundred. I received a very high distinction. But now what?”

His friends Burka and Zinash, both in their last year, shake their heads in agreement. Harboring no illusions, they know in a few short months upon graduation they will be in Getachew Tamiru’s shoes, hitting the ground with a thump rather than running.

The group wraps up the discussion and heads back to the campus dormitories for the night. As he has done every night since graduating, Mr. Getachew accompanies them, slipping by the security officers at the main gate. His friends have laid out a spare mattress for him on their dorm-room floor — the only soft landing Mr. Getachew has had since earning his degree.

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Tags: Ethiopia Education Economic hardships Employment Diversity