My bungalow sits around the corner from a middle school whose front lawn looks like the cover story of a landscaping magazine. It’s THAT gorgeous. The grass is spotless and full, the bricks are redder than red, and during the school year an entire community extravaganza ensues. It’s a production that features the very best concerted efforts of parents, teachers, crossing guards, police, and a caravan of black and yellow buses.
But for me, the real show happens in the front of my house. It’s the weekday morning rush. The show begins at about 8 A.M. and I grab a front row seat to catch a glimpse: a parade of SUV’s and minivans pack themselves into the church lot across the street, vying for a chance to see their children off to school without getting a parking ticket. The sidewalks and streets run with the flood of young minds eager and wanting for knowledge, a mass exodus of hopeful vessels linked to the hands of their parents as they make the hundred-yard journey into an immaculate building of learning.
This is the view from my screened-in porch. It’s a little slice of heaven nestled between the green lawns of New York Metro suburbia, and for a cool two-thousand dollars a month, it’s a great time spent in your pajamas while sipping a large cup of black coffee.
One morning, while working up the nerve to call in sick, I noticed a young father passing in front of my porch with his daughter. Before reaching the corner, he stopped for a moment and motioned for the girl to open her backpack. Carefully, he returned a small notebook he had been carrying at his side, and as he did, the girl spoke her mind about a recent assignment she had completed.
“Daddy, we had to read ten pages, but the story wasn’t good. And then she made us answer the three questions at the end. It took F-O-R-E-V-E-R.”
She made sure to emphasize each syllable of the word so that her father might know, firsthand, the intense hardship she had endured.
But he didn’t take the bait. He only smiled.
This girl could read. This girl could write. This girl could comprehend information well enough to tell you that she didn’t like what someone else wrote. She and her father are part of the 99% of literate men and women in the United States whose basic education has afforded them the means to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It’s this story of success through education that’s become so familiar to the fathers and daughters that stroll past my home every morning. It’s familiar to me and my family; my grandfather came from Puerto Rico and worked sixteen-hour days to put his son through medical school. My father is now a successful surgeon.
But that story of education changes drastically over the 7,000 miles between the New York Metro area and Ethiopia—a country whose annual Gross National Income is just one-hundred dollars.
For young women like Mebrhit and her father, Mezgebe, the road to a good education holds a grimmer reality, where the odds of going to school are slim to none. Over three million Ethiopian children will not attend school in their lifetime—a fact which further contributes to a national literacy rate of just thirty-nine percent. The inevitable result is the proverbial space between a rock and a hard place—a VERY hard place.
With mouths to feed and limited resources by which to feed them, Mezgebe’s most valuable assets are his children; losing just one of them to the hours and cost required to educate them could mean the difference between survival and complete ruin. It’s a fate known all too well by farming families in the town of Guangua, Ethiopia, where tilling the arid landscape to harvest sorghum grain has become an absolute livelihood. Families just like Mezgebe’s find themselves caught in a zero-sum game spurred on by an endless feedback loop of poverty, lack of opportunity, and dismal circumstances that leave its victims with little control over outcomes. That lack of control, in turn, puts Ethiopian children behind the eight ball and forces fathers like Mezgebe to face a gambit of tough choices. The human cost that follows is one that not only threatens to jeopardize the personal potential of his own daughter, but also the future prosperity of his family and community at large.
Just four short years ago, the 51-year-old father of seven had committed his then 11-year-old daughter, Mebrhit, to marriage. In light of the union, cultural expectations would have demanded that her future husband help out her family at home. This would help save them, her father thought. It was one of the few cards left to play. Her family was immediately showered with gifts of clothing and shoes from her fiancé, and later, there was to be an exchange of oxen and goats, too. But Merbrhit had different plans: She did not want to be married this way. She wanted to be educated.
Determined to continue her studies, Mebrhit turned to her teachers and principal for help. For one month she did not go home, while her educators supported her studies, and spent weeks trying to convince her parents to reconsider the marriage. The dramatic action paid off, and eventually, Mebrhit’s father and mother conceded and the wedding was cancelled.
Today, Mebrhit’s path to a brighter future through education is a much different picture than it used to be. Next year, she’ll begin her first year of high school with the aid of imagine1day’s Graduate Fund program, a high school scholarship fund designed to support high performing students like Mebrhit in completing a full course of high school education. The program also aims to cultivate graduates into strong community leaders that will help shape Ethiopia’s future.
His daughter’s education is now seen as a blessing to Mezgebe and his family.
“I am glad due for the cancellation of that marriage. Her education isn’t just benefiting her, she is helping her brothers and me also,” he says.
I think about Mezgebe and his daughter Mebrhit every time I walk out onto my porch in the morning, every time I hear fathers and daughters laughing on their way to a future that’s easily accessible to them.
Mezgebe’s choice to wed his eldest daughter was one rooted in desperation to survive, in the love he has for his family. It was an event that, by western ideals, seems unthinkable; surely, a father who would marry off his daughter at such a young age could not truly love her. But that judgement would be our folly. Moral high ground is the luxury of those sitting at a comfortable distance from tragedy—people like me in my cotton pajamas, sipping some K-cup coffee blend with a name I can’t pronounce. Things are different for those outside the bubble of privilege, where even the innocent ignorance of their struggle seems like a lame excuse for going about with our day.
Those thoughts of Mebhrit and her family’s struggles, of the many others working hard to advance the prosperity of rural Ethiopia—I don’t fight them off. I want them to stop me in my tracks. I want to remember. And as I shuffle my way through sleepy eyes onto my porch this week, waiting impatiently for my coffee to cool, I know I’ll struggle terribly to think of a better Father’s Day gift than what Mebrhit gave to her dad.
This Father’s Day, imagine1day is making an extraordinary effort to make it known that stories just like this happen everyday in rural Ethiopia, and that support from people just like you can make ALL the difference. During this special Father’s Day featured event, imagine1day invites you to become part of the global revolution of change that helps bring awareness and support to men and women just like you by donating, sharing this story, or connecting with imagine1day for opportunities to get involved.
Because the greatest thing about change, is making it happen.