In August 2019, through the Vincentian Lay Missionaries (VLM) I visited the Vincentian Mission in Ambo, Ethiopia, landing in Addis Ababa on Saturday 2nd August, 2019. I was met by Fr Asfaw Feleke, Vincentian Parish Priest of Ambo, who drove us the 110 km journey to Ambo. Ambo has an estimated population of 200,000. The dominant religions in Ethiopia are Coptic (Orthodox) Christian, Protestant and Muslim with Catholics only accounting for about 1%, so the congregation in Ambo is small. However, the work of the Vincentian Mission in Ambo is extensive and provides for children from all faiths. The parish runs a large and expanding Kindergarten school – providing an essential pre-school education in the Montessori method to over 120 children. There is also a school for deaf children attended by 60 students with plans for many more. In addition, the parish provides pastoral services to its parishioners and funding for social housing, water schemes and medical support for the local community. There is no social welfare in Ethiopia!
We were invited to the home of one parishioner Martha – a single mother living with her three children – sons Binyan (12) and Ingidawerg (10), who is deaf and daughter Nardos (9). They live in a house built for them by the parish. A with most of the houses in Ambo, it is constructed from mud and straw with a corrugated iron roof. There is one room (about 4 meters squared), one door and one window. There is no electricity, no running water and no toilet facilities.
Each morning my daughter Louise and I ran a Summer School for about 30 of the local children at which we taught them English and played games. They were so excited to see us every day and so keen to learn and play. These children have nothing but the clothes on their backs (many of which are donated from Ireland – I saw plenty of Galway, Mayo and Armagh jerseys!). Toys are home-made and a single jelly or lollypop is a major treat. Despite all of this they are happy and good-natured.
One day Fr Asfaw, Fr Stephen, Abyiot (principal of the deaf school) and I made a two-hour journey, on very poor roads, to the rural town of Babiche. The purpose was to meet families with deaf children who may be interested in attending the Lazarist Deaf School in Ambo. About twenty families showed up and Asfaw, Stephen and Abyiot told a packed room that deaf children had rights like everyone else and that opportunities exist for them if they can learn to sign and receive a formal education. Most of these children have never been to school and don’t even know their own names. In rural areas there can be a stigma associated with disability of any kind, with some believing it is a curse. Unless they have family with whom then can stay the deaf children of Babiche, and many other villages like it, cannot attend the deaf school until a boarding facility is available.
Back in Ambo, Fr Stephen showed me a site acquired to build a boarding facility which will accommodate 120 boarders. The deaf school will also have to be extended to accommodate greater numbers. The estimated cost to complete all of this is €500,000.
VLM’s work in Ambo in terms of volunteers and fundraising has allowed the deaf school to function and grow.