by Matt Jepsen
Life always takes unexpected twists and turns, but I never would have predicted finding myself on a plane to Ethiopia
with a suitcase full of white canes and braille slates! In fact, six years ago, I knew almost nothing about Ethiopia
other than the fact that it was located in East Africa and occasionally cropped up on the made the international news. I didn’t even know that the most common language was called Amharic. A few years ago we decided to adopt a little blind girl from Ethiopia
, and that is how our interest in the people and culture of Ethiopia
began. Having two biological children already and a third adopted domestically, we decided to adopt a fourth, this time abroad.
My wife, Erin, has a visual impairment that prevents her from driving or easily reading print and has been an enthusiast for blind mobility skills since she was young. She is also a certified braille transcriber. Because of this background and knowledge, we decided we would really like to adopt a blind child. After slogging through mountains of paperwork and walking over the emotional mountains and trenches that accompany international adoption, in 2011 we traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to appear in court and meet our new daughter Elizabeth. That was five years ago and our daughter is eight years old now. In the meantime, my wife has taught her to read (she just finished the entire Little House on the Prairie series) and taught her to get around town independently with a white cane (age appropriately, of course!). Because we learned to love her country and culture as we tried to preserve some of it in her life, I read many books about Ethiopian culture and history and we both used books and homemade flashcards to learn as much of the local language (Amharic) as we could.
What I discovered along the way is that while Ethiopia is a large country (about twice the size of Texas) of nearly 100 million people, almost nobody there is doing anything to serve the blind population. There are plenty of NGOs there digging wells and supporting mothers with HIV, but the blind are very marginalized. Every once in a while a team of doctors will fly over for a week and give a few hundred people cataract surgeries, restoring a handful of individual’s vision overnight, but for those who cannot be healed by medicine (and there are several million), the prospects are rather grim and far behind those found in much of the rest of the world.
Over the past few years, my wife and I have tossed around the idea of returning to Ethiopia to help with education and advocacy for blind people who live there. After a lot of phone calls and some serendipitous encounters over the past year, I connected with a couple of local Ethiopians who had only recently begun to organize for the same purpose. Berhanu Belay is an energetic man leading one of these efforts. He is blind himself from childhood and attended one of the only schools for the blind in the country, established by the last emperor, Haile Selassie, in the 1960s. When communist rebels took over the country during the 70s and 80s though, concern for the blind declined severely, and the school has been neglected. Berhanu’s organization, called Zena Wengal, is a specifically Christian ministry, but nevertheless is working to improve the lives of blind people regardless of their religion.
With all this in mind, I decided to travel to Ethiopia this October (2016) for several weeks to contribute and learn as much as I could. I wanted to take some immediately useful materials, so I collected used and new collapsible canes donated by other NFB members in our town, as well as small ones that my daughter had outgrown. Beverly Cook, a blind woman from southern California who runs an organization called Global Cane Outreach was also able to provide me with many canes for the trip. I was able to fill one suitcase with nearly 40 canes! Additionally, I took a pipe-cutter with me so adult canes could be cut to size for some of the younger kids. I also acquired over 30 metal braille slates using money donated by our local NFB chapter, along with several jingle soccer balls, a Perkins Brailler, and some solar-powered audio units containing the bible in Amharic and Oromifa, the other most widely-used language in the region. I also arranged to meet with some of my adopted daughter’s relatives while I was there so I could learn more about her family and past.
It felt like such a small gesture, but my gifts were enthusiastically received and I had a wonderful time learning as much as I could during the two weeks I was there. Most of materials went to a school for the blind in the town of Sebeta, about an hour outside of Addis Ababa. There, about 300 blind students reside, all gathered from the rural areas of the country. On average, one in four children had a braille slate to use in class, so they spent a lot of time taking turns. Most of the children used wooden sticks to serve as canes. Because traffic accidents on the unpredictable streets are the number one cause of injury, having a white high-reflective cane is especially valuable.
The children I met surprised and delighted me by acting just like children do the world over, sighted or blind! Some teenage boys, with arms linked together to help them not trip on things, joked around in-between classes. Some teen girls listened to Ethiopian pop music on a cell phone one of them had. (Everyone has a cell phone. Old-style flip phones can be had for only about $10 and use reloadable time cards.) Some younger girls sang and played a clapping game together outside their dormitory. A Muslim girl wearing a hijab studiously copied down notes using a braille slate and stylus. Some younger boys played soccer using an old plastic jug that was remarkably easy to hear on the pavement. Lunch for everyone was a huge pot of lentil stew cooked over an open fire in the smokey kitchen.
Only the most fierce and clever students are able to advance on to college and with luck, get a job as a public school teacher making approximately $150 a month. Most of the volunteers I met were people that had been fortunate and resilient enough to make it to that point and who wanted to give back to the next generation. For the rest of the children, they might be able to work making brooms or baskets, but many will end up on the streets begging. The idea that the blind can lead “normal” productive lives is not something found much in the public’s imagination, and consequently, in the minds of blind people themselves. By giving them canes and training, teaching them braille, and telling them that they matter, we hope to plant a seed that can grow into a brighter future for them and for their families around them.
I’m back in the USA now, but am still thinking about the kind and beautiful Ethiopian people. I’d love to go back for a longer term stay, although our children are still young and it may be a few years before we are able to do much additional volunteer work there. In the meantime, my wife and I bought an older embosser on Ebay and are working on producing some useful braille materials in the Oromifa language that currently don’t exist. A woman I met there named Meseret hopes to repair a closet full of Perkins Braillers that have been lying dormant for many years and we will be sending her some tools and spare parts. My wife will continue homeschooling Elizabeth and helping her become more independent. If I may be allowed a quick brag, I’m pleased to report that she has been devouring her braille copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and yesterday she climbed over forty feet straight up the rock climbing wall at our local university’s recreation center. Through it all we’ve been very thankful for the support and friends we made through the NFB, especially our local chapter. Who knew that a little effort here could spread halfway across the world? I certainly didn’t. I’m looking forward to what the future holds.
Matt Jepsen lives in Moscow, Idaho with his wife, Erin, and four kids. He works as a computer programmer with a local company called Populi. Although sighted, Matt is quite involved with the NFB of Idaho because Erin is a member, and their daughter Abi is also blind. In the future, he would like to do more work with providing canes and also Braille bibles in local languages in Ethiopia, and would welcome any information or contacts of people also working to that end. He can be reached at moscowcoffeereview at gmail dot com.
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