I can’t say it enough, but Ethiopia is constantly opening doors for me in terms of opportunity. A month or so ago I was contacted by the CEO of Studio Samuel, a NGO based in New York City started by a couple in response to the poverty they experienced while in Ethiopia adopting their son. It’s an amazing story and the program aims to build sustainable business for impoverished girls in Ethiopia. After finding my blog, Tamara, contacted me about a photography opportunity. How neat is that?
I was thrilled of course. I am always looking for experiences to stretch myself as a photographer and gain new skills. There are only so many cupcakes I can photograph before I want to scream, you know? Anyway, I was more than happy to help Tamara. She asked me to photograph the girls at Children’s Heaven so she can show her board of directors and potential donors the wonderful things their generosity can assists with. I can only imagine trying to describe, with words, to someone in the States what life in Ethiopia is like for these young girls. Photographs tell a story. They speak a thousand words.
I’m emberassed to admit that I didn’t have a lot of time to research what I was getting into at Children’s Heaven. I scheduled a ride to the orphan care program for the Saturday after Ethiopian Christmas. I packed my camera and a bottle of water. Children’s Heaven is an after school/weekend care program for 105 girls from the ages of 5 to 18. The girls are orphaned or have HIV positive mother. Sometimes extended family is in the picture, sometimes not. Children’s Heaven supports the girls in their schooling, provides meals, clothing and safety. Little did I know how special that day would be for the children who attend Children’s Heaven. It happened to be their Christmas celebration and I just got lucky in that I was there to photograph for Studio Samuel. Studio Samuel is sponsoring programs for girls at Children’s Heaven. I photographed each girl involved in the programs individually, then snapped away as they played games on the concrete slabs. Their director and mother figure, Hanna gave me a tour of the buildings including a chicken coop, small library, tutoring rooms and even showed me their new industrial grade oven so they can hopefully start baking their own bread for the meals they provide the children. She was really surprised to hear that I was a baker and was eager to talk bread with me!
I could hear the singing as I finished up the last few individual portraits. Next, I was escorted into the main room of the compound and I was faced with one of the most precious scenes I have ever experienced. Girls of all ages sat shoulder to shoulder, sometimes even on one another’s lap, across benches arranged along the walls and lined facing the front of the room. Garlands of all colors were hung and draped from the ceiling and walls, a small modest Christmas tree stood proud in the front of the room. Older girls and handed out song verses to the girls and they sang, chanted, drummed to traditional Christmas hyms all in Amharic. It was beautiful. They love singing, Hanna told me. They are always singing.
For the next two hours I took photos of the Christmas celebration, including the cooking of the special Christmas meal (goat tibs, lamb, dorro wat, injera, hard boiled eggs). The girls presented Hanna with Christmas gifts to which they all gasped, clapped, cheered and yelped in excitement as she tore open the paper and help up the photo album
The singing continued until the meal was announced and then I watched the girls line up from youngest to oldest to wait for a heaping plate of beautiful hot food. This is when I took my leave. The insisted that I stay and partake in the meal but I just couldn't. It didn't feel right. These lovely children and their teachers deserved to enjoy every last bite.
The day was a healthy reminder for me of all the greatness in Ethiopia. Of all the beautiful selfless people who care for the less fortunate in this country. But emerging from these thoughts was another idea. These beautiful young women may be less fortunate, but they are not to be pitied. They are strong and full of life. They clearly are loved and cared for and have amazing things in store for their futures. Especially if organizations like Studio Samuel have anything to do with it.