How can I describe the perfect arrival to Mekele and to the Nicolas Robinson School? The warm, bright sun (mid-70’s), dry air, and the beautiful smiles of the children that greeted me, could not have been more welcoming. The school had grown incredibly since my last visit in 2005 – it has added a four story building to house an additional eight grade levels to the original kindergarten program and there are three large building projects underway to add a library, music facility, and a high school, all due to open before the 2012 school year.
While touring the site, students and teachers everywhere greeted me warmly with waves, smiles and hugs and groups of children were anxious to practice their English with me. The standards for performance are high here, and despite being relatively new, the school is one of the finest in Mekele. It is not surprising then for me to actually feel the amazing desire for learning that exists here.
However, the growth, cheerfulness, and desire to succeed contrasts sharply with a less visible reality – many of the children here are malnourished. Although food is not scarce, poverty prevents many families from being able to provide adequate food for their children. Laura’s World Fund helped begin a School Food Program earlier this year, providing a portion of nutritious food each day, but our donation only covers a third of the program’s costs. More on this later…
Ethiopia may be country with widespread poverty, but they are not a poor country. They have a proud and rich history and a strong sense of community that embraces those in need. Ethiopians are very hospitable and I look forward to the welcoming hugs that await me.
Why am I making this trip? It’s a follow-up to my first visit to Mekele, Ethiopia, where I toured the Nicolas Robinson Kindergarten and dedicated the Laura Wolf Playground (background story). Because of the generosity of people around the world, including many friends and neighbors in Merrimack through Laura’s World Fund, this year the Nicolas Robinson School will include a high school. It has grown from 220 students to over 800 and boasts a computer lab, library, eating room and more. It is one of the highest performing schools in Mekele despite serving the poorest of Mekele’s children.
This is not a typical vacation for me. First off, I will be packing clothes that I no longer want or need so as I wear them, I can leave them behind. Do you know how strange it is to wear clothes that you don’t want anymore? Also, I will be checking 2 bags weighing 50 pounds each and I won’t be bringing any of that back either. They are filled with 4 donated clarinets (thanks PSNH’s Donna Keeley!), sheet music, Lowell Mower’s Lego collection (3 shoeboxes full), jump ropes donated by Jenn at Merrimack Gold’s Gym and a double dutch set from Gale Taylor, children’s clothes from Ashley Dodge and Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Wolf, six soccer balls donated by Dick’s Sporting Goods, and 2 classroom sets of KleenSlates generously provided by Julia Rhodes, their inventor. Any gap is filled with flashcards, magnets, color paddles, springs, pulleys and voltmeters for a burgeoning science program.
I will spend the week presenting hands-on science activities to the students, culminating in a celebration of the school expansion. The second week I’ll be visiting the village of Bure in the Gojjam region to explore the possibility of establishing a school program there.
In case you think my visit is a mission for others; well, it’s as much a mission for me. The happiness and fulfillment of helping others is priceless…worth much more than the value of anything material I could possibly bring.
Okay, “ruling the followers” may be a bit strong, but the point is there are rules to becoming a good leader:
1. Gain knowledge. There’s no way around it; to be a good leader, you need to know stuff. It doesn’t all have to be learned in school. Read newspapers, read books, ask questions to learn answers you don’t know. Foster curiosity. Listen to people (a Marylander I recently met told me that they cannot have wine or other alcohol shipped to them – no wine clubs for them!). Ever notice those information signs or historical markers at parks or museums? Read those.
2. Establish credibility. There are two qualities that make up credibility: trust and empathy. To be trusted, you need to do what you say you are going to do. Don’t lie, don’t cheat. Be honest in words and deeds. To be empathetic, you need to care and show you care about the issues and the people impacted by the issues.
3. Think big. We are all on this planet for a finite amount of time; we are born, we live, we die. But good leaders transcend time by living on in the changes they create and the people they impact. To do this, they have to engage in issues that are beyond their personal sphere of life and living – they concern themselves with ideas that will outlive them like climate change, curing disease, world peace, new schools, parks, art.
4. Don’t waste time. The smartest, most inspiring, most productive people that ever walked our planet still had only 24 hours in a day. They became who they are because they didn’t waste time on useless activities. They read, they learned, they created…if they watched TV it was because they could learn something from it.
5. Take care of people. In the end, that is what a leader is all about anyway – educating, influencing, and inspiring others to become better humans. Treat others with respect, humility, and kindness. Be generous in sharing what you have with others, whether it be knowledge, money, time, advice, or a smile. Those acts, which to you may seem inconsequential, can tremendously impact another.
Five simple rules…did I miss any?
Last night I was at a community forum with other concerned parents to learn about the state of alcohol and substance abuse in our local high school. The police chief made the remark, “You are involved already by being here. I’m preaching to the choir.”
It reminded me of many years ago when I was attending a hands-on science workshop with science educators and the renowned professor of chemistry, Bassam Shakhashiri, made the same remark. He was urging the participants to make science fun for their students and he said, “I’m preaching to you, the choir, because I want you to sing!”
How true! It’s hard to bring about change if you begin with the laggards. You must first get the “early adopters” to engage. Their “singing” will resonate to others who will likely join the chorus, or at least, hum a few notes.
We’re rushed. Work, kids, and just keeping up leave little time to take time for things truly nourishing. Line up at the drive-up, call for take out, or answer the door “It’s Domino’s” replace buying and preparing the fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat that comprise a nutritious meal.
The fast food culture is invading our relationships, too, and the junk food of choice is Facebook. Who takes the time and thought to write a personal note, pick up the phone, or stop for a visit when it takes just seconds to connect to hundreds of “friends” with a status update?
Despite my hundreds of Facebook friends, there were only a handful that came to mind when I was in need, proving the adage, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” The friendships I’ve been feeding with Facebook are so malnourished that they don’t have the strength to stand on their own. Time for a new diet – one fed with face time rather than Facebook time and one where communication relies on “hand width” rather than bandwidth. The junk food fast food Facebook diet is being replaced by more nourishing habits that I know will lead to greater relationship health.
There is still a place for Facebook, just like it’s okay to have the occasional Big Mac when the kitchen is too far away. But a Facebook-fed relationship shouldn’t be a way of life if it’s not a way to love.