A Starfish Saved

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By: Yeabsira Mehari, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Yeabsira Mehari, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

A little over half way through the Young Champion program and it seems I’ve already received my blessings. Though the reasons that brought me back to Ethiopia were not the most desirable, my time here has proven more invaluable than I had ever dreamed. Flying to India, I recall preparing my mind for whatever awaited. I wanted to remove any preconceived notions so I could take in the reality of incredible India. I’m now certain that it was this mind state that made the transition that much easier.

Living in India away from all that is familiar to me has allowed me to gain much needed perspective, bringing me back to the ideals that are most important to me be it maternal and child health, social peace & justice issues or education. Back in Ethiopia now, I found myself ill prepared to perceive all the changes taking place except for the plethora of auto-rickshaws people refer to as Bajaj here. A fast growing country (despite the rising inflation rates), Ethiopia seems to be headed in a good direction – laws aimed at ending anti-corruption are being passed routinely; press freedom is gradually increasing; independent businesses are on the rise; human rights campaigns are ongoing and education levels are also on the rise. However, this is view is rather broad view that does not include the social, socio-economic and public health changes that are taking place.

Standing in the visa line at Bole Addis Ababa International Airport (Ethiopia), a young girl approached me and asked if I was Ethiopian. When I responded yes, she asked me to help her and her two friends fill out their Exit Cards. Since this is not uncommon especially for those who do not travel a great deal, I was more than happy to help. As I reached for a pen to give to one of the girls, they immediately asked me if I could fill it out. So I asked if they wanted the Amharic or English version, they said it didn’t matter. I found this rather peculiar, but continued to fill out their cards none the less. It was not until I asked them to sign the cards that I realized all three girls were illiterate. I smiled through my disbelief as the girls thanked me and walked away. All three were 23 years old and were coming from Qatar after working there as house maids for a year. I read about how low Ethiopia’s illiteracy rate is especially amongst women. I research and read and write and yet I’ve never encountered young illiterate girls in the city especially ones that are traveling. It was my first brush with my new found perspective.

Some weeks later, I was leaving a restaurant rather late with my brother and encountered two young women each holding a child. I was compelled to talk them. I offered the food I was taking home and they were extremely happy to be receiving it. They told me they live over an hour away but walk to the busier parts of the city in the evenings to beg for food and money. During the day, they go to the market areas instead. What about their education or their children’s education? They could not afford to send themselves to school, but were sending their kids (approx 1.5 and 3 years old) to a care center during the day. One of the girls said it was expensive but she wanted her child to go to school. The cost? Less than $2.50 a week.

It is incidents like these that keep me grounded in my dreams and mission. It is also these types of incidents that make me feel as though I won’t even make a dent in health and education issues facing Ethiopia. Yet, I come back to the story of the boy and starfish Dr. Glory shared with the staff during my first week at ASHA. It is the story I wish to leave you with:

There was a little boy who walked upon a beach only to find it flooded with starfish brought ashore by a storm. The boy started picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. A man walked up the boy and said, “Silly boy, you cannot save all the starfish. So why waste your time?” And the boy responded, “I may not save all the starfish, but each one I help is a starfish saved.”