Mesganu Arga (shown here with his father, Arga Moach) was 7 years old when his family sent him to school.
Each morning, he walked an hour from his home in Ditche, to the Shebraber School Primary School in a rural area southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After school, he walked back home, then spent the remaining daylight hours helping with the family farm. He tended cattle, collected firewood and fetched drinking water from the river.
Mesganu attended most of first and second grade in the shade of the majestic oak trees on the Shebraber School property. Classroom space was limited and, as he now describes, “inconvenient for the teaching and learning process.” The mud-and-thatch-brick classroom buildings were tiny, cramped and dark. When it rained, water seeped through the bricks and pooled on the dirt floor. Up to 120 children were crammed tightly into a space no larger than the size of a typical child’s bedroom in many American homes. There were no books or chairs. Mesganu used to carry his own small chair from home so he would have a place to sit. Most of his friends would sit on the dirt floor or on stones.
Mesganu describes himself as a “medium” student but he quickly outpaced many of his classmates in his study of English. In sixth grade, he successfully passed the National Exam, allowing him to continue his studies.
Most children who attended grades 7 through 12 were better off economically and they lived in the town where the Junior Secondary School was located. Mesganu’s family could not afford to board him in town. So each morning, he would arise at 5 a.m. so he could walk two hours through the deep jungle to attend school. Sometimes he had to fight with hyenas, wolves or tigers before he could continue on his way. For someone so young, the challenges eventually proved insurmountable.
He dropped out of school and moved to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, eventually finding work as a shoe shiner earning 4 to 5 birr (50 cents) a day. After two years, he returned home, imploring his father to find a way to pay for him to return to school.
His father agreed and Mesganu enrolled in 10th grade. He studied hard and became one of the top students in high school, which enabled him to enroll in Addis Ababa University in the year 2000. While there, he studied history and political science, graduating in 2003. He was employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which brought him into contact with many international NGOs and aid organizations.
Meanwhile, tiny Shebraber School was struggling with increasingly inadequate facilities. Members of the local community contacted Mesganu, who was dismayed to hear that his primary school was at risk of being downgraded from grade 6 to a grade 4. He promised to do everything he could to help. He began a fundraising effort in Addis Ababa by donating two months of his own salary to motivate others to give. When he’d collected $70,000 birr, he returned to the village to discuss a school-improvement plan.
The first priority was to provide classroom space to alleviate overcrowding. Six additional classroom buildings were built from mud but it was not enough. Mesganu started looking for additional funding sources. He wrote a project proposal, which he submitted to many funding organizations and embassies. To his surprise, the Japanese Embassy in Addis Ababa responded with an offer of 880,000 birr ($100,000 U.S.).
With this money, cement-block structures were built to provide 10 standard classrooms, a library, administration rooms and 16 toilet rooms for students. Though much improved, the school facility is far from adequate for a school enrollment that has grown to 2,500 students. And none of the buildings at Shebraber have running water or electricity.
Mesganu believes that “education is the key to success and change…the main instrument to get people out of darkness and poverty.”
Without his education, this accomplished young professional, who has held several prestigious positions in the Ethiopian government and is currently representing his country as a diplomat in the United Emirates, could have ended up as a shoe shiner on the streets of the city.
He is committed to making sure that today’s young children from the villages surrounding Shebraber have a chance to fulfill their own potential.