Revealing Hidden Talent

New hope for children with special needs in Ethiopia

by Sisay Abebe with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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At first blush, Solomon Feseha epitomizes a growing class of creative young professionals in today’s Ethiopia. A painter and musician, the 27-year-old manages a small recording studio, though he also earns a comfortable living from the brisk sale of his artwork. But Mr. Feseha is exceptional. He lives in the provincial town of Asela, some 100 miles south of Ethiopia’s bustling capital city of Addis Ababa. And he works from a wheelchair.

At 6 weeks old, he received a routine vaccination, causing a reaction that endangered his life. Ultimately, the inoculation damaged his nervous system, paralyzing him from the waist down.

“The injection made me spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair,” said Mr. Feseha.

Unable to meet the special needs of their disabled son, his parents placed him in a Catholic child care facility at the age of 3. After primary school, they enrolled him in a secondary school in Asela (which doubles as an orphanage) administered by the Consolata Fathers, a Catholic community of brothers and priests.

Under their guidance, Solomon Feseha continued his formal education, taking advantage of the school’s extensive fine arts and music course offerings. Proving to be both a gifted painter and musician, he pursued a career in the arts after completing high school. He now earns more than $200 a month — a considerable salary in Ethiopia — selling his religious icons and producing music. In addition, he performs at venues in the surrounding area and gives lessons in traditional Ethiopian music to local musicians.

Not everyone in Ethiopia is as fortunate as Solomon Feseha, who is one of an estimated seven million Ethiopians living with a disability. For many, life begins with the bitter experience of neglect: Parents, overwhelmed by the responsibility necessary to care for their special needs child or fearful of stigmas associated with the handicapped, abandon their children. A fortunate few find refuge in modest facilities, all of which are strapped for funds.

Since the Consolata Fathers opened the doors of the Asela school and orphanage some 28 years ago, more than 500 boys — abandoned and often disabled — have graduated. The facility now cares for more than 150 children with diverse backgrounds from the Ethiopian region of Oromia, meeting the full range of their basic needs as well as providing them with a reputable education.

Chief among the facility’s accomplishments has been the quality schooling it offers to all its children. The general curriculum centers on traditional academic subjects, preparing most students for a high school diploma.

For those students better suited for a skilled trade, the Consolata Fathers have in recent years developed a vocational training program that offers a variety of specializations, including wood and metal works, auto mechanics, house painting and sewing. The vocational program prepares students for a certificate of technical expertise in an elected trade skill rather than the conventional high school diploma. Students in the vocational programs receive instruction from highly qualified professionals in the field and use state-of-the-art machinery, which has been installed on the premises.

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Tags: Ethiopia