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The Habit of Learning

Young sisters become leaders in Ethiopia

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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In the last few years, one religious community of women in northeastern Africa has had the opportunity to celebrate some important milestones. In 2016, the Daughters of St. Anne observed the 150th anniversary of the foundation of their order in Italy, while 2018 marks the 50th year of the congregation’s presence in Ethiopia.

But not all the events are joyful; 7 March 2017 distinguished itself as a day of jarring loss. On a road near Meki, a town in the center of the country, four sisters perished and three more were critically injured when a truck struck their minivan as they were driving to the funeral of one sister’s relative.

“It was a very, very difficult time,” says Sister Manna Tesfey, who serves as the superior of the Mokonissa Convent, one of two houses of the community in the southwestern area of Boditi.

“It really caused us to think about our future, and this in turn has led us to focus on our younger sisters.”

Reflection after the March 2017 tragedy led the sisters to reconsider their normal process of succession, whereby older sisters gradually pass on knowledge and responsibilities to younger sisters so their work can continue smoothly across generations. With the sudden deaths of the four sisters in the crash — nearly 10 percent of their entire community in Ethiopia — the process of “future proofing” had to be intensified.

In Boditi, this process has homed in on two young and very promising sisters, who are being actively groomed to lead the congregation’s work in southern Ethiopia for coming generations.

As faces of the future, Sister Frehiwot Chisha, 37, and Sister Damakech Haile, 25, complement one another. Sister Frehiwot is extraverted and instinctive; Sister Damakech, introverted and reflective. Yet, their mission is the same as all Daughters of St. Anne — to be close to the poor, and to elevate them in both body and spirit.

The sisters pursue these goals through their assigned roles as educators. Sister Frehiwot serves as principal of Rosa Gatorno Kindergarten — named after the founder of the order — in Mokonissa, a rural settlement about nine miles outside the town of Boditi. She also teaches in the community’s elementary school. Sister Damakech serves as principal of St. Anne’s Secondary School in Boditi proper.

Together, these two sisters oversee almost the entire continuum of education from kindergarten through the end of high school for the Boditi area — a powerful statement on the leadership skills they have already cultivated, and an auspicious sign for the future of this storied religious congregation and the communities it serves.

“Education is particularly important for areas such as this one,” says Sister Frehiwot as she sits in her small office that overlooks the playground of the kindergarten she runs. “Many of the people are subsistence farmers and live in impoverished conditions.”

Of the 290 students at the school, some 200 come from families living below the poverty line, making them particularly vulnerable.

“Education has the power to enable these children to lift themselves out of poverty,” she says. “For many of them, that change has already started. It is happening now.” Post a Comment | Comments(0)

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