From ONE Magazine

The Habit of Learning

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.”

There is a commotion outside her office as children flood out of the school’s three classrooms and into the yard for playtime.

The girls soon gather into a circle, beating time with their hands and singing while some perform a rapid, hopping dance in the center. The boys horse around, playing tag until one of them, 6-year-old Wodimu Matthew, runs back into one of the classrooms and reemerges with a ball. Cheers erupt and a game of soccer quickly takes shape.

“I like to learn but I also like football,” says Wodimu Matthew, “so I have to somehow split my time between the books and the ball!”

As with many of the students here, Wodimu shows signs of stunting from malnutrition. Since his father passed away, his family — which includes seven children — has survived on the limited food their small plot of land can produce. This is typical of what the sisters call the “green poor,” those living in poverty and subsisting on small plots of land. This demographic constitutes a large part of the student body at schools the Daughters of St. Anne administer.

After a time, Sister Frehiwot emerges from her office and strolls among the children, socializing. She makes her way over to the slides and swings where the smaller children tend to congregate, helping some to climb up the slide while keeping an eye on the more adventurous swing riders.

Sister Frehiwot says attendance rates present an ongoing challenge. It can be hard to convince a family in the grips of poverty and hunger to send the children to school instead of out to work. Work brings immediate material relief; with schooling, Sister Frehiwot must make a case for its lasting, transformative impact on the children and, by extension, on the family.

“Convincing the parents of this is one of the hardest parts of my job,” Sister Frehiwot says. To help ease burdens, the school began to serve free lunches to students on three of the five days each week. As a result, attendance has improved dramatically.

“The children change through their experience at school,” says Masart Ododo, who teaches at the kindergarten. “The knowledge they are exposed to and that they acquire here transforms their lives. It puts them on new roads into the future.”

For now, Sister Frehiwot hopes that road will be the short path leading from the kindergarten to the nearby elementary school, also administered by her community. From there, she says, children can graduate to St. Anne’s Secondary School in Boditi — led by Sister Damakech Haile.

With 330 pupils, St. Anne’s Secondary School is a much grander affair than the kindergarten. Its two-story facility houses many classes, populated by students from a broad swath of the rural areas surrounding Boditi.

With an assured rhythm to her step, Sister Damakech completes her rounds, pausing to observe each class in progress. On her way, she stops to broker “peace talks” between a warring teenage boy and girl who were sent out of class for bickering. She listens patiently as the boy and girl tell their respective sides of the story. She asks pointed questions and listens some more. Finally, she issues her verdict on the dispute, giving both students a warning before sending them back to class.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was 8,” she says. “Teaching enables me to know myself better and to share knowledge and thereby help people. This makes me very, very happy and this happiness is infectious; it makes the children happy. The love of learning flows out through them into the community.”

On her rounds, she drops in on an English class, an Amharic class and finally the computer lab, where an energetic young teacher demonstrates functions on word-processing software to the students. He then has them come up, six at a time, to the row of computers at the top of the class in order to practice the operations he has just demonstrated.

The last period of the day has nearly ended. At the back of the computer lab, muddy hoes lie in a pile. They will be taken by many of the students, who will go directly from school to tending the fields. When not improving themselves in the classroom, they spend their time helping their families keep food on the table.

The bell for the end of class goes off with the sharpness of a war siren. The teens are unperturbed, hearing instead a sweet song of afternoon freedom. The boys grab their hoes and, before heading to the fields, they play around outside, striking superheroes’ poses, brandishing their hoes as if they were lightsabers.

Once the school day has ended, Sister Frehiwot and Sister Damakech return to their respective convents in Mokonissa and Boditi, where their fellow sisters offer support and encouragement. Each evening they sit around the dinner table and discuss challenges, think through problems and plan solutions, among other general conversations.

After dinner, both sisters retire to their rooms to study for their own exams — weekend courses at the Wolaita Sodo University in the large town of Sodo, some 12 miles south of Boditi. There, the sisters work toward bachelor’s degrees in Education with a focus on Civics.

Some days, a jeep is available to carry them to Sodo at the crack of dawn. Most days, however, they have to make their way on foot from their respective convents to the main Sodo road. There, they wait until a public bus comes along.

On a recent evening in the dining room of her convent, Sister Frehiwot leafs through handouts on philosophy — discussing Plato and Kant, among others — all in English. She has underlined some of the more difficult words, like ‘aesthetics’ and ‘epistemology,’ penning their Amharic translations above.

“It can be tricky sometimes,” she says, smiling as she flips through the pages. “When I come across a word I don’t understand, I simply reach for the dictionary.”

Such studies, the congregation hopes, will help the two sisters to become stronger, better-rounded leaders.

“I was 22 when I was first made principal of St. Anne’s Secondary School,” says Sister Damakech. “In the beginning, it was a big challenge to find myself in such a position of authority at such a young age. But by putting all my focus, energy and prayers into the job, I managed to master it.”

She applies the same rigor to the challenge of her degree.

“This is one of the reasons we chose to give responsibilities to Sister Damakech and Sister Frehiwot specifically,” says Sister Manna Tesfey.

“Sister Damakech is a very responsible person and has a very mature and capable mentality. Sister Frehiwot guides very well and works with a keen method and a social grace that is needed for the families she is in touch with.”

So far, Sister Manna’s appraisals have borne fruit. Under Sister Damakech’s leadership, St. Anne’s Secondary School has risen up the academic tables in the district to become a top-performing school. For her part, Sister Frehiwot has increased attendance and her kindergarten has seen a steady increase in the number of students registering each year. This year, numbers at the school grew by 15 percent.

For the Daughters of St. Anne, though, these advances are not flukes, but part of a longer-term plan to foster an institutional presence that will outlive them all. In that future, new sisters will rise up to take the reins and steer the Daughters’ vital work in Ethiopia through its second half-century.

“The young are important because they are the future of the community,” Sister Manna says. “It is through them that God's grace will continue to touch the people here.”

A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.