Eight-Year-Old Ethiopian Dancers Tour US
By Lauren Shapiro
Spending as much time as possible in the bathroom doesn’t sound like the stuff of travelogues; but for the Mesgana Dancers, using hot and cold running water is worth the trip. The Mesgana Dancers are eight little girls from Ethiopia, who toured the United States under the auspices of the Children of Ethiopia Education Fund (COEEF) for two weeks in the summer, performing traditional dances from different Ethiopian regions. The Mesgana Dancers come here to represent over a thousand students in the program. Meseret Defar, who has won Olympic gold and bronze medals, is the honorary director of the Mesgana Dancers.
COEEF sponsors private education for selected Ethiopian girls through partnerships with private schools in Ethiopia. The Mesgana Dancers tour program guide explains that “If females in Ethiopia don’t get an education, they may be forced into early marriage or unhealthy ways of living and may contract HIV/AIDS.” Others have described the outlook more starkly. In 2006, Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote “In Ethiopia, the abduction and rape of young girls is a commonplace way to obtain a bride...”So, when girls are sponsored to attend private schools and prepared for college, there are distinct overtones of a modern day underground railroad.
Jennifer Mann, Executive Director of COEEF, says “We have to do a lot of training before they come to America. For example, they’re not used to faucets, in Ethiopia sometimes they go to nearby rivers, other times they go with buckets; or in some areas they’ll share a spigot that comes out of the ground. They take bucket baths, they don’t have showers. So in the U.S. they wash their hands for like five minutes. I would try to show them ‘you only have to wash your hands like this’ —but I have eight little girls all trying to go to the bathroom at once because they really enjoy washing their hands. When I flushed the toilet in the airplane, it scared them half to death. Most of them don’t have toilets in their homes; they dig holes in the ground or use a community outhouse.”
Like so many others, COEEF is feeling the effects of the economic downturn.
“We have a very high sponsor retention rate because our program is so personal; when you become a sponsor you become a pen pal and you develop a relationship,” says. Mann. “But because of the economy, many of our large donors are having to cut back and then some of our individual sponsors can barely afford to feed themselves, loss of jobs, high medical bills, you name it… We have 75 girls “pending” —meaning their sponsors can no longer pay for their students. It’s really hard for the students because they don’t quite understand the dynamics...”
Jennifer Zilliac recently went to Ethiopia and visited a girl Assegedetch she has been sponsoring for three years. After school, Assegedetch returns to her mud hut. “She is simply living the traditional life of people in the Ethiopian country side,” says Zilliac. “She lives a good life in many ways, but she is extremely vulnerable; life could easily turn very bad for her very quickly.”
Norm Perdue, COEEF’s founder, writes on the webpage, that he wonders, “Why are we doing this? Why are we spending countless hours doing paperwork, traveling to Ethiopia on our vacation time, etc.? Wouldn’t it be easier to come home … and watch movies…? Then... it hit me; we are saving lives.” #
Adapted by the author, from Mesgana Dancers in the February 2009 issue of World and I Magazine Online.