Ambo School for Deaf Children:
The Ethiopia Deaf Project (EDP) is a small group of people who work on a voluntary basis to raise funds to help support and sustain the Ambo Deaf School in Ethiopia. We are sub-committee of VLM, the Vincentian Lay Missionaries and we are passionate about working to ensure that the Deaf children in Ambo and surrounding villages can access education through sign language and ensure they get the best possible opportunities from their education. The EDP were instrumental in establishing the Ambo Deaf School and are responsible for its ongoing development.
EPD consists of Fr. Stephen Monaghan, Miriam and Patrick O’Regan, Denise Dowling, Mark Everett and Mary Flynn
March 2009 First visit to Ambo by VLM to assess the area for a potential schools immersion program for the students from St. Vincent’s Castleknock and St. Paul’s College Raheny. While there, Fr. Stephen observed up to 250 children attending an outdoor kindergarten school & Feeding Program in the compound where he was staying. The children were all 1–5 years of age and were all sitting under a big tree. The majority of the children attending were from the Leprosy Project which the Vincentian Community in Ambo were supporting.
Fr. Stephen observed a little boy lying on the ground, watching what was going on. He was told that the little boy, whose name was Wandamagen, was Deaf and only came to the compound so that he could get some food. There was no school for him to attend, at least not until he was 7 years of age (the age at which children officially begin school in Ethiopia). Even then, the child would require transport to travel the long distance to the government school and his parents might be unable to meet the expenses involved. Somewhat shocked, Fr. Stephen, who had previously been the National Chaplain to the Deaf in Ireland, said that he would like to assist in whatever way he could to ensure that this little boy could attend school.
The Vincentian Fathers in Ambo had been supporting the Deaf community for a number of years. They had a small fund which was used to help Deaf students who attended the local Government school pay for school fees, copy books, rent etc. They also employed a person to teach sign language and reading and writing once a week.
Fr. Stephen was invited to meet the adult Deaf community who were gathering together to learn sign language and literacy. He experienced a strong emotional connection with this group of adult learners because looking around the room it was as if he could recognize deaf people he knew so well in Ireland. Facial expressions, gestures, and signing all left him feeling a great sense of connection to the group. Although he received a very warm welcome, this photo which he took on the day, serves to remind him of a sense of sadness among the group. Meeting the group provoked a deep desire in Fr Stephen to do something for them, however, he made no promises so as not to set up any false expectations. Noticing that the room was quite dark and being aware that darkness is the enemy of communication for the Deaf, Fr Stephen realized that helping might be as simple as raising money to allow the group to rent a bigger and brighter room for their meetings.
June 2009: Schools Immersion Program. Following his assessment, Fr Stephen found that Ambo was an ideal location for the schools immersion program. The Vincentian compound was big enough to host a large group of students and was safe and secure. A group of eight students and three teachers from St. Vincent’s Castleknock College and one student from St. Paul’s College, Raheny, travelled to Ambo in June of 2009. The visitors organized a summer school for the children from the surrounding area and more than 300 attended. They also got an opportunity to visit many of the other projects set up by the Vincentians in Ambo, including a visit to the Deaf community. This meeting prompted them to decide to commit any funds they had raised prior to travelling to supporting the Deaf community in Ambo. This money was used in the short term to assist the Vincentian outreach programme to the Deaf. The group agreed that support for this project needed to be sustained, that a one-off donation was of no real benefit. As a result the College committed to raising funds on an annual basis.
April 2010: Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project.
In April 2010 Fr. Stephen visited Ambo, accompanied by a group of Traveller women from Ballyfermot Travellers Action Project in Ireland. They had just spent a week visiting a women’s development project in a Leprosy Village in a town called Jimma. One of the women, Margaret Anne O’Brien, had been raising funds for the Kindergarten School previously mentioned, and was now able to see the difference her efforts were making to the lives of the children.
During this visit Fr. Stephen took the opportunity to arrange a more formal meeting with the Deaf community to discuss their requirements in greater detail. A large group turned up to the meeting and shared a variety of issues. As a result it was agreed by one and all that a school for Deaf children was a high priority in the community.
Deaf Unit at Local Government School.
(In Ethiopia children begin school age 7 and attend grades 1-4 o (Primary school). They then graduate to grades 5-8 (Secondary School). In order to progress to grades 9-10 (Pre University) they must pass some stringent exams and have a high competency in English).
It became clear that the Deaf children’s experience of the government school was quite negative. During their first four years of education at the government school, they were taught sign language and some basic literacy. The person responsible for educating them had no teaching qualification. The sign printed on the door into the classroom said ‘Welcome to the Special Needs Class’.
Once they progressed into Grades 5-8 the Deaf children were placed into classes with up to 70 hearing children and given no back-up or support. They saw all the hearing students progressing and learning, while they were ignored and struggled to keep up. The teachers had no training in Deaf awareness and did not appreciate their particular needs, so the Deaf students just sat in the classroom copying notes from the boy or girl next to them. One of the students said ‘it was like going from success to failure overnight’. She felt stupid among her peers. This was very frustrating and caused some of the children to drop out of education. This meant they had to return home to their families and work on the farm or do menial work in the home. It also meant they suffered social isolation as there was no one close to them who could sign or communicate with them.
October 2010: Ambo Deaf Workshops.
On his return to Ireland Fr Stephen contacted some members of the Deaf community in Ireland, who he thought might be interested in helping to respond to the needs of the deaf in Ethiopia. Veronica White, a Sign Language Interpreter who worked for the National Chaplaincy, took a keen interest in the idea. She in turn organized a group of people, four deaf and two hearing to travel to Ambo for some workshops. The group consisted of Veronica White, Willie White (both Sign Interpreters and Children of Deaf Adults or CODA), Noeleen Cunningham, Denise Dowling, Susan O’Callaghan and Mark McCaffrey. With the assistance of an Ethiopian sign language interpreter and the natural ability of the Deaf to communicate with each other, the workshops gave a very clear picture of just how difficult life was and had been for many of the Deaf who were in attendance.
Some of the attendees at the workshops told the visitors that they were forbidden from going to school by their parents. They explained that deafness is often perceived in their culture as a sign that the family is cursed. Out of shame and fear of being judged, the families keep the Deaf child at home, hidden away and engaged in menial house work. The Deaf said that many of their parents had no expectation that they could learn, let alone go on to have a career or engage in full time employment. They said that they were perceived as being a burden on the family. A stark example of this prejudice is that even this year (2016), one student in the Ambo Deaf School attended school for the first time aged 33yrs.
(The Ambo Deaf School challenges all these misperceptions and stigmas and gives the children a sense of their own identity, a sense of expectation about what they can achieve and what they can become. It encourages the families to recognize their child’s potential and to support them in their learning. Some parents have begun to learn sign language, giving them an opportunity to communicate with their child for the first time and take an active part in their child’s education. The principal of the school is himself deaf and is a very significant role model for the children and young adults who attend the school. He is also the President of the Ambo Deaf Association, which the EDP was re-established with some of their funding).
During this week-long visit to Ambo the motto was ‘Yes We Can’. As the group left at the end of the week, they carried home a great deal of information and indeed carried home a great weight of expectation from the Deaf community in Ambo – the expectation that something positive would happen in their lives.
The workshops had made a very deep impact on all of the Irish who attended. The experience triggered a real desire to return home and do whatever was needed to establish a school for deaf children in Ambo. It also became clear that this would require some very careful planning and budgeting.
Establishment of he Ethiopia Deaf Project. (EDP)
It was after this visit that the Ethiopia Deaf Project was established. The group set up a Facebook page to inform people about the visit and to keep people updated on any progress that might take place. However, the real momentum for the EDP arose from the fact that Denise Dowling who was one of the facilitators was also tutoring two children back in Ireland who had been adopted from Ethiopia, one of whom, a little boy, had been diagnosed as Deaf. His Irish parents, Miriam and Patrick, were determined to ensure that he would learn to sign and that they too would be able to sign. Denise, who is herself a qualified secondary school teacher was taken on as the Irish Sign Language Tutor for the family.
On returning from Ethiopia, Denise shared her experience with Miriam and Patrick and they both got actively involved in working to ensure that the wishes of the Deaf in Ambo could be fulfilled. Initially, the EDP was a very informal group. It soon become clear that the group required a more formal structure and a commitment to participate in fundraising activities so a committee was formed and roles assigned. Although it’s a small group, it has achieved a huge amount. Everyone in the group, has a great passion for the project in Ambo and an endless capacity to come up with ideas for fundraising. Ideas are failsafe as EDP do not know how to take ‘no’ for an answer.
The decision was made that EDP would fundraise, apply for matched funding and no matter what it took get a school built and an education for deaf children in Ambo. So It began.
Vincentian Lay Missionaries & Misean Cara.
Fr. Stephen brought the idea for a Deaf School to the board of Vincentian Lay Missionaries (VLM) and to the Vincentian Order in Ireland to received their support and approval to apply for matched funding from a funding organisation called Misean Cara, the Missionary wing of Irish Aid.
With this backing in place, the Vincentians in Ethiopia engaged a contractor to draw up a set of plans for a one-room school which could be built on a small plot of ground within the Vincentian Compound in Ambo. It was very exciting to see these plans and to actually imagine that a school was possible. However, in order to ensure the school had the full backing of the local Department of Education and was established as a formal school, we were required to present the plans to them for their approval. Their response, while very supportive also had huge financial implications as they would require us to comply with the many standards set out by the National Government. This would involve building more classrooms, a library, a pedagogy room, a dedicated play area, toilets and showers and so on.
With all these new requirements, it was clear that the space within the Vincentian compound was not big enough for such a development and so Abba Gemechu the local parish priest and the person doing all of the local negotiations, set about trying to source a piece of land close by.
As fate would have it, there was a large field just opposite the compound which was only being used for the purpose of growing Eucalyptus trees. Fr. Gemechu contacted the owners and to see if they might be willing to sell it to the parish. Thankfully, the three individuals who owned the lease on the land were all in agreement to sell. Despite this, the process of securing the land was long and tedious. It impossible to detail the number of meetings between Abba Gemechu, the landowners, the Dept. of Education, Dept. of Social Affairs, the Lord Mayor of Ambo before the lease was eventually purchased and the titles transferred. The trees were counted six times and numbered over 6000. We had to pay compensation on each one. The piece of land (approximately the size of a soccer pitch) cost a total of €13,000.
It is noteworthy that on the day that the title to land in Ambo was being signed over to the Vincentians, Fr. Stephen was in St. Vincent’s Castleknock College doing some pre-departure training with the students who had been chosen for the immersion program in Ambo. As he was finishing up, one of the teachers, Mr. James O’Loughlin presented him with a cheque for €7000 towards the Deaf project. The timing could not have been more perfect as this was the exact amount of money required to meet shortfall in the funds available to the Vincentians in Ambo for the purchase of the land. An uncanny case of Divine intervention!
2011 (April) In April 2011, with the land secure, a builder visited the compound and drew up new plans for the Deaf centre. They were quite rudimentary and in time turned out to be over ambitious. Initially it was hoped to build a Deaf Centre, incorporating a school, a social space, vocational training, sports area etc. However, as the cost of building became a clearer, it became apparent that it would be impossible to achieve everything. It was decided to concentrate on building the school first, to get it established, to ensure its success and then at some time in the future revisit the plans for vocational training, meeting space etc.
Even paring back the plans to the minimum didn’t help much in reducing the cost of the project. A number of factors contrived to make the cost of building very expensive at that time, not least of these was the poor exchange rate. In addition the cost of cement in particular had gone through the roof. Another element that contributed to the high building costs was that the terrain in Ambo is notoriously difficult to build on, especially when building a concrete structure. Extracting the problematic top layers of ‘black cotton soil’ and replacing them with more stable red soil would now cost an alarming total of €123,000 which had never been budgeted for in the original plans. Nevertheless, it was felt that the school should be built to the highest standards, and should be a building which would not only respond to the educational needs of the children, but one that in its structure would give those who attended and worked there a real sense of pride.
Fortunately this figure also fell just within the maximum amount of funds the Vincentians could apply to Misean Cara (MC) for for any one project. With the backing of the Vincentians and VLM and with the approval of the Vincentians in Ethiopia (whose leadership team had agreed the work with the Deaf community in Ambo was now a key element of their work in the country), Fr. Stephen set about using all of the information gleaned from the workshops in Ambo back in 2010 to write a project proposal for a Deaf school in Ambo.
The process of making the application was rigorous and required a great deal of time and effort. However, it was a very worthwhile as it assisted in getting a great deal of clarity about not only the need for the school and its intended outcomes but also a real sense of how much more would be required to ensure the sustainability of the school. Misean Cara also insisted that any project applying for funding must have a child safeguarding policy.
In hindsight, Fr. Stephen often remarks that the easy part is building the structure, the hard work begins with the effort needed to support and sustain the work it is intended for. The application to Misean Cara was for €93,000 requiring the EDP and other supporters to match this with €30,000 or a quarter of the costs.
After a concerted fund-raising effort by many dedicated supporters who organised numerous events such as cake sales, fashion shows, women’s mini marathon, Christmas Fairs and so on sufficient funds were gathered to allow the application to Misean Cara to be made.
With the assistance of Ms. Eilish Hayes, the Vincentian Liasion Officer for the Vincentians with MC, the wonderful news that had been hoped for was revealed when the MC agreed to give the full amount of funding applied for. And so towards the end of 2011 the first of the eucalyptus trees on the plot were cut down and used in the construction of the Ambo Deaf School. Building in Ethiopia is very labour intensive and so it would take well over a year for the school to be complete.
When the building was complete, it was a source of curiosity in the town. People passing by stood still to admire it and wondered if it was a clinic or some important government building. They were both astounded and delighted to learn that it was a school for Deaf Children, indeed it was considered to be one of the nicest buildings in the town.
The school opened its doors to the first students in Sept 2012. And was officially opened on the 30th Dec 2012 by the Irish Ambassador to Ethiopia, His Excellency Mr. Aidan O’Hara. Having only recently arrived in Ethiopia, the opening of the school was one of his first official engagements. It was a wonderful celebration.
Many of the Deaf said that they did not really believe that this was their school. They expected that it was going to be taken over by someone else. It took them many months for them to trust that this school was built with their needs in mind.
A couple of photos of the day really capture how special this occasion was in the lives of the Deaf. A particularly poignant one depicts one of the students presenting Fr. Stephen with a hand written sign, recalling the motto of the workshops back in 2009 ‘Yes We Can, I Love Ireland, We Is Happy Because School Open, Year 2005/2012’ (The Ethiopian Calendar is 7 years behind our calendar here in Ireland!). It was obvious from this little sign that the workshops made a big impression on those who attended. It also emphasises that the Irish visitors really did carry the hopes and dreams of the deaf in Ambo away from those early meetings. The three teachers employed in the school were all qualified teachers of the Deaf. However what made our school a little more special, is that the principal of the school is himself a member of the Deaf community. He made an immediate impact on the students and is a significant role model in their lives.
In 2014 The Vincentian Lay Missionaries (VLM) secured additional funding from Misean Cara to offer a four day Child Safeguarding Training Programme to a host of groups in Ethiopia. The principal of the Ambo Deaf School was invited to attend and two sign language interpreters were employed to ensure he could participate fully in the workshop. At the conclusion of the training it was arranged for the facilitator and the interpreters to travel to Ambo for a day to offer Child Safeguarding Awareness training to the older students at the school.
The students were very engaged with the training and it was obvious that it had had a big impact on them. Not long afterwards, a number of the older girls in the school disclosed that they had suffered abuse at the hands of a person who was teaching them in their previous school. This took a great deal of courage, as such a disclosure had the potential to leave them very isolated or stigmatized. However, due to the training that everyone had received, the girls were believed, their allegations investigated, the perpetrator questioned and eventually banned from having anything to do with the girls or the school. He was, however, not prosecuted and continued to have a role in the local government school.
The EDP received many requests from the Ambo Deaf School, from the Deaf community in Ambo and from parents of Deaf children attending the Government school to consider expanding the Ambo Deaf School to include grades 1-4. Despite the fact that they were working to a very tight budget, the committee of the EDP agreed that they had a moral obligation to look after the welfare of the younger children and so resolved to open up the School to grades 1-4.
The local government was in agreement that the children could attend but were unwilling to offer any funding and insisted that it would be necessary to build an additional classroom and to employ a new teacher. Despite the fact that the committee did not have the funds, there was a great sense of urgency about the welfare of the children and so they encouraged the Director of the school to build the classroom with the guarantee that the necessary funds would be raised.
In 2015 the EDP committee, along with 2 members from the “Children’s Charity Shop” Clonakility, (huge supporters of EDP and ALDS), travelled to Ambo on a self-funded visit to officially open the new classroom and to welcome the new students to the school. There were 20 new students in attendance and one new teacher who is also Deaf. During this visit they also helped to organize the first Ambo 10Km Fun Run for the Deaf. Up to 250 people took part in the run which helped to raise awareness in the town about the needs of the Deaf. It was a huge success and a great celebration of all that the Deaf School and the EDP had achieved.
Since its opening the school has proved to be a huge success and the children who attend are very happy. They report that the school has radically transformed their experience of education. They learn the full curriculum as laid down by the Dept. of Education and their exam results show that they are doing very well and achieving results that were not possible in their previous school. The present Director Abba Asfaw told the committee that he stands at the gate of the school every morning to personally welcome the children as they arrive, some have walked up to 6km to school and yet they all arrive with a smile on their faces and this he says, is a great start to his day.
Fr. Stephen sums up the impact that the school has had on the lives of the Deaf community in Ambo: ‘The first time we met the Deaf community in Ambo, we took a photo of the group as they gathered in a dark little room to learn sign and literacy. We also visited a classroom the day after the school was officially opened and took another photograph. It just happened that many of the same people were in both photos. It was extraordinary to compare the two images. In the second image, everyone was smiling and full of joy and life. It indicated that this school had already begun a process of transformation.’