As an organization, Common River seeks to empower the people of Aleta Wondo, Ethiopia through a combination of improving communal resources and creating relationships with international organizations in order to bring a wellspring of talent and knowledge to the surrounding area. As an NGO founded by Tsugaye Bekele (whose family helped build the town of Aleta) and Donna Silan, the active participation of Common River is guided by the principles of positive deviance, which is a philosophy of aid founded on the belief that true empowerment comes from the ground up through exemplary tenants of a community. At its core, positive deviance is a rejection of the classical NGO practices of structuring a program and superimposing it on the residents of communities in need. In this way, Donna and Tsugaye began Common River in collaboration with the community and spent their initial resources gathering information from the residents of Aleta Wondo, all the time listening to their concerns and creating an organization based on the wants and needs of those most in need.
Thus, a unique association was created within the hands and ownership of the town residents. With a focus on improving the lives of women and children, Common River’s grounds include a school (KG through 4th grade) that doubles as a women’s education center. Scholarship for those most impoverished includes a food program. Through its university relationships and international network, Common River has brought talented educators, artists, and healthcare professionals all the while building a compound for the town to utilize that includes housing. There are ongoing agricultural projects and food is grown to feed the staff, provide for the school, and nourish the volunteers who spend time here.
As anyone can see, when I began my tenure here it became quickly apparent there was no shortage of programs I could become involved in. With the encouragement of both Donna and Tsugaye, I began by asking where I could fit that would constitute the greatest need. The answers were all in the vein of education and so I began teaching in the library. At first I was provided with 6 or 7 students who had fallen significantly behind their grade and we utilized the time to catch up on Math and English. This was in preparation for the semester exams and I can say with pride that many of my students received the highest marks in their grade. The children here have a hunger for learning and focus that is truly phenomenal. After the exams, I created English and Arts projects for 10 or 20 students each day. We created self-introduction booklets, card games, songs, and letters.
Teaching and interacting with the kids as well as brief lessons for the women’s education program have been incredibly gratifying experiences. At semester’s end we had a big ceremony in front of the parents honoring the top students with certificates (that I had the pleasure of creating) and words cannot describe the joy of seeing them being handed out. Since the semester’s end I’ve been creating lesson plans and experiments for the Environmental Science classes, as the exam scores showed the most need for review. This new role has afforded me a great deal of creative space and ability to get outside with the kids while learning how to educate a full class.
Outside of school hours I tutor in the library. I’ve organized movie nights and sports events as well as helped with the farm upkeep. I’ve given Mesele, the principle, computer lessons and I also have an ongoing project collecting classic Ethiopian folktales and translating them to the stage. I hope to print the script and leave copies here for the school to utilize as an educational resource.
As my time here comes to an end it hardly seems real I’ve learned so much. I’ve heard stories of the bloody military regime that preceded the current police state. I’ve seen that even through oppression and hardship the people of Ethiopia continue to find reasons for happiness and comfort in the simple state of peace that is currently provided by the figure head government. The kindness and generosity that each person has acted with has been truly awe inspiring. Yet, rather than leave on a personal note, I’d like to speak directly to any and every one who happens to be reading this: Come here. Experience this place and tell your friends to make the trip. Common River is always looking for more volunteers, helpers, and driven individuals. There is always a place to fit in and make a difference. This place is special and you won’t regret it.