Volunteerism In Ethiopia: Can It Help Ground People In A Fast-Growing Country?

Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth has contributed to urbanization, which means that places like Addis Ababa have large populations and a growing number of poor people. Some critics say that this is contributing to a more selfish society – people only care about themselves. But young people all over the country are starting to change that by volunteering for special causes and starting organizations of their own. EBR’s Meseret Mamo spoke with volunteers and experts about volunteerism and the benefits it’s conferring for the people involved.

At a New Year celebration in Addis Ababa, a group of ten people spent time with sexually abused street children at Ophrifs Children Rehabilitation Centre in an attempt to provide the children with company and support during the holiday. There was a lunch ceremony and entertainment programs until late in the evening. Nearly every child was playing, singing, dancing and telling stories – happy, at least on the surface, to have company during the holiday. At the end of the evening, as the volunteers left, the kids hugged each of them goodbye with tears in their eyes.
The children came to Ophrifs for rehabilitation after living on the streets, where many of them faced sexual and emotional abuse. After a few months, the organization will search for their parents and will help to reunite them with their families. Because many of them are away from their families for the holidays, volunteers regularly stop by to visit with the kids, providing them company during what is considered to be a difficult time. Some feel that these visits do a lot for the abused children, like demonstrating that there are good people who are willing to help them.
Dr. Mulualem Tegegnework, 29, led the group of volunteers for the entertainment program that evening. He says that the group, comprised mostly of Jimma University graduates, visits the Ophrifs every holiday. What they do at Ophrifs is just one aspect of the work they’re doing through the Jimma Universty Charity Club. After graduation, some of them continued volunteering.
The idea of helping and giving assistance to others among the Jimma Universty Charity Cub was born among a group of students who wanted to do more for the homeless individuals, especially young children, who continually asked for alms. They think giving alms will only increase their dependence on others.
With this vision, the Charity Club registered volunteers and gave a group of students a child for whom they were responsible to ensure entered school. Soon, they assigned different groups to different tasks: the education group was responsible for providing tutorial classes, the fundraising group collected money for the organization’s use; there was also a blood donation group.
Dr. Mulualem says that through these projects, the group has been able to assist 25 elementary students, build ten mud houses for elders, and got needy students at Jimma University financial assistance for their tuition.
But despite all the help the group has provided for others, members say they’re the ones who have benefited the most. Dr. Mulualem remembers the love and compassion they received from the elderly people they were supporting while they were University students. “I can say it was us who benefited a lot from the charity work. Elders told us their stories and gave us advice. It was a relief to have somebody to talk for students who came far away from their families,” says Dr. Mulualem. “I became sensitive to people’s troubles and am more understanding of what people want. I have learned how to manage my time properly [and I have] also acquired leadership skills.”
Like Dr. Mulualem and his friends, a number of groups and individuals are choosing to pursue volunteer efforts along with their careers and education. A few notable examples are Biniyam Belete, 38, who founded the organization Mekedonia Home for the Elderly and Mentally Disabled; Meseret Azage, founder of Meseret Humanitarian Organization; and Sister Zebider, founder of the Marry Joy Development Association..
But volunteering doesn’t just occur from starting your own organization— it’s a trend that seems to be gaining steam among Ethiopians across the board. For eighteen years, Kibret Tsehay has served as the Ethiopian Red Cross Association’s youth volunteer officer. The organization, which is part of an international network of chapters that seek to protect human life and health and to ensure respect for human beings, began operations in Ethiopia in 1935.
Kibret says that many of the services provided by the Red Cross are done by young volunteers, and there are 29,000 volunteers throughout the Association’s five locations in Ethiopia. They participate in giving first aid, in emergency relief work, and through blood drives.
Volunteerism is the concept of giving one’s time, ideas, knowledge and money to a particular cause and expecting nothing in return from others and in which there is no obligation to do so. Many Ethiopians believe that there was a robust culture of volunteerism in the country before urbanization and hectic daily life made it more difficult for people to connect with one another.
But some volunteers believe that a culture of volunteerism is manifesting itself in the city – different from what was common in the culture before, but nevertheless rooted in helping others.
For some volunteers, the ethos that drives them to the work is rooted in personal experience. Yohannes Seyife, a 25 year-old graphic designer, spent his childhood in poverty with his sister and his mother after his father’s death. In 2012, while listening to Endalk ena Mahider, a radio program on Sheger FM, he heard about an old woman who lived a life of poverty yet never complained about her circumstance. The segment made him want to do more to help others. Almost immediately, he expressed his desire to help others with his friend.
Soon, the two of them got to work: Yohannes and his friend began raising money for impoverished people living in Yohannes’s neighbourhood. They were able to collect roughly three thousand birr, which they’ve placed in a bank account and use to purchase items and food for people in need. Now Yohannes and his friends have started an informal, membership-based group called Tesfaweyan, which helps support children by providing them with meals, school supplies and uniforms, among other things. The group raises funds by collecting a small percentage of each member’s monthly salary.
Being sensitive to people’s troubles, as well as being understanding of others needs, are the advantages Yohannes receives from doing this work. Yohannes says he receives positive feedback from the people he helps support: “for me, it is a great hope to see people change for the better, and they love you back in return.”
But the benefits of doing volunteer work may be more than just emotional. One of the world’s premier mental and emotional health websites, Helpguide.org, states that there are other positive effects of doing volunteering, including feeling better mentally and physically.
The rationales behind these benefits are many. Volunteering gives experience in area of interest and opportunity to practice important skills used in the workplace, such as teamwork, communication, problem solving, project planning, task management, and organization. It also helps in meeting people in a field of interest. Volunteering may provide people with renewed creativity, motivation, and vision that can carry over into personal and professional life, according to Helpgiude’s website.
Biniyam Selomon agrees with this analysis. He’s a sociologist and a social work student, who works at an HIV/AIDS support group. He says volunteer work can help save his generation from having an anti-social attitude, hence contributing a lot to the development of the country. “Those who [suffer from] addiction or depression are very much likely to have a negative attitude towards the society and [will] therefore want to be isolated,” says Binyam. He further noted that volunteerism helps to engage people in community work, so it creates a good relationship between community and the volunteer.
Dr. Mulualem also feels the same way, that volunteering is not just about helping; rather, it is assisting those in need to utilise their full potential. “Everybody needs assistance from others in life. Volunteering is giving back to society,” says Dr. Mulualem. Yohannes agrees: “Any one can contribute what they have to help make life better for others.”
Dr. Mulualem added some advice for those who are reluctant to volunteer. “Everybody has some good inside. It is like a seed that whenever one volunteers, it grows. This way we can create a better self and society.”

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