Dispatch from Ethiopia by Emily Long & Jennifer McCormack

BESS - A Chance Based On A Prayer

When we went to work on the coffee farm, which is on BESS (Bethel Evangelical Secondary School) property, it was the first day of school, October 1st.  Before heading out to clear the brush around coffee trees with our machetes (yes, we were using machetes...that is a whole different blog post), we got our first look at the school where Dr. Jerman Disasa was a student himself years ago.  In addition to the 400 students already registered, there were nearly 30 students standing in a line outside the administration office, seeking last minute enrollment.  After working up a sweat chopping down some brush for a mere hour or so (y'all that is hard work, with a dull machete), we found some students still standing in line, looking less hopeful.

The next morning we went back to BESS School as visitors, just to check things out and witness a day in the life of a student, see the property, maybe peek inside a classroom, see the cafeteria.  It turned out to be a day to remember...one that left quite an impression on some of us.

Amanuel, the school director, invited us to sit in on the school daily worship assembly, held in the chapel. What a treat...After the students took their seats, we filed in looking like tourists with our cameras around our necks.  All of a sudden, we didn't feel like taking pictures. It seemed disrespectful as this was a focal point of their institution. It was our first glimpse of how disciplined the students are, and how much respect they had towards us, an American group touring their school.  They  walked to the chapel, orderly and quietly.  They stood in silence until we took our seats at the front of the chapel.  And then they began singing a song.  Quiet as a whisper at first, then louder and more intense as they added a little rhythm and clapping. It brought tears to our eyes and chills down our spines.

Amos was invited to the stage to deliver a message...it was meant for the students and teachers, but one we as teammates heard loud and clear:  God has a plan for each of us.  Follow His lead. But always remember where you come from. Don't forget to come home again.

It's not fair for us to assume that the residents of Dembi Dollo wish they had better living conditions, albeit extreme poverty relative to our American standards. To say they want "out" is perhaps too judgmental on our part.  But the determination and dedication in the students eyes we met that day imply that they do believe there is more to life than what they have been limited to within their own village. You know how our grandparents used to say, "I walked 5 miles to school, uphill, both ways, in the snow..." Its hard to articulate the same dramatic reality of these Dembi Dollo students. They really do walk miles, which equals several hours.  Both ways.  And in exchange for the snow they walk in mud.  And most of them are wearing shoes that are two sizes too small. Still, they are proud of where they came from. Individually, they have dreams and goals that they will have a chance to make a difference in their own lives, as well as their families.  That chance is through education.

Curiously, I asked Amanuel later that evening what the students thought of our visit.  He said that many came to him saying that they were praying we would help the school survive. That was it; a seemingly simple prayer.  I also dared to ask if all the students waiting in line were granted admission. In short, no. Some were turned away.

The message of this institution is very clear.  It is on a sign outside the school office, you can't avoid seeing it very time you enter: "You are educated if you can do what you ought, whether you want to do it or not" -Herbert Spencer.

Here's what we learned about BESS during our visit (the school has very limited Internet and no website):

  • Education isn't temporary; it is a long term investment. It is the exit door from poverty.
  • More than 50 years ago, the local government wrote to a missionary/doctor seeking medical infrastructure for Dembi Dollo. The doctor agreed to help, under three conditions: that the town provide hospital care, western medicine and a school, all with the vision to help the residents of Dembi Dollo. Thus, BESS was born.
  • BESS is by far the top-performing school in the region. It's success is reliant on the hard work and unshakable determination of its 400 students.
  • Parents want to send their children to the school. They know that BESS will help them become disciplined and independent young adults, which means the family will have one less mouth to feed and, possibly, become their ticket out of poverty.
  • The school is often a sacrifice for students and their families. Many students walk hours each day to attend BESS, waking very early in the morning to help their families and communities before setting out for their journey. Scholarship students, many of whom are orphaned, earn their keep by cooking and cleaning before and after school and on the weekends in the compound.
  • The school is privately funded by graduates and people like you and me. The cost to attend for one student is about $200 per year, $700 for a boarding student.

The morning of our visit during the assembly, we were introduced as American missionaries; however, our visit was only meant to be a part of our cultural immersion. We had not considered ourselves missionaries, but for some of us, we now have a mission, or at least a prayer of our own.