For the last forty years, the “Daughters of Charity” have been looking after children from the poorest families in Addis Ababa. Church in Need describes these modern day ministers to lepers and outcast families.
There is a churchyard near the school of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Addis Ababa. This is where it all started. This churchyard has not only served as the final resting place for the dead; for many years, it also provided a place of refuge for a large number of lepers, paupers and homeless people. They lived here. They gave birth to and brought their children up here. They even died here. All without hope, without any future and without leaving any trace.
However, forty years ago, the fate of these churchyard children made a lasting impression on two young men. They decided to gather them together to educate them, and to give them some sort of chance in life. They did all this free of charge. However, they eventually had to move away to continue their own studies and therefore asked the sisters to take care of them. At first, a sister would go to the churchyard to tutor the children, right there amongst the graves. As soon as they received approval from the municipal authorities, the Daughters of Charity set up a school and a kindergarten close to the churchyard. Until this very day, they continue to look after street children and children from the poorest of families. “Education is the only way out of poverty. The aim of our school is to get these children off the streets,” says Sister Belaynesh Woltesi, the school’s headteacher.
813 children are currently cared for in the school and kindergarten run by the Daughters of Charity. The pupils are taught in two shifts, as there is not enough space to accommodate all the children at once. The school is situated on a hillside on the edge of a ravine. Space is limited. It is a miracle that they have managed to set up and achieve so much on such a small plot. There is even a small library and a sports ground. Everything is miniscule in size, but very effective all the same. The sisters look after the children in their care with a great sense of love and dedication.
(Sister Belaynesh Woltesi of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, with some of her pupils)
They not only teach the children; they also feed them. “If we don’t give them something to eat, they go hungry. However, we’re finding this increasingly difficult, as food prices continue to rise. We also need to provide the pupils with school uniforms, pens, study books and exercise books,” explains Sister Belaynesh. There has just been a delivery of firewood to the school. “Until recently, I didn’t know how I would pay for it, but we need it to be able to cook. Otherwise, the children don’t get a meal.” Everything is expensive. One of the boys is an orphan. The sisters have found a woman who has agreed to take him in. However, the sisters have to pay for the boy’s food and accommodation.
The children come from families that live in poverty. Their parents have leprosy or AIDS, are blind, paralysed, or suffer from other diseases. In the afternoons, a young boy of around four years old is collected from the kindergarten by his blind mother. Her milky-white eyes stare into the void. The young boy takes her by the hand and leads her out onto the street. The sisters are not sure how many of the children have been infected with HIV from birth. AIDS is still a major taboo subject. The word itself is never said out loud when those that are uneducated about the disease are within earshot. Time and again in Ethiopia, you will hear sisters who look after the poorest of the poor say, “They have this particular disease. I won’t mention the name now, as they’re nearby.”
The majority of the children used to beg on the streets of Addis Ababa before they were taken in by the sisters. In fact, wherever you stop your car in the capital, beggars will come up to the vehicle and knock on the car windows. “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” the children cry, whilst women carrying babies in their arms plead “Give me something to eat”. Technically, begging is illegal. This is why parents tend to send their children out to beg in the evening, when there are less police patrolling the streets. Some children sell lottery tickets or chewing gum, whilst others are taken on by professional gangs of beggars to act as clowns and acrobats. Unfortunately, prostitution is also widespread.
The sisters regularly go out into the city where the children beg on the streets and invite them to come into their care. Sometimes they go looking for children who have dropped out of the school to start begging again to sustain their family. Some of the children also need to take care of their sick parents or their siblings. Sister Belaynesh explains how, “We had quite a young boy here whose father was blind. His mother had run off with another man. He had four young siblings and was responsible for caring for each of these at home.” Some children are just too psychologically damaged to adapt to a normal way of life. “We had a girl who was being abused by her father. She ran away. One of the sisters looked for her in the city and found her again.”
For those who have only ever learned the rules of the streets, it can take some time to get used to a different way of life. Some of them do not manage this. However, most of the children seem to feel loved and enjoy being here, and feel that they have a future. In actual fact, the benefits of the sisters’ work are clear to see. For example, a number of their pupils, who would have had no future without their help, are now doctors, teachers, or nurses. Five former female pupils have returned to the school of the Daughters of Charity to work as teachers and now teach children who are just as poor as they once were themselves.
The international Catholic charity “Aid to the Church in Need” offers support to nuns and monks who look after destitute people in a number of different areas of Ethiopia. Around 10 million people benefit from the Catholic Church’s charitable work, despite the fact that only 700,000 people are actually of the Catholic faith. This represents just one per cent of the entire population of this East African country, which is one of the world’s poorest nations. The Catholic Church also helps to fund 203 kindergartens and 222 schools, which are open to children and young people from all denominations and religions. Almost 180,000 children attend these institutions. In the past year, “Aid to the Church in Need” has donated over $700,000 to support the work carried out by the Catholic Church in Ethiopia.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 162 languages and 48 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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