Contributed by Mitiku Gabrehiwot, 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow, Ethiopia
One afternoon in 2006, I decided to walk home from school. As I was walking, a small group of kids playing traditional music in a poorly fenced compound captured my attention because of the condition of their play area. The next day, I went back to the school for a visit and have been visiting ever since. I feel blessed to have met those remarkable kids that day, who are now responsible adults!
I believe that community service comes in different forms and shapes and is triggered in many ways — for me, it was seeing the children playing in the schoolyard. Some of us give our time, some give our hearts, and others give in kind. Some people learn to give; some learn to feel. Some do it at young age, some at old age, some do it all the time. Some provide when they have leftover, some contribute from what they have or have not; yet it’s not the amount of services or the depth of love one gives that counts, it’s the act by itself that matters the most. A true act of community service is humble, devoid of pride, and that is where the lesson begins. However, the best time to start community service is at an early age, because by starting early, you gain more return in social capital throughout your life.
At 14, I was a member of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society Gambella Branch, where I volunteered in schools, clinics and festivals as a first-aid provider. At age 16, I was able to help in dispatching food aid to flood victims and interact with refugees from South Sudan in the remote villages of Gambella, western Ethiopia. In university, I became addicted to volunteerism and community service — I found the more I gave services for free, the more I understood the needs of my community.
Learn, live and lead by example
I have learned that community service is not only admirable, but “addictive” as well. The more you serve your community, the more you want to do. The Mekele Blind School I was introduced to 11 years ago had 96 visually disadvantaged students, about 36 of them girls ranging from 6 to 17 years old. The kids were living in an “urban island” on the outskirts of Mekele city, northern Ethiopia. While they had food and shelter, they were deprived of love and human contact. The kids lived in the city, but were effectively cut off from city life. The blind kids love to touch, feel and understand through physical and mental experiences. Over the years, I helped them raise funds to construct a wall, build a library, develop a Braille literacy program and provide sanitary materials for the girls. I also raised awareness in the surrounding area about the school, which contributed to the betterment of others in the disadvantaged segment of my community. What is stuck in my heart and mind is the priceless friendship of the kids and people I met as a result of volunteering.
Ever since I was introduced to the children, I have continued to socialize with them. I am proud to say that some of the kids are now lawyers and teachers, and some are married. I believe community service is inborn and can only be nurtured through practice. We all have the best of humanity inside — if we are able to harness opportunities life presents us with, we can all learn to love serving our communities; and it starts now!
Mitiku Gabrehiwot is assistant professor of medical anthropology at Mekelle University Department of Anthropology. Currently, he lectures in courses on anthropology and related fields and is actively engaged in community service. As a Mandela Washington Fellow, he went to the University of Arkansas in 2014. Find more photos from Mitiku on the YALI Network Facebook page. If you have questions for him, he can be reached via Facebook or email at [email protected].