Cultural Immersion and a Special Homecoming On Spring Break In Ethiopia

Student Leena Asfour in Ethiopia.

Of all the NYUAD-organized trips during spring break, none were more greatly anticipated than the journey to Ethiopia. In addition to taking part in a community-based learning program, the group — made up of 13 students from 13 different countries — witnessed the return of classmate Musbah Ormago to his homeland and hostel, the Ethiopian Education Foundation (EEF), an organization that provides tuition scholarships and boarding to the country's talented yet severely underprivileged students.

After an overnight flight to Addis Ababa and the first of many gravel-spraying, fishtailing, donkey-dodging bus trips through the capital, the group — known during the trip as Musbah F.C. (as in Football Club) — visited the Ministry of Education and Bolet secondary school before finally arriving at the EEF, where they were greeted by the hostel's gifted tenants who would soon become neighbors, guides, and familiar friends. It was there that the true cultural immersion began. As the NYUAD students broke their first injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread) and tasted their first cup of Ethiopian coffee, they began to converse with their hosts in English and Amharic, the languages common to all of the EEF students despite their differing regional dialects.

Yet it was not until the next day that the group spoke with the EEF students fluently in perhaps their most passionate tongue — sport. After already having been defeated by the EEF students on the residential volleyball court, the NYUAD contingent enjoyed a mile-long hike through the countryside and up a nearby hill to the grounds that served the entire community as soccer field and meeting place. Playing at altitude, the NYUAD team fought a hard 90 minutes, eventually going down 5-4 in overtime, but when sitting on the sidelines meant playing duck-duck-goose or cheering with the dozens of local children who had come running to watch the game, it was hard to feel like anyone had lost.


My decision as a young boy to move to the city and enlighten my mind with education was the greatest decision that I have made in my life.

Musbah Ormago, NYUAD Class of 2014

During the days that followed, the group was exposed to every aspect of local Ethiopian culture, heavily relying on the guidance of Ormago and the EEF students through such wonders as the Mercato and Bolet Church, the largest market and church, respectively, in Africa. Yet, undoubtedly, the most impactful experiences came from the relationships built with the Ethiopian Education Foundation, where the group not only saw first-hand the value of community, but also learned about the country's history, politics, religion and spirituality, culture, and educational policy; the School of Tomorrow (Ormago's high school), where students discussed the Ethiopian education system; Stiftung Solarenergie, which provides solar energy to rural off-the-grid villages; and Ormago's own family.

Although it took a five-hour bus trip to reach Ormago's hometown of Liera, the NYUAD students witnessed "uncle Musbah" in his own home and with his family, arriving unannounced for the first time in two and a half years. "It was an amazing opportunity to return home again," Ormago said. "I was able to realize, understand, and remember where I came from, what I am right now, and what I will be in the future. My decision as a young boy to move to the city and enlighten my mind with education was the greatest decision that I have made in my life."

False banana, coffee, and popcorn provided the fuel for the celebration and the ensuing games of soccer and tag, as well as rounds of reading with the village children, which will endure in the students' memories long after their Ethiopian tans have faded.

Returning to the EEF that night, the NYUAD students sang a farewell song they had composed in Amharic for their friends, with whom they danced, exchanged email addresses, and talked around the bonfire until the embers had long turned to ash and the return flight was but hours away. Even as the group said their goodbyes to the EEF, they knew their first trip to Ethiopia was not going to be their last.