When Asfaw Yemiru was nine he lived alone on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. He started his first school at the age of 14. He has helped tens of thousands of poor children to go to school and achieve a better life.
“Asfaw is a very simple man. His only riches are all of his students,” says Behailu Eshete who attended Asfaw’s first class more than 60 years ago.
Asfaw’s story begins when he is nine years old, watching over his father’s goats. His father has decided that Asfaw is to start attending the village priest-school in a few days. But Asfaw has no interest in this. He had been to the capital Addis Ababa with his father, and has wanted to return ever since. He believes he can have a much better life in Addis Ababa than if he remains in the village with his eleven siblings and looks after goats. But Addis Ababa is a long way away and Asfaw knows that his mother and father would never agree to him moving.
“It usually takes more than two days to get to the city by donkey, so it will take even longer to walk,” he thinks. Early the next morning he heads off to Addis Ababa.
One of the cheeses falls out of the basket. “Excuse me! You dropped some cheese,” calls Asfaw and runs up to her.
The woman looks at him and offers him a job and a place to stay at her home. Asfaw accepts and for the next three years he works for the woman and her two sons. Every day he gets up before sunrise and chops wood and fetches water before he runs off to school. Despite hurrying he often arrives late and is beaten by the teachers. When Asfaw comes home from school he is tired, but he still has work to do. He never goes to sleep before late in the evenings.
When Asfaw is 14 he begins at Wingate. He likes the school very much, but one thing bothers him. The school is adjacent to Paulos Petros Church where many poor, orphaned children live. One day as he sits in the dining room and eats, Asfaw gets an idea. “Imagine if we gave the left-over food to the poor children instead of throwing it away!”
Asfaw goes immediately to the headmaster, who thinks that Asfaw is absolutely right. Every day after lunch, Asfaw and his friends hand out food to the hungry children. Asfaw asks his classmates to eat less so that there will be more food left for the poor. Many think this is good, but they still tease him a little. “Look, here comes the boy who wants us to go hungry!” they call and laugh.
Asfaw also collects clothing from his classmates and gives it to the children outside the church. Some of the poor children ask Asfaw if they can’t be allowed to go to school exactly as he does. Asfaw speaks to some of his classmates and they decide that they themselves will try to teach the children. At 4.30 the next day Asfaw holds his first lesson under a big oak tree in the yard. The rumour about Asfaw’s school under the tree spreads quickly, and every day more and more poor children come.
The Emperor gets out of his car and approaches Asfaw. “Why do you need land?” He asks.
“I want to build a school for poor children,” answers Asfaw.
Some time later, Asfaw receives a large plot of land behind the Wingate School from the Emperor. Asfaw is able to borrow money from the headmaster at Wingate and together with the children he begins to build the school and moves into it along with 280 orphaned children.
They walk through the mountains and extremely hot steppes. They sleep under the stars. Every day some of the students give up, and finally there is only Asfaw left. He is the only one who walks the entire 1,000 kilometres.
Asfaw uses the phone book to write to the 5,000 richest people and companies in Ethiopia. He gets one answer! But finally money starts coming in, mostly from friends abroad. Asfaw buys a piece of land where, together with his students, he builds another school.
Asfaw’s life was a long and often exhausting journey to help poor children. Under some governments he was even imprisoned for his work. Tens of thousands of children have received their education at Asfaw’s schools since he began teaching orphaned children under that tree more than 60 years ago. Still, Asfaw often felt unhappy that he couldn’t help more children.Text: Andreas Lönn