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A letter from Marilyn Hansen in Ethiopia

March 2012

“What will be your first question when you see God?”

“Tell a joke.”

“How old are you????”

“Who is your favorite striker [soccer position]?”

Some were surprising, some were sweet, some were hard. But the questions just kept coming from the 6th grade English class at the Mekannisa Mekane Yesus elementary school. Our daughter Lauren and I were guests for a “free talk” class period in the classroom of a good friend of ours. Nega has been teaching English at the school for about five years now.

Lauren and Marilyn surrounded by 6th grade students in their English class

The children, wearing their red-and-blue uniforms, waved their hands urgently, waiting to be called on, and they had a hard time keeping their seats. With three students to a bench (at a desk meant for two) and about 50 students in the class, the room was vibrating with energy. Most students at the school live in the area where we also live. They are poor but are able to attend this private school through sponsorships given by Compassion International. Students have no English textbook; those whose families can afford it have an English workbook.

Many people here in Ethiopia want to speak English. In a country with more than 80 different languages, the most common language is Amharic. But knowing English is often considered one of the gateways to success in a job. All college classes here in Ethiopia (other than very small schools) are taught in English. Many of the better jobs require fluency in English.

Once a week I am a small-group leader for an English class at the Mekane Yesus Seminary, which is also located in the area where we live. (The Mekane Yesus denomination is the 5.6 million-member-strong PC(USA) partner here in Ethiopia.) The seminary is the equivalent of a four-year college education and classes are conducted in English only. Students are not admitted without some grasp of English, but the level of fluency varies greatly within classes.

Marilyn answers a question about a short story from a seminary student at Mekane Yesus Seminary

The seminary English teacher, Carolyn Weber, also a PC(USA) mission co-worker, wanted to give students in her classes a smaller setting in which to speak English. To provide more personal attention, I meet with five to eight seminary students for a class weekly. In this small group setting, they read aloud one by one. We discuss words that are unfamiliar and pronunciations that are difficult. Our most recent story was about Gladys Aylward, a remarkable English missionary in China for many years. Our current story is about female genital mutilation, still practiced frequently here in Ethiopia.

Students at the seminary are committed to their education and are committed to their faith. While practicing conversational English during class, I asked one young man what he enjoyed doing in his free time. Without hesitation, he said, “I pray.” Most students are young, but some have been pastors or Christian leaders for a number of years. Men outnumber women greatly. Becoming more fluent in English is necessary in order for them to be trained to more effectively minister once they graduate.

Whether 6th grade or college level, students are motivated and eager to learn English. Our daughter Lauren, who has met quite a few Ethiopians during her three-month stay here, has been approached by a number of people asking her to teach English. Being a native English speaker here automatically gives one the status of an English teacher.

On the other hand, Ethiopians invariably smile when Rich or Lauren or I attempt to speak in Amharic. When Lauren and I were in the 6th grade classroom, one request was for each of us to say something in Amharic. Lauren counted to 10 to thunderous applause.

But the response that brought the house down was when Lauren was asked her favorite music. When she said “country,” the follow-up question was to sing a song. The students went crazy clapping to her rendition of “If I Die Young.”

One of the last questions Lauren and I faced in the classroom was, “What is your source of happiness?” A good question for anyone to ponder…

Prayer requests:

  • For children here in Ethiopia who want to learn but face the huge obstacle of poverty
  • For Mekane Yesus Seminary students who sacrifice to further their education
  • For safe travel for Lauren as she returns to the United States next week to find a place to live and a job


Rich, Marilyn (and Lauren)

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 95

Blog: Meskel Musings

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