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From potatoes to pride: One girl's journey with Biruh Tesfa

April 14, 2010


W&P Tigist 180x180

This story comes from our Women & Population team, who recently traveled to Ethiopia with David Cook, season 7 winner of AMERICAN IDOL. Learn more about David's trip here.

Tigist Tsegaye is one of the bravest, most inspiring young women our team has ever met.

On Monday afternoon during our visit to Ethiopia with David Cook, Tigist arrived to the Biruh Tesfa school. She walked up the steps, greeted Habtamu (the coordinator for the program), and leaned against the wall of the school.

She didn’t look happy or afraid or impatient. Her face was rather expressionless, albeit beautiful. I watched her the entire time as I knew this was one of the girls that the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) was suggesting we speak to and possibly meet with David Cook when he arrived.

While my teammate Diana was working with Ron, the American Idol producer, I stole the moment to ask Habtamu to help me translate. We sat down with Tigist in the dark, relatively empty classroom. We started with the basics -- how old was she, how long she had lived in Addis, and how long she had been in the program? Slowly we came to have a small sense of Tigist’s story.

Tigist left the Amhara region when she was just 14, now 5 years ago. Her parents never knew she was leaving as she was escaping her arranged marriage. She had heard about Addis from other people but did not know anyone in the city. She came by bus, and when she was dropped off in the Merkato bus station, she was left for brokers to find an employer in need of a house girl.

For the last five years, Tigist has been living in the Merkato slum area working as a domestic servant and selling fried potatoes, earning a few cents every day. She told us she does not fear dying, but fears getting sick because who will take care of her?

Even now I feel overwhelmed when I recall how she talked about her family. Tigist has not been home since she left five years ago. She told us that she heard her mom had died, so she felt no desire to go back to the Amhara region. There is nothing left for her there.

But one year ago her life changed. A mentor convinced her employers to let her attend the Biruh Tesfa school, and now with just 6 months left in the program, Tigist’s eyes light up talking about how much she has learned.

She said her favorite part of school is learning so many different subjects, including important life skills. She had never gone to school before, but now she talks about her dream job to become an engineer.

Grinning, she said one day she wants to get married. And when she learned that Amy, one of our communications directors, is getting married this summer, her grin broke out into a full-blown smile.

Each day -- Monday through Wednesday -- Tigist arrived at the school at 3 p.m. sharp and waited patiently for us. She left promptly as 4 p.m. to get back to work. She was brave in sharing so much of herself with us, who were complete strangers.

But I think by Wednesday she felt she had friends in us. As soon as any one of us caught her eye, her infectious smile would resurface.

I don't think any of us will forget Tigist, including David. We’ll be following up with Habtamu on how Tigist is progressing toward her graduation from Biruh Tesfa. She's an amazing young woman whose life has surely been changed forever thanks to this program and the UN.