Lessons from an Ethiopia Eighth Grader
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s the question everyone is asked, in some form or another, throughout one’s childhood. Even through high school and college, individuals are constantly reminded and encouraged to explore different career paths (Remember taking a career interest survey to supposedly determine whether you’d make a better garbage collector or scientist? Remember how important a decision choosing a college major seemed?).
As a kid, when asked this question, I either never had an answer or came back with the classic “astronaut” or “doctor” response. As a high schooler from an upper middle class family, I would rather play sports, watch movies with my friends, and enjoy a safe and comfortable lifestyle than think about careers and a direction in life.
So imagine traveling to Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world where over 50% of the population can neither read nor write, and asking that question of 14 year old Haymanot Tilahun, an 8th grade girl who never knew her father and whose mother passed away less than a year ago, and hearing her state, “I will be the first female prime minister of Ethiopia.” Not “I want to be” or “I hope to be,” but a confident and compelling “I will be.”
Opportunity, Equality, and the Importance of Education
Though I was immediately taken aback by Haymanot’s confidence, if I had not yet felt inspired, my follow up question of “What would you do as prime minister?” would have done the trick. Haymanot detailed a multi-point plan of expanding democratic rights, making greater use of Ethiopian resources, and providing better opportunities for all Ethiopians, stressing the importance of promoting equality of opportunity for Ethiopian women and providing quality education to Ethiopian youth (46% of the population is under the age of 14). Despite English being her second language (after Amharic, one of the dozen languages spoken throughout Ethiopia), her passion and her vision emanate through her words and the way she presents herself and her ideas. I have no doubt she will become a successful Ethiopian leader. After all, she already is one, previously serving as Vice President of her primary school’s student parliament, actively engaging with the administration to improve the school. And she plans on furthering her skills at the International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia (ILAE), a secondary school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Founded by Haddis Tadesse, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Country Representative for Ethiopia, ILAE uses an innovative curriculum based on student-centered learning, an integrated humanities curriculum, and a combination of global best practices and traditional Ethiopian values to foster young men and women who are recruited by ILAE for their academic and leadership potential to become the global leaders of tomorrow. Most of these students come from underserved urban and rural areas, and most will pay no tuition.
Self-confidence, ambition, and enthusiasm for learning are qualities Haymanot and her fellow classmates have in abundance. At 23 and still unsure of what I want to be when I grow up, it’s a strange, simultaneous feeling of intimidation and inspiration to have 14 year old future electrical engineers, pilots, and prime ministers explain to you, with conviction, the importance of education for successfully achieving their future goals. But it’s a good feeling to believe that, in one of the world’s fastest growing economies, Ethiopia’s future leaders can make their country and their region a more prosperous place, if given the tools to accomplish their dreams.