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In Ethiopia, Dreams Squashed by a Strip of Red Tape

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For these three Ethiopians, in addition to their diplomas from Ambassador College, they also have drivers’ licenses since that is a prerequisite for being travel agents and tour guides. But the bureaucracy they are facing from government offices hindered them from reaching their goal.

I think the story that I am going to tell you is something of a parable about what America is slowly but not inexorably becoming.

For several years, the Bill Cook Foundation has sponsored three boys in Ethiopia to attend the Ambassador College of Travel and Tourism in the city of Bahir Dar. I met them when I was doing research in another Ethiopian city, Lalibela. They approached me to ask if I would buy them a book. This was a novel approach since most kids asked for money or food. They explained that they owned one book and had read it and had mastered its contents. Now they were ready for a second book.


The book they had was about Europe, and they proudly announced that they knew the capitals of all the nations of Europe. So, being a teacher, I gave them a test—France, Italy, England, Spain—too easy. Then I did Austria, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic—again too easy. Next I asked about Bulgaria and Finland and Croatia—no problem. Finally, I told them that I would ask one last capital and that if they got it right, I would buy them a book. “What is the capital of Moldova? Without flinching, one answered, “Chisinau.” So I bought them a book and gave them my email address.

A few months later I got an email asking if I would pay for them to attend Ambassador College. It wasn’t too expensive, even if I also provided housing and food, so I said yes. About a year after that, I decided to visit them in Bahir Dar. They lived in one room with a mattress and a hot pad. Their toilet was about 200 meters away, and they bathed in Lake Tana, a 10-minute walk. But they showed me their notebooks and other materials to demonstrate that they were studying.

They began to tell me their story. Their families were all farmers in a remote village where there were no schools. So with their parents’ permission, they left home at age eight for the city of Lalibela where they lived on the streets, usually sleeping under a kind of porch and shining shoes. They took in enough to pay for food. And they went to a public school. They did this for nine years. That is when I met them. So their “carefree years” were spent sleeping on the ground, shining shoes and getting an education.

Last October, Yohanis, Abu and Mareg (I collectively refer to them as YAM) graduated from Ambassador College. On a recent trip to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, they showed me their transcripts and gave me a photo of them in their caps and gowns. I was overwhelmed with joy and admiration for these guys. In addition to their diplomas, they also have drivers’ licenses since that is a prerequisite for being travel agents and tour guides.