When Tim Hall left Haines Junction three years ago to attend Lester B. Pearson College in Victoria, he had no inkling that it would lead him to Ethiopia.
He had no burning worldview.
“In fact,” says the 20-year-old, “while growing up I had very little awareness of the world. Definitely my global sense developed at Lester B. where there were students from all over the world.”
Hall has recently returned from Ethiopia where he volunteered for nine months of teaching English to children from an SOS Children’s Village and the nearby city of Awassa. His assignment was part of a third-year-option program at the college.
No watershed moment guided Hall’s decision to work in Ethiopia. The idea slowly evolved.
“Even when I saw others leaving to volunteer in other countries, it never occurred to me that this was something I could or ever would do,” he says. “Then one day, after about two years at Pearson, I started talking about it to a friend and realized this was my plan.”
The SOS Children’s Village, where Hall worked, is one of six similar villages in Ethiopia. The SOS organization, first established in Austria, operates in 130 countries worldwide.
Hall smiles broadly as he describes the Assawa Children’s Village of 130 people.
“It’s a beautiful, fenced compound with lush gardens and trees — and a closely-knit community.”
Fifteen houses each shelter seven or eight orphaned children along with a woman employed to be the “mother.” The orphans attend a private, 900-student school that includes students from the city.
Hall lived with one of the families for the first five months, then with a group of 15-year-old boys in a group home outside of the village. This home is the boys’ first step away from the village.
“And I connected really well with the kids,” Hall says. “The Orphan Village standard of living is similar to that of a middle class Canadian family.”
Hall’s duty was to teach spoken English. He taught 40 students in each of five classes.
One rewarding project was setting up pen pals between his students and St. Elias Community School students in Haines Junction.
“Thanks to St. Elias for all their efforts,” he adds.
Hall elaborates on the Ethiopian school system that he worked in.
“It’s traditionally very, very strict with almost no room for creativity. Their style is formal; mine is not. I think the greatest impact for my students was to see a different style.
“And I definitely learned what goes on behind the scenes for a teacher — all the effort of planning and trying to be your genuine self, whatever your style.”
It wasn’t all easy or fun for Hall.
It took a bit of grit to get over the frantic traffic, a cockroach burrowing into his ear, and people hollering, “FARENJ!! FARENJ!! (foreigner), MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!!”
“At first, I was incredibly self-conscious. Children and adults both sometimes heckle foreigners as rich … I would never show my camera and laptop to the kids.”
And then there was the war with Somalia on Christmas Day.
However, Hall says, “I went from being immobile, clueless and nervous to being independent, thoughtful and curious. I learned to be who I was and to do just what I was doing.”
Learning the language (Amharic) was a tipping point for Hall.
“By the end of the year, I could carry on a basic conversation in my students’ language. That was one of the biggest progressions in my thinking,” he says.
“When I first got there, it never occurred to me that I’d be able to learn it. It helped me fit in.”
Hall then opens two large photo albums and describes the Ethiopian people.
“They are the most beautiful people I have ever seen and not typically African. Brown skin, black hair, but with very refined features.”
Hall explains that they are generally a conservative, hospitable, and gracious culture with an easy-going mindset.
“They are not Type A personalities — not time conscious,” he says with a grin.
In general, the standard of living throughout Ethiopia is much lower than North America’s.
Hall cites an example.
“In the 900-student school, only two staff members had vehicles. All others had bicycles. No kids with iPods or dirt bikes.
“The kids are absolutely amazing — wonderful, wonderful, with their shining eyes,” says Hall. “They are very creative, play endless games, and play outside a lot.
He adds, “The vitality of these children is the heartbeat of their country.”
In Hall’s view, Ethiopians are a proud and happy people with a strong sense of national identity — proud of their cultural diversity (80 languages and many dialects).
Because Ethiopia was never colonized, outside influence is not so evident. “Coca Cola and Pepsi are there, but not much more,” Hall says. “Tourism is relatively unknown.
(Most of the foreigners are with relief groups such as the UN and OXFAM.)
“Poverty is huge, especially in the rural areas,” says Hall, “and that’s 70 per cent of the population. There are also major slums in Addis Ababa.
“I think that iron band of nationalism inside of the people contributes to their resilience toward that poverty.”
Has this year’s experience changed Hall?
“I’m not sure I’m different, but I feel like I’m an older person,” he says. It was hard to come back to the affluent North American lifestyle. It felt surreal, he adds.
“The whole experience was a big shift in mindset for me — a big set of experiences that will always be with me.
“I know now that more of the world lives like this than like we do. I love those people and I do want to go back.”
Hall’s experience in one word?
Elaine Hurlburt is a writer living in Haines Junction.