Delight can quickly turn to frustration when an excellent new recruit, who is just settling into the post, decides to accept a job offer elsewhere. But occasionally, you know they’ve made the right decision.
And so it was for Asfaw Yemiru, a young Ethiopian teacher who arrived for his first day of work at the British Council’s General Wingate School in Addis Ababa. He presented himself in the Head’s office – shoeless, covered in dust and only wearing a pair of shorts and a blanket. With a quiet voice Asfaw recited the English he had learnt in preparation for his first day. “My name is Asfaw Yemiru. I am here to learn.”
The Headteacher, Frank Dawson, liked Asfaw instinctively. In little time Frank became a mentor to the humble Ethiopian and drew immense satisfaction as the young man’s command of English flourished. But whilst Asfaw’s talents with a second language developed quickly his desire to leave his new post grew faster.
For outside the gates of the General Wingate School were orphaned street children who asked each day for food and help. Asfaw found it impossible to ignore their pleas and in little time had set up a makeshift class under a fig tree in the adjoining churchyard.
Asfaw cajoled and encouraged other teachers, including Frank and his wife Fev, to help provide support. But as the teaching supply increased so word about the free churchyard lessons spread amongst the orphan community.
Recognising his available resources were no match for the scale and magnitude of the challenge, Asfaw sought Government support to help create a dedicated orphan school. But instead of making calls and writing letters, Asfaw believed his only chance of success was to lead by doing the difficult. So he took direct action by throwing himself in front of the president’s car. Despite being kicked and dragged away by guards, the Emperor of the time, Haile Selassie, wanted to listen to Asfaw. And as a consequence, land was made available for his school project.
Years later Asfaw’s Headteacher Frank Dawson wrote these words about him. “He must be a Planner’s nightmare. He sees the need for something he believes to be vital and important, takes action at a grass roots level, draws people in around him, the project gains momentum and things happen.”
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward.” Asfaw is all these things.
A child of poverty, Asfaw chose to focus his entire life supporting and improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. He remains driven by a deep-rooted conviction that “All problems can solved providing one has tremendous courage, interest and belief in what one thinks.”
But the most extraordinary point of this story is the fact that Asfaw’s first transformative actions occurred over 50 years ago in 1959. Since then his consistent work and commitment to a single cause has helped rescue and save the lives of over a hundred thousand children.
Under Asfaw’s leadership the Asra Hawariat School welcomed 280 pupils when it first opened in 1961. Numbers quickly swelled to 650 and by the mid nineties the school provided for well over 1,200 people each year. Before the end of the century Asfaw was offered a Nobel Prize for his work in Ethiopia (he declined) but in 2002 he won the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child (a few years later this award was bestowed on Nelson Mandela).
Unsurprisingly perhaps, after so much time giving, Asfaw found it difficult and embarrassing accepting any award. He has dedicated his teaching life to giving and when asked what his message would be to trainee teachers he said this:
“I say the same thing to the kids in the school. You have come from nothing and somebody has helped you to come this far. You owe for this and must repay. There is somebody now who needs your help and you must give it without expecting anything for your trouble.”
Key Learning Points: Money is not the prime energy source to create change. Selfless passion, focus & bravery are key drivers which draw others in and create momentum. Consistency & commitment are critical behaviours that will see a project through.