Children in Ethiopia gain knowledge about their second culture and get the basis for better lives

Socrates, Plato and Xenophon are all on the curriculum, as are Odysseas Elytis, George Seferis and Nikos Kazantzakis. The school plays are from the Greek repertoire – Sophocles’ «Antigone,» Vassilis Rotas’s «May Mesolongi Live.» These children are learning to dance the tsamikos and kalamatianos and know songs by popular singers such as Dimitris Mitropanos and Antonis Remos, as well as the music of Mikis Theodorakis. The only images of Greece that Eleni, Ilias, Theodoros, Meskerem and their fellow pupils have are from books and photographs. They attend the Greek School in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, where the average annual income is just 80 euros and there are over 4.2 million orphans. These 120 children are getting a Greek education and dreaming of a better life. The school opened nearly 100 years ago. «At that time, the Greek community numbered 4,000; now there are less than 100 of us,» said Theofilos Mordofanos, head of the school board and vice president of the Greek community of Ethiopia. Greeks began leaving Ethiopia in 1975 when the Socialist government began seizing their property assets. As a result, the school’s finances also suffered. Mordofanos, now 85 years old, was one of the originators of an idea that would solve the problem – setting up an English-language course to fund the Greek School. Now some 950 children of different nationalities are learning English and sustaining the Greek school, which boards 85 of its pupils. The only qualification for entry to the school is that the child have some Greek origins. «Of course, we can never be 100 percent certain of that,» said Mordofanos. «In Ethiopia, they don’t register births as they do in other countries.» No matter how much «Greek blood» flows in their veins, these children love the Greek language and culture. «I like everything about Greece, but most of all the beaches, the sea and the souvlaki,» said 18-year-old Theodoris Plythidis, who graduated this year and plans to live in Greece. He dreams of becoming a soccer player. Twenty-year-old Eleni Savounieri grew up in the Greek community’s boarding house and has just graduated from the senior high school. She is also preparing to move to Greece, having visited once with her godmother. What she would really like to do one day is visit her relatives on the island of Karpathos. «Freedom, that’s what I like most about Greece,» she said. «The fact that anyone can lead the life they want.» Many of the teachers have stayed on at the school after being inspired by the children’s obvious thirst for learning. Nikolaos Marinos originally planned to stay a year but has already been there for five. «On the one hand, you see people sleeping in the street covered with a piece of plastic to protect them from the rain. On the other, you walk into a classroom and feel that the slightest piece of knowledge you impart will find more fertile ground than it would in Greece,» said Apostolos Kokkinos and Dodo Kokkinou. «In Greece, children view school as a break from cramming colleges. Here, no matter what you tell them about Greece or the world, they soak it all up. You feel much more useful.» Addis Ababa’s luxury hotels overlook slums built of mud that have no power or running water, which is the lot of 80 percent of the city’s inhabitants. Expensive cars circulate on streets frequented by wandering cows, goats and donkeys. Orthodox churches are spread throughout the city. Every time someone introduces himself as a Greek, he is met with smiles and exclamations of «We have the same religion!» Greek teachers have it easy here, as they themselves are first to admit. The very low cost of living, combined with the fact that they are paid two wages, allows them not only to live well but to put money aside. Accommodation is free at the community’s school complex. Not to mention the professional satisfaction. «We teach the children to read and write in an entirely new language that they don’t hear spoken around them,» said Sofia Karavassili. For Nikolaos Marinos, who teaches fourth and sixth grade in the primary school, these children are heroes. «Their parents aren’t there to help them with their homework. Yet they are so enthusiastic that they set aside time by themselves and manage very well,» he explained. Teachers and pupils spend their time together both in and outside the classroom. «We live in a small neighborhood, just like the old days in Greece,» said Kokkinos. There are never more than 10 children in a class, so teachers can spend more time with each pupil. «The difficulties they have met with have made the children more mature, they’ve widened their horizons. They support each other, for the struggle for a better life is stronger than anything else.» The teachers get more encouragement from the children than from the authorities back in the mother country. «Greece has to decide what it expects from these schools. Because we feel as if they brought us here, dumped us down and forgot about us,» said Kokkinos. This article first appeared in the August 27 edition of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.