BY KASSAHUN ADDIS
Published: Sunday, June 14th, 2015
New York (TADIAS) — Last week in Berkeley, California, Berhane Daba made history as the first woman and the first disabled person to win the prestigious Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award by the American Peace Corps alumni organization, National Peace Corps Association.
The story of Berhane is one that would make a great inspiring novel. She was born to a poor rural farming family in Holeta town, some 50 miles from Addis Ababa. In 1968, polio stricken by age two, she was left along a dusty roadside by her father in the hopes that a very important person visiting the town would feel pity and help.
“I was put by my father on the road that King Haile Selassie was passing by as he was visiting our town. My father was hoping the king could take me to Addis Ababa where they already established an orphanage for the sick and abandoned. The stars were aligned that day. The king saw a baby with two disabled legs and with no adults around, inquired about me and told his men to take me in and put me in Addis Ababa for treatment,” Berhane remembers.
Once in Addis, she was placed at St. Paulos Hospital for treatment. A few weeks into her stay at the hospital, a young American nurse, Mary Myers-Bruckenstein, came and started providing therapy for the chronically damaged nerves and tissues caused by crawling. In the words of Berhane, who spoke to Tadias Magazine following the award ceremony, “meeting Mary was one of the defining moments” that profoundly changed her life. Mary had arrived as a member of the newly launched U.S. Peace Corps program. At the age of 22 she had joined the mission after graduating with a nursing degree.
“When I met Berhane and saw her condition, I felt that I could help reduce her pain. I saw her strong spirit and started working with her. But the facilities at Paulos hospital were barely enough,” Mary recounts looking back at her first days of encounter with Berhane.
Mary decided to move the little polio stricken baby to Princess Tsehai (renamed Tor Hailoch) hospital where she worked with Berhane to help her regain more strength. Eventually Berhane was able to walk upright using crutches and her spirit was uplifted. Mary took Berhane into her home until it was time for her to leave Ethiopia, and the relationship between them continued to endure as Mary made a common friend promise to continue to take care of Berhane in her absence.
“After she left Ethiopia, I was admitted to Kechene orphanage where I started school, and our common friend, Tekle, would follow up on me and pass on messages of goodwill and postcards from Mary to me. He would read me a letter from her and help me write one to her too,” says Berhane.
As the Emperor was deposed and socialism was declared the state ideology most Western programs in Ethiopia were shut down and the Peace Corps program became a casualty in 1977. It would take another 18 years for the Peace Corps to return to Ethiopia following the overthrow of the same regime that caused its interruption.
Despite the political and social turmoil over years the relationship between Berhane and Mary endured largely due to Tekle. Berhane talks of Tekle as a man “who took his promise seriously over the years and who still remains a good friend.”
At Kechene orphanage, Berhane completed high school and started working at the National Museum as a librarian. Working hard, and along the way proving stereotypes about disability wrong, she rose up through the ranks. In 2008 she earned her Bachelor of Science in Information and Communication Technology from Admas University. Strengthening her educational and career profile was just one of many battles that Berhane says she “enjoyed.” At the same time she was building a small network of disabled women in a bid to explore what they could do to help other disabled individuals in a society that “considers disability as a curse or sin.”
“Being disabled is one thing, being disabled in an environment that doesn’t have enough safety nets is another. Then being a disabled woman is just too much” says Berhane. She reasons that for a long time the culture in Ethiopia had a utilitarian view of women in general, and that is that they are good “either to help in household chores like fetching water and cleaning and cooking or bringing a rich husband. When one is a disabled woman one is thought to be useless, no good to fulfill any of these expectations. You can’t help in the small chores and you cannot bring that rich husband.”
Berhane and the small network of disabled friends commenced to use their own resources to help each other as well as other disabled women. “We soon realized that we should get ourselves organized and help each other and others who lacked the access and opportunities we had,” Berhane adds, recounting the beginning of the establishment of the Ethiopian Women with Disabilities National Association (EWDNA) — an organization that works to empower women with disabilities and provides them with the skills and confidence they need to become economically self sufficient. The association was founded by Berhane and her seven friends, and today it boasts more than 3,000 members. It started with a women’s resource center and now provides technical, financial and vocational training along with counseling and guidance services to members and non-members. Berhane tells of “the huge challenge of placing trainees in the mainstream job market” — hence EWDNA’s subsequent focus on assisting individuals to start their own small businesses as well.
Berhane is optimistic about the future. She has seen some changes in attitudes towards disabilities in the course of her life. She exclaims, “In the past people used to feel pity for us and openly express it as if we are some helpless creatures. You do not see that often these days. People are witnessing that disability is not a curse and that with the right support system, which for that matter everyone needs, disability can be overcome.” She also sees the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by Ethiopia as a step in the right direction.
Berhane met Mary once again at the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award ceremony. “We both were happy that I won this award,” shares Berhane. “And afterwards we talked and stared into each other’s eyes and saw the best of human spirit in each other.”
About the Author:
Kassahun Addis is a New York-based contributing writer for Tadias Magazine.