Impact Stories & Blogs
Our team share their insights and perspectives on the impact our program is having on youth in East and Central Africa.
The power of self-introspection is often underestimated. Soon after I arrived at the YALI Regional Leadership Center East Africa as a participant in Cohort 5, I realized I had come to a place where I could openly share my experiences and explore new approaches to leadership. I came to know myself by looking inward, examining my past, planning my future, and developing a personal vision and mission. At the Center I realized I did not have a clear vision, but within a short time I was able to gain clarity in terms of what I wanted to do with my life.
To understand how critical this personal transformation was for me, it is important to know my background. At the age of five years, I lost my eyesight to measles. Because I was born to parents who were peasant farmers in Yetnora in rural Ethiopia, an area where access to medical services was poor, I lost my sight to an otherwise treatable disease. Despite this initial challenge early in life, I was afforded an opportunity to attend school when the area chief proposed to my parents that they send me to a boarding school for the blind.
When I was six years of age, I left behind my family and all that I knew. It was at the boarding school that my passion for education was born. While boarding school was significant in my development, in hindsight I understand that it surrounded me with a cocoon of protection from reality. I came face-to-face with this when I entered high school and began studying with students who could see. It was at this point in life that I realized opportunities for those who could see were markedly different from those of us who were visually impaired.
This was not an easy time, but as someone who is determined to overcome obstacles, I soldiered on. Whenever there was a hurdle in my way, I found a mechanism through which to overcome it. For instance, I soon realized that not all learning materials were available in Braille, so I found a friend who would read aloud to me. This helped me be successful on my final high school exam. From there on, I was convinced that I could achieve my goals. I now hold a Bachelor’s degree in Law and a Master’s degree in Law. I am a licensed lawyer working as an advocate and a law professor.
Early in my first job as a public prosecutor, I realized that, even among friends, my visual impairment was perceived as a disability. Visually impaired public prosecutors were confined to the desk to review case files, research, and draft proposals. At that point, the file would be handed over to a full-sighted public prosecutor to physically present the case before the court. I challenged this system and told my boss that I wanted the opportunity to litigate my own cases. I was the first visually impaired public prosecutor to litigate a case before a court in the area, but soon others followed. Now it is customary to have visually impaired prosecutors appear before the court.
I developed a passion to defend human rights, specifically those of persons living with disabilities. I am the Vice Chair of an association of visually impaired teachers and lecturers. Even with all my accomplishments, I knew that something was missing in my life. It wasn’t until I participated in the Center that I gained the clarity I needed to take the next step in my leadership journey.
At the Center I developed ideas on how to expand my association’s reach and impact beyond Ethiopia. Looking back at the struggles I had as a student, I want to ensure that visually impaired students now have access to information and new technology. I work through the association and local universities to provide them the resources they need to succeed. When I joined the teaching faculty at Debre Berhan University, I collaborated with the administration to introduce computers for visually impaired students. My dream is to have a well-organized audio library and computer center where visually impaired students can access information.
I am now a Master of International Law student at Syracuse University in the United States, and I am using this opportunity to build networks that will help me realize ‘my big idea’. I now have the self-confidence I need to achieve my goals, due to my time as a Center participant and alumnus. Where I previously felt isolated, I am now good at building relationships, which enables me to work with others to realize my dreams. The Center is a place of transformation. I know this because it happened to me and I intend to use the tools it provided to change the lives of youth with visual impairments. Thanks to the Center, I am taking charge of my life and making my dreams a reality.