Majang zone of Gambella Peoples National Regional State and Sheka zone of Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) are two areas in Southwest Ethiopia endowed with abundant biodiversity and rich in captivating cultural diversity of the indigenous communities.
Tadele Dulo is a member of the Menja minority group in Sheka. Currently, he is the head of Culture and Tourism Office of Anderacha woreda, one of the woredas in Sheka zone.
We had a discussion with Tadele and other government officials of Anderacha woreda regarding the social exclusion against Menjas and the changes achieved since MELCA has started working on reducing the social exclusion against Menjas through active involvement of the community and local government organs.
As a member of the Menja minority group, Tadele has shared us his experience in the past as compared to what is going on at present. Regarding his childhood experience as a student, Tadele says “When I was a student in elementary and secondary schools some years back, I sit in a class on one desk alone. Other students did not want to sit on the same desk with me. I cannot go to the tearooms around to have tea, as owners do not allow me in. I take anything my classmates offer me including edible things; but no one wants to take from me if I want to share what I have. So I prefer not to approach others; I did not have friends in school. Yet I had to bear all these and continue my education. I did and completed high school.
I continued my education in college; but things are better there, as most of the college students do not know I am Menja or about Menja. After graduation, I started my job as expert in one of the offices in Anderacha woreda.
What I went through during my childhood life was an exposition of the life of my community. We were not considered as humans. We were treated as polluted and untouchable. We used to take that as our destiny and lived away from others in the forests. Even five years back, thinking the equality of Menjas with Shekachos or other community members was like crying for the moon.
But now that thinking is broken. Now almost everyone in Sheka is hearing about the equality of all citizens including Menjas, whether convinced or not. Things are different now because various efforts are already going on to reduce the discrimination. Although the government and some religious organizations are contributing their part, MELCA has been the main driver of the changes relating to reduction of the discrimination against Menjas. So we are experiencing the results of these works.
As things are changing, there are more opportunities now for the Menja youth. These days, Menja children do not face the bad treatment I faced in schools some years back. They are now like any other children in the schools; no suffering from discrimination. These are the children who will build up on the current initiative and derive the change to the fullest in the future.
I am now the head of the Culture and Tourism Office of the Woreda. I am the first Menja at such position. But this is just the beginning. The ones who are in schools today will be the doctors, the teachers, the engineers and politicians of tomorrow. Discrimination against Menjas will be just a history by then.”
Abraham Emiru is the principal of Ewa primary and junior secondary school in Masha woreda of Sheka zone. He witnesses the following regarding availability of access to education for Menjas and their equal treatment in school, “Some years back, Menja children rarely come to school. Firstly, Menja children do not come to school as they live far away from schools and residential areas in the forests. Secondly, even the children of those who live relatively near to residential areas do not come to school as most of their parents are poor and cannot afford buying basic items the children need for schooling and send them to school. Even those who pass all these hurdles and come to school suffer fatal discrimination. Other children do not sit on the same desk with Menjas or play with them. They do not greet them. So it was hard for the Menja children to withstand this and stay in schools.
But now, there are no such treatments against the Menjas. No other child tends to treat Menjas differently. There is equal treatment in all terms. So now, no Menja child would refrain from coming to school for fear of discrimination. This is because starting from some years now NGOs like MELCA and the government as well as religious institutions are working on educating the community about equality of people and reducing the social exclusion against the Menjas. The only thing that may prevent Menja children now from coming to school is economic problem. As most of the Menjas are poor and live a subsistence life, they cannot provide their children with the necessary materials for schooling and so their children do not come to school. Otherwise, there is equal access to school for the Menjas as well.
To solve the economic problem that avoids their coming to school, MELCA is providing material support for some selected Menja children. As their parents have also started to be engaged in different economic activities and their livelihood in improving, the number of Menjas sending their children to school is also increasing.
On our part, we are also applying different incentive strategies to encourage the coming of Menjas to school and also instill their equality in other children. For instance we award Menja children in the rank of up to 10th from class; we appoint Menja children as monitors and also group leaders. These all can be considered as factors contributing to the increase of the number of Menja children in the schools.
In our school for instance, we hardly have 10 Menja children before 4-5 years back. Last year we had 42 Menja children; this year we have 60 of them starting from beginners to grade 8. This can show how fast the number of Menja children coming to school is increasing.”
Atenesh is a twelve years old Menja girl in grade one at Ewa primary school. She is one of the Menja children getting school support from MELCA. Regarding her schooling and school support, Atenesh has the following to say “Although I wanted to come to school when I was younger, I couldn’t come as my parents could not send me to school. They cannot buy me clothes, exercise books, pens and pencils that I need for schooling. We do not even have enough to eat. But this year, I am called to the school and got clothes, exercise books, pens, pencils and school bag. I am so happy now to attend school like my other friends. I would like to continue my education, become a nurse to heal people who become sick in my community. That is my dream unless I am forced to stop schooling.“
MELCA has started provision of school support for Menja children in 2013 through the fund it has obtained from EU’s EIDHR program, and in 2016 the organization is providing school supports for a total of 60 poor Menja children in different primary and junior secondary schools in Sheka zone.
“We are now aware that our future is in our hands. We believe we were not on the right truck with regard to conservation of our biodiversity, including our local seed varieties. We have to work for change. Today, MELCA opened our eyes to envision a lot more and work for change in various dimensions; but this will be just the beginning.
Driving some 40 kilometers to the west of Addis Ababa, on the high way to Nekemte, we find the Town of Holeta. Holeta is the center of Welmera Woreda, which is one of the woredas
MELCA-Ethiopia has recently produced a documentary film showing the history of the Sheka forest renowned for its rich bio-diversity.