Bahir Zaf gives Farenge everything they crave: fish tacos, mango salsa on top of crab cakes, the most incredible lentil samosas, and, wait for it, mangoritas. It is an oasis of filtered water, edible ice, and uncooked veggies that are safe to eat for even the most paranoid traveler in Ethiopia. The restaurant looks like someone’s fancy abode in South Beach, Miami, a shining white Spanish-style front complete with white furniture in a green garden with flowers of every imaginable color. There’s even a pet cat that rolls around in the grass like you only wish you could. And yet, despite even the presence of mangoritas, the heavenly atmosphere and food aren’t the only things that make Bahir Zaf the unique place that it is.
Bahir Zaf is a refuge. One of a chain of international locations, Bahir Zaf’s secret to success is its workers, disadvantaged youth from Addis. Some of the kids (aged 16-24) have dropped out of school, lost their parents, worked in the informal economy doing odd jobs or have never attended school in the first place. The model is a 18 month long program which consists of job training both as chefs and as wait-staff, a course in hospitality English, and a life-skills course. After a successful 18 months, the students graduate with a certificate that allows them the opportunity to work in hotels and restaurants in Addis. But the certificate isn’t the only thing the students gain. What makes Bahir Zaf valuable to these students is the palpable sense of family that you feel when you walk in.
As a teacher, I have felt especially inspired by this model and the commitment it has to providing structure and support for kids who desperately need it and I hope to give my own students in the States more chances to create beautiful things that they can be proud of. What I find so interesting about being in Addis, or any time I go abroad for that matter, is that somehow while analyzing the new society I have entered, I find myself analyzing my own with an even more critical eye and finding potential solutions to problems I may not have seen before. I gave a presentation to the staff working at Bahir Zaf on strategies for teaching disadvantaged students and the importance of sensitivity when dealing with young people that come from challenging backgrounds that we, as educators, may not understand. They were surprised to find out that I too have students that are orphans, who struggle learning, who have suffered violence, whose parents are in jail or whose parents had passed away. They were most surprised to know that in America, there were students who couldn’t succeed in the classroom because they were more focused on their hunger than on what was written on the blackboard. It is these realizations that confuse me most when I contemplate development work and this fascination with studying foreign systems and what works and what fails within them. The staff at Bahir Zaf exchanged some troubled glances when I told them that I routinely give my students food or pay for their lunches when they don’t have money for it, and then, finally, one of the trainers raised his hand and said, “We are sorry, we just don’t understand how this happens in a country like yours.” I don’t either, and his confusion has been my own for the last few years as a teacher. Paul Gauguin had a famous quote that goes like this: “I shut my eyes in order to see.” And when I close my eyes and look inside for answers, I ask myself, Bahir Zaf has found its own way to help youth in Ethiopia, what will be the way to help those in the States?