My name is Teshome Toaspern. I have taken on my wife's surname. I'm 56 years old, am married, have two children and have lived in Germany for 32 years. I came to Germany in 1989. I had passed my school leaving certificate examinations in Ethiopia and had then applied for a place to study abroad; and that's how I came to East Germany. I came during the period of reunification and at the beginning I attended a language school. We, the students from abroad, had no idea what would become of us. Then an organisation from West Germany came and discussed the possibilities. Amongst other things, they gave us the option of studying here which is what I did.
My home country is socialist, similar to the GDR. The GDR and Ethiopia were socialist sister countries and the GDR allocated places at university for befriended African states. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to come to the GDR as the educational openings were not as good in Ethiopia at that time and there weren't many universities.
Family. I met my dear wife and so I stayed here. We have two children and we are very thankful for that. Our children are now grown up and both of them live and work in Berlin. I am really pleased that I decided to stay here.
We were looking for a suitable name for our association. It's called Nirro. That's an Amharic word. Amharic is an Ethiopian language and translated into English means 'life'. I go to Ethiopia once a year for the association. We have founded and built a school there because when I was a child, I had to walk fifteen kilometres to school from the first to the twelfth year. We wanted to spare the children this, so that at least for the first few years they don't need to walk as far. The primary school was our association's first project and in fact that was the reason why we set up our association.
We didn't want to have very many members although lots of people wanted to work with us. We thought that the more members we had, the more complicated it would become. So my wife and I decided to only have the legal minimum number for an association - seven. So there are seven of us but there are many more people who support us even though they aren't members. They are often willing to donate sums of money when we need it.
Every penny; everything is donated. There are lots of friends as well as my wife's relatives. Most of them donate on a regular basis. So we are an association of friends and relatives - near and far.
From the very beginning, when we set up the association, lots of people in Ludwigslust were willing to support Nirro. My wife and I decided to focus on educational projects. This idea found great resonance because everyone knows that education is a way to avoid poverty. Another aspect that was important for our donors was to know exactly what happens to the money and they trust me. They can ask me any time. There are also some friends who have been to Ethiopia with me so that they could visit our projects. In this way our projects have reached a wider audience.
We are an association which works on a voluntary basis and when I want to extend my projects I need partners in Ethiopia. That's difficult. That's why we have limited our projects to one physical place but in different domains. That means we work with young children, schoolchildren - it's often a matter of school materials or uniform that their parents can't afford. We also help young people who want to work towards getting their school leaving certificates or those who have already achieved that and want to go on to study - especially young women. In Ethiopia we have someone who works with us; she was a classmate of mine. She comes from our village and used to be a teacher. She is our contact person there and works voluntarily. She worked on a voluntary basis even before we set up our association. We support her financially because she has to travel around a lot for us. But basically she works voluntarily like the rest of us.
Up to now we haven't thought about setting up an association in Ethiopia because the bureaucracy is so complicated. The authorities want the money and then decide how and to whom it is distributed. And I don't want that. Because if I give them some money, I don't know where it will end up.
I was in the Ethiopian Embassy in Berlin and I was lucky enough to have been given two hours to explain our work. The representative there gave me a letter of recommendation and even a telephone number of the Ministry of the Interior where I can request support if we are in need of help. When I had problems there I showed some Ethiopian officials the letter. A German person would have just dropped everything and would have come back. I knew what to expect.
There are lots of charitable associations, for example Menschen für Menschen (People for People) that was founded by Karl-Heinz Bohm, that have achieved a great deal in the country. They have built many schools. Infrastructure and lots of things that are still visible. I can't say to what extent the German state has carried out development assistance but I don't see much of it when I'm there. In my opinion, the aid from Germany, Europe, is used to pressurise African countries. 'Either you do what we say or we won't give you any money.' That's a kind of hidden colonialism; that's my point of view. These countries aren't free. I don't deny that there's corruption, but apart from that, the countries in the north put pressure on the countries in the south. That bothers me. And it's a great problem for me.
For many people in Ethiopia it's like this. I live in one of the richest countries in the world, so I can afford everything. I have so much money to spend. Their perceptions are unrealistic. I can understand them because they live differently from us here in Germany. But they cannot see that I also my problems here. I don't have so much money that I can buy everything. The fact that I have a car automatically means that I am rich. A car owner must be a rich man. They cannot conceive it in any other way; even when I say that we have to work hard. Some of them understand that but others don't.
We carry on with our work and we are fulfilled through it. We see how happy the children there are. I go there once a year; every year for the Ethiopian Christmas celebrations; which are one week later than ours. Then I see how happy the children are. We always organise a small party for the children who don't have anything. I see how grateful the villagers are, how happy they are that the school is there. For example, they can use the printer and photocopier in the school. Because the equipment isn't just for the school but it's also for the community. We are really grateful.
Nirro = Leben e.V.
When Teshome Toaspern was a little boy, he walked 15 kilometers to and from school every day. After he found a new home in Ludwigslust in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in the early 1990s, he wanted to spare today's Ethiopian children this hardship. In the meantime, together with many other comrades-in-arms, he has achieved a lot in his home village of Merti.