My Journey to Learning Amharic

This post is contributed by Lynn Steinberg, Marketing Director for Roots Ethiopia.


Last year I met Meseker, a woman in Ethiopia who sells livestock at her local market. She is the recipient of a small business grant (IGA) through Roots Ethiopia and is now able to send her children to school and pay her own rent. When we met, I said a few basic Amharic greetings and her face lit up. She grabbed my hands in hers, smiled, looked me directly in the eyes, and began to tell me her incredible story. At that moment, I knew that the key to connecting with women in Ethiopia was to learn their language. It is the ultimate bridge to connection and trust, especially with women who are often shy and reluctant to share their struggles. This is the mighty Meseker:


So, what did I do? I signed up for a 10-week summer Skype course and kept a journal of my often erratic feelings:

Week 1
Holy sh*T! What did I sign up for? You have to be a language scholar to understand this alphabet. This has to be harder than learning Chinese. I need an art degree to write these characters. Why exactly would I need to know the Fidel? Hmmmm…Maybe I will see it written on some paperwork on a site visit. The truth is as of now it would take me 15 minutes to decode one character. This is not Amharic 101.


Week 4
The alphabet is clicking thanks to the Ha-Hu Puzzle App. How can I speak if I don’t learn my Fidel? Learning the Fidel will ensure that I am pronouncing my words correctly-ish. Kids learn their letters and sounds first, so shall I!

I wish I could skip to “Can I have two coffees and some beef tibs?” I’ve been studying two hours per day including a 10-minute session with my kids. They are so annoying! They learn the vocabulary so easily. I wonder why I need to know the word woodpecker? Really? Will I ever need to use the word woodpecker in Ethiopia?

Week 6
I can seriously read Amharic. I know all 231 characters by heart and I can sound out basically any sentence! Do I know what I am reading or what the words mean? Heck no, but I equate this to when my kids were in Montessori School and learned all the English sounds. They could technically read but had no idea what they were reading. Also, I have built my vocabulary up to way over 100 words. This is exciting!

Week 10
Holy moly, I just read this to my teacher Zodi via Skype! 

“Simey Lynn new. Chapel Hill, Semen Karolina enoralehu.

yeney ayn semayawi new na tsegurey bunama new. sost seyt lijoch aleng. yeney seytoch lijoch sem izzy, kiki, na mitike, new. ye bale simeh mike new. yeney bale esporte yewodal. yeney bale sira yewodal. eney buna betam ewedelahu. eney sira betam ewedelahu.

betam tedestku

behamus Virgina emetaehu. beteqmt Ethiopia yeney betoseb ymetal.”

And I can write in the Fidel as well!

ሲመይ ልይን ነው.
Simey Lynn new.
My name is Lynn

Should you take this course? Drumroll…Yes, take this course! You will love it if you are a nerd like me! Things to consider:

Learning a language, especially Amharic, is a long-term commitment. Don’t expect miracles, but do expect to graduate from the course feeling pretty good about yourself.

Be kind to yourself. Zodi will remind you that your sentences don’t need to be perfect nor does your pronunciation.

You need to put lots of work into this course during the week. Like anything else, if you slack, you won’t learn anything.

Recruit a local Amharic speaker to practice your vocabulary and simple sentences.

Be nice to others who are learning. There are various ways to pronounce the same words. It is all good. We are all in this together. Don’t be the Amharic police. I am guilty of this!

Contact me! I would love to practice via Skype if you sign up for this course. I really want to start an online Amharic club and will do so once I have 4 others who are interested in weekly Skype practice.

Here is the info on how to sign up and please tell Zodi that I sent you!

Roots Ethiopia is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization working in Africa, specifically helping Southern Ethiopia. Roots Ethiopia supports community identified solutions for job creation and education.

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Zena’s Story: S.H.E. Inspires

Zena has a beaming smile, and she has a lot to smile about! She is an inspiration, and this is why!

Zena has turned a small business grant through our Self-Help Entrepreneurs (S.H.E.) program into a stellar success.   She represents the best part of the work of S.H.E.  Our organization holds a campaign every year to put new grants for small business into the hands of hardworking women.  With your help these women become forces for change in their families and communities as soon as they have the resources to make a difference.  Help make an impact and donate now.


“I am Zena. I am the mother of 7 children. Before my husband died, my life was very nice. We had everything we needed to eat, everything we needed to live. But after his death, we suffered a lot.

After getting some support from Roots Ethiopia now my life has been changed…The program has provided training on how to use the money, how to run a business. Then I started saving after I learned in the training. I am now a business owner and a mother.

I sell bread and injera and a local soft drink at the market for 2 days every week. On other days I sell injera at my home. People come every day for my business. The profit of this business is feeding my children, paying house rent, and paying school fees for all of my children.

My wish now is for all my children self-sufficiency after completing their education. I want to help them get a good education, be self-sufficient. Now I want to go on and help people just like me.”

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(photo of Zena in front of her home, selling bread, injera, and a local soft drink)

Site Visit: November 2011

Our first site visit is complete and the trip went fabulously. There is a lot of good work going on as the result of Roots Ethiopia’s support, and much more to be done. We’re excited about what the next several years will bring.

Some General Observations – our first year in operation

School sponsorships make an immediate impact
In the communities where families have received school sponsorships, it’s easy to see where our money is being spent and both the short- and long-term impact it will have on children and families.

Income-generating activities (IGAs) take longer to establish but have the potential to also afford children the opportunity to go to school. If families can develop a steady source of income, they are far more likely to be able to afford the expenses (both in fees and in lost productivity) associated with sending a child to school. For us this means that it makes sense, over the long-term, to work with Meseret Kristos Church to try to transition families from school sponsorships to income-generating activities.

Income-Generating Activities

As of our visit in May, Roots Ethiopia was funding 10 income-generating activities—three in Shinshecho, five in Hadero and two in Doyogena.

Typical IGAs that have been supported thus far include the creation of occupations such as coffee selling, fruit selling, and oxen purchasing. MKC evaluates the success of these programs at the three- and six-month mark, which means none of the IGAs Roots Ethiopia has supported have been fully evaluated yet.

Before receiving funding, recipients of an IGA participate in small business training, and in the assessments, they provide profit reports, complete a self-evaluation and report back on their saving strategies. Occasionally, at the three-month mark, MKC will suggest a change in course for the business structure, based on feedback the recipient has provided.

The team was able to visit a handful of implemented IGA programs, including a woman who received livestock and another woman who is now managing a fruit stand at the market. Anecdotally, we can tell you that things sound like they’re going well, however, we now recognize that IGAs are more expensive to implement than we initially estimated they would be. Realistically, it costs approximately $400 to underwrite an IGA from initiation through to the sixth month of operation.

School Sponsorships

As of our visit in May, Roots Ethiopia was funding 20 school sponsorships—five in Shinshecho, nine in Hadero and six in Doyogena.

The school sponsorship program is running well, and we’re funding the sponsorships at the appropriate level (approximately $240 for a private kindergarten and $60 for a government school). MKC is concerned about what will happen if our level of support drops off in future years because they want the children to feel confident that they can continue with their schooling year after year. We appreciate that concern and want to make sure we’re building in a mechanism by which current donors are re-solicited on an annual basis. We also want to maintain an ongoing commitment to these children.


MKC will provide Roots Ethiopia with field reports on a biannual basis. They will also provide an annual report. Roots Ethiopia will, in turn, share this information with its giving circle.


MKC staff stressed a couple of factors that will influence the success of our program long-term.

The number one concern they discussed is hunger. If people are hungry and can’t get enough food to eat, all other programs fail. This inspired our most recent grain drive.

Secondly, they discussed the lack of schools in some of the areas we are trying to serve. Even in Hadero, which already has two private kindergartens, they explained that there is not enough space in the schools for all the village’s children. Building schools remains important work in this region.

Some Goals Moving Forward

  1. Adequately fund the income-generating activities that we’ve currently committed to.
  2. Continue to fund more income-generating activities.
  3. Increase the number of school sponsorships we underwrite.
  4. Design a process by which donors are solicited annually for school sponsorship commitments.
  5. Make it easy for all current donors to give on a recurring basis.