From an Ethiopian tin shack to Orlando’s famed Orange Bowl of tennis

I’ve been bugging one of my favorite global friends, B.J. Barry, for a guest post for a long time, and he has finally delivered. B.J. and I met a few years back when we were both at-home dads in Paris. As a rugby-playing New Zealander, he’s my poster boy for macho at-home dads.  I started to write all the other things I love about him here, but I think he deserves a long post of all of his own. B.J. is married to a French-Canadian UNHCR lawyer, and since we were together in Paris, they have lived in Conakry and Addis Ababa and will be moving to Nairobi shortly (true global nomads). Here is a great story about something he has recently been involved in:

OUT OF AFRICA: DISADVANTAGED ETHIOPIAN KIDS COMPETE IN PRESTIGIOUS ORANGE BOWL TENNIS TOURNAMENT

Young Ethiopian tennis players, Meron Getu and Yonas Gereb, have an American dream and it’s about to come true. Introduced to the game six years ago via a programme for disadvantaged children in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Meron and Yonas will this month take on the world’s best young players at the prestigious Orange Bowl world junior championship event in Florida.

The pair will spend two weeks training at the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in South Carolina before travelling on to Florida. It’s a far cry from the 12-foot-square tin home each of them shares with their parents and siblings, with their families living on a mere $US20 to $30 a month.*

ethiopian-tennis-meron-and-yonasMeron, 13, has been the national girls’ champion in her age group for the last four years, and has won the East Africa Championships twice for her age group. Yonas, 12, has been the national boys’ champion in his age group for the last six years. He has also reached the finals of the East Africa Championships.

My family are happy when I win,” says Yonas. “My dream is to be a pro tennis player.”

Meron, too, hopes to join the pro tennis circuit, and knows that playing the Orange Bowl is a rare opportunity. “Our families are very happy that we have this big chance to travel overseas,” she says. “We hope tennis can change our lives, for us and our families.”

The youngsters’ early talent was recognised when they were taken on by a tennis programme for disadvantaged children set up within the Olympicos Tennis Club in Addis Ababa. Their coaches, Tariku and Desta Tesfaye, had begun their tennis careers as ball boys and found their own way out of poverty through coaching and playing, with Tariku rising to represent Ethiopia at Davis Cup level in 2000.

Keen to help children from backgrounds similar to their own, they set up the programme in 2003. Twenty children, aged six to eight, were chosen for their ability, enthusiasm and concentration. They receive intensive training before and after school, have extra tutoring in English, and mix with mentors at the club. Their typical diet of the local “injera” bread cannot sustain them through their training, so the club and a private donor provide nutritious lunches.

“We also had a contract with the parents that if a child’s grades were slipping or they were seen hanging around on the streets they would be off the program,” says Tariku. “We had to be very tough on these kids. They had to understand that there would be no second chances.”

The tough love approach has paid off. The Olympicos youngsters have for the last three years dominated all their age group categories at the ITF East African Tennis Championships, defeating even such African powerhouse tennis nations as Kenya and Tanzania.

But it wasn’t until the “Racket Center” in Heidelberg, Germany, sponsored them to play in Europe in 2008 that the kids’ talents were fully realised. The four chosen to play won all their tournaments.

The Ethiopians’ German sponsors subsequently contacted the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in South Carolina in the United States. In July Tariku travelled to the academy to participate in its coach certification program, and while there secured an invitation for himself and two of his protegees to this month’s Orange Bowl.

Tariku believes Yonas and Meron will do well. They play only on clay, but will have two weeks training on hard courts at the Van Der Meer Academy before competing in the Orange Bowl. They are also often up against opponents who are bigger and stronger than them. But he says that playing at altitude (8200 feet) in Addis Ababa should give Yonas and Meron a real advantage.

“And they have a hunger to win,” says Tariku. “They only have this one chance in their whole lives.

“And if they succeed it gives other kids hope. They are both a good example to the other kids in the programme. They are well-behaved, honest and they communicate well.”

Yonas and Meron are relishing their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and have trained hard in the lead-up to the tournament. In the meantime supporters have come forward to fund the trip, including sponsors Ethiopian Airlines, UNDP, Kobil, Book World and several private individuals.

* UNICEF estimates that there are 150,000 street children in Addis Ababa, and drought, displacement, famine and HIV/AIDS put many more at risk. Yonas and Meron are not street children, but their poverty puts them at risk. Ethiopian government progammes focus on the areas of education and sport, health and nutrition, dwellings, skill training and advocacy to prevent children from entering street life. For more information see www.unicef.org/ethiopia/ET_media_child_protection.pdf

Author: B.J.Barry (email)

For more information or photographs contact Noel McIntosh, who is travelling with the party in the US.
Mobile: 1-443-636-1202. Email

RELATED ARTICLE: tennis-kids-project-addis-ababa

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6 thoughts on “From an Ethiopian tin shack to Orlando’s famed Orange Bowl of tennis

  1. B.J.Barry says:

    Ben,

    thankyou so much for including my story on your blog. I’m trying to get the message out there as much as possible in the hope that maybe, just maybe, a door will open up for these kids. They are so very special and talented. Looking forward to closer ties once we move to Nairobi at the end of the month.

    Cheers,

    B.J.

  2. Henock says:

    Ben,

    My Name is Henock and I am an Ethiopian American who actually started playing tennis in Addis Ababa when I was a kid and moved to the U.S and continued a successful Junior and College tennis career and a brief semi pro career as well. I have always wanted to give back to my home country specially in tennis related ways. Could you help me contact the coaches and the kids so I can find a way to help out. I would have loved to met them when they were here but I just found your blog online.

    And B.J. if you get a chance to read this I would appreciate your help too. thanks.

    Henock

    • Ben says:

      Hi Henock,

      I’m sure they would be thrilled to hear from you. I forwarded your e-mail to B.J. He’s in the middle of a move – here to Nairobi, so his on-line access is limited right now, but he promised to get back in touch with you.

      In the meantime, you may want to click on the e-mail link for Noel MacIntosh or call him on 1-443-636-1202.

  3. Thanks Desta and Tariku!!!!!!!!
    ymer.w@hotmail.com

    look here is the boys home site.
    ymertennis.com

  4. Birungi Eddie says:

    Am also a tennis play in uganda but we have a problem 4 u u are even laky because ITF is helping so just keep on with tennis by the way how is Ethiopia

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