Creating Agents Of Change! Learning Life Lessons From The Poor People In Africa!

It’s amazing to me how when you become aware of synchronicity it seems to appear on every corner. Or how when you welcome a new thought process or shift a personal paradigm, all of the negative people seem to fall away and people with similar perspectives start to enter your life.

Over the years, while speaking in front of hundreds of high school students about how their thoughts and actions can change the world, a few common themes continued to surface.

We, as adults, often assume that youth have been empowered to create change, and maybe some have, but the chaos and noise in our technological environment has dis-empowered many.

One of the themes I continue to see is the power of positive reinforcement. Yet, People often hold themselves back from sharing their message because they think it has been said before. I quickly remind them about the truth behind the old saying, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” Ten people might get up in front of you with the same message, but one presenter might deliver the lesson exactly the way you needed. The reluctant sometimes question how their own message can change someone’s life just by them having the courage to share their experience?

Students will write me and tell me how, after I pointed this simple action out, they became aware of the ripple their leadership was making in others’ lives, and often, that this was the first time they ever truly realized the power of their own story.

So what happens when we encourage others and consciously live a life of gratitude?

Youth, and adults, who are new to this way of thinking often play devil’s advocate and respond, “That is great and all, living in gratitude in our Western world, but what about the starving people in Africa? How can we possibly help them just by living in gratitude?”

The answer is always more simple than they think and I reflect the question; what are YOU doing to help those people in Africa? Are you optimizing the resources available to you in the Western world to be healthy, to get an education, to align yourself with like-minded people in order to bring that knowledge, those resources, to the starving people of Africa?

Then I tell them the story of Malaku.

In 2009 I was fortunate to travel to Ethiopia as part of an educational documentary on the co-operative movement. That year that I started to put the principles I recently learned into practice, and so, like I stated before, I began attracting like-minded people into my life.


One of those people was Melaku Belay. The documentary director told me of a bar he wanted to go to called Fendika, where Melaku, the owner, was a friend of an  acquaintance. Melaku is a self-taught Ethiopian dancer and has travelled the world with his amazing fusion of traditional dance with self-expressed creative movement.


As soon as we arrived Melaku was a gracious host and took us out to eat before the show started. Ethiopia has a paradoxical environment between the poor and the middle class, as well as the modern and old culture. With no infrastructure for the disabled or elderly, the streets are filled with people in need. Having never experienced this kind of intense desolation, it was shocking for us two rural Canadians.

Melaku presented a beautiful meal of traditional Ethiopian Injera bread, sauces and meats. The director and I were so full, but we continued eating. Soon you could see the looks of discomfort on our faces as we tried to finish all the leftover food on the plates. Our Canadian guilt became so obvious that Melaku could not keep his laughter to himself any longer. Shaking his head, smiling, he asked, “Why do all of you Canadian’s carry such guilt? Why are you trying to make yourself sick by finishing the food?”

“Melaku,” I responded, “How can we leave behind so much food when so many people outside are starving?”

Melaku just smiled and patiently asked, “Cara, how does your guilt help them? Instead, feel grateful for the nourishment of the food. Let it build your strength and your mind, then, use that strength to help them.”

It was such a simple statement but held such power.

Melaku knew about struggle. One night, over some drinks at a local bar, I told him I wanted to write a children’s book about his story. I asked him, if he could be any animal, what animal would he choose? Melaku, with a sly grin on his face answered, “I would have to say, a mouse!”

“A Mouse?” I responded. Not the animal I was expecting.

He explained. “A mouse looks weak but really its strength is in its ability to maneuver, hide and escape tricky situations that most animals could not.”

Melaku, started to tell me a bit about his story and it quickly became apparent why he identified with this animal. As a young child, without a father, his mother was forced to leave Ethiopia and return to her home in Sudan, and, unknown to her, left Melaku behind in the care of an abuser. Before she left she told Melaku, “You are special, you can survive and you will succeed.” Simple words with powerful intentions. Melaku choose to believe them.

It became so difficult for him that he decided that living on the streets was a better option than succumbing to the daily abuse he endured.

While living on the streets he began to see people celebrating through traditional Ethiopia dance. He decided to learn the dance and found a love he had never experienced. Melaku began travelling to the different villages in order to learn the many different styles of this rhythmic joy, and each day spread his new found knowledge on the streets. People began stopping to observe this little boy and tipped him for his talent, making it a little bit easier each day for his survival.

Melaku caught the attention of the owner of a bar called, Fendika. One day he came to him with a proposition. He offered him the opportunity to dance at his bar, but he could not pay him a salary; he could live off of tips. Melaku took him up on his offer and each night danced at the club. When the club closed in the early hours, Melaku would travel outside the city and sleep under a tree. One night he was attacked by a Hyena and survived. He asked the owner of Fendika if he could sleep at the bar after it closed. The owner agreed and for ten years Melaku slept in a make shift bed, literally, under the bar. He saved his tips and by the time he was in his early twenties Melaku bought Fendika and he now pays all of his staff a salary.

Melaku Belay in Addis Ababa

“If I want clothing, I go to my friend who makes clothes. If I want food, I visit my friend who owns a restaurant, and if I need transportation I call my friend who drives a taxi. All of my money goes to helping my friends at Fendika. I live a prosperous life,” Melaku explained as he finished the end of his beer and asked if I would like another.

I hung on his every word and I never forgot his story. It symbolized to me the importance of perseverance, resilience, and the impact the simple gesture his mother made in planting the seed of hope and encouragment in her child before she left.

Melaku is not only a dancer, he is also “a cultural entrepreneur” trying to support and develop the cultural and musical wealth of his country. He has also developed his work internationally, making a real fusion between his traditional musical background and modern music. (FENDIKA)

Melaku has invited many guests, from both Ethiopian and foreign spheres, to Fendika, creating a place that offers a symbiosis between tradition and modernity. A few of those guest included members of the band The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who were so inspired by Ethiopia and Fendika that they wrote the song, “Ethiopia” as a tribute.

So what happens when we create an environment that nourishes change agents? How do our simple words and actions impact the lives of youth and remind them that they have the power to overcome any adversity? How does living a life of gratitude help us move forward in spreading the good and abundant life to all?

Like Melaku, how can we better the lives of others by following our joy? These are open ended questions that can only be answered through our conscious contribution to better ourselves, and by fearlessly sharing our knowledge and experiences with the world.

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