I had a choice either to be ordinary or extraordinary. I picked the latter. I would rather die trying to be extraordinary than to live ordinary.
I was born in Bahir Dar in 1983 and I grew up in Addis Ababa. I am Co-Founder and CEO of Erq Ma’ed PsychoSocial Support Service, a councilor, a radio producer and host. I am married to a wonderful man and a remarkable father. We joined our two families: his two sons, my adopted daughter, and I gave birth to our one-year-old son.
I’m the youngest of three children. I went to Medhanialem School near Shiro Meda. I grew up in a middle-class family protected by my parents and with minimal exposure to the real world outside home. My parents were extremely supportive. My father used to say, “Leave her alone to be and express herself as she is.”
My childhood had two faces. Before I went to school, I was very active, free-spirited, sociable and the entertainer of our house. When I went to school, I was shocked by the environment’s high level of conservatism as it was a religious school. The teachers were strict, which shook me to my core. I started to shut off. My shyness got worse in grade school which affected my grades. I remember one teacher said, “Your parents would have been better off buying Teff with the money they pay for your education.” I believed him and thought I was not worth it. The tuition fee is higher in private schools than public schools so I wished my parents put me in public school. I used to get punished a lot and in most cases I didn’t even know the reason. I couldn’t adjust in the school system and frequent harsh punishments affected my personality. My mother noticed my change and started asking why I was getting less and less active.
I grew extremely timid and didn’t have lasting friends. Kids got close to me but went away when they found I was not entertaining and fun. It was emotionally tough for me and I think that’s what got me attracted to psychology. The shift happened in high school. I was asking myself a lot of critical and psychosocial questions about identity, purpose of existence and what I wanted to do in life. In my mid-teens, I knew I wanted to do something to help people. I started reading a lot. I realized I have two choices: to live with fear or to be free. I chose happiness that brought my authentic self which is sociable, playful and active. Reading Antony Robbin’s, “Awaken The Giant Inside,” inspired me to unleash the giant in me. Then I met a mentor, Yohannes Afework, a psychologist who pushed me to examine my life and live my truth.
When I was a 2nd year student at Addis Ababa University, I joined the psychology department. By then, I was already on the journey of finding myself, reading a lot and having continuous self-talk. With my father’s help, I found volunteer work during summer at African AIDS
Initiative. Noticing my dedication and discipline, they put me in the child sponsor program. In the program, I noticed the children were only given food and stationary. Their material needs were met, they’re growing physically but their emotional and psychological needs were not addressed. I started asking about psychosocial support. I wrote a three-page proposal on my observation and submitted to the project director. He laughed at me and told me all we could do is provide them with food and school materials. He added, “You’re too young to ask these questions.” He made me feel like I was moving too fast. I knew I was asking the right questions.
I got another job at a kindergarten where I met Endalkachew Assefa, my current business partner and co-founder of YeErq Ma’ed. Even though it was a teaching job, I still wanted to provide psychosocial support. That’s when I came across a young girl, probably five or six years old, who was active and brilliant but suddenly shut down. No one could explain the reason or bothered to find out. She reminded me of my childhood shyness. I decided to follow up on the little girl. We went to her house and found out that there was domestic abuse in her home. Her father used to beat her mother severely. One day, he threw the mother and the girl out of the house in the middle of the night. Then she witnessed her mother’s rape on the street. We traced and found the reason to the girl’s shut down was secondary trauma. That incident gave me the impetus to commit to providing psychosocial support to my community.
We started our movement that very day with a shoestring budget. We didn’t know where to start so we went to some government office to ask for support. After graduation, we did a few freelance jobs and started saving. We opened a very small office in Shiro Meda with 10 energetic, young, fresh graduates. All but two of us gradually left as it was both tough and unpaying. We moved our office to Piassa and put up a sign saying we provide psychosocial support. It didn’t take us long to realize our profession is not accepted despite its importance. We designed a strategy. We needed to start with awareness creation so we started a radio show.
We went to Fana FM as two motivated and energetic people with no experience and no money but with big ideas. They encouraged us and told us to bring sponsors to start the show. We didn’t know what that meant and how it worked. Surprisingly, someone we knew and shared our purpose gave us 10,000 Birr. He councils on marriage and relationships so he used to encourage us to keep pushing as the need for psychosocial support in our country is enormous. We took that generosity as a sign to carry on.
Once we started our radio show Addis Menged, about 9 years ago, people started flooding to us. Our presentation was not even very creative. We were educating and citing real stories that many people related to. This prompted us to start counseling with 25 Birr per session. To accommodate the huge flow, we hired and trained counselors.
Realizing the vastness of the need, we designed an engaging radio show where people would tell their own stories. We called the show YeErq Ma’ed. The reception was astonishing. We couldn’t believe the overwhelming number of people who were coming to us seeking our services. Their stories were extremely touching and beyond belief. And about 65% of the
people who came for psychosocial support were women. That in itself brought another challenge.
Most of the women didn’t have money as they’re dependent on their husbands. They couldn’t afford the session and when they asked their husbands, they ridiculed them. We were stuck between two issues: to serve the women pro bono and sustain the business. The women must be treated as they’re the core and pillar of their families and our society in general. Meanwhile, when we provide service for free, our company would collapse so we wouldn’t be able to serve anymore. So we established Erq Ma’ed Community Support Project – ECOP. ECOP is subsidized by the revenue generated from the radio show to give free service to those who can’t afford it.
What I’m proud about our office is all our clients, whether they’re paying or not, are treated equally by the same professionalism. Those who pay are told a portion of their payment goes to ECOP. We can’t compromise on service quality. So far, ECOP has served over 1,500 people for free and majority of them are women. The number of clients are growing tremendously. We are always renewing our intervention model but we must also work on prevention.
Through the years, we observed the majority of cases coming to us are family issues. So, we designed a program to address the problem from the source. We’re launching a school program using the resources already available in schools. There are counselors and offices in every school along with teachers and parents. If we mobilize these in each school, we can prevent the problems from escalating.
The best place to begin prevention is at schools. We decided to start from changing the name from “discipline office,” implying one has a problem, to a more receptive use for wellness. So our program is called SEED WELLNESS. We’re implementing it this school year in grade 4. The reason we picked 4th graders is that’s the age when cognitive development starts. The program trains teachers and works with parents to create a support system towards their growth. Our other intervention model is to prepare stories in audio so parents can listen with their children. We implement it in our office during therapy and it’s successful. We decided to record and distribute it so we can create awareness and education and prevent escalation. This product will also be a great way to connect parents with children. The topics we select are more on soft skills such as leadership, choices, decision-making and so on.
Our work is on education, health and media. Education is through SEED, health through psychosocial support, and media through YeErq Ma’ed on Fana and YeSelam Gebeta on Bisrat FM. Education and media are more for prevention while health is for intervention. YeErq Ma’ed reaches up to 10 million listeners weekly with a larger audience online. We’re currently on the process of starting a YouTube channel.
- Best Show of the year in 2015 & 2017 by Fana Broadcasting Corporate
- Ambassador of Peace by Interface Peace Initiative
- Acknowledgment for impacting women’s lives by business women group
- Mandela Washington Young African Leaders Initiative Fellow of 2016 for YeErq Ma’ed
- Regional Young African Leaders Initiative of 2018 for SEED WELLNESS
- Top 3 of Health Innovator Competition by World Health Organization 2019
Mental issue is one of the most critical challenges of our country. Twenty-five to 27 percent has mental problems from slight to severe disorders. The few outlets we have today don’t even start to scratch the surface. Ethiopian history shows us how much pain and trauma we carry through generations that have not been addressed so we must invest on emotional health.
I have two major visions for Ethiopia. One is for every school in Ethiopia to access and benefit from SEED WELLNESS so we can raise children that are shaped with character. The second is to build the wellness centers in Addis Ababa and the regions so our community can benefit from an integrated approach. We have 12 staff and 35 volunteers and interns driven by our values. We take interns from AAU School of Psychology and School of Journalism. We are training them intensively and stress that they must create something new when their internship is over.
Women must depend on themselves. We must know our value, have time with ourselves and always reflect. The secret to life and fulfillment is giving and with giving come blessings and abundance.
What do they say about Tigist?
Tigist is a progressive, hardworking, curious, knowledgeable, compassionate and responsible woman who’s always ready to learn and grow. She’s committed to her work and everything she believes in. She’s respectful towards her team and her clients. Tigist is humorous, sociable and kind. She is a family woman who loves her country and is committed to make an impact by working with generations. She is highly ethical and a woman of integrity.
Tigist was afforded various opportunities worldwide and always makes sure those opportunities benefit Erq Ma’ed. She established strong networks with institutions and individuals around the world which she links with the company. Tigist linked Erq Ma’ed with the Boston Trauma Center, Global Trauma Center (Kenya), and Dawlary University to get professionals to come to Ethiopia and transfer knowledge to her team. She also created connections with institutions based in Ethiopia to assist Erq Ma’ed such as PACT Ethiopia, CARE Ethiopia, Growth Africa, Reach 4 Change and the British Council.
Whenever she is needed, Tigist makes sure she contributes. She worked in Gambella, South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya after the West Gate attack on trauma and mediation as well as training.
– Endalkachew Assefa – Erq Maed Co-founder, Business Partner, Radio Host, Mediation Councilor