All his life, Araya Zerihun was an invaluable advocate of the poor and a hard working visionary who left a very good life in the United States to work with his people back home, according to the accounts of many who came to know him.
He returned to Ethiopia two years after the ousting of a military regime that fought a rebel movement from his home, Tigray. Araya was born in 1947 in the small town where Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came from, Adwa, to his father Kegnazimach Zerihun Getahun and his mother Aster Ashel.
In 1993, Araya helped establish the Tigray Development Association (TDA) in order to rehabilitate a region torn apart with a civil war of almost two decades. He stayed with the TDA for the following 10 years, serving as a Chairman of the Board.
He was not only “visionary”; Yusuf Reja, managing director of Info Mind Solutions, described him as a humble in all his deeds. Yusuf also recalled that Araya was always there whenever development work was needed anywhere in the country. He contributed to the formation of different development associations in the regions, especially active in sharing his experiences of the business of development works. In fact, he was the first to introduce fundraising through telethon activities.
Under Araya’s leadership, TDA made considerable progress. A number of special schools were built in the region, including the Mekelle Institute of Technology (MIT). He will not, however, see the product of the Institute, which will graduate its first this year.
At TDA, Araya also participated on the state level in construction, transportation, education, and health sectors.
One of the achievements credited to him is the Circus Tigray, an organisation which supported street children who did not have much hope in life. Circus children not only became musicians and artists all by their own right, but some of them continued their education.
Solomon Enquay (PhD), former speaker of the Tigray Regional State Council, remembers Araya as someone who was close to his people and who always thought about how he could develop the poor by building schools in rural areas. They have known each other for the past 19 years, and were very close. Ararya’s idea of building the Kalamino School proved that the poor who could not pass elementary school can one day reach the university level, Solomon said.
And this needed someone like Araya who not only talked about problems, but was a leader who came up with solutions.
Dr. Ghelawdewos Araya of the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) in the U.S. knew Araya for 30 years. Their friendship was reinforced when they became colleagues in the formation and subsequent operation of the TDA.
Ghelawdewos remembers when the two men had to drive from New York to Maryland, and through the entire trip they were immersed in discussing development agendas. But there were also times when they were relaxed, enjoying an Ethiopian restaurant on New York’s 18th Street.
But, Ghelawdewos recalled, a few years after the formation of TDA, Araya was assigned to head the international headquarters of the organization in Mekelle, and during the second annual conference of TDA, in Mekelle in 1994, they met again.
TDA conferees came from all over the world; despite the festive mood and well organized schedules for the entire week at Mekelle City Hall, Ghelawdewos could not help but read fatigue on Araya’s countenance.
“He was a brave man with utmost commitment,” he recalled, “but he too is flesh and had to exhibit wear and tear on his physiology. And I said to him, ‘you are well dressed and look sharp but you look so tired’ and he replied, ‘I am Ok but I did not sleep last night.”
It could be said, Ghelawdewos felt, that Araya had not had enough sleep in the last 10 years.
“His untimely death could have been a combination of fatigue, stress, and unwellness,” he said in a posting on a blog marking Araya’s death. “I am terribly sad by his departure, but I can see his legacy living through the ages and his torch blazing as beacon and hope for future generations of Ethiopians.”
In business, as in development, he never acted like a manager and a boss, according to employees at MAA Garment, a plant located in the town of Mekelle, 780Km north of Addis. He established it after he left TDA in 2003, with investment coming from Sheik Al-Amoudi, who flew from Jeddah last week, to attend his funeral at Holy Trinity Cathedral.
People close to him recall Araya working hard managing MAA Garment, the newly built garment factory, striving to turn it into a successful company.
He is survived by his wife and seven children.