Fenton Street is lined with Ethiopian restaurants and coffee shops, a clear reflection of the thriving Ethiopian community in Silver Spring. But there is also another Ethiopian-owned business on the same street, one which seeks to feed the body and soul, rather than just the taste buds.
Six and a half years ago, Messeret (Mesu) Asfaw opened Spa Mesu, offering hair, nail and skin treatments all with an international flare. Photos taken by Mesu’s husband Andarge hang on the walls of the salon, a more tangible indicator of the strength and power of their relationship, as both entrepreneurs contribute to the Silver Spring community and the world at large.
Andarge, too, started his own Silver Spring business to turn his passion into a career. His father, a serious amateur photographer, gave Andarge his first camera when he was 12 years old, and he soon shared his father’s passion for photography.
So when he came to the U.S. two years later, he already knew that photography was the only path he wanted to pursue in life. He studied at the Hallmark Institute of Photography, and met his future business partner, Donna Jones, when they both worked for her father’s company. They soon decided to branch out and open their own studio, with the help of Jones’s father, who donated high-quality lights and cameras to their studio. “I am grateful for that to this day,” he says.
Mesu says she was always thrilled to help Andarge follow his passion for photography, even when they first met in 1987, two years before Andarge opened his studio. They met when they were both working in Virginia, and she moved with him back to the D.C. area so that he could be closer to his mother, who had also immigrated to the U.S. “I was supporting him the whole time,” Mesu says.
Many Ethiopian students travel to the U.S. for greater educational opportunities, Mesu explains, so similar to her husband, she too immigrated during high school to attend school in the U.S. She took the trip by herself in 1974, but she says her parents were not concerned about her traveling alone at a young age.
“My older brother was here, so my parents were more comfortable with it,” she says. And since she was the eleventh of 13 children, she had plenty of support once she arrived in the U.S. She lived in D.C. with her sister as she completed high school, and after attending college for a year in Kentucky, she transferred to University of the District of Columbia and moved back to the area.
And like her husband, Mesu’s passion for her future business venture started during her childhood. As early as middle school, she says, “I used to do my family’s hair.” She chose to attend cosmetology school after college, and began working at a number of salons before opening her own spa. After developing a solid base of clients, she decided to go into business for herself and expand her services from just hair to a wide range of spa treatments.
The services and techniques she offers at Spa Mesu represent a wide range of cultures, from American to Ethiopian to Latino, and Mesu says that same diversity is reflected in her customers. And with such a varied client base, Mesu works hard to personalize each appointment for every individual. “That makes it special,” she says.
The relaxing, welcoming environment of the spa is another element that keeps her customers coming back. “Everybody who comes here likes the atmosphere,” Mesu says. And much of the credit for that atmosphere, she says, goes to Andarge. “My husband is the one who designed the space,” she says, noting that his photos line the walls and that he helped select the blue and orange color palette for the salon.
Andarge says that they both have an eye for color—hers from her knowledge of hair color and highlights, and his from his photography experience. And while photographers are more typically considered artists, Andarge also believes that his wife is an artist in the way she cares for people and serves their needs. To be an artist, he says, “It’s not only by training, but you have to have something within you.”
And Andarge has had that artist’s perspective ever since he first picked up a camera. He loves the instantaneous nature of photography, as well as its unique ability to tell a story in a way other art forms can’t. “When you capture an image, you can hear it with your eyes and see it with your ears,” he says.
He seeks to share his passion and technique with others through teaching photography classes and leading photo excursions to Ethiopia. The trip, he says, is rewarding for both amateurs and professionals as they get to learn from each other and become familiar with a new land and culture. “You have to be able to share your knowledge and give something in return because we all look at things differently,” Andarge says.
And since 1994, sharing his distinct knowledge of Ethiopia has been Andarge’s goal. Since he came to the U.S., Andarge had not returned to Ethiopia for 27 years because of turbulent political changes within the country. As he visited his home again, he was appalled by the drastic changes that had taken place and how the country was suffering. He remembers growing up in Ethiopia surrounded by vast forests and abundant wildlife, but the recent deforestation of his country was shocking. In recent years, Ethiopia’s lands have degenerated from 38 percent forest to only 3 percent today, according to Greener Ethiopia, a non-profit that works to combat deforestation in Ethiopia.
Andarge says massive droughts have contributed to the deforestation, as well as the people’s desperate need for a means of survival. They cut down trees to burn as fuel and build their homes, but are not replacing the resources they consume, he explains. And recently, foreign nations have begun buying land within Ethiopia, clearing out all of the trees, and using it to plant crops like rice. But Ethiopians don’t eat rice, Andarge says, so the crops are simply being exported and doing nothing to help sustain Ethiopia’s economy.
The severity of Ethiopia’s deforestation crisis had a great impact on Andarge when he returned to the U.S. “Coming back from Ethiopia in 1994, I decided I needed to do something about it,” he says. He decided that documenting the current state of Ethiopia would be the best way to encourage others to help him fight the deforestation problem.
In 11 trips to Ethiopia from 1994 to 2006, Andarge worked to capture the stories of the land and people in his photographs. With the photo editing help of business partner Jones, Andarge compiled the book Ethiopia from the Heart, a collection of his photographs and the story of Ethiopia’s struggle with deforestation.
He decided that 25 percent of the profits from the book would go toward reversing deforestation in Ethiopia, and began working with two organizations that shared his goal: Greener Ethiopia and Trees for the Future.
So far, Andarge and Jones have raised over $7,000 for planting trees in Ethiopia, and since each new tree costs only 10 to 25 cents, their efforts have made a significant impact on the state of the land. The trees planted by these organizations are not food plants, but rather help to alleviate problems that come with deforestation, like soil erosion and lack of shade.
But Andarge is hoping to have even greater impact on the lives of the Ethiopian people. He hopes to use some of the money they raise to buy land for individual villages, and help them start their own nurseries, raise their own food trees, and sustain themselves using solar energy. Andarge says that telling the people not to cut down trees isn’t enough because their livelihood often depends on selling or using the wood. “But if you have another alternative, then it’s much easier for them to understand,” he explains.
Neither Mesu nor Andarge have set goals for the futures of their businesses; Mesu says she will continue attending annual showcases to learn about new cosmetology techniques, and Andarge hopes to publish another book. More certain is the continual power of their relationship, which they both say has been strengthened by their commitments to their passions and businesses. Mesu says they always set aside Sundays to spend time with their two sons, and Andarge is certain that they will always be there for each other, “inspiring each other, being best friends and partners.”