Thursday, July 17, 2008

This is probably the final blog post that I will write. I am back in Toronto after two years in Ethiopia.

I left Adwa about two weeks ago, and have been travelling in southern Ethiopia - the South Omo Valley - where life is very different from the developing modernity of the north. There are a number of peoples living in very traditional ways in the south. There's much more chronic poverty, and people are much more vulnerable to the drought and price rises. I think my pictures show this.

I spent a couple of days in London on the way back, and am now in Toronto. I'm still trying to figure out how to feel about being in such an opulently consumerist society.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

I was at an opening ceremony last weekend at Maiweyni School for the toilet VSO has funded. All the families in the area were there: children, mothers and fathers. When we went to look at the toilet, the men came first and crowded into the toilet building, while the woreda head did his speech. Then we filed out and into a classroom, while the women trailing behind us went in to look at the toilet. In the classroom, the men and I were treated to more speeches and explanations of teaching aids. Just before two children were about to present a dialogue, I whispered to one of the woreda heads that perhaps we could invite the women in to see the dialogue… and it was done. Someone went out, told the women to come in, the men shifted over, and there was space enough for everyone. I don’t know whether it’s more or less disturbing that there was no reason for excluding the women. They were simply an afterthought, not important enough to be included. Women and men are often separate, and more so in the rural areas than in the town. While gender is an issue, class is very much an issue too. As women and men become more educated they don’t put up with this. Or at least not quite as much. My friend Mehari – a man – did a full coffee ceremony for me the other day, and had to withstand a lot of ridicule from both male and female friends for doing so. A lot of men wouldn’t do it at all, and although some men in the town have some token involvement with their children, there are still a lot of lines that people won’t cross. Men DO NOT make injera is a big line that I’ve never yet seen crossed. And the idea of hiring a man to teach in the Kindergarten – not popular!

It’s hard to believe that I’ll be leaving my life here in Adwa in 21 days. There’s still so much to do: meet with Cluster committee and supervisors to finish developing the annual plan for next year (I won’t be here!); visit the schools that have constructed toilets with VSO funding; hire new assistants for the Inclusive Kindergarten (all the current staff is staying on, but since we’re adding a class to KG1 and KG2, we’re adding staff) and register children; write reports for everything under the sun; sort out two years of accumulated stuff in my office and my house, and pack!

There have been regular power failures across Ethiopia 2 to 3 days a week for the past several months, which makes it a bit hard to get things done. This is the result of drought causing low water levels so that insufficient hydroelectricity can be produced. So power outages are rotated across the country so that every town (or place that has electricity) has it for a few days a week. This is quite difficult for businesses that rely on electricity, such as the nearby textile factory. It’s also difficult for small cafes and restaurants and internet providers. In Addis some cafes are using generators, which means added costs. And the replacement of a carbon neutral energy source with a carbon-spewing one! Others have no choice but to lose business. Here, the generator option is fortunately less available.

The power outages are just part of the bigger drought problem (although we have had some rain recently, but not enough), and the resulting price increases across the country. Teff, the staple grain in most of Ethiopia, has almost tripled in price in the past year. This means that even in favoured Tigray, we’re seeing more women and children begging in Adwa, and fragile looking children in the rural areas. There are some foods, like flour, that you can’t buy at all. But in southern parts of Ethiopia, the situation is more severe.

See Ethiopians drink from cup of sorrow

Of course, the rapid increase in food prices is top of mind when I can see the impacts of it in front of me here. But it is also all over the internet and the media. As I get ready to go back to Toronto, one of the many things I wonder about is what it will be like to be aware of problems without being directly in them (at least to the limited extent that I am now), and how I’ll be able to make a contribution to this problem. The top priority in my mind is getting countries on board to seriously address climate change. It’s mind boggling to me why this is so difficult, especially when it’s increasingly apparent that petroleum based fuel is not going to be around forever.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Once again, money is coming up as an issue here. A lot of volunteers find our salary of about 1600 Birr a month insufficient. I sympathize, but I can’t help feeling a bit judgmental too. We are volunteers after all, not UN staff. And I am here as much because I know I need to have less as because I know others need to have more. I do crave certain things – decent chocolate, decent toilets, but overall I find it pretty easy to manage here on the salary I get. To some extent I think I can be tolerant to a fault. But this is an opportunity to live a simpler lifestyle, and one would reasonably be expected to embrace it.

Today is May 1, a meaningless holiday here but still a day off work, which works well as it is also the feast day for Georgis church where I live. So people have been pouring into this part of town all day and filling the houses with music, food and suaw (homemade alcohol).

There are students from Axum University staying at the college this week while they do practicums at the high school. Unlike at teachers’ colleges, students at universities come from across the country, and so usually speak Amharic or other languages rather than Tigrigna. I was reminded of how insular Tigray (and especially Adwa) is when I was at a café yesterday. One of the Amharic-speaking students needed a friend to translate as he tried to communicate with the waitress about what juice was available. Iit was a conversation I could have handled, and I suspect the need for the translator was more about the student’s need to keep a line between Amhara and Tigray than about any real language gap.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I read an interesting article today about the Cuban fuel embargo period, during which food and fuel shortages led to sustained weight loss and improved health in Cuba. As much as we’re willing to talk about simplicity and say “less is more” and “bigger isn’t always better”, when it comes down to it, mainstream western society (and not just western society) is driven by some idea of progress as always growing in size and wealth, having more, not just having better or being better. It seems ironic that it’s so difficult to embrace the health and lifestyle and environmental benefits of having less. What I’m afraid of is that if we don’t embrace having less, we’ll be forced into it, in fact many people already are. But this only affects those who already have too little, those who are at risk of starvation, the people living on the edge in Niger or Malawi or parts of Ethiopia, not those in North America who really do need to lose fifty pounds and gain some muscle in their legs.

Unfortunately, I read Oryx and Crake not long ago (and hated it all the way through, although possibly being at a refugee camp at the time didn’t help). With the constant talk of food shortages and economic crises and the growing impact of climate change, I can’t get Margaret Atwood’s image of the future out of my mind.

It seems so simple: those in the west, in North America which is using far more than its share, need to use less. Less meat, less junk food, less junk, less fuel, better life. Then we need to invest in technologies that will allow us to keep what we need: solar capture, hybrid cars, sustainable agriculture, low-flow showers, whatever. And we need to help developing countries access these technologies too. It’s not rocket science, and any economic or environmental think tank can tell you basically how to do it. So why the **** aren’t we doing it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people lately about how desperately poor Ethiopia is – or at least is perceived to be. The roads are awful, especially in Tigray region. Electricity, water and phone infrastructure are inconsistent. And as one friend noted, there’s little evidence of development: few international companies or resource extraction industries are based in Ethiopia. My argument is that these things – which are most obvious to us from the west – have little impact on actual quality of life for the majority of Ethiopians, which has improved dramatically in the past twenty years. Is Ethiopia as poor as we think?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There is electricity tonight, for a change. It’s taken me a while to find out the reason for the frequent power outages. There is a schedule, although I don't know what that schedule is, communication being what it is here. It would seem the unseasonal dryness in Ethiopia this year means there is not enough water to power the hydroelectric dams that provide electricity for most of the country. So we’re having rolling blackouts. I am so used to having power, even here. Until now we have usually had not more than a few hours without power each week. It’s frustrating going into work with a load of computer work and photocopying to do and having no power for the whole day, and it usually doesn’t come back on till about ten o’clock at night. My favourite beeswax candle is now down to nothing. But it certainly does make me aware of how much I take electricity for granted, as my colleagues do too. In some ways it’s strange, because it was only a few years ago that there was no electricity here at all. At the college lounge, as at most cafes in town, we now have a fancy coffee machine. And although last year (before coffee machine – BCM!) coffee was made using the traditional method. Now this is verboten, and it seems to be asking a lot to simply boil water for tea when the power is out. I’m just as bad, and I do appreciate it when power failures land on our workshop days. But if I happen to be in the office, I’ll stare wistfully at the computer and flick the light switch regularly, even though I know there’s no way that power’s coming back on before nine at night. I might take the opportunity to go visit a school, or I might go for a walk after work, but come darkness, I’ll be sitting in my house counting the minutes till the power comes back on.

I will be returning in a couple of months to one of the richest countries in the world. Unfortunately, much of her wealth is dependent on huge investment in economically and environmentally unsustainable industry. Perhaps it is because I am working in a country that is just at the beginning of its modern development that I am particularly conscious of sustainability. Or because of the overwhelming awareness of climate change and the population and food pressures that it exacerbates. I am increasingly worried about the need in all countries for development that is sustainable. Development is ultimately only economically and socially sustainable if it is environmentally sound. So as I return to Canada, I wonder about how truly developed we are, and how we might shift our development onto another path that might bring greater sustainability and security.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The price surge has hit Ethiopia. The price of a quintal (100 pounds) of flour has gone from 450 to 760 Birr, sugar from 600 to 800 Birr, and teff (for injera) from 450 to as high as 700 Birr within the space of a couple of weeks. Bread has doubled from 25 or 30 centimes to 50 or 55 centimes. Some of my colleagues are worried, but they generally make enough that they can cope. For the majority of people in Adwa, already struggling to get by on 200 Birr or less each month, the difference is more painful. In the past month or so I've seen more children at schools, and on my road, who look thin and listless.

I know many people don’t agree, but I am terrified by the worldwide price increases. We’ve been living on borrowed time for too long and finally the population and environmental pressures imposed by rich and poor countries have reached the tipping point. But far too little is being done. I’m going to sleep with apocalyptic visions of rioting and hunger across the world, and praying that I’m being paranoid. Certainly there’s a need for a change in attitude towards what we eat and how we produce it, in order to mitigate the impact of climate change and water scarcity, and this needs to happen across the so-called developed world as well as in the developing world! And we’ve got to stop dedicating resources to this insane biofuel project!

Reusable Menstrual Pads

I have not done very much in my work in Ethiopia that extends environmental issues into the classroom, other than not promoting the use of the college’s laminator. Most of my work has been focused on teaching strategies and methods. However, I have been coordinating a large VSO-funded project constructing toilets and setting up girls’ rooms at selected schools in our cluster programme. Often adolescent girls do not come to school when they are menstruating, in part because menstruation is seen as something shameful and because they don’t actually have any menstrual pads. The idea of the girls’ room is that this is a place where menstrual pads can be provided, and where girls can change their menstrual pad. It can also serve as a meeting place for a girls’ club, and for the dissemination of information that is important to girls – nutrition, anti-early marriage, birth control, career advice, etc.

Where this has been done in other places, the bulk of the money has been spent on disposable menstrual pads. I wasn’t keen on this, so I sucked in my embarrassment and showed my male colleagues my washable menstrual pads. I asked my friendly Almeda textile factory manager for a donation of scrap cotton material. And my colleague Abebe went wild making sample menstrual pads.

We had our information session yesterday for the schools that are receiving funds for girls’ rooms, and it was quite a success. The directors (mostly men) and the girls’ club coordinators (women) were keen and had a lot of good ideas on all the issues we raised – for activities and topics for girls’ clubs, for including boys in gender equality education, for HIV and AIDS education – and seemed to buy into the reusable menstrual pad idea. Each school made a sample menstrual pad to take away with them – and as often as not it was the man who was cutting and sewing – and took a load of donated materials away with them. I was afraid reusable menstrual pads would be seen as a step backwards - away from modern packaged pads, rather than forward - but the teachers seemed to embrace both the environmental and financial benefits of reusable pads. We’ve also had numerous requests from college staff, especially the cleaning women and others whose salaries are very low, for instructions and sharing of material, so we’ll do a session with them soon. From my initial skeptical feelings about the girls’ room idea, I ended up being quite pleased with the project. It still has to be implemented at the schools, though, so we’ll see what happens.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Back in Adwa. Today is a holiday (TPLF day of all things!) so in addition to catching up on workshop planning, I also have the time to reflect on, complain about, puzzle over and feel overwhelmed about my role in development here. I’m finding myself more and more asking what is development, what is poverty, what is progress and where do we, as a global society, really want to go?

Hunger and starvation are problems. But living a rural lifestyle, in relatively good health, using a donkey to cart your produce to market along dirt roads: is there anything wrong with that? If food security is in place, as it is in much of Tigray, then do we really need all the other trappings (did you notice the root trap?) of modernity and so-called progress? I’m asking because I don’t know. Should developing countries strive to the level of development of Canada? If my answer is no, it’s not just because I’m not sure it’s environmentally sustainable or even possible. It's also because I’m not sure it’s a better life for people. Or at least whether many parts of it are a better life: more processed food, big office buildings, longer work days, cars, paper, an economic system that’s all about production of stuff with little focus on peoples’ real needs in terms of the environment, health and social well-being. What’s so great about all that?

Ethiopia, even with its pro-poor policy and areas where people are relatively food secure, still has a way to go – many peoples’ lives are still not great – in terms of

- equality of women and men

- access to an education system that promotes thinking and supports all children, not just the brightest

- improved health and health care

- clean water and sanitation.

How can these needs be met in Ethiopia and other developing countries, while still maintaining and strengthening aspects of life here that are important? Already you can find cheaply made junk from other countries in many shops in isolated Tigray, and the Coca Cola invasion is certainly underway. Peoples’ ways and attitudes are changing too. Many people who would not have thought twice about walking 30 kilometres from one town to another will now wait for a line taxi to take them one kilometre down the road. Teachers in towns use lack of materials as an excuse for poor teaching. Reusable bottles and boxes are often thrown out as garbage. Many people have access to television, if not in their homes then in shops and bars. They can see the way of life in Addis Ababa and the West, and they want it.

In developed and developing countries, we’re blindly following a path just because it’s there, with little thought to where it leads or what alternative paths there might be.

I’ve probably written similar things before, and have come to no conclusions. But this problem is huge. As I approach the end of my placement here, and begin to wonder about what I’ll do next, it’s a problem that is occupying my thoughts. I know I will go back to teaching in Toronto in the short term. But in the long term what do I want to do? How do I want to be involved in development or in improving the lives of people?


There is a strong movement to prevent corruption here. As a result accountability and record-keeping are huge issues. Unfortunately, there is now so much anxiety about providing receipts and paper that the original purpose is often forgotten. The process seems to me to be opened up to corruption even more. For example, the Cluster Unit pays for lunch for teachers at workshops, often provided by small restaurants in little villages. Often the restaurants don’t have proper receipts, or the restaurant-keeper doesn’t know how to write. So our solution to this, as at our workshop yesterday, is to find a shopkeeper or someone who does have receipts, ask them to give us a blank one and stamp Paid on it, and fill in the purchase and the amounts ourselves. This happens so often and is so little thought about that I think there must be books worth of blank stamped receipts floating around. Although I trust that my colleagues are writing the correct amounts, there is nothing at all preventing them from bumping it up a bit and putting the rest in their pocket.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I’ve been travelling and hanging around in Addis Ababa for the past few weeks. The Cluster Unit and Kindergarten took an experience sharing trip down to Debre Birhan and Addis – to see the Cluster Unit and Special Needs departments in Debre Birhan and the school for Developmentally Delayed Children in Addis. It was a really useful trip. As I’m writing I’m thinking of all the ways it reflects the problem of isolation in Adwa.

For the teachers – okay, me too - we saw materials and strategies in Debre Birhan, courtesy of the VSO volunteer/Special Needs Advisor there that I think in their very concreteness helped to answer the how of teaching children with Special Needs, especially the Deaf and developmentally delayed children. I think I have given them a lot of good ideas and we really have done very well in the Kindergarten. A lot of what Kat taught us in Debre Birhan extended these ideas a little further. We also had a chance to talk with some Special Needs teachers at one of the schools in Debre Birhan, although there were no classes to observe because of a directors’ meeting. I was a bit skeptical of how much useful discussion would come out of that, not having any concrete basis of a lesson observation to get us started, but as it turned out, the discussion was quite animated (in Amharic, so I only got a rough translation). I think both groups of teachers were grateful for the opportunity to talk with others who had some understanding about their experiences. At the Mekaneyesus School for Developmentally Delayed Children in Addis Ababa we all observed a class for about an hour and a half, and the teachers were blown away by the different way of teaching there – basically the Montessori approach.

I think the teachers benefit so much from seeing different ways of doing things – even if they don’t adopt all of these ideas (in fact, I don’t think they should adopt all of these ideas). But as they see other ways of doing things, I think this helps them to develop as reflective practitioners: thinking about what the children need, what they do as teachers, why they do it, and planning with greater intentionality. This is part of the problem of isolation, of never really seeing anything different - it makes it so hard to move forward. So at least this is my hope, that we won’t throw away the baby with the bathwater, or wholeheartedly embrace something new without really thinking about why. The teachers will just have a slightly broader basis from which to question and think about what they do, and may slowly bring in new approaches where they fit the need. At any rate, I think Freweyni understood this, but I didn’t have much chance to talk with her about it.

Although the trip was undoubtedly very useful, it was not altogether pleasant: a two day journey from Adwa to Debre Birhan on our infamous mountain roads (things are improving, there are paved roads for about half the distance). Two of the teachers were very carsick for most of the way (most Ethiopians aren’t used to car travel), and none of us were particularly comfortable. I found myself getting easily, and perhaps unreasonably, irritated with certain tendencies of my colleagues – like insisting on bypassing nice well-appointed restaurants (when available, in places like Mekelle and Addis) for tiny cheap little holes in walls. With a bit of distance, these things don’t seem so crazy, but at the time, I was certainly frustrated.

We planned our trip to coincide with the school exams and holidays in Tigray, which last two weeks, so I scheduled my holiday at the end of the trip, as I’ve not taken many holidays. I’m starting to be aware of the end of my placement bearing down on me, and there are still some places I want to visit in Ethiopia. When the experience-sharing trip was over, I stayed in Addis and made my way from there to Dire Dawa and Harar, two cities in the east of the country. There is an airport in Dire Dawa, but to save money, I took the bus – it’s almost a full-day bus ride, but the roads are paved all the way, which makes a big difference. Dire Dawa is the second biggest city in Ethiopia – with a population of about 250 000, but surprisingly cosmopolitan. A lot of different cultural groups live there – Oromos and Amharas, Afars and Somalis. Walking past a high school at letting out time, I watched the girls coming out in their white blouses and green skirts. I wasn’t surprised to see the Muslim girls wearing long skirts to their ankles, but I was surprised that the other girls were wearing skirts reaching no further than their knees. In Addis, many women dress in a very modern way. In Adwa and other parts of the country I’ve seen women wearing trousers and the odd woman wearing a shortish skirt, but it’s still pretty rare, and the standard outfit of even the teenage girls at the college is an ankle-length skirt, whether Muslim, Orthodox or anything else.

I met up with Clare, the volunteer in Harar at whose house I would stay, at another volunteer’s house at Haremaya University. This was a bit of a treat, as they have lucked out with an American-built house well-stocked with just about every cooking utensil you could ask for, and of course, an oven! The evening was spent making chocolate cake, macaroons, pork (I didn’t eat that) and altogether enjoying the luxury of delicious and different food, and good company.

Harar is famed as the walled Muslim city. It is a beautiful city, although I think the descriptions of it in guidebooks and the like tend to gloss over the fact that it’s very much a poor developing country city, and a lot of people go there expecting it to be like a polished old European or even Asian city, and it’s not quite all that. But it is beautiful and a bit different from the northern cities and towns. Probably the people, from the outside at least, are the most different: the women with their colourful headscarves, and the Oromo men with their skirts. Like all big cities, there’s more poverty and desperation, more people living on the street and more severely disabled people begging. In Harar and Dire Dawa to a lesser extent, there is a lot of chat-chewing (imagine if every person in Toronto smoked marijuana on a daily basis…) Some people are addicted to it, and others perhaps do it more socially. But there were a lot of men sleeping on the street during the day, which is not something I’ve seen so much of in other places.

I came back to Addis on Tuesday for the meeting of the VSO volunteer committee of which I’m a member, and then stuck around over the weekend for the Cluster meeting this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So between all this and the experience sharing trip I will have been away for 2 ½ weeks. When I get back we’ll be right into a workshop in Ahferom on Thursday and Friday. I’m bouncing between another volunteer’s house and a hotel (the hotel is paid for during the meeting time, so it’s nice to enjoy the luxury, but it’s also nice to be in someone’s home – I’m staying with another Canadian volunteer, and although we are different in many ways, we certainly do have some shared reference points, which is something to enjoy). I have really recognized how hard I was finding the isolation in Adwa. It seems to build up on you until you forget that there are other people, other places, other foods and other things - or at least don’t realize how important they are. I really needed to get away, but didn’t realize it till I got here.

There are quite a few VSO volunteers from Kenya in Ethiopia. Being in Addis, I have been able to find out a little about what’s been going on with some of them. There is still a lot of uncertainty and violence in Kenya. Certainly it’s difficult and dangerous to be there, but also for the volunteers here, there is a lot of worry about their families and homes. As a Canadian with a security net, it’s easy to think of my experience as the only one. But for Kenyans – volunteers from another developing country – there are difficulties that I wouldn’t really imagine. For most Kenyan volunteers, a short phone call home is not just expensive, but prohibitively so, making the anxiety that much greater.

I was getting my shoes shined the other day. It’s something I do more often here in Addis than in Adwa, feeling the need to dress a bit more smartly, and also because one can imagine that it’s a little less dusty and a shoeshine might actually last for more than a few hours. I was very aware of what a good job the shoeshine boy was doing. There is never a slapdash attitude, despite the repetitive work and the low income, but rather a lot of care put into each step of the process. I’m not romanticizing shoeshining, but I am impressed with the shoeshine boys’ commitment to doing their work well.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

At our workshop at Abba Hailemariam School on Tuesday, I was surprised to find a high school. The very large area of Geter Adwa – the rural area on all sides of Adwa town which is a separate woreda or administrative area – has had no high school of its own. Students have to travel up to 30 kilometres to attend high school in Adwa town – a long distance on rocky paths with no buses. At Abba Hailemariam School, a grade 1 to 4 school, a high school has been built. This year it is just Grade 9, next year it will add Grade 10. So high school is accessible for about 250 students a year living in the surrounding area.

I took the opportunity to observe a couple of classes. There is no plasma television so the teachers have to work for the whole period, and work they do! I observed two classes, Physics and Mathematics. The teachers, who know their subjects well, lectured for the whole period, with little thought that the students might benefit from doing some work themselves.

Both teachers worked out several exercises for the students’ benefit, but didn’t give them time to do anything on their own, and neither teacher assigned any homework. They were pretty receptive to my feedback though, although they still repeated the old line that there’s not enough time for the students to do more. I was impressed that all the high school teachers, who naturally had not been aware of our workshop, welcomed the invitation to join in.

I’ve been observing a lot of higher grade lessons lately. While the lack of student involvement is obvious, the high quality of most teachers’ lectures is also obvious. It does make me think back to my own education in high school and university, and really how similar the lecture format is. We certainly don’t have all the answers to education in the West either.

High school teachers have Bachelors degrees, while Grade 5 to 8 teachers generally have Grade 10 plus three years Diploma, and Grade 1 to 4 teachers have Grade 10 plus one year Certificate. I don’t know if this creates a bit of an intimidation factor, but it was apparent that something was going on with the high school teachers in our workshop. They were the only ones to offer ideas to the whole group. The normally keen grade 5 to 8 teachers wouldn’t say a word.

Phone Update

My phone is still stolen. But at least I was able, with remarkable efficiency, to get a new one with the same phone number. The bad news is that although I didn’t feel terribly upset at the time, it has made me a bit more wary. When a little boy touched my shoulder to offer to carry my bag home from the market today, I responded with a lot more paranoia than I would have liked.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Adwa Police Station

The good news is that I’ve finally been to the Adwa police station and have something new to write about. The bad news is that my mobile phone was stolen. As reasons to go to the police station compare, this is certainly mild, but it does shatter my sense of Adwa as a place relatively free of crime… and the hassle of having to get a new phone and retrieve all those lost phone numbers is not something I’m looking forward to.

It seems that my phone was stolen just as I left the market this morning, with my carrots and cabbage and delicious seasonal baby tomatoes. I missed it when I stopped for tea on the long walk home, but I waited till I got home and emptied out my bag before I was convinced of the theft. I have to say that it is my own fault, because I’m sure I didn’t close my purse properly and my mobile and about 40 Birr were probably visible and tempting. I just hope my carelessness hasn’t created the opportunity for some child’s introduction to a life of crime.

I enlisted my friend Gebrehiwot to go to the police station with me, waiting until after lunch to be sure it would be open. Even so, it certainly wasn’t a very busy place and it was hard to find anyone there to talk to us – good thing there’s not much crime in Adwa. When we finally did, I answered a series of questions, including such curiosities as age, educational background and religion, and pressed the details of the phone and the theft on the police officer, who told us that there wasn’t much chance of finding it. Then he promptly closed his book and sent us on our way. Both Gebrehiwot and I felt that the chances of finding the phone might be somewhat greater if the police actually looked for it – it’s not that big a town after all, and people do talk.

Despite the theft, I seem to be having one of those nice days (oddly, in contrast to the rest of the week which saw me in tears over a date change, as well as various other emotional embarrassments) where even the theft of my mobile phone can’t seem to shake my equilibrium. Would that it lasts!

Adwa Hospital

My other recent new experience of an Adwa institution has been visiting the hospital, which I’ve done a few times now as part of my work with the Inclusive Kindergarten. All the children have had check-ups at the hospital and I went to arrange this and also accompanied the first group.

The hospital is surprisingly large. I’m not sure how many nurses, support staff or cleaners there are. But there is certainly a strong smell of stale urine in the ward, which we were led through on our rather extensive search for the doctor (as you would imagine, there is no PA system). It’s busy with a lot of people milling and waiting around, some of them obviously very ill, but there did not seem to be a huge number of inpatients. One does have to pay to go to the hospital, although not as much as at the private clinics. I think that may be one reason why it is not used as much as it could be. That, and the powerful belief in traditional medicine (basically immersion in holy water), even among educated people like many of my colleagues.

There are two doctors at the hospital, both quite young. The one who has been seeing the Kindergarten children is quite ambitious, and apparently saw the ferenji woman who walked in as a potential source of something, because he ignored the Tigrigna speaking Kindergarten staff who were with me, and every other sentence out of his mouth was “Will you have dinner with me?”, even as he was examining children and talking about the significant problems like pneumonia, seizures and cataracts. I wasn’t interested in the least, but I did find it a bit of a challenge to do my job and advocate for the children while at the same time struggling to deflect the doctor’s attentions.

Samuel, the little boy who is deaf and blind, has congenital cataracts, which is apparently quite common in Ethiopia. His visual acuity was tested - I don’t know how accurately – I would think it would be rather difficult to test a deaf blind child. But the doctor lost the piece of paper on which the result was written. Fortunately, he did manage to write on his prescription pad for me “difficult to help him”… There will be an eye surgeon coming to Axum in a few months so we’ll follow up then.

The minor health issue among the volunteers here has been Arlo’s typhus (diagnosed at one of the private clinics). With rats visiting my house (now under control – the still under-construction part of my house that was allowing them entrance has been sealed up with cement and steel wool), I was immediately worried that I might have given him typhus. But it could have come from anywhere – there’s really no shortage of possible sources. We both went through a rather intense spraying and washing and ironing period, and read some scary articles about typhus, and some reassuring ones, on the internet. It is the mild variety that Arlo has, and with antibiotics (tempered with Christmas and post-Christmas alcohol) he seems to be okay now.


In the time I’ve been in Ethiopia, I have not been much touched by the HIV and AIDS epidemic. As I’ve written before, Ethiopia has not been as hard hit as countries further south. But it’s still here, and this week at the Inclusive Kindergarten was a bit of a reminder of that. There are two children, out of 30, who are affected by AIDS, as far as I know. One is a boy whose parents are both HIV positive, his father being a soldier. Soldiers are perhaps one of the populations most at risk, so much so that when someone is sick, identifying him as a soldier is equivalent to saying he has AIDS. The other is a girl whose parents have both died, and when the children had their check-up at the hospital, she was found to be HIV positive. She is still healthy. Treatment is generally not given until a person’s CD4 count drops below 200. There is a free AIDS clinic at the Adwa Hospital, as in many parts of Ethiopia, so she will have monthly check-ups and CD4 counts, and when the time comes will be able to get the ART medication for free. The little girl lives with her aunt, and is lucky enough that our Kindergarten teacher is her relative and referred her to the Kindergarten. She’s obviously in our target group in terms of financial and social need.

Cluster Update

The Cluster Unit is almost finished our first round of workshops – the last one will be on New Year’s day. Way back in September, I scheduled it on New Year’s day so we could maintain our Tuesday and Thursday schedule, thinking hopefully that by that time my colleagues would be able to do it themselves if I felt the need to take a New Year’s holiday. The good news is that my expectations have been met. Meressa and Berhana are comfortable and effective at leading all parts of the Model Classroom workshop now and I am just a figurehead (although I am still useful for a few things, like developing workshop materials, which I am in the process of doing for our next round of workshops). At our last workshop, on Thursday at Bete Yohanes School, we managed to make very good use of time as Berhana and Meressa led the workshop while I observed and gave feedback to teachers (because we use a shift system with the same workshop in the morning and the afternoon, half the teachers were teaching while the other half was participating in the workshop).

I’m still getting familiar with Grade 5 to 8 issues, since last year we only worked with First Cycle (Grade 1 to 4), especially focusing on Grades 1 and 2. I have been trying to squeeze in as many observations of teachers at this level as I can. The teachers of Grades 5 to 8 tend to have better English and better skills than 1 to 4 teachers. Traditionally they have been the people who had better high school marks, attending a three-year teacher training Diploma programme rather than a one-year Certificate programme. Still, there’s very much a teacher-centred, fill the empty vessel approach. Although teachers recognize the benefits of active learning, they worry that there’s not enough time or that it’s too difficult to do in large classes. Getting the active learning message across to teachers who have had so little exposure to it in their student and teacher careers is a bit challenging… actually, I guess it is the challenge.

The other day I observed Grade 6 and 7 English lessons and was introduced to the new English textbook produced by USAid in 2006. There only seems to be one textbook per 4 children, at least at Bete Yohanes School. And the textbook is a bit hard, probably because the Grade 1 to 4 English programme is so weak. I don’t know why USAid started with the higher grades instead of the lower grades. But it is a very good textbook. It incorporates teacher instructions and includes lots of opportunities for sensible pair work and integrating development in reading, writing, speaking and listening. Very often when I see the USAid stamp on something here, it’s something good. It does make one wonder how much could be achieved in the developing world if that huge country (and Canada too) would live up to the promise of 0.7% of GNP to foreign aid.

This year the Cluster Unit is working very differently; more efficiently and successfully, I think, than last year. Last year we worked with a small number of key teachers in grade 1 and 2 who came to the college for workshops, and received a substantial per diem for doing so. This year we’re working with all teachers from Grades 1 to 8, because, as I say in our workshops, all children deserve good teaching and good classrooms and all teachers deserve good professional development. We’re working properly in clusters now, so all the teachers from about 3 to 6 schools will meet at the cluster centre school for the workshop. This means they only have to travel a short distance, generally 5 kilometres or less. In some very rural areas, we still have teachers traveling 15 – 20 kilometres, by foot. They don’t get a per diem, although we do provide lunch. We have 22 clusters, comprising a total of about 108 schools, in our programme. So we’re doing each workshop about 44 times, including morning and afternoon shifts at each cluster. Merlin’s Pants! No wonder Berhana and Meressa have improved so much, and me too. And no wonder I’ve been feeling so bored lately!

This also means that we get to spend a lot of time at a lot of different schools. I've experienced more of what it feels like to teach and learn there than when I’m just observing. We’ve been in private schools in Adwa with nice clean meeting rooms, and we’ve been in schools in the rural areas where the first order of the day is cleaning out what seems like a month’s worth of dirt and scrubbing the bird droppings off the tables. We’ve led more than a few lessons while pigeons nested in the ceiling and occasionally flew overhead. This is more disturbing for me than for the teachers, who are used to the birds and to having an open space in the rocks as a window. At Merhiseney School, which once had real glass windows, the windows were bombed out during the civil war in Tigray that ended the Derg regime, and have yet to be replaced – a small reminder of the lasting effects of war. We’ve sweated at our workshop in the lowland area of Rama, and shivered under four layers at Wukromarye, a highland area where it’s especially cold in December. Observing classes at Bete Yohanes on Thursday, I sat among well-dressed healthy looking children and among sick and hungry looking children. I observed the teachers, some of them so enthusiastic, and others with lessons barely planned. I felt, as I’m feeling a lot lately, the weight of development here, how much I still have to do and how much I will not achieve, and how much still has to be done by my Ethiopian colleagues; and how this fits into the larger process of development in Ethiopia and Africa, and in the struggle for some kind of equality in the world.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It seems harder and harder to keep this blog up to date, partly because of the great difficulty of uploading to it, but also because I guess the novelty of life in Ethiopia is fading. Life is just life, most of the time.

I’ve been very busy lately. The cluster unit is running very smoothly this year but we have a packed schedule with at least two workshops, usually at rural schools, every week. We leave at 6 in the morning and are back by about 7 in the evening, and between the bumpy road and the workshopping, I’m usually pretty wiped out. Fortunately, my cluster colleagues, Meressa (same as last year) and Berhana who is a new addition to the cluster unit – and it’s good to have a woman on the cluster unit!- are starting to take on more and more responsibility. At first Meressa was just translating for me, but now both he and Berhana are leading many sessions themselves, and a couple of times have led the whole workshop. We’ve all been learning so much from working together, and it really does look like the cluster unit is becoming more and more self-sustaining.

My mom came for a much anticipated visit in October and November, bringing with her a much-needed taste of home (literally as well as figuratively, as her bags were packed with chocolate, nuts and brown rice, mmmm!). We spent some time in Addis Abeba and then traveled through the tourist areas of Bahir Dar, Gondar and Lalibela (perhaps the most famous place in Ethiopia, where I got so sick I didn’t see any of the underground churches). The hardest part of the trip was perhaps the begging, especially for my mom, who isn’t used to this kind of poverty – in the tourist centers, it’s hard to walk down the street without being overwhelmed by beggars, some of them desperately poor and others looking for a ferenji to take advantage of.

A highlight was our visit to the village of Awramba, where the traditional Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has given way to a secular society that believes in hard work and equality. I don’t know if it would work on a large scale, but on the village level, it meant a simple clean village with a school and a library and a home where the elderly are taken care of. All members of the community work as weavers, producing beautiful fabrics and blankets that they sell to visitors. Hunger and begging are unknown.

After our travels, my mom stayed in Adwa for about three weeks, where she had a chance to get to know my colleagues and friends here, see what work I do here, enjoy numerous invitations for lunch and coffee ceremony, and especially help out in the Kindergarten where I think she got to know some of the children and the teachers quite well.

The Inclusive Kindergarten is bouncing along fairly well. I try to squeeze in time to visit and work with the teachers as often as I can between workshops, meetings and school visits. But on a day to day basis, the teachers are managing excellently. Would that I could be so comfortable and confident and yet so ready to learn and improve! The children are making great progress, underlining the importance, especially for children with special needs, of coming to school. Recently, I went to Adwa hospital (2 part-time doctors in a hospital serving an area with a population of at least 80 000!) with a group of Kindergarten children for a check-up, and while we were waiting, I watched some children play with Samuel, who is Deaf and has very limited vision, by bouncing their hands on his arm and waving their hands in the little area where they knew he could see. Samuel was laughing and smiling to no end. Of course, for most young children, inclusion is natural, but I think the Kindergarten has helped the children learn how to play with Samuel in ways that are meaningful to him, and therefore to keep up their interest in connecting with him. Samuel has become so much more responsive and interested in interacting with others.

There are two new volunteers in Axum and one in Adwa, so I’m no longer the only English-speaking ferenji in Adwa. It's a nice change to have someone who’s missing the same things I am, and to have company once in a while.

I will be coming back to Toronto after two years here. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with myself when I get back, but it does look like I’ll make it through to the end of the two years.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

I’ve moved houses to make way for two new male volunteers who were going to share my old three-bedroom house. Unfortunately, only one has come (hopefully the other will come in February). But I’ve still moved, and although I knew my old house was nice I didn’t quite realize how favourably it compared to most Adwa houses. Although there are a lot of new houses popping up as higher income people invest their money in real estate, their polished brick outsides often hide less perfect insides. Since many houses are rented out, they are not maintained in between tenants and often fall prey to pigeons, cockroaches and dust. Many contractors don’t know how to properly wire houses so there are often electrical problems, open holes with wires leading to nowhere, improperly sealed windows; difficult locks, weird water situations and whatnot.

My house problems seemed to come to a head last night when I had the new volunteer over for dinner. When the fuse finally blew, not to be flipped back on, I ended up having to cook by candlelight, which is one thing when you’re by yourself and don’t care what you eat, and another when you’re trying to impress someone with your cooking skills. On top of that, I had to ration my water because the taps run continuously and water leaks everywhere unless the outdoor main is turned off, which then means there is no water in the house. So I have to run back and forth turning the main on and off whenever I need to have a shower or wash dishes or boil water, and this is annoying to me and seems to be very unsettling to my new (and rather elderly) guard, so I try not to do it too often.

So I am sitting at home this morning waiting for my landlord to come and see what he can do. What is nice about this house is having my own space, having the doors and windows open and not having children careering through the house or people shouting at each other around me. It is nice to have a relaxing(ish) Sunday morning in your own house.

The Inclusive Kindergarten

The teacher and assistants have come a long way in the past few weeks, and the kindergarten is running with a degree of smoothness that you’d expect in October of Kindergarten! The teacher and assistants work so well together, and are really very keen and hardworking. In my mind, a big problem at many schools is that teachers just aren’t interested. They have too many other problems, both at home and at school. They see teaching as just a job and a paycheque, and are not concerned about the children in their classes as individuals. This then makes it hard for them to imagine supporting individual children, especially the struggling students, to meet their particular needs. They certainly struggle to see teaching as a learning process, where they themselves can reflect and gain strategies to support their students. This is a big generalization of course, and there are many really wonderful and caring teachers in the schools in Adwa and the rural areas. But what I am finding at the Kindergarten is that the teacher really is paying attention to the individual unique problems, and strengths, of the children – the mainstream children as well as those with special needs. I think the nature of the Kindergarten, the way we’ve set it up to support individual and group instruction, the frequent coaching that the teacher gets from me and the other steering committee members (if it’s not driving her crazy!) and the fact that there are three assistants - who not only share the load but share ideas as well – are all contributing factors, but definitely we’ve hired well - a teacher and assistants who all care about the kids and are keen to learn as well as teach!

The children are progressing well too. The boy who is developmentally delayed is beginning to interact with the other children and to cooperate with the teachers, although his behaviour is still one of the biggest problems in the kindergarten. His sister is getting along very well, and the regular tantrums have almost disappeared. The boy who is deaf and blind is still one of our biggest programming challenges, and probably always will be. Still, we are figuring out how to adapt to him, he has learned at least one sign, and he has finally managed to separate from his older brother (or his brother has managed to separate from him). It is interesting to watch as he explores new things and tries to focus on things with the little vision he has. The assistants (mostly Netsanet, the deaf assistant is with him) are great with him. We have a sand area in the playground, and the first time Netsanet took him there, his face lit up with the biggest smile and he jumped around for a long time, enjoying the feel of the sand on his bare feet and skin. Now he will make his way to the sand area on his own and take his shoes off and dive in, smiling. We still have a long way to go with him, but it’s really good to see him smiling and responding now, often using some kind of gesture rather than the crying moan that we heard so much at the beginning.

The children and families lined up to register outside the kindergarten have finally given up. The experience has educated me again as to how valuable free or lowcost kindergarten would be. This is especially so because here students don’t start grade one until they are seven years old, and because most parents have little idea of how to play with and teach their young children. Although I had thought that in Adwa all non-SNE children were attending school from grade one up, there were also lots of school-age children wanting to come to the kindergarten. There are also many more families with special needs children that have come out of the woodwork and approached the woreda about the kindergarten. We are full now (9 children with special needs and 21 children without), but hopefully we’ll be able to take them next year. It’s good that families are recognizing the importance of education for children with special needs: this is one of our goals.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It’s odd that it didn’t occur to me before now that setting up an inclusive kindergarten is rather difficult.

For a teacher who, although she is quite good, is used to teaching grade one in the sit-at-your-desk, follow-the-teacher format, a play-based kindergarten is quite a change. I think she’s still struggling to believe that children really can learn something by playing. We’ve only had three days of school, morning only, the first day was only for the children with special needs, and still this feels like one of the longest weeks of my life. I’ve been trying to be at the kindergarten for most of every morning. Fortunately, there’s not much cluster stuff to do yet.

We have about nine children with special needs in the class. Top of the needs list is a deaf and blind boy. He is becoming more comfortable in the class - that is, he’ll come inside the room, doesn’t spend quite the whole time crying “ooooh”, and will play with some toys without biting the person who hands them to him. His brother, who is about sixteen and seems to be the main person responsible for him, has stayed at school with him every day this week, and has been very helpful. Unfortunately, we’ll lose him when high school starts in a few days.

Next is a boy who is developmentally delayed. His father also has some kind of mental problems, but is the main caregiver for the two children as the mother is physically disabled and cannot walk. The father obviously has very limited parenting skills, which seem to centre on hitting, threatening to hit, grabbing and ignoring. We have accepted the four-year old sister as well, and both children are a handful, the boy taking pretty much the full time attention of one of our assistants, and so far not demonstrating any interests other than trying to test her. The Ethiopian class factor is definitely present – the assistants and teacher obviously don’t like these children, which certainly doesn’t help, and their complaints about behaviour have hinted at a request to reject the children from the class, which obviously would be contrary to our inclusion philosophy.

Then there are the typical problems of kindergarten – four year olds who spend the first half of the morning in tears, who have never sat down in a classroom and listened or played independently before.

And there are the simple joys of doing business in Ethiopia. We’re using a temporary classroom and the lock is broken. The college staff person responsible for locks has promised me about ten times that it will be fixed tomorrow, and every day, it’s not, and the teachers have to carry the materials in and out each day. Or the baker who promised brown embasha (Ethiopian bread) now says he can only do white, and today arrived with it an hour and a half after snack time.

The Inclusive Kindergarten is free. The idea is that in addition to serving children with identified special needs, we’re also serving children from poorer families who couldn’t otherwise afford kindergarten (in Tigray region, there is no kindergarten in the public system, but there are several private kindergartens popping up across Adwa, which range in price from 40 Birr to 300 Birr a month – even at the low end inaccessible for many families). So registration for our free kindergarten filled up quickly, on a first come first served basis, and since then parents have been coming to the college begging us to let their children in. Today, about three parents brought their unregistered children to the class and just left them there, and since everyone is new, the teacher didn’t realize they weren’t on the list until the parents had already left. At pick-up time we had to inform them that sorry, your child is not registered and won’t be registered. One parent took it pretty well, but another broke down in hysterical tears, kissing my feet and the teacher’s, begging us to accept her son. Later, two parents (the hysterical one and another one) showed up separately at my house, to try and convince my landlady to convince me to let them in, which to my mind is crossing a line, but lines are in different places here (although as the only ferenji, I’m the most recognizable person responsible for the Kindergarten, I usually defer to my Ethiopian colleagues when it comes to decisions about numbers and who to accept). It is really hard to say no, but with so many high needs children already in the class, the Steering Committee has really decided that we have to draw the line.

Part of the idea behind the inclusive kindergarten is to serve as a demonstration site for teachers to promote inclusive education in the regular grade 1-8 schools. The premise (my premise), I guess, is that teachers simply lack the inspiration to support children with special needs, and once they see how easy it is in our lovely kindergarten, they will become supporters and promoters of inclusive education and will welcome children with special needs into their classes.

As I said at the beginning, despite having taught (a painful experience) and studied Special Ed in Toronto, somehow I deluded myself into thinking that this inclusive education business would be a lot easier in Ethiopia than it is. The reality is that for a skilled and motivated teacher and three assistants in a class of less than thirty, coping with a child who is developmentally delayed or who is blind/deaf is very difficult… for a teacher on his or her own, who may not be as skilled, who has a class of fifty, sixty or seventy, it would be very difficult to teach or even to safely manage some of these children.

Apart from that is the issue of access. For children with special needs, school is not mandatory. We have several children in the kindergarten who are seven or eight (and several requests from families of even older children) who had been rejected by the local school. It goes further than just educating school administrators that they have to say yes to all children. Teachers need the skills and the resources to serve these children. I think of how difficult and complicated it is to meet the needs of special needs children in Canada, and really how much resources go into them, and are still not considered enough. It’s naïve to think that a little inspiration and a catchy slogan, Education for All, can solve this problem in the developing world, where often the problems are deeper and the teachers’ skills and resources are shallower. And once you get into the rural areas, the problems are far worse than they are in the towns.

One of the children on our initial list of children with special needs is a five year old girl, an orphan, who is “paralyzed” (probably cerebral palsy, but I’ve never actually seen her). She was living with her uncle and grandmother in Adwa, but the grandmother died, and the uncle couldn’t or wouldn’t care for her on his own, so he has sent her to live with other relatives in the village, where she probably will never leave the house. But who am I to judge? It would be hard enough caring for one’s own disabled child, let alone a child who you don’t feel a connection with. In the rural areas, even more than in Adwa, there is little expectation of children with special needs attending school. There may be an option of helping this family get a wheelchair, but if the girl stays in the village, a wheelchair will be more trouble than it’s worth on the rocky mountain foot paths.

Another family was in town for the recent New Year holiday, and heard about the kindergarten. An eight year old girl, who is small enough that her mother carried her on her back the way mothers carry babies, who is multiply disabled – blind, deaf and unable to walk (cp again?). The family lives in a village about twenty five kilometers from Adwa – the kindergarten obviously can’t accept this child because the family has no way of bringing her to school each day. There are no residential schools in Tigray that serve children with multiple disabilities. And could the local school in the village serve her? At this point, probably not.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Wednesday morning, September 12, 2007
Happy New Millenium!

Today is Meskerem 1, the first day of the new year, and this year, the first day of the year 2000 in the Ethiopian calendar. Even with increasing Western influence, everyone follows the Ethiopian calendar and clock here. Yesterday was New Years’ Eve. There were rumours of a march in the town; the college had even prepared a bus, but nothing transpired of this. I went for a walk anyway, and found if nothing else, lots of honking buses and line taxis. There were also boys going house to house singing for money, a tradition along the lines of trick-or-treating. A couple of weeks ago, girls and women did a similar thing, surrounding people and singing and dancing.

I spent last night with Freweyni, my landlady’s, family, having coffee ceremony and, now that she has a fancy television, watching the Millennium celebrations in Addis Abeba. Today and tomorrow I have a few invitations for New Year’s lunch, and I’m particularly looking forward to it because today happens to be Wednesday, fasting day, so people will be cooking their best vegan food.

Usually, holidays seem to last only the one day and then people are back to work, but I guess because this is the Millennium, and because the whole country is involved - even those regions that are a little less thrilled about being part of Ethiopia are keenly celebrating the Millennium – and both Muslims and Christians are celebrating (although the date is rooted in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity), the government has declared a holiday for the rest of the week. They only did this on Monday though, so it is a bit of a frustration not to be able to do any of the purchasing and painting and preparations for the Inclusive Kindergarten that we had planned.

We did hire our two new assistants yesterday. The outdoor play area is coming along. And our teacher has been busy making materials. We have also got some funding from some people in Canada, as well as a local textile factory (which is great, because it also sends the message that Ethiopians can take care of each other locally without always looking to outside funders!) So we should be ready for the first day of school in a week and a half.

With my cluster colleagues, I’ve made up the plan for the cluster programme for this year and it’s been approved (and then revised and approved again when the budget came out much lower than expected). Once school gets under way, we’ll be busy visiting schools and conducting workshops at the school cluster level rather than at the college – which means lower cost and higher participation.

Meanwhile, VSO has provided some money to build toilets and rooms where girls can have access to menstrual pads etc. because the lack of facilities means that many girls just don’t come to school when they have their periods. When I visit schools, I don’t tend to pay enough attention to toilets (even when schools do have them, they’re the type that you don’t want to see or smell) so I’ve been carelessly assuming that all the schools in Adwa town had toilets, and was a little surprised the other day to find out that there are several that don’t. So deciding which schools should get toilets will be one of the projects for the new year.
Sunday September 9, 2007
The rainy season: As pretty much all the precipitation Adwa gets is concentrated into three months, the rainy season is pretty intense. It rains almost every day, with great drama. In the space of a few minutes, the sun will be overtaken by heavy gray clouds, the wind will blow, and heavy thunder will rumble. Then the rain will begin to fall, becoming a fast and heavy downpour. Lightning will flash and thunder will crash. Almost every day, there is one of these intense storms, the type that at home is rare enough that you would remember it for weeks or months.
The rain has done its job. The river that was barely a trickle for much of my time here is alive again - people gather to do their washing and children swim and play. And paths which I used before I went to Sherkole have disappeared under a metre or more of grass and brush. Farmers are busy with their crops too. My guard is job-sharing with a friend so that he can spend one full day out of two on the farm.
Even with all the development in Adwa and Tigray region lately, unemployment is still high. There are two assistant positions at the Inclusive Kindergarten, in addition to the one being taken by Netsanet, and it wasn’t long before my colleagues on the Steering Committee started putting their wives’ names in for the jobs. Since this didn’t feel quite okay, we announced the positions in the town, and were quickly overwhelmed with applications. People don’t do resumes here, they just show up, so I soon had to put up a sign saying the position was closed – otherwise whenever I saw their eager faces I was compelled to let them come to the interview.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thursday August 23, 2007
I’m starting to take on the idea that simply getting people into school is more important than what goes on at school in terms of the quality of teaching and learning. For certain disadvantaged groups, like refugees or people with disabilities, I think this is particularly true. I heard the other day of a young disabled person in Adwa who died last month at the age of twenty, after not having gone out of his home for the past sixteen years. And when I went to meet some children with special needs the other day, I was met by young children but also by school-aged children who had never been to school and by droves of teenagers and adults – blind or physically challenged or with other disabilities.
So by helping to establish an Inclusive Kindergarten at the college, I know that the most basic goal of getting children with disabilities out of their homes and into school will be achieved. And as an inclusive kindergarten serving children with any disabilities or special needs, alongside typical children, it will reach more children than would a school focused on a particular exceptionality.
But I do hope that the Inclusive Kindergarten will do more than just get children into school, and will actually provide them with the early developmental experiences and skills to achieve their potential. So yesterday when I met a number of the children with special needs and their families, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the scope of the project we’ve taken on. In particular, looking at Samuel, a little boy who is deaf and blind, I’m aware of the expertise and skill and resources that would be spent on him in Canada. Compared to this, my understanding of how to teach him is so limited, not to mention how limited is the understanding of the (very good) teacher who will be responsible for him. But we certainly can’t reject him on these grounds, because what other chance does he have?
A number of the children who want to come to the Inclusive Kindergarten are deaf. As I recognized this fact, I also began to wonder how we could provide a quality programme without sign language. I asked the woreda administrator if he knew of any deaf adults who knew sign language, and then I asked my colleagues at the college as well. No luck. There is one staff member in the SNE department at the college who has been trained in sign language, and she had already expressed her willingness to help out but she won’t be available on the regular basis that the children would need.
These were some of the things I was thinking about as I went for a walk in the town yesterday evening. But I was also thinking about more mundane things like food. Although I usually frequent only the same shops over and over in order to avoid new expressions of ferenjiness, I decided to go into one of the new shops that has sprouted up in my end of town, to see if they sell oatmeal, a big imported treat which till now has only been available in one shop at the other end of town. They did have oatmeal, and instead of telling me the price, the girl typed it into a calculator and held it up for me to see. I said the number in Tigrigna, as sometimes people don’t talk to me because they doubt my ability to understand. She squeaked and signaled that she couldn’t speak. Hmm, “Do you know sign language?” I asked, and received a brief demonstration.
Not wanting to get ahead of myself, I went back to that shop tonight with my sign language trained colleague and Hailemichael who is one of the Inclusive Kindergarten coordinators…. The girl, Netsenet, is Deaf and knows sign language very well. She studied to grade 8 at the school for the deaf in Addis. For some reason, she had to return to Tigray and stop her education, and she’s living with relatives and working in their shop temporarily. To her knowledge she’s the only deaf person in Adwa who uses sign language.
So, in true Ethiopian style, we hired her on the spot (well, we had decided in advance that we probably would) to be one of the assistants in the Kindergarten! When something as fortuitous as this happens, it feels like confirmation that you’re doing the right thing.

Thoughts after sleeping on it
Why can’t all the deaf children go to a big school for the deaf in Addis or Adigrad? I guess because there wouldn’t be enough space for all of them. I’m surprised by the proportion of deaf children here – chronic ear infections?, meningitis?, iodine deficiency? I don’t know what the causes are. Also, not every family is financially or emotionally able and willing to send their child away to school. So low-cost local solutions are needed. My hope for the Kindergarten now is that we will be able to teach a group of deaf and hearing children who will then go on to the local school where some of the hearing children will be able to act as sign language interpreters for the deaf children. Is this too idealistic? When your options are limited, you have to be a little idealistic. This is how my blind friend Hailemichael made it through school – with a student beside him reading everything off the blackboard, and scribing assignments for him.
I also have to admit that I feel bad that we’re using Netsenet rather than helping her finish her own education. So this is something that I’m filing away to figure out how to do in the future. In the meantime, though, she will have a good job and an okay salary at the Inclusive Kindergarten, and I think she was just thrilled to be able to have a real conversation in sign language, something she hasn’t been able to do since she left school.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

So I’ve finished a month of teacher training at Sherkole Refugee Camp. It was nice to get away from Adwa for a change, and it was also good to be doing something as immediately rewarding as full-time training, rather than the coordinating, planning, talking, feedbacking, and hoping-something-comes-of-it of Cluster work. And I loved working with the teachers.

Despite the ongoing repatriation of refugees to southern Sudan, Sherkole Refugee Camp is not shutting down, but is the designated camp to hold those who cannot return home from other camps, as well as newer refugees coming to Ethiopia all the way from Darfur and from Great Lakes Region countries like Congo and Burundi, where there continues to be war and instability.

Many teachers from southern Sudan have been repatriated, but the school is remaining open (and even using this opportunity to reduce class sizes from 70 and 80 to 30 and 40), so a lot of new refugees have been hired as teachers and have been teaching for a few months to a year. Almost all of them have no training (that’s where we came in), and most of them have only Grade 10 or even Grade 7 or 8 education themselves. They follow the Sudanese curriculum, and teach in English, but many of them also have very limited English themselves.

According to the teachers (it’s the summer break, so there were no students to know for sure), there are a lot of behaviour problems at the school, including people coming to school drunk, fights and threats against teachers, and just plain not listening and not working – very different from Ethiopian schools. These problems are aggravated by having children and adults in the same class, and by many of the teachers being very young (18, 19, 20) and having to teach people their age or much older. Trying to help the teachers imagine solutions to some of these problems was difficult to impossible.

According to some of the people in charge, there are also lots of problems with the teachers not coming to school, not planning, having very limited skills, and - as we observed first-hand with a couple of teachers over the training - coming to school drunk or drinking themselves. (My judgmental self found this a little hard to cope with.)

Among our group of 33 teachers, there were 2 women. There are big problems of low enrolment and high drop out rates among girls, so that by Grade 8, last year, there were 117 male students and 10 female students. Gender-based violence at the camp is also a big problem.

Sherkole Camp has been around for ten years so it’s established, kind of like a village. People live in tikuls (mud huts, like most Ethiopians), not tents. They get monthly rations, and if they work in the camp, as teachers, for example, they get an “incentive” as well. Most people are surviving, but walking through the camp, you see a lot of children with sticking-out-tummies and orange hair.

Most of the teachers have terrible stories of how they came to be at Sherkole, and they have lost a lot along the way. In various people, we could almost see the weight of their pasts and of their lives hanging over them. Sometimes, it was hard to know if our expectations for them as teachers were unrealistic. And sometimes, it was hard to know what to do or how to be, how to help people within the limits of the little bit of their lives that I’m knowing them for.

So now that I’m away from the camp, when people ask me how it was, I can say it was a good experience, or an interesting experience, and I’m glad I had the chance to go. This is true. But at the same time, it was a hard experience, bringing up a lot of my own self-doubts, about how to help people and care about people without getting lost in their problems; witnessing the shortcomings of the international community in caring for refugees; and making me question even more what is next in my life, how can I be involved in helping refugees or other vulnerable people? and how can I not?

What I know is how fortunate I am, that I had the chance to go to Sherkole, and then I had the chance to leave again. This freedom, and sense of security, that I really have taken for granted in my life, is one of the big things that separates me from the people of Sherkole, or any refugees, and the injustice of this is overwhelming.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th
I'm in Addis for the night, after a long bus ride (350 kilometres in 12 hours). We had a good two weeks of Amharic language classes in Yirgalem, at a quite nice training centre. I can now understand, and try to speak, a touch more Amharic than before. And I think that because the two languages are so similar, it has helped my Tigrigna a little too. Both the company and the food were a nice change - I retrieved a few of my lost pounds, whether I was looking for them or not. My teacher training partner, Jenny, and I will be flying (no decent roads to Assossa) out to the refugee camp near Assossa tomorrow morning. We've spent some time trying to get ready, but won't really be ready till we get there as we don't really have a good sense of what to expect.
On a different note, the Inclusive Kindergarten in Adwa is going ahead and everyone involved is very excited. I have heard from my colleagues that the teacher we wanted to hire has accepted the job. The guards at the college are starting to build an outdoor play area. We have some money and some promises of money, but need more. For those of you who are interested, I will post or send details soon on how to make a donation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thursday June 27, 2007

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you know that the situation for most children with any kinds of special needs or difference in Ethiopia is bleak. My understanding of what a big issue this is has been developing throughout the year I’ve been here. As Cluster Coordinator, I’ve brought the issue of inclusion up in workshops throughout the year; next year, it will be a workshop topic on its own. But the trouble is that by the time the Cluster programme gets involved, it’s very late: we’re working with teachers who are working with children 7 and up. As there is no public kindergarten in Tigray region, most children don’t get any early years education. Most children with serious special needs don’t even attend grade one, let alone kindergarten. Children with milder problems might go to school, but, get very little support, and often don’t make it very far. Intervention in the early years can have a big impact in terms of minimizing disability, but for most children in Adwa (or in Ethiopia, or Africa) this intervention doesn’t exist. Most children are hidden at home. Muscles, and brains, atrophy from neglect, and so much potential is lost.
My colleagues and I have been mulling this problem over for a few months, and after a while the impossible didn’t seem so impossible anymore. We have decided to start an Inclusive Kindergarten at the college.
We have gotten permission to repair and renovate two abandoned buildings as classrooms. We have developed a proposal and have the support of the town administration and the college. We have the children, and we’re pretty sure we’ve got our first teacher. What we need now is the money to make this happen. Our first priority is the renovation of the old buildings and the construction of an outdoor play area from local materials, which is estimated to cost approximately 70 000 birr (or Canadian $8274).
So now I’m embarking on a fundraising journey, and I’m asking for your help. If you would like to support our project, give a child a chance to have an education that can make the difference between hope and despair, and create a model of inclusive education in Ethiopia, please email me (email is the best option, but you can also post a comment on this blog) about how to make a donation to Adwa’s Inclusive Kindergarten. If you would like more information, would like to read our full proposal, would like information on some of the children with special needs who will attend the Kindergarten, or would like to help plan a fundraising event, also please email me.

Summer Plans

As you’ve probably figured out by now, the difficult stay-or-go decision has long been made. I can’t remember if I reported it already, which is a bit anti-climactic as it was a very anxiety-filled decision at the time, but most days I’m pretty sure it was the right one. I am staying for a second year or so – the cluster programme has a jam-packed plan for 2007-08, and there’s a lot to do to support the Inclusive Kindergarten as well. But, right now, the summer holidays are upon us – a week of exams (even for grade ones!) has just ended, passes and fails are being sorted out, and school is wrapping up. I will be spending the first two weeks of July in Awassa, attending VSO’s intensive language training (in Amharic, as the volunteers in Tigray are a pretty sparse group). From there, I will go to a refugee camp in southwestern Ethiopia, near the Sudan border, for four weeks in July and August – myself and another VSO volunteer are doing a sort of mini-secondment training teachers for the school there. Likely, there will be some interesting blogs about that experience. Then, I’ll be back in Adwa for the rest of the summer, sorting out the Inclusive Kindergarten, and maybe doing some summer programmes for children. And of course, I’ll be celebrating the Ethiopian millennium on September 11 (Meskerem 1, Ethiopian calendar).
Wednesday June 26, 2007

News from Adwa

I was at the woreda administration office the other day (“city hall”). There was a couple there who had found a newborn baby abandoned by their neighbours, in a plastic bag with some clothes. The neighbours who found the baby are going to keep it, and they were asking for some financial support from the woreda.
There are a lot of abandoned babies in Adwa, some with neighbours and family members, and some at the orphanages. One baby that made his way to the Italian orphanage about a year ago now was found in a basket in the river, like Moses. I guess the good news is that somebody is taking care of them, and that, at least in the town, there’s now the beginnings of supportive infrastructure, so this family that’s taking on their neighbours’ baby can ask the woreda for help.
My guard didn’t come the other day because his wife had been beaten by one of their neighbours. Their animals strayed onto the neighbour’s land; first he beat the sheep and goats with a stick, and then he beat the woman. Fortunately, some other people intervened and stopped him, but she was hurt somewhat seriously. I don’t know exactly why his response was so strong, but I do know that the environmental degradation caused by overgrazing is a very serious problem. Without condoning beating people, I can understand why the farmer wouldn’t want someone else’s animals grazing on his land.
Finally, my colleague’s brother in law died on the weekend from a snake bite. He was working as a shepherd in a very rural area a bit west of here, and it took more than a day to reach the hospital, by which time it was too late. He was only in his early twenties, and left behind a wife and young child.

Weather Update
The rainy season is well upon us. We’re experiencing very dramatic storms most days, accompanied by almost-daily electricity failures and frequent phone and internet problems. And it’s very cold. But the brown desert of a few months ago is being replaced by lush greenery. People are planting and even harvesting corn, and beginning to plant teff.
Wednesday June 20, 2007

A young man died on Sunday night. He died at the holy water place, which is where people go when there’s little hope left. He was a teacher who spoke relatively excellent English. For several months he begged me for English lessons whenever he saw me on the street, and when ELIP started in January he came twice a week with enthusiasm. And then he stopped, and I didn’t see him anymore. I wondered about him for a while. He came to my house about a month ago, but his words didn’t make any sense. I asked him where he’d been and he didn’t answer me. I asked him if he’d been sick and he said no. He didn’t seem quite okay, but I remember thinking that it was probably just a communication problem, that his English probably wasn’t as good as I remembered. But he did say “I need help.” He said it. But when I asked what was wrong, what he needed help with, he didn’t say anything. And I rushed off to work, brushing him off, not imagining that the problem was as big as it was. He came another time when I wasn’t at home, but I didn’t find out about it until after he died.
His parents were dead and he lived with his younger sisters and brothers, for whom he was the main provider. Nobody’s really clear what was wrong, what he died of – only that his behaviour was very strange for the past three months or so, staring into space for hours, screaming, running outside in the middle of the night with no clothes. I think his sisters tried to keep things quiet, because here, like most places, mental illness, more than most disabilities, is shameful. Whatever he died of might have looked like mental illness, but I suspect it was probably something very physical. His family took him to the doctor, but medical care is limited here, and the doctor didn’t know what was wrong. And he asked for help, from me, and from other people too, but he didn’t get any.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Saturday June 9, 2007
Maybe I’m feeling a little homesick for DRA (for those who don’t know, in many North American schools DRA is a reading assessment for Kindergarten to grade 3 students, usually conducted at the beginning and end of the school year). At any rate, I spent last week having grade 4 and grade 2 students at Adwa Town schools read to me (or try to) in English. The point was to find out how effectively the students are learning what the teachers are trying to teach.
The result was, there’s a lot of variation from school to school. Many of the students in grade 4 can decode at the level of the Grade 4 textbook, but don’t have a clue what they’ve read. Many grade 2s and a quite a few grade 4s can not decode and don’t know the alphabet. Many of the students who struggled the most also have difficulty in other subjects besides English.
The most striking thing about doing this assessment was the attitudes of the teachers. With inclusive education the new buzzword here (well, my new buzzword anyway – most of the teachers have never heard of such a thing), I’m very aware of how teachers attitudes towards all students affects students with and without special needs, and can either close or open the door to education for many students. Well, there are some closed doors in Adwa.
One grade 4 boy, Solomon, couldn’t write his name in English, struggled to read a passage from the Grade 1 textbook, and managed to identify barely a handful of letters. His teacher described him as lazy, not putting in the effort to improve. (The teacher referred to Solomon as the “weakest student” about ten times in front of him, and I’m willing to bet that if Solomon understands any English, it’s this.) This teacher, like many, provides extra support for struggling students on Saturdays. He told me that Solomon looks after the sheep after school and on Saturdays, and therefore won’t come to school on Saturdays, no matter how many times the teacher has asked him to or spoken to his family… I was going nuts but I stayed polite and just added this to my mental list of things to address at next year’s workshops. It’s extremely common that teachers perceive extra support as an extra, something that should happen on Saturdays, rather than incorporating accommodations and support into all their teaching, every day.
At another school, Desinet, a grade 2 girl, was another student who couldn’t write her name or read, although she put in a very good effort at letter identification, identifying more than half the capitals and lower cases. I went to this school with my friend and colleague Hailemichael, who was exempted from conducting the census with the other college staff because he is blind. It’s good to go to schools with someone who speaks Tigrigna, because things are caught which I would otherwise miss. What Hailemichael caught was the teacher calling Desinet “the weak one” and asking another student “what’s the name of ‘the weak one’?”
Of course there are many reasons why these students are struggling, and poor teaching all by itself is definitely a possibility, but family instability, poverty, malnutrition and special educational needs are definitely up there. While children with the most obvious special needs are rarely at school, many students with high incidence minor disabilities such as mild developmental delays, learning disabilities, hearing and vision impairments are in the regular classrooms. Often neither their teacher nor their parents recognize the disability, or if they do, the teacher rarely has the skills or the capacity or motivation to provide the necessary support. Like everywhere, I guess, ability is valued and disability is not. The way that so-called continuous assessment is used in Adwa schools is one example of this: rather than being used to improve teaching and track and support all students, it’s basically used to identify and reward the top three students each month or week, often the same students over and over.
So the children who most need support don’t get it and suffer through school, learning very little, like Desinet, or drop out all together, especially in the rural areas, where getting to school is so difficult, and the child is needed to help at home, that if it doesn’t seem worth it, the family and the child easily give up.
I reread the story of the starfish a few weeks ago, and it’s been on my mind. Hailemichael is one of the best people I know for picking up starfish and throwing them back in the ocean, maybe because he’s been thrown back in himself a few times (I guess we all have if we’ve made it to adulthood). He’s very keen to try to provide support to Desinet next year. But it’s also been part of my thinking lately, as I try to be a person who picks up starfish, about how to make a difference in inclusive education, within and beyond the work of the cluster programme. I’m still thinking.
In Adwa, there are three orphanages. You’d think that would be enough, but my colleagues who were conducting the census found many children sleeping on the street, in all parts of the town (not just the bus station and the market area, where you’d expect to find many homeless people). They went out in the middle of the night to find them. Being a bit naïve, I was somewhat surprised by the numbers: homeless adults are fairly easy to spot day or night, but children tend to blend in easily. Many of them are shoecleaners, mostly eight years old and up. Many of them have come from the rural areas around Adwa; often if the mother dies and the father remarries, the children of the first marriage are no longer wanted in the home. Sometimes girls will go to a relative to work as a servant, so there are somewhat more boys on the street than girls.
The Story of the Starfish
An old man was walking along the beach, and he encountered a young man who was picking up starfish, one by one and tossing them back into the ocean, so that they wouldn’t dry out when the tide went out. The old man said to the young man “What’s the point? The beach is too long and the tide will be coming out soon. You’ll never be able to make a difference.” The young man bent down to pick up a starfish, and tossed it back in, saying “Made a difference to that one.”