Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I'm sorry I haven't been keeping this blog up to date the past few weeks.  Some of the time I've been away from easy internet access, the cluster team has spent several days away visiting rural schools, and last week I was in Addis and Sodere for VSO's Annual Volunteer Conference.  But apart from that, I'm afraid I've been experiencing some writer's block, so tonight I'm exercising a little discipline and settling down to write a short update before I go to bed.

The trouble is that my workdays are really very routine, and although I like and get along well with my colleagues, it's not really the done thing for women to go out much at night. Not being one to do what's not done, I spend most of my evenings alone at home with very little social life (which isn't that much of a change).

The other trouble is that those things that might be of interest to you, and which weigh most heavily on me, I haven't quite figured out how to write about in a way that accurately reflects the reality.

Corporal punishment (if you can even call it that, as the term implies to me a greater degree of organization and forethought than that which often seems to exist in the treatment I'm observing) is very common in Ethiopia, at home and school. I find it difficult sometimes to interact with people in a friendly way after seeing them treat their children in a way that would certainly have merited a call to CAS at home. It's difficult to always give advice about alternative methods of discipline, especially as a childless person from Canada, the country where all children are well-fed, well-dressed and infinitely well-behaved.

A sick little girl I didn't know how to help. The constant waste of money and time. Sexual exploitation of women. These are the things that are touching me right now, and that I haven't quite figured out how to write about, let alone deal with.

The situation with Somalia seems relatively stable at the moment, at least from where I am in northern Ethiopia. The changes for me are that instead of being alone in the computer room at the college, it's full of people checking the latest news on the internet, and the conversation of my colleagues in the car to Werieleke this morning was atypically political.

Christmas in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not for another two weeks. I celebrated ferenji (foreign) Christmas on Monday by inviting some of my colleagues over to my house for lunch cooked by me and mostly my maid (I have a maid who comes three mornings a week mostly to do laundry, but it was very convenient to have her help cooking Christmas dinner). It was vegetarian Ethiopian food. Of course I'm vegetarian but also it is the tradition of many Orthodox Christians here to "fast" for the thirty five days leading up to Christmas, and the fifty days leading up to Easter, and every Wednesday and Friday as well. "Fasting" generally means eating a vegan diet - no meat or animal products, although some people also don't eat in the mornings. Anyway, it was very nice, the food was good and I managed to download some Christmas music from the internet. As Ethiopia is home to a particular species of evergreen tree, I was able to decorate my home in a surprisingly homey, seasonal way.

I also had the help of my wonderful colleagues Abebe and Meresa who spent hours making Christmas decorations for my house.

The cluster team has decided to dedicate one to three days a week to visiting schools (in part because this is simply good practice, and in part because with our recent funding squeeze our trainings are postponed and we need to work with the teachers in some way). So we went to Werieleke today, and I'm tired but actually quite uplifted as most of the teachers we saw were the best we've seen so far, extremely motivated and hardworking, and effectively using many strategies to encourage active learning and real group work. They've taken things they've learned
from the workshop and added them to their existing skills. It was quite exciting to see, and a great start as we now have good teachers to videotape and send other teachers to observe.

I'll end on that happy note. Tomorrow night I'll try to battle the writer's block and fight the urge to play Freecell or curl up with Jane Austen's Emma (which I picked up from VSO's library after a lengthy deprivation of anything literary) and instead write some more, as there is more to write.

Monday, December 04, 2006

I wrote some time ago that there are no students at the College, but that fortunately this does not affect me as I am working with the inservice teachers in the school cluster programme. Unfortunately, it seems I spoke too soon. The absence of students has turned out to be a symptom of a greater reorganization at the Regional Education Bureau of Tigray – that institution which decides not only where grade ten finishers will go for teacher training, but also what each institute of higher education will teach. At present, although we are several months into what should be the current school year, it seems that the REB is trying to decide whether Adwa CTE should continue to be a teacher training college, and if so whether it should be First or Second Cycle, or whether we should instead become a campus under the new Axum University, due to open in January, or whether we should become a tourism and hospitality industry college.

Institutional disorganization is one of the most frustrating things about working in Ethiopia. Even before this problem became clear, I was beginning to dread running into Feseha (the dean), knowing that he would tell me that the BESO budget or TDP budget (aid agencies) for the cluster programme had changed and we had to do this, or couldn’t do that, or needed to plan for something new. Now, the bulk of our budget is frozen, as apparently the REB has not released any of the money that I think we were counting on, and won’t release it until they decide what to do with Adwa CTE. So when next weekend’s Model Classroom training is finished, our activities will be on hold – no more training. I don’t know what will happen if we become a tourism college; I don’t relish the thought of our beautiful model classroom being turned into a model hotel room. I am a bit worried that my one year or two debate may have become moot (indeed, I am a bit worried that it may not even be one year in Adwa, but I will wait and see what decisions the REB makes over the next few weeks before I panic).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

You know you’re out your depth when… At the end of the workshop on how to set up a model classroom, I ask the teachers to sketch their plans for their classrooms. When we came to this point in this weekend’s workshop with the teachers of Lalay Maychew and Tahay Maychew woredas (districts), about a third of the teachers had a slight problem - they have no classrooms. They’re teaching in what’s called a dass - under a tarp or a roof of sticks and leaves. I knew that such schools existed, but I was a little surprised by how many of them there are, and how many students and teachers are involved. And as I sat there talking to these young teachers, with as many as 62 grade ones and no walls or desks or books, trying to figure out if there’s anything they can do to improve their classrooms, I felt incredibly powerless.

I do think the training is effectively geared towards teaching with very limited materials and locally available resources, but it does carry the assumption that teachers will have a wall on which to post an alphabet and hang the paper pocket chart we give them, and perhaps the comfort of not being open to the wind all day.

I feel a little bit guilty that it’s been two months and I still haven’t seen any of these schools without buildings. I don’t think my colleagues have been too keen on visiting them - given how difficult it is to get to the rural schools that do have buildings, I’m not looking forward to the trip to these more isolated schools. Anyway, it has now been moved to the top of the list.

Even though their teaching situations are difficult, I found this group of teachers quite keen, like the Ahferom group. Last week’s workshop was for Adwa town and Geter Adwa teachers, and those teachers were much older and seemed to be much more resistant to change. The last Model Classroom workshop is next weekend, and then I will have met all of the teachers in our cluster programme.

In recent years, the government has made an effort to make education more accessible, which means building more schools in the rural areas so that children don’t have as far to go. In most cases now, children in rural areas have up to a 4 km walk to school, whereas in the past it would have been 8 to 10 km or more to the nearest school, and this would have been prohibitive for most children, especially those in the younger grades. But it seems that the budget only goes so far. Thus there are many new schools that don’t have proper buildings yet.

I went to Mekelle on Tuesday to Thursday for VSO’s workshop on Mainstreaming HIV/AIDS. It was nice to see the other Tigray Region volunteers and get away to the big city. The hotel was ridiculously expensive (by Ethiopian standards) and not cockroach free, but it was still nice to eat out and have ferenji food and coffee for a change. Two College staff were invited so we took one of the college cars. The college has three cars (and three drivers) and unfortunately the best two were in use, so we had to take the oldest car and driver. Wehab, the vice administrative dean, in describing why we were so late arriving in Mekelle, said “The car is old, and the driver is old too.” It probably doesn’t sound funny to you, but when it’s 7:30 at night, and you should have arrived by 6:00; there’s no light; you’re on a rocky, curvy mountain road; the car is lurching along doubtfully; and it’s just made contact with a cow; the calm understatedness of this explanation is rather overwhelming.

Anyway, although I didn’t think I complained too much (granted, I did make a noise of some surprise when, just after dark, the driver maintained speed and didn’t honk his horn as we drove into a herd of cows, who managed to meander out of the way in time for one to be merely grazed by the car; and perhaps once we arrived in Mekelle and limped along at about 5kph I wondered aloud whether this old car would be able to get back to Adwa), Wehab decided that our car was not suitable for a ferenji for the trip back. So he generously arranged for me to go back as far as Abi Adi in their college car. (Abi Adi is halfway between Adwa and Mekelle.) There are four VSOs in Abi Adi and three of them had come to the Mainstreaming workshop, plus several of their college staff. So in the Abi Adi car, we were ten: three in the front, four ferenjis in the middle, and three more staff and our bags in the little back seat. It was just a little tight. Anyway, the idea was nice, and it would have worked well had we left when we said we would at 7:00 in the morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t take into account the Abi Adi sense of time, and although they picked us up at the hotel just after 7:00, by the time we had picked up 100kg of teff, purchased many new car parts, experienced and repaired a blown tire (okay, that couldn’t have been predicted) and done a number of other mysterious tasks, it was 10:00. We arrived in Abi Adi at noon to find that the Adwa people had been waiting for me for two and a half hours.

I’ve been to Mekelle twice now, once by car and once by bus, and both times I’ve been sick after getting home. I don’t know if it’s breathing the fumes or the dust or if it’s some kind of low grade whiplash from the constant bouncing around. The view is nice, at least for the most part, but otherwise it is not a pleasant trip, and the experience does not add to my enthusiasm about visiting the rural schools.

So what about this HIV/AIDS conference? Well, it’s basically to encourage the college and the volunteer to mainstream HIV/AIDS within the college’s activities. The most useful, although most frustrating, part of the conference was just finding out from Wehab and Gibretensail, the HIV/AIDS focal person, what the state of HIV/AIDS programming is at the college. I and my co-VSOs were a bit shocked to hear about the Virgin Award. Apparently, last year the college awarded a prize to the 200 female students who were virgins. Out of 500 female students, 210 agreed to be examined at the hospital, and of these, 200 passed, and received a prize. Of course, although the students “consented” to the examination, it’s a forced consent, because it’s implicit that those who do not agree are not virgins. Secondly, the perpetuation of exams of this kind has been found to lead many girls to choose anal sex in order to preserve their hymens, which is problematic for many reasons, including greater risk of HIV transmission. Thirdly, rape and sexual assault are relatively common, especially when girls are on isolated rural practicums; so not only are the girls assaulted but then they are blamed for not being a virgin. And it promotes gender roles that women are expected to be virgins, but men are allowed to get away with anything, and I’m sorry to say that from my line of sight, it’s the behaviour of men that is behind most of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Anyway, if we ever get students (yes, we still have no students), the plan is to conduct this award process again. And I need to find a nice way to say that I think that this is counterproductive if the goal is to reduce HIV/AIDS transmission.

The state of the HIV/AIDS situation in Adwa is not completely clear to me. One of the first things that we will do under HIV/AIDS mainstreaming is survey the staff to find out their knowledge and attitudes about HIV/AIDS. I don’t believe it’s an overwhelming problem here, but I do know that it exists. Every once in a while, a relative of someone at the college has died, and when I’ve asked what they died of, the answer has been very mysterious, usually just that they were sick for a long time. I don’t know if this always means AIDS but I do think it often does. A few days ago I met a cousin of Furwaini’s who works as a nurse in the ART (anti-retroviral therapy) clinic at Adwa Hospital. It’s only a couple of months old and it’s relatively small as many people from the Adwa area are continuing to go to Mekelle and Addis for treatment in order to maintain their privacy. He seems to think, as I’m beginning to conclude on my own, that the big problem is unfaithful husbands, which means that there’s a double burden on a woman who is diagnosed with HIV. According to his sources, the HIV infection rate is around 6% in Adwa and the surrounding areas.