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.”
Sunday June 3, 2007
On Friday I got a long-awaited care package, including some nuts - almonds and brazil nuts. I was loath to share, wanting to hoard my rare bit of gastronomic variety, but I felt the eyes of the college secretaries and messengers on me and my exciting package from Canada… they were NOT a hit. The brazil nuts were decidedly unpopular; the almonds had a slightly better reception. The main question was whether they could be planted - as a naïve city person, this has never occurred to me - can you plant almonds? If it works, I have several promises of a supply of almonds for as long as I want.
Although the food options will probably always be somewhat limited here (and that’s kind of a good thing, because it reflects greater reliance on locally produced and minimally processed foods rather than imported and artificial variety) as I get to know Adwa better I’m starting to become aware of new things. For a long time, I entertained a mystery about embasha – the delicious whole wheat bread that you can almost never buy but only find homemade in people’s houses. The few bakeries only sell white buns (bani) and the market hardly sells any kind of flour. Finally (being a little slow), I realized that people buy the wheat at the market and clean it and take it to a local miller themselves. I think it’s cheaper to do the processing yourself, and also I think people prefer to be as close to their food as possible.
So, with Freweyni’s help, I’m now in the loop and cooking with whole wheat… I’m mainly enjoying pancakes so far, but I’m working on my skills at making bread (without an oven, maybe I should learn to use an injera oven). I’ve also discovered flax seeds at the market. I was enjoying toasting a handful at a time and sprinkling them on oatmeal (one of the few non-local treats I allow myself) or whatever, until my housemaid, who I think has a very negative view of my cooking ability, decided that I needed help and took my flax seeds home and turned them into a traditional toasted spiced thing. It’s very nice and very rich tasting, but not good on oatmeal (well, maybe savoury oatmeal).
Saturday June 2, 2007
Ethiopia is in the midst of conducting what I think is its third census, conducted about every ten years. It’s interesting to realize how important a census is in a developing country like Ethiopia. With still many unregistered births, the census is the only accurate measure of how many people there are, where they are, and how they’re doing. This is, of course, important for planning and monitoring and evaluation purposes. For example, one non-formal education provider mentioned that when schools report their enrolment figures they do so in the context of the school age population, and since they are either guessing or using data more than ten years old, the reported rates of school enrolment are unreliable, particularly in rural areas.
With a low adult literacy rate, and limited infrastructure, the government can’t just mail a census form out to every household, part of the point being that they don’t know how many households there are. So the responsibility for carrying out the census is given to the teacher training institutions and vocational schools and, for some highly populated areas, elementary teachers. For two weeks in May, Adwa CTE was full of students again, this time 900 student teachers from Abi Adi as well as other institutions, including our own staff, being trained as census counters. And last week and this week, they are all out, censussing. (Unfortunately for me, this means that I have no colleagues to work with, which is a bit frustrating.) I met with Meressa for a little while last week, and he told me about the census questions. It’s very wide ranging – one of the good things is that it identifies whether or not children are in school, and if not, why, which will be very useful in the efforts towards inclusive education.
The census in most parts of the country is taking place right now, but I read an article the other day that described how in the pastoral regions of Somali and Afar, the census will be conducted in November when the pastoralists return to their home areas. Ethiopia is buying some kind of satellite technology that is going to help them to identify where the people are.

On a related note, it’s interesting how little contact people in one area have with other areas. I was shocked to hear from one of my good friends the other day that he has never allowed his teenage daughters to visit Axum, half an hour’s drive away. Apart from growing up in a village to the east of Adwa, they have never been outside of this town. I guess it’s also partly a gender issue: a lot of people are afraid to give their daughters too many opportunities, for fear that they will get into trouble.)
I’ve been trying to coordinate a visit by some teachers in Adwa town to one of the villages nearby where the school is very good. There are public busses which go there, so travel does happen, but for these women who have pretty much lived their whole lives in Adwa, the thought of traveling on their own out of the town was very daunting. Part of it is lack of experience, but part of it is the lack of infrastructure. They know that the bus and the road will be uncomfortable (and not 100% safe); the bus may not go all the way to the school; to return to Adwa they’ll have to wait till a bus becomes ready and full, and this often means waiting overnight - since one of the women has a small baby, this would be impossible. So we’re going to try to send a large bunch of teachers to this school, using the college car or bus. It doesn’t really send a message of independent learning and motivation that I wanted the teachers to get, but ultimately, the point is for them to see well set up classrooms so they can improve their own, as there are no decent classrooms in Adwa town. If we get a few, then we won’t have to send people out into the wilds.Adwa town people expect busses. For rural people, these problems don’t stop them because they are used to them –there are no options. Freweyni’s housemaid went back to her village last week, about eight months pregnant. She took a line taxi to the end of the town, and then she had to walk the rest of the way because the roads to this place are not accessible by car. It was to take two days, as she would stop and rest in a village midway. My guard, Wendim, has promised to go and visit her at some point and bring us news of the baby. I asked Freweyni if she would visit (I knew she wouldn’t) and she said no, it’s too difficult to get there. Wendim is another example of the industrious rural walker, walking at least 2 hours each way from his home to mine every day. I went to a wedding around his house a few months ago, taking a bus towards Axum and then walking a long distance through fields to this home; apparently Wendim’s house is twice as far and over what looked to me like a difficult mountain ridge. He doesn’t seem to mind, though, and at least he has shoes.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Sunday April 29, 2007
During yesterday’s “Active Learning” workshop, I was trying to get a group thinking about what good group work would look like. I (foolishly?) asked “would you see children hitting each other?”. The answer was yes, so I took it as a language problem and called my translator over…it wasn’t a language problem. Many people really do see hitting as an acceptable way to solve problems, and although children often hit each other in the classroom, it’s not seen as a concern, by most teachers. In fact, older children are usually charged with disciplining their younger siblings, and this discipline usually takes the form of hitting. And, in the classroom, one child will often be assigned as a monitor to ensure good behaviour; he carries a stick and swats the children who misbehave. I’ve actually never seen a teacher hit a child in class, but in the yard, there’s constant stick swinging and stone throwing.
The other day, walking down my street, I saw a little girl who often walks with me, and is very quiet compared to the many friendly children who usually hold my hand. She was being hit by a man, maybe her brother, in the middle of the street. I wanted to say something, but I doubted that we’d speak the same language, so I just gave him a really bad look. It’s as pointless as it sounds, because I’m sure he had no idea why this ferenji was staring at him, and if anything at all, it probably made things worse by adding to the negative energy.
I’m embarrassed to write this, because I haven’t really done anything. It’s been discussed at the Classroom Management workshop, and, of course, it came up at the Active Learning workshop, but still, when it happens in front of me, I don’t really know how to deal with it. Fortunately at least, change is happening in the home of my friend with a six year old son, who has been making a big effort not to beat her son.

A nice thing about living in a small town is that people can be very trusting. When I went to the shop yesterday to buy vegetables, (no time for Saturday market on a workshop day) I only had a fifty birr note, and my shopkeeper didn’t have enough change, so she told me to pay the next day (which I did). It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice thing.

It’s been raining a bit lately. It’s often very dramatic when it rains, with thunder announcing the coming storm long before the clouds have hidden the sun. Often the electricity will go out when it rains. And the rain brings insects: big flying termites, and more crawling insects like cockroaches which I hardly saw during the dry season.
Thursday April 26, 2007
Aesthetic Vision
I’ve been complaining that many of the teachers don’t seem to have a well-developed aesthetic sense, as it’s so common to go into a “model classroom” and find letters and charts hanging crooked on the wall, and tons and tons of materials produced without the aid of a ruler, even though most schools do have rulers. To me, it seems impossible not to be bothered by these things, but many teachers really don’t seem to see them.
My new theory is that it’s not carelessness; rather, it’s about how well you know and understand something that enables you to see it in detail. For example, while I keep a reasonably neat classroom, I make shiro (that Ethiopian bean powder convenience food I’ve mentioned before) that I’m quite happy with but I would never serve to an Ethiopian, because I can’t be bothered to cut the onions into the near-slivers that an Ethiopian woman would produce. To me, it’s really not a difference worth noticing, but to an Ethiopian it’s a difference between good food and barely edible. I can’t notice it because I’m not used to looking so critically at food, but for Ethiopian women who spend so much of their lives cooking, it’s easy to see.
Or, there’s my new Ethiopian-style scarf, or netella,the kind of scarf worn by most Tigrayan women, with a little fringe at the edge. Even close up, I have difficulty seeing the difference between my fringe and anyone else’s, but several women have come up to me and shown me how I have to twist together two strands in order to complete it. One teacher offered to do it for me: “It won’t take long”, she said “only about two hours”.
So, as anyone who’s seen the churches could easily have argued, my conclusion is that Ethiopians have no worse aesthetic sense that I do, it simply hasn’t been developed in the context of education. Crooked charts are as important to them as underchopped onions are to me. Hopefully, as they continue to be exposed to “model classrooms”, and to the harder task of making active learning work, they’ll become better at looking critically at their classrooms and their teaching. And maybe some day I’ll be able to invite people over for food I’ve cooked myself, without fear of it sitting untouched on their plates.

The Other Kind of Vision
About thirty years ago, Tigray was not the relatively peaceful place it is now. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was active across the region, and many people were anxious and angry enough to do strange things like keep homemade bombs in their homes. One of the instructors at the college, who is a good friend of mine and has embraced new methods of teaching and learning, grew up in this time. As a curious seven-year old, he and his cousin and younger brother found a bomb and decided to investigate. His cousin was killed, his brother received some minor scars, and he was blinded.
He was fortunate enough to be able to go to the school for the blind in Asmara, up to grade 5, and received a good education after that, has a degree in History, and has been teaching at Adwa CTE for the past 15 years.
There are many people with disabilities who struggle to live on the fringes of society, and what my friend and I were talking about today is that very few children with disabilities are in school (I’ve seen one child – a mentally challenged boy – in all the schools I’ve visited; the statistic is that worldwide, at least 40 million children with disabilities are out of school, that’s 95% of school-age children with disabilities!). However, as an educated person, my friend is respected, and generally accommodated fairly well, although there are times when he has to struggle to get what he needs - like when the ferenji cluster coordinator (yes, me) did a workshop for college staff that included a sample English lesson that was very dependent on being able to see.
I don’t think I’ve spent any time with a blind person until now, and as a teacher it’s a good check for me to recognize whether my lessons are really inclusive, and really using a variety of ways of learning. And, walking alongside him, I’m forced to be more aware of my environment. At the college, it’s easy, because even though he will usually hold someone’s hand for guidance, he knows the layout very well. But when we went to Dessie, and I was once in a while the guide, it was easy to see how hard it is to navigate without all your senses. I needed to be very alert to upcoming obstacles or changes, and it’s hard. My friend is very adept at figuring out what’s happening around him and where people and things are. Much of it is himself, but I think that the five years he had as a child at the school for the blind really served him well.
April 10, 2007
Knock on wood that I won’t be screaming in frustration next week, but the Cluster unit seems to be taking on more of the shape that I want and I’m starting to have an occasional sense that the work I’m doing now might be a little bit sustainable. I think working with the college staff is very important to the sustainability and real improvements in teaching, as they are the ones (hopefully) training the teachers. It can be very frustrating, though. A group of college staff have gone out this week to observe teachers at schools, and a few of them have already called and said that exams are going on (there’s a serious case of testing taking the place of learning here, but that’s another issue) … oh well, Meressa, my colleague, whose calm attitude will hopefully rub off on me, responded by saying it’s a learning experience and next time we should ask the schools for their exam schedules in advance… good idea.
Also, the frustrations extend to the college staff skills: from the work we’ve done so far, it’s clear to me that my ideas of active learning and their ideas of active learning are not the same, and despite the orientation we did, I worry about the kind of feedback they will give teachers. Anyway, it’s really all a learning experience.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Monday April 9, 2007
Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and today is a regular workday here in Adwa, Ethiopia. I had made the mistake of eating salad, which I guess I didn't wash well enough, on Saturday, so I was feeling a little off yesterday. But I still made it down to Freweini's where she made a gigantic omelet for me, which I struggled with while the family ate sheep. In the evening, I went to my friend Mehari's mother's house. I had tried to cancel, but been guilted into coming because she had made a whole lot of vegetarian food just for me which nobody else could eat because they had to eat meat.
Fasting time was nice, especially on the trip to Dessie when we were eating out every day, and every restaurant served vegan food all the time. Most of the year there's fasting on Wednesday and Friday, but unfortunately, I've just found out that for the next fifty days to make up for all that fasting, there are no fasting days. It will be very challenging to get vegetarian food anywhere but at home.
What is this with the spelling? Are you noticing that I keep spelling Freweini's name differently?I'm looking for the best fit. Because the Tigrigna/Amharic and English alphabets are so different, it's very hard to find a firm spelling for most Ethiopian names. At first I was spelling Furwaini but then I saw that other people spell it differently so I changed to Freweini, but I still see Freweyni and Frewaini and I just don't know. Fisseha is probably one of the worst names. I've seen Fissha, Feseha, Fesseha, and every combination in between, many of them spelled by the same Fisseha, who seems to be experimenting with the best way to spell his own name.
Saturday April 7, 2007
At the English workshop, I introduced sight word Bingo. Of course, I’m not the biggest fan of Bingo of any kind, but as the teachers are having so much difficulty giving the students more opportunity for active involvement, I thought this might be a good stepping stone. And English sight words are very much something worth practicing. So, Meressa and I visited a Grade 2 class at Bete Yohanis School last week, where we observed Number Bingo, English Bingo and Tigrigna Bingo! Meressa was very impressed with how much the teacher had applied the ideas of the English workshop, and to other subjects too, which is something that we’re trying to encourage. I was also impressed but hope that she’ll go beyond Bingo. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen at other schools as well causes me to be a bit worried that we may be entering an era of Bingo overload.
The end of meat...
As I write this, I can hear the Easter sheep crying outside. My landlady, like mostEthiopian Orthodox Christians, is ending her fast (the no-meat time before Easter) and has bought a sheep. It cost 250 Birr and will probably feed the family for about a week. A larger sheep would be more, and a goat would be closer to 500 Birr. A hen costs about 30 Birr, and there are a lot of those around too. Compared to this, a family could eat shiro (beans) for a month for about 10 Birr. I’ve promised a few people (or so they tell me) that I might eat meat at Easter. While so many people eat a pure vegan diet for the fasting period, they do this rather stoically, looking forward very keenly to Easter so they can eat meat again. The idea of being vegetarian full time is rather shocking to most people.
My main argument for not eating meat in Canada is the poor treatment of the animals, as well as the environmental impact of raising meat, and the fact that I just don’t want to. Although there are few factory farms here, animals are not necessarily treated well. I saw a horrible attack on a horse the other day. Cats, and other smallish animals, are routinely kicked when they’re in the way. And it’s obvious that the final days or hours of a goat or sheep’s life are not happy. They lose their freedom, no longer wandering through the streets or the field but tied by a rope. They dig in their heels quite literally, and often fall down or go backwards. Sometimes a child is leading the animal and isn’t strong enough, so he will resort to kicking or pulling it. And then the animal waits, tied up in someone’s compound, until it’s finally slaughtered. Apart from the issue of how animals are treated, there are the environmental implications, and in this place where soil erosion is so serious, it’s not really something I want to contribute to.
Cluster News
My boss has taken a job at Axum university. There’s a bit of competition, I think, among other higher-up people at the college who would like to take over his position, as the Cluster programme is a little bit prestigious, and also, given the state of the college, the only position that is (more or less) guaranteed to exist next year. I want my two lower-down colleagues to be moved up to a more senior coordinator position, which they’re very capable of handling, and would be very good at. Unfortunately, there’s so much awareness of status that this is going to be a bit of a challenge. However, during our visit to Dessie, we learned that the Cluster coordinators there also had lowly roots as pedagogical centre workers (like my colleagues, the people who make teaching aids, as there’s no Scholars’ Choice to order them from), so hopefully this will work in our favour.
Efforts to get the college academic staff more involved in the Cluster programme are continuing. Most staff members will be spending the coming week visiting schools and providing feedback to teachers. I’m hoping that their feedback won’t conflict with the training we’ve already given. Although the college has been training grade 1 to 4 teachers, almost none of the college staff have any experience teaching at that grade level. Many of them are in their very early twenties so their experience of any teaching is very limited. They are aware of their need to learn more, which is good. And I’m hoping that involvement in the cluster programme will help them develop their skills as well as helping the teachers in the schools (hopefully it will help the teachers in the schools).
Ethiopian English Gem
Meressa moved his bicycle into the shade because it (the leather of the seat) was being attacked by the sun. (does it still sound funny in writing?)
How is my Tigrigna? Well, when I asked the cost of a kilo of carrots in the market today, the children selling tried, and failed, to answer in English. Then the lady beside me chided them for not using their common sense and responding in Tigrigna, as I had asked in Tigrigna. So they did, and I bought my carrots, and all was well. So, I can speak enough to function in the market and when people use gestures and simple words and numbers to speak about predictable things, I can understand their gist, but other than that, I have not really been studying responsibly. While I can laugh at Meressa’s English mistakes, there’s not much to laugh at in my Tigrigna because it’s pretty much limited to Good morning, Good afternoon, Thank you, small, big and How much? (although, come to think of it, some people do laugh, just finding it quite thrilling that I can say anything at all.)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday April 1, 2007

Thankfully, this weekend is a public holiday (the birth of Mohammed and also Hosanna/Palm Sunday) so we have no workshops. We came back on Monday from our trip to Dessie and since then I’ve been busy with a follow-up workshop for the college staff as well as ELIP and catching up on paper work and what not. I was very tired and ready for a weekend off.
Most colleges take an annual college tour so that the staff can share experiences with another college. We went to Dessie, which has a very well established Cluster programme (in-service teacher training, what I do) with a busload of college staff and the directors of the cluster centre schools we work with and the woreda school supervisors. It was a week of driving on Ethiopian mountain roads, some paved and some not, and almost all very curvy and bumpy and narrow. Even the high-end college bus couldn’t make it comfortable - and there were a few carsick people - although it was certainly a lot better than a public bus.
Lately I’ve been noticing that there’s not a lot of variety in Ethiopian food (okay, by the end of the trip, eating out every day, I thought I’d go crazy if I had to eat shiro again), but there were a few moments (few and far between) on this trip when I encountered new and exciting foods, like the porridge in Adi Grad (see pictures) and sugar cane in Alamata. Also peanut tea (heaven) and ginger tea - both of which I think you can get here too, but since I don’t go out that much here, and when I do I usually go for machiato or regular tea - I wasn’t aware of these options. Apparently, the peanut tea is mainly a fasting time substitute for machiato (many Orthodox Christians don’t consume any animal products in the fifty or so days before Easter).
We saw some of the rock-hewn churches near Wukro, as part of the tour. These are ancient churches (the priests claim that they were built around 350 C.E., but others have argued for later dates) that are still in use today, and that were actually carved out of the mountain rock. They’re incredibly beautiful and it’s amazing to think of how they were built. It’s also strange to me that they’re not a bigger tourist attraction. With some of the other VSOs that I stayed with in Dessie, we were talking about how strange it is that nobody knows about the incredible wonders of Ethiopia, outside of Ethiopia.
It’s very dry in Adwa. I’ve been feeling this more and more lately, I guess as we get deeper into the dry season, as my skin gets drier and a walk down the street always means dust in my face. But I could really see the difference when we got to the southern part of Tigray region and into Amhara region, and everywhere we looked it was lush and green. There are two rainy seasons in most of Ethiopia, but in this part of Tigray there’s only one. (We did bring some rain back with us, the first rain in about six months: big thunder and lightening storms last week, and lengthy power outages, but I’m told that this is just a tiny taste of what’s happening to the south, and that we won’t have a proper rainy season till about June.)
It was interesting to see Dessie’s cluster programme. The organization of schools in Amhara region is a bit different than in Tigray, and that was good to find out about. There are two volunteers and two Ethiopian cluster coordinators in Dessie, and the programme is well established. They even have their own office photocopier (no chasing down the photocopy guy, and then finding he’s somehow managed to copy the wrong page!) One of the goals of the trip is to inspire college staff to be more involved in the cluster programme, which is a good idea for always, but especially now that they’re being paid for signing in and doing nothing. However, as I found at the college staff workshops I did last week, and as I feared already, coordinating them to do this is going to be a very difficult task.
When we got back, one of the college staff members invited everyone for his daughter’s baptism celebration. In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, baby girls are always baptized after 80 days, and boys after 40 days. I was so surprised when I heard the invitation, and thought at first that there was some kind of language gap. This staff member is someone I work with quite closely, and I had had no idea that his wife had been pregnant or had a baby (in fact, I hadn’t realized he was even married because he had been referring to his wife as ‘my fiancée’… apparently in his understanding of English, since he and his wife were not living together for financial reasons, he thought fiancée was a better time than wife). But it wasn’t just me (that could be explained by the language gap) - almost everyone at the college was surprised by this baby. Just as I was trying to figure out why my friend would keep it a secret, I found out that another college staff member was also celebrating his new son’s baptism, and had also kept his birth a secret (actually it’s still a secret – sometimes I get left out of things because I don’t know the language, and other times I get special information because I guess I’m considered different). So are these two isolated cases or is there an epidemic of Ethiopian men keeping quiet about the births of their children? Hmmm

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I’ve been in Adwa for six months and I walk through the town almost every day. Yet it’s still a rare event to not have children, or even teenagers and adults, yell “Money”, “Ferenji” or “China” (a lot of Chinese road builders means that any non-Ethiopian is Chinese), or just to give a really long stare. It still really drives me crazy, even when it’s done in a friendly or innocent way. I think mostly it reminds me that no matter how long I stay here I will always be an outsider.

Often adults I don’t know will greet me, in English or Tigrigna. This drives me crazy too, although it really shouldn’t. I complain about how unfriendly Toronto and western society are, but I’m a product of that society (rather an exemplary one, at that). I rather like walking down the street in anonymity, without people noticing my every move. Of course, I also like the warm greetings of the people I do know. I have one shop that I often go to, and the owner is always friendly and welcoming. Last time she invited me to have coffee in the back. It actually wasn't the best coffee, and it was a tight squeeze for three people in the tiny space behind the counter, and our conversation was limited to what we could say in my broken Tigrigna and their broken English, but still, it was nice. And now, we greet each other by name and more warmly than before.

My landlady’s servant is divorced. This is not as rare as you might think. Divorced men can remarry, but women are on their own. She has one son already, and her husband has remarried. However, he led her to believe there was a potential reconciliation... She is still alone, but now she is pregnant. When the baby comes in July, she will have to stop working and go back to the village where she will live with her mother and son.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Today was Adwa Victory Day, a holiday to celebrate the Ethiopian defeat over the Italians in 1896, which made Ethiopia the “only” African country not to be colonized by Europe. It’s a relatively small holiday in most parts of the country, not having any direct religious connection, but if one happens to be in Adwa, of course it’s quite a big deal. Yesterday afternoon, there was a public celebration at the town stadium, with children from all the schools and all workers from the various local institutions (the college, the hospital, the textile factory). It was quite a big crowd. I brought Mickey with me and we joined the college contingent. It was very hot so we were lucky to be able to go in the college car. Unfortunately Mickey, being a ferenji-influenced child, is not very well behaved compared to many Ethiopian children, and drove my colleagues crazy with putting his head out the window and what not.

Today, the actual day, started with Adwa’s Great Run for Victory and Development. As this is the millennium year in the Ethiopian calendar, and the 111th anniversary of Adwa Victory it was rather a big deal (any excuse for a celebration). This is the first time Adwa has had a run, and it got off to a rather bumpy start. I woke up at 5:15 to be on time for a 6:00 start at the stadium, and found instead a 7:30 start downtown, in part because many people had been told to go to the stadium and needed to be herded to the right place, and in part, I don’t really know why. The run was public, for anyone who had 7 birr to spare, and well turned out with the fast and the slow, like me. After the run I went home and showered and ate, and made it to the 8:00 ceremony by 10:00ish when it was just getting started. It was by invitation only, and most of the college staff had received invitations. I ended up getting a good seat, thanks to the UNMEE people, close to the official guests, Regional leaders and the Orthodox Christian priests from Addis.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Cluster programme has gotten our funding back, although the direction of the college is still not decided. This happened quite suddenly, just before I had to go to Addis for a cluster meeting. So I’ve been really busy since then catching up on the workshops that had been postponed, as well as doing school visits and an action research project with some of the teachers and writing funding reports.

I spoke to the Regional Education Director. Apparently there were a lot of teachers from Tigray region working in other parts of the country, and during the upheavals after the election a year and a half ago there were threats against them. There was doubt about the fairness of the election. Since the government is mainly Tigrayan, there was some negative feeling towards Tigrayans. Many people fled back to Tigray region, creating a surplus of teachers.

So no new students have been admitted to any of the teachers’ colleges in Tigray and a commission has finally been launched to explore what should be done with each of the teachers’ colleges. To me, it seems a little short-sighted to shut them down, but we’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, whether or not I can stay in Adwa for a second year depends on this decision, which has been two weeks away ever since I arrived in October.

Although education is improving in the country as a whole, much of this progress is led by improvements in Tigray, Amhara, Oromiya and even SNNPR regions, where probably the majority of children get some education.

But in the so-called “emerging” regions of Afar, Somali, Beneshangul-Gumuz and Gambella, around 30% - sometimes less - of school-age children are attending school. Partly this is because people live a nomadic lifestyle that makes regular education difficult. In the south. Last year’s continuing famine has meant that many people have been forced to move, and schools have been shut down. In Somali region, there are security issues. In Gambella, near the border with Sudan, there has been ongoing conflict, which I think is starting to improve. VSO (and many other aid organizations) doesn’t operate in Afar, Somali or Gambella. In some ways this makes sense, because international volunteers and workers expect a degree of security and pre-existing infrastructure, yet it’s disturbing to think that the areas where the need is greatest are not getting the same attention as places like Tigray. At the same time, a nomadic culture is so different from that in which the traditional education system works that it is a huge challenge to implement an effective education system that works with the society and doesn’t destroy what is positive about that culture. There are some informal education programmes whereby teachers move along with everyone else.

* * * * *

I know it's been quite some time since my last blog. My apologies.

Part of the reason for my hesitation is that in practice I have been sharing my personal reflections on all that is right and wrong about Ethiopia, and to a lesser degree about the personal lives of some of my associates. I wonder whether a public forum such as this blog is an appropriate venue, especially when many of those views seem to be changing constantly. Whenever I start to write something I find myself second-guessing it.

I'm open to the thoughts of my readers on this issue.