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.