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.