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.