Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I’ve started tutoring my landlady's cousin (servant) in English every evening. She is in grade 9, and struggling. In Grades 9 to 12, all subjects except Amharic and Tigrigna are taught in English. For someone who still doesn’t know all the letters and can barely read a sentence, let alone understand what she reads, this means the heavy load of Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History courses is nearly impossible. On top of that, the classes are large, the teacher is only present for 10 out of the 40 minutes (the notorious video lessons) and the textbooks are poorly written and organized.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Recently, I've become better acquainted with ferenjis in Adwa. The ferenjis themselves are interesting, but even more is the general thrill of finally meeting other foreigners living in Adwa after about four months of relative isolation.

About two weeks ago, I met an Italian woman who with her husband has started an orphanage here. They’re about my age, and have basically committed their lives to running the orphanage here, with regular visits back to Italy. On Friday, a holiday, I visited the orphanage. Although I only had a fairly short visit. I will write more about it, as I know the babies will draw me back.

On Saturday at the market I met the wife of the new manager of the road construction project. And on Saturday afternoon I met the Chinese engineers who are constructing the road. I walk past their building all the time but almost never see them. After getting inside the building, I finally know why: each person has office, bedroom and bathroom all in one room. And they have their own Chinese cook. There’s no need to step out into Ethiopia if you don’t want to.

On Monday I was invited with Furwaini to a wedding in the rural area outside of Adwa. We waited for a long time for a line taxi and finally happened to meet the car belonging to Medecins du Monde (not to be confused with the better known Medecins Sans Frontiers), a team of French doctors formerly based in Adwa but unfortunately now in Axum. We got a ride in the car: the driver was picking up from school a little girl from Sri Lanka who has been adopted by one of the French doctors.

On Monday afternoon, after we returned from the wedding (they danced till midnight but I missed all that), Furwaini’s brother came with some visiting philanthropists who have been funding several projects in Ethiopia. Go to www.aglimmerofhope.org and www.clintonfoundation.org to see more.

And that’s it for now.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"Looking back at our own educational experience" was the topic of a recent ELIP (English Language Improvement Programme) session I’m running.

The rate of enrolment in education in Ethiopia is 85% as of October 2006. This compares to 27% in 1991, which of course is when the current government came into power. It’s clear from my discussions with teachers and others that progress has been made in recent years.

Many teachers recalled classes conducted under trees, and walking several hours to school.

Now, although there are some dass (temporary structures) and many dark and dingy classrooms, and classrooms without desks, there are also many quite decent school buildings. I have never seen a class under a tree. I could be wrong, but I would guess that they don’t exist any more in Tigray region, at least not in the formal education system.

Work is still needed on access to education: 15% is not a small number, and in some regions the figure is much higher. But quality of education is now a big focus, through programmes such as cluster and higher diploma (training for teacher educators).

Friday, January 12, 2007

For me as a shyish person, there are some things about life here that are easier than at home. I sometimes wonder if this is a good thing. As the only foreigner at the college and one of very few in the town, I stand out and get attention and recognition without really earning it. For social events like holidays I’m assured of an invitation. Of course, Ethiopians always greet each other warmly; I'm included in this too. I have wonderful colleagues in the Cluster Unit, and as we’re going out regularly on school visits we’re getting to know each other well. And when my social calendar is empty, as it is many evenings, I can always rationalize, completely legitimately, that I’m a stranger in a strange land with a strange language, all the volunteers in isolated placements experience the same phenomenon, and few women here go out at night anyway.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Another happy day on the rural school visit circuit. We saw a very nice measurement lesson, which added fuel to my theory that there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of the teaching and the condition of the school building, as this was another classroom sans-desks where the students sit on dried mud platforms.

I always feel uplifted when we watch a good teacher – it’s inspiring and reassuring, and also a great break from watching students do NOTHING for 20 minutes while the teacher checks everybody’s book, or listening to teachers and students scream “This is a cat. This is a cat. This is a cat.” (The drill approach is very popular in all subjects, but especially English.) Anyway, we saw this wonderful teacher and Meressa, my lesson-observing partner, called some students up to read in Tigrigna (very few Grade 2 students can read in English) and they were all able to read. This was a stark contrast with the previous Grade 2 class where only one out the four students we called was able to stumble through what she had copied into her notebook. As a teacher, I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a connection between good teaching and good learning, but it is rather gratifying to see.

Furwaini’s brother is visiting from Canada where he has been living for the past three years. He’s complaining about the backwards way people live here: cooking food on coal stoves outside and washing their laundry in basins (even though, as Furwaini says, he doesn’t have to do any of this work himself). Furwaini herself doesn’t mind, and she has brought me into it as a Canadian who doesn’t mind the traditional ways either, although I think with my electric burner and my running water I’d really better stay out of the discussion.

I have no intention of idealizing poverty. Even Furwaini’s life is much easier than that of many people, who have to collect their own water, or go to the river to wash, or who don’t have servants to help them. And there is nothing romantic about water-borne infections, or protein-starved children, or walking three hours a day with a load of wood on your back, or futures disappearing under a bad education system. Yet there is still something about a group of women cooking together, and preparing food from start to finish with their own hands, that I love. There’s something about children playing together on the street with homemade balls and games. People dropping in and coffee being prepared. People walking (or taking the bus) everywhere they go. These are things I love and I wish that I could bring a little bit of them back with me when I go home.

When we visit classes to observe teachers, we always ask the teacher to talk with us afterwards so we can give her or him some feedback on the lesson we saw. So we step outside the classroom, find a rock or something to sit on, and talk. Meanwhile, the 40 or 50 children are left inside the class (no supply teacher coverage!). At first I was quite resistant to this. It goes against my ingrained sense of responsibility and liability to leave children alone in the classroom. Yet after a few occasions it became very clear that the children were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. Sometimes the teacher leaves a particular child in charge to lead a lesson. Other times the students are just expected to work independently. I don’t know how much work gets done, but the behaviour is always excellent. Once we spoke with a teacher for about fifteen minutes while her class conducted their own Physical Education class outside, playing a game together without any problems. To be fair, I sometimes wonder whether a fear of punishment plays a role in the good behaviour. But I also think there’s a sense of cooperation among the children, and also an independence and self-sufficiency from both the children and the adults’ expectations that I admire and would like to bring back with me.

Monday, January 08, 2007

This morning, I went with the college staff to the funeral for Fesseha’s uncle. It was the first funeral I have been to, and there are many things I don’t understand about the ceremony, yet there were of course many similarities with western Christian funerals. Funerals, like baptisms and births and other milestones, are very public events with all the family and neighbours and colleagues participating. Everyone assembled outside the uncle’s house and followed the coffin and the priests to the church. The men and women were separate – men at the front and women at the back, even the wife and the close female relatives were at the back. I was only able to identify the wife because she was the one being held up and consoled by other women. Many of the women were crying and wailing in a way that I think is ceremonial as well as sincere, and that is strange for me from a slightly less explicit emotional culture. Yesterday was Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas (December 29th in the Ethiopian calendar, which falls on January 7th in the western calendar). It was a rather quiet day with everyone celebrating with their own families. Many people have been fasting (eating a vegan diet) for the 35 days leading up to Christmas, so there was much enthusiasm about killing the goat or hen or sheep for Christmas. Haile Michael, one of the college staff, who takes very seriously the responsibility of ensuring my entertainment, invited me to his house, and provided me with shiro (vegetarian food) and I also joined Furwaini (my landlady)’s family. Her brother who lives in Ottawa is visiting and it was nice to have a little feeling of Canada. There are pictures of both family celebrations on flickr.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

This afternoon, some of the teachers who come to ELIP and cluster workshops invited me to have porridge for one of the teachers who had just had a baby. I was a bit mystified as I had never been invited for porridge before. Four days after a baby is born, the family invites people over for porridge.

(I can’t remember the name in Tigrigna, but in English it’s called porridge, which is a bit misleading – if you’re familiar with West African fufu it’s actually rather similar to that although it’s made of flour instead of cassava).

The mother and baby (a boy, number 6) were comfortably ensconced on a bed, and the cooking and serving were done by other women – friends and relatives. I like and envy the way people take care of each other and celebrate together. All the women in the neighbourhood were invited, as well as the teachers and other friends and family, and the house was full of women, in small clusters sharing huge mounds of porridge topped with berberi (peppery sauce). Another group of women helped cook more porridge in a huge pot outside. This is not a food I’d had or even heard of before (a meal without injera? oh my!) The women told me that although it’s eaten sometimes for breakfast, porridge is mainly eaten when celebrating the birth of a baby, and is considered very nutritious and fattening in a good way. It was quite nice, very comfort-foody. When everyone had had enough, each woman in the group picked up the plate and kissed it in thanks for the food and everyone ululated (is that the word for a throaty, yodeling kind of singing?). There was a lot of celebratory ululating going on throughout, as new guests came and left and food was served. Hopefully at some point I’ll have the chance to take pictures, but sometimes I feel like taking pictures is disruptive and underlines my foreignness, and I’d rather just enjoy the experience.

It must be baby week, because on Saturday I went to a baptism party for another baby. In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, boys are baptized after 40 days and girls after 80 days (I don’t know why) and the church is quite strict about baptisms happening on time. The whole neighbourhood is invited and people come in and out as in an open house. The grandmother and aunts were busy serving the food (the usual – injera and wot) while the mother and baby rested.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What of this business of not doing any weekend workshops? Well, most of the Cluster Unit’s budget comes from an NGO called TDP (Teacher Development Programme, funded by several EU countries). As I wrote a few weeks ago, some uncertainty has arisen about the direction of the college, and therefore TDP has frozen their budget until this is sorted out, which means that the only part of the college which is actually active is now facing something of an obstacle.

(The college staff themselves are paid by the government and so are still being paid even though there are no students and there’s very little to do. This seems a bit odd, but the thing is that as there’s no social security net, if the college staff were not to be paid, Adwa’s fledgling middle class would practically vanish. So they keep themselves busy running workshops for each other and planning classes, but they are started to be quite frustrated.)

The cluster unit still has small allocations of money, like the BESO funding for videotaping and for such specific things as a Computer workshop for teachers (oh, the waste of time!), but the bulk of our money is frozen. So workshops that require paying a per diem to the teachers are really impossible. I’ve just started doing ELIP (English Language Improvement Programme) with the Adwa Town teachers two half days a week and it is difficult to get them to come, purportedly because we’re not paying a per diem, even though it’s only half a day and they don’t have that far to travel. (I also think that the first session was not very smooth and this has turned them off coming, but my colleagues are very attached to the per diem explanation. Anyway, today was a lot better, so we’ll see if attendance improves or not.)

I’m sure people will disagree with me about computer training being a waste of time. BESO certainly thinks it’s worth getting on the IT bandwagon. Although I definitely find computers useful, and I couldn’t manage without email, I’ve never been a fan of computers in the classroom. I certainly don’t think they’re essential to effective teaching. As none of our schools have computers, and little prospect of acquiring computers in the near future (many of them have no electricity), I’d rather see the money go to something more useful rather than computer training for a mere 16 teachers (8 teachers and 8 directors). But there’s no point in arguing, so yesterday I and the college’s IT person were thrown into computer training (every evening for three weeks straight as the BESO budget reporting period is very short). It was actually quite interesting to watch and work with the teachers, who had rarely seen and never touched a computer before: a mouse is a very tricky tool to get used to. Still, I wasn’t upset to find that there was no electricity today.

Monday, January 01, 2007

My dad has asked for a clarification on why we go out into the rural areas to visit schools. This is a very good question, as it certainly would be easier not to spend hours driving across bumpy roads spewing diesel fuel into the air, and sitting in freezing - in - the - morning and boiling - in - the - afternoon classrooms, and rationing water consumption in order to avoid the yucky (or more often, nonexistent) toilets. And whether the lesson is good or not, it can be quite tedious to watch other people teach when you’re used to teaching yourself. So, why do we do it? About a month and a half ago, we had an experiencing sharing visit from the cluster unit at Abi Adi CTE, which included VSO volunteer Jenny, who has been in Abi Adi since last February, and the Ethiopian cluster coordinator Yikono. Having been busy planning workshops and whatnot, I hadn’t spent much time in the schools since the first weeks of being here and had kind of forgotten or not realized how important it was to be on top of what’s happening in the schools. We went out to show Jenny and Yikono some of the schools in Adwa town, and sat and watched a couple of lessons. Now that I wasn’t quite as freshly arrived, I think I was a bit more ready to critically observe the lessons. As I took in the enormity of the task ahead of me, instead of crying, I thought to myself that it would be very helpful to provide ongoing support and mentoring to the teachers on an individual basis. Soon afterward, Jenny described how in Abi Adi they have just started spending two full days visiting the schools, and since this was so closely aligned with what I was thinking, I immediately proposed it to my fellow co-ordinator Tigistu, who agreed with surprising ease, and we proposed it to Feseha, the dean.

There are no rules for exactly what needs to be done by each cluster unit, and there’s a lot of variation from one to another, which leads to flexibility, but can also leave you floundering a bit if you don’t have enough support or direction. Fortunately, that’s not the case here.

The original plan was to spend one day a week, but now that we are not doing weekend workshops (see below), it has gone up to two days and occasionally. We’ve finished our first set of workshops, on active learning / setting up your classroom for active learning, and it’s very interesting to see to what extent the teachers are using the strategies taught in the workshop. For the most part they are using them, but often need a little bit of guidance to use them properly, which we give as part of our feedback. For example, it’s great to use stones to model addition, but the students themselves need to use them as manipulatives, not just the teacher.

Another benefit of visiting the schools is that it allows us to identify good teachers. We have some money from BESO (Basic Education System Overhaul, under USAID) to videotape five good teachers, so as we visit schools right now we’re looking for those teachers. But also as we identify teachers who are strong in various areas we are able to advise other teachers to visit and observe them, and begin to contribute to an informal system of mentoring and support among the teachers in the various geographic clusters. Although not impossible. this is difficult for teachers to set up on their own because of the lack of communication infrastructure. I don’t think any of the rural schools have phones, the distances between schools can often be quite large, and of course the teachers don’t have access to vehicles other than the odd bicycle. For the young teachers at the rural schools, it can be a very isolating life. They generally live in a teachers’ residence at the school or they rent space in a nearby farmer’s home. Some schools are in villages or very small clusters of homes but others are completely on their own, away from their families and a long walk from markets, shops and amenities and entertainment. In addition to their low salary, these are some of the reasons why few people want to stay in teaching. When they do, as they accumulate years of service they select out of the rural areas. This is why Adwa Town has almost only teachers in their forties and fifties and the rural areas have almost only teachers in their early twenties.

There are 62 schools under our cluster programme, which is a lot. Eight schools are in Adwa town itself and the rest are in the rural areas, which means we’re spending a lot of time on those bumpy roads. Some are reachable by car but others are not, and of course the harder to reach schools are the ones in the worst shape, at least in terms of materials and the conditions of the buildings. We walked about a kilometer or so after the road ended to get to one school a few weeks ago. One of the classes had desks but the others didn’t so the children sat on stone stools on the floor. This was the easiest of the hard to reach schools though and my colleagues seem to think that the other ones are too much for my ferenji feet. Unfortunately, they’re probably right, but I hope to work on getting there at some point.