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 na├»ve 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.