Sunday, February 10, 2008

I’ve been travelling and hanging around in Addis Ababa for the past few weeks. The Cluster Unit and Kindergarten took an experience sharing trip down to Debre Birhan and Addis – to see the Cluster Unit and Special Needs departments in Debre Birhan and the school for Developmentally Delayed Children in Addis. It was a really useful trip. As I’m writing I’m thinking of all the ways it reflects the problem of isolation in Adwa.

For the teachers – okay, me too - we saw materials and strategies in Debre Birhan, courtesy of the VSO volunteer/Special Needs Advisor there that I think in their very concreteness helped to answer the how of teaching children with Special Needs, especially the Deaf and developmentally delayed children. I think I have given them a lot of good ideas and we really have done very well in the Kindergarten. A lot of what Kat taught us in Debre Birhan extended these ideas a little further. We also had a chance to talk with some Special Needs teachers at one of the schools in Debre Birhan, although there were no classes to observe because of a directors’ meeting. I was a bit skeptical of how much useful discussion would come out of that, not having any concrete basis of a lesson observation to get us started, but as it turned out, the discussion was quite animated (in Amharic, so I only got a rough translation). I think both groups of teachers were grateful for the opportunity to talk with others who had some understanding about their experiences. At the Mekaneyesus School for Developmentally Delayed Children in Addis Ababa we all observed a class for about an hour and a half, and the teachers were blown away by the different way of teaching there – basically the Montessori approach.

I think the teachers benefit so much from seeing different ways of doing things – even if they don’t adopt all of these ideas (in fact, I don’t think they should adopt all of these ideas). But as they see other ways of doing things, I think this helps them to develop as reflective practitioners: thinking about what the children need, what they do as teachers, why they do it, and planning with greater intentionality. This is part of the problem of isolation, of never really seeing anything different - it makes it so hard to move forward. So at least this is my hope, that we won’t throw away the baby with the bathwater, or wholeheartedly embrace something new without really thinking about why. The teachers will just have a slightly broader basis from which to question and think about what they do, and may slowly bring in new approaches where they fit the need. At any rate, I think Freweyni understood this, but I didn’t have much chance to talk with her about it.

Although the trip was undoubtedly very useful, it was not altogether pleasant: a two day journey from Adwa to Debre Birhan on our infamous mountain roads (things are improving, there are paved roads for about half the distance). Two of the teachers were very carsick for most of the way (most Ethiopians aren’t used to car travel), and none of us were particularly comfortable. I found myself getting easily, and perhaps unreasonably, irritated with certain tendencies of my colleagues – like insisting on bypassing nice well-appointed restaurants (when available, in places like Mekelle and Addis) for tiny cheap little holes in walls. With a bit of distance, these things don’t seem so crazy, but at the time, I was certainly frustrated.

We planned our trip to coincide with the school exams and holidays in Tigray, which last two weeks, so I scheduled my holiday at the end of the trip, as I’ve not taken many holidays. I’m starting to be aware of the end of my placement bearing down on me, and there are still some places I want to visit in Ethiopia. When the experience-sharing trip was over, I stayed in Addis and made my way from there to Dire Dawa and Harar, two cities in the east of the country. There is an airport in Dire Dawa, but to save money, I took the bus – it’s almost a full-day bus ride, but the roads are paved all the way, which makes a big difference. Dire Dawa is the second biggest city in Ethiopia – with a population of about 250 000, but surprisingly cosmopolitan. A lot of different cultural groups live there – Oromos and Amharas, Afars and Somalis. Walking past a high school at letting out time, I watched the girls coming out in their white blouses and green skirts. I wasn’t surprised to see the Muslim girls wearing long skirts to their ankles, but I was surprised that the other girls were wearing skirts reaching no further than their knees. In Addis, many women dress in a very modern way. In Adwa and other parts of the country I’ve seen women wearing trousers and the odd woman wearing a shortish skirt, but it’s still pretty rare, and the standard outfit of even the teenage girls at the college is an ankle-length skirt, whether Muslim, Orthodox or anything else.

I met up with Clare, the volunteer in Harar at whose house I would stay, at another volunteer’s house at Haremaya University. This was a bit of a treat, as they have lucked out with an American-built house well-stocked with just about every cooking utensil you could ask for, and of course, an oven! The evening was spent making chocolate cake, macaroons, pork (I didn’t eat that) and altogether enjoying the luxury of delicious and different food, and good company.

Harar is famed as the walled Muslim city. It is a beautiful city, although I think the descriptions of it in guidebooks and the like tend to gloss over the fact that it’s very much a poor developing country city, and a lot of people go there expecting it to be like a polished old European or even Asian city, and it’s not quite all that. But it is beautiful and a bit different from the northern cities and towns. Probably the people, from the outside at least, are the most different: the women with their colourful headscarves, and the Oromo men with their skirts. Like all big cities, there’s more poverty and desperation, more people living on the street and more severely disabled people begging. In Harar and Dire Dawa to a lesser extent, there is a lot of chat-chewing (imagine if every person in Toronto smoked marijuana on a daily basis…) Some people are addicted to it, and others perhaps do it more socially. But there were a lot of men sleeping on the street during the day, which is not something I’ve seen so much of in other places.

I came back to Addis on Tuesday for the meeting of the VSO volunteer committee of which I’m a member, and then stuck around over the weekend for the Cluster meeting this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So between all this and the experience sharing trip I will have been away for 2 ½ weeks. When I get back we’ll be right into a workshop in Ahferom on Thursday and Friday. I’m bouncing between another volunteer’s house and a hotel (the hotel is paid for during the meeting time, so it’s nice to enjoy the luxury, but it’s also nice to be in someone’s home – I’m staying with another Canadian volunteer, and although we are different in many ways, we certainly do have some shared reference points, which is something to enjoy). I have really recognized how hard I was finding the isolation in Adwa. It seems to build up on you until you forget that there are other people, other places, other foods and other things - or at least don’t realize how important they are. I really needed to get away, but didn’t realize it till I got here.

There are quite a few VSO volunteers from Kenya in Ethiopia. Being in Addis, I have been able to find out a little about what’s been going on with some of them. There is still a lot of uncertainty and violence in Kenya. Certainly it’s difficult and dangerous to be there, but also for the volunteers here, there is a lot of worry about their families and homes. As a Canadian with a security net, it’s easy to think of my experience as the only one. But for Kenyans – volunteers from another developing country – there are difficulties that I wouldn’t really imagine. For most Kenyan volunteers, a short phone call home is not just expensive, but prohibitively so, making the anxiety that much greater.

I was getting my shoes shined the other day. It’s something I do more often here in Addis than in Adwa, feeling the need to dress a bit more smartly, and also because one can imagine that it’s a little less dusty and a shoeshine might actually last for more than a few hours. I was very aware of what a good job the shoeshine boy was doing. There is never a slapdash attitude, despite the repetitive work and the low income, but rather a lot of care put into each step of the process. I’m not romanticizing shoeshining, but I am impressed with the shoeshine boys’ commitment to doing their work well.

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