Friday, November 05, 2010

Guest Voices: Children Grasp at Futures Beyond Their Parents’ Reach

For the next installment in our series of posts from Concern Worldwide, we read a story about schools in Ethiopia. Writer Joan Bolger works as a Communications Officer for Concern. Joan describes the construction process of a new school in the village of Adacha Ellio.

Schools come in many forms in Ethiopia. The best ones are usually built with brick walls, lined with mud floors, furnished with desks and chairs and served by trained teachers.

In parts of rural Ethiopia however, where villagers are often cut off from roads or where searing heat in the dry season makes traversing long distances by foot impossible, there are several thousands of schools up and running against all the odds.

I visited one last month in the tiny village of Adacha Ellio, in Ethiopia’s Wolayita region. Children here have to walk barefoot for up to 8 kilometers a day through dried river beds, steep ravines and dusty, hot terrain to sit on the ground and listen to their teacher under the shade of a tree. There are no desks, no chairs, no blackboard and no books but there are students, 40 of them at a time, who come here eager to learn.

In response to the need, Concern has supported its local partner, the Wontta Rural Development Association (WRDA), to begin construction on an Alternative Basic Education (ABE) center. ABE centers are part of the Government strategy to provide access to basic primary education for all and are designed to streamline out-of-school children into formal schools through accelerated learning programs.

The aim is that children catch up with their peers in three years through a custom-designed curriculum, and in many cases with intensive after-hours tutoring. After completion of level 3, they are equipped to enter primary schools at Grade 5 and continue in the government-run formal schools.

Thankfully for the 40 children attending lessons under the tree, along with 20 others who are being taught in the room of a small house nearby, the ending is a happy one. Soon all of them, regardless of age, will enter Level 1 of the ABE curriculum, sit in chairs at desks and read from books provided with Concern’s support.

The villagers here tell us that the community is anxious to get the school up and running so that older children can get a start on their education and their actions are telling.

When I arrived at the site with Concern’s education team, community members were hard at work. Mothers and fathers had come to lay brick and mix cement, and to give their children a chance at opportunities that were beyond their reach. “We suffer because our parents neglected to send us to school, but now there is a newer generation and we must support them. I hope that my children will complete their primary education and become well educated,” Mangizte Malabo, a mother of three told me.

She had high hopes for her son Bimbesa, 11, and two daughters, Tamenich, 3, and Jegena, 2, and spoke freely about her vision of the future: “I would be very happy to see them employed by the government. I don’t mind that they have to leave this place. I will be happy to support them to do well. With God’s help I will work hard to save money to support all of my children.”

The new school being built with Concern’s support will serve 100 students from this area. Before Concern began working with local partner WRDA, there were no teachers here, and students either stayed at home or worked with their families in the fields. Since then, Concern and WRDA have trained teachers from the community; mobilized the village to select a site and clear the surrounding brush areas; and sourced construction materials locally—including the stones and sand used to build the school.

“The nearest primary school is 16 kilometers away. Those that began attending in the past, eventually dropped out because of the long distance and the heat,” says father Binay Bijizar, whose children began classes earlier this month. Parents worried about their children being attacked by wild animals like hyenas, about the equally sinister possibility of kidnappings and about the safety of girls walking to school on their own.

Binay told me that he was happy to send his two daughters to the nearby center, in an area where male children have traditionally been given preference: “The government works to employ both male and females in health and other sectors. They have declared that we at the grassroots level must support the education of our daughters. It is time to start to send all of our children to school. If the government itself practices equality, then I think it is time that we start to do so too,” he said.

It’s difficult to put into words what is so striking about the people of rural Ethiopia: a mix of pride, physical distinction, and tranquil contentment in measures unique to them. And yet, I found myself looking forward to the day when children living in villages like this one had already completed their education—the kind of education that transforms shyness into unflappable confidence, and gives people a shot at reaching their true potential. It’s tough to imagine then how anything could hold them back.

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