We continue our series of quest posts from Concern Worldwide, with a piece from Communications Officer Joan Bolger. The story mentions a saying in Ethiopia about winning back the water that can apply to education as well.
There’s a saying in southwestern Ethiopia and not surprisingly—in an area ravaged by drought for three months of the year—it relates to water. Loosely translated it goes: it’s impossible to win back your water after the bucket has fallen over.
Abebech Tito, a mother of five, told me this through the school fence near her children’s classroom as she considered how her life might have been different had she not dropped out of school at Grade 8. She delivered the proverb with a smile and a shrug. “It was my own foolishness,” she added.
Her village of Fango Bijo is located in the Rift Valley in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) region of Ethiopia, where recurrent drought and the prevalence of malaria is notoriously high. “A child died of malaria last year here,” she says, tipping her head towards the Concern-supported Alternative Basic Education (ABE) center that her children now attend.
When I ask if she worries about her own children becoming infected, her undaunted air departs and she draws a sharp breath, “I worry,” she says in a way that suggests she’ll confront it head-on, if she has to. Like the millions of mothers in rural Ethiopia tasked with providing for their children on meager means, Abedech isn’t the type to bellyache.
Had she stayed in school, she likes to think she would have become a nurse or a health worker. She thinks she would have enjoyed tending to the sick. The nearest clinic is 6 kilometers away, a one hour distance by foot—and health workers in this remote area a positively rare phenomenon.
For the early learners of this hot and dusty village, some 50 kilometers from the nearest town—which can be reached after a two-hour truck journey through dried river beds, steep inclines and sporadic herds of cows and goats—the ABE center offers the only tuition around. The nearest primary school is a two-hour journey by foot and parents are loath to send their children across terrain where the water is scarce, wild animals prevalent and abductions rife.
Two of Abebech’s boys attend the center here run by WRDA, Concern’s local partner. They are in Level 1 and Level 2, and she is thankful that their future looks bright. Here in this drought-prone, food-insecure region of Ethiopia an overwhelming percentage of the population are pastoralists. Without the center, her children would almost certainly be helping her in the fields, she says.
ABE centers are part of the Government strategy to achieve education for all and are designed to streamline out-of-school children into formal schools through accelerated programs. After completion of level 3, they are equipped to enter primary schools at Grade 5 and continue in the government-run formal schools.
Brimming with pride, Abebech tells Concern that her eldest boy completed the ABE curriculum a couple of years back and now attends Grade 9 at a secondary school two hours from here. “He rents a house with a group of boys his age so that he doesn’t have to walk the long distance in the heat,” his mother says. “I left school to marry and start a family,” she recalls. “My children, they will finish.”
Her husband, like the majority of the people in this tiny, remote village, is a farmer. Abebech is still happily married, she says, but after four boys and a girl, will have no more children. She and her husband grow teff (a grain used to grow Ethiopia’s bread Injera); false banana; sweet potato; and other staples like sorghum and beans. Most people must endure a three-month “hunger gap”—the period when food stocks from the last crops have run out and the new harvest is not ready. Frequent flooding from June through August also threatens crops, and deepens cracked land fissures from the dry season into yawning seasonal rivers.
Life is tough for Abebech, undoubtedly so, but the dreams of her children’s future make her life of labor tolerable. She tells me that she is thankful she and her husband earn enough farming to provide a good life for her five children. With their earnings she can cover the family’s expenses: their food and clothes. And she brightens at the mention of their education: “I can put my older child in school and save for the younger ones,” she says.
Ethiopia has seen unprecedented expansion of its education system. In 1992, around four of five primary school-age children were out of school. In 1999, this figure stood at over 60 percent. Now, it is one in five. Forty-four percent of the population in Ethiopia is under 14 years of age—a segment that represents 37 million children. According to the World Bank, this is the largest youth population in sub-Saharan Africa. Speaking to Abebech, I catch a glimpse of how the figures are being slowly vanquished across Ethiopia—it’s in the steadiness of the conviction held by the millions of mothers just like her: “I will struggle to win the life of all of my children,” she says.