Saturday, December 04, 2010

Guest Voices: Levelling the Playing Field for Ethiopia’s Children

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, Communications Officer Joan Bolger witnesses the building of a library in Ethiopia.

Though she lives just a short walk from the local school, Maza Matthews, 14, rises before dawn every morning to help take care of her younger siblings so that she can be at her school desk for 8:00 am. Like all pupils in this remote rural village of Duguna Fango, in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), Maza’s parents have determined with the school which shift suits their family best.

Double-shift schooling was adopted in Ethiopia as a solution to the overcrowding that ensued after 2002 when the government introduced free primary education for all. In practice it serves many purposes by reducing large class numbers, doubling the number of seats available in a day; and allowing schools to operate on lower budgets.

In Maza’s case, and perhaps because, as she says herself, she was “the first to come” in her family, it means she can take the burden off her farming parents by looking after her three-year-old brother and five-year-old sister in the early mornings and afternoons without missing out on an education.

Unlike her parents, Maza says that she and her two siblings will complete primary education. Her mother, she says, got the chance to marry and left after Grade 4: “My mother says not to take the same path as her because it was a disadvantage and you can get more from going to school. She says that I must go on because it is very important.”

For four months of the year when flooding is at its worst and roads are all but washed away, the village here is completely cut off. Maza wants to be a nurse, so that she can “serve the community,” she says. For now, having a place to study is one of her biggest obstacles. She tells me that for the past number of years she has being completing her homework under the shade of a tree close to her home.

The heat here near the equator is unrelenting year-round, and there are plenty of distractions. Maza looks forward to the day when there will be a library at the school so that she can “do her homework in a silent place.” She would like to avail of books to study her favorite subjects: Science and Math, she says, and is keen to learn English.

More than 500 children attend the school here and between them share the few scarce books in the school’s existing library—a dark and poky place, that is utterly under-stocked.

In response to the need, Concern has supported its local partner the Wontta Rural Development Assocation to build and furnish a spacious two-room library that will lend books to students across the Duguna Fango Woreda area. Already supplies of books have been purchased so they can be made available to children at two local primary schools and two Alternative Basic Education (ABE) centers –serving a total of 2,100 pupils.

When the Concern education team and I arrived at Maza’s school more than 30 community members—the majority of them parents—were busy at work constructing the library. Dana Chebo, 70, one of the father’s present spoke about how the lack of access to books, and not having a place to study was having an effect: “Without books the children don’t have a chance to study the different subjects they are learning and can’t remember what they are being taught in class,” he said. “It is too hard for them.”

Maza’s teacher Alemu Lagase, 18, tells me that one of his biggest challenges is the lack of water. “The children have no water to drink at the school or to wash their hands after using the latrine,” he says, adding, “Children are also dropping out because of malaria.”

In the past year, 16 of his students left after they became sick with malaria. The nearest clinic is 30 kilometers away which makes immediate treatment unattainable for many, and in some cases, Alemu tells us, children simply never come back.

Teachers like Alemu are all too aware that attendance falls off at

harvest time too when children have to support their parents in the fields. Families depend on crops like teff, false banana, sorghum, peas, maize and coffee for their livelihoods and children are tasked with sharing the intensive field labor. The drought which usually hits from April through June affects families in several ways. The closest river is 20 kilometers away and pack mules provide the only form of transport suitable to the steep and unforgiving terrain.

Ayelech Lama, 30, a mother who had come to help lay the brick for the library spoke of her determination to give her children extra time at the school to do their homework: “I am willing to take on additional work during the harvest time so that my children can stay here after school to study,” she said.

There are several barriers preventing children from receiving a quality education in this remote region of the Ethiopia and villagers know that as with a lot of other things in the country, the steps towards progress can be achingly slow.

Nobody in Duguna Fango is under any illusion that because of a new library, the children around here have it all. Still, with a healthy supply of a books and a permanent place to study, one of many obstacles will have been removed for a decent number of them.

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