Picture of ruins

Ethiopian Schools by Rikki Patterson

Posted Sep 17, 2017

After a whirlwind morning in the blazing heat of an Ethiopian winter, we stopped for lunch in an unpainted, cow-dung building. I blinked rapidly until my eyes adjusted to the dark interior and then flopped onto a straight-backed chair. My aching body enjoyed the coolness of the room.

Red-lentil stew and spiced cabbage was served for lunch, which I eagerly scooped up with injera, the local flatbread that is used like a spoon. My bowl was barely scraped clean when our guide told us it was time to go.

Our two kilometer drive came to an end beside an open field of dry, dead grass. The hill side containing the capped spring loomed above us to the west. From the vehicles we walked to an empty schoolyard. The classes, located in several rectangular buildings with tin roofs similar to those in the village, were still in session. I looked at the colourful murals on each wall depicting the human reproductive system, the periodic table, geometric figures, the digestive system and soccer scenes. Each mural had a caption in English.

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We stood in the shade of the juniper trees observing as a few giggling students emerged from one of the buildings. They were soon joined by about 150 smiling dark faces that quickly merged in with us. Teachers attempted to organize the students in lines behind stone markers that indicated their grade, but the students were far more interested in us than their teachers, even those who coaxed with a stick. But finally order was achieved and the students stood quietly. This gave me a chance to observe without distraction and I noticed that the students wore no school uniform like those in other schools in Arba Minch, and very few of the girls wore headscarves.

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The guide told us that this school had been built before Hope International Development Agency became involved, but thanks to the completed clean water project, one of the buildings now contained a set of taps that dispensed water for the school and surrounding residents.

Suddenly, a chorus of voices erupted in song, catching me off guard. The children were singing in their native language and I listened, captivated by the performance.

 

“Do you think it’s okay to clap?” I whispered to a companion standing beside me when the singing stopped.

“I don’t know,” she whispered back. Then applause started; first one person, then three and then we all joined in.

“What were they singing?” I asked the guide.

“It was the national anthem,” he replied with a proud grin then motioned toward the road. “We should start back.”

As we were walking towards the gate the teachers dismissed the students from class and hoards of curious children surrounded us, making it difficult to move. Once I passed through the gate about five children surrounded me, touching and brushing my bare arms. It was as if they were trying to brush away my white colour. A few feet away, my colleague was also surrounded by fans who all seemed to be equally fascinated with his skin colour. One child would brush at our skin, giggle, and then move away, making room for the next child who wanted a turn.

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I kept walking, slowly, holding my arm out and enjoying the children's giggles. We the "ferenges" - the foreigners - were very different to them.

My delight was suddenly interrupted when a little girl tripped and fell. Fearing she would be stepped on, I turned to offer my hand but she was already on her feet. I pulled my arm back to my side.

A second girl, about seven or eight years old extended her hand saying, “Money?” Hearing English startled me. The child smiled but the smile was spoiled by a slight smirk. I had been warned about begging before I left Canada and was told not to give money to anyone asking for it. The philosophy was that we couldn’t bring enough to give to all so it was fairer to give to none. Besides, it could harm the Hope International Development Agency's initiatives - since they encouraged self-reliance and supported ventures that led to financial security and independence.

“No money!” shouted a young boy who smacked the girl’s hand away.

Having reached the vehicles, I took this opportunity to escape but as we drove away, my escape proved unsuccessful. Children ran beside us, calling and waving, while others, mostly dare-devil boys, climbed onto the rear bumpers, and held on for dear life. Our driver stopped and shooed them away but we hadn’t gone 20 meters when they latched themselves back onto the bumper. Once we had stopped three times, the driver exited the vehicle and chased them off by yelling and throwing rocks.

Back in the vehicle our guide explained that Hope International Development Agency would be liable if one of the children got hurt. Foreigners were seen as people with money, and a lawsuit would in turn take away from important projects. Being hit by a rock was much less dangerous than falling under the moving vehicle.

Before descending the dusty hillside we stopped at a pull out and stood looking over the city of Arba Minch with the lakes of the Great Rift Valley beyond. Our day had been long and educational. I had a lot to think about.

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