Focus on education in Borena
UNIRIN, June 28 2002
ELTELE, 27 Jun 2002 (IRIN) - Like most children in her village, Gechawa Gandesha laughs when she is asked why she will not go on to senior school. "It would take me almost a week to walk there," said the 14-year-old, who already walks more than four kilometres to her current school. Gechawa is at the top of her primary class, and longs to become a doctor. Her headmaster says she is more than capable of achieving that.
But she lives in one of the remotest corners of Ethiopia, and schools are few and far between. Her nearest available high school is over 100 km away. This means Gechawa’s education will end later this year. Her parents recognise the importance of schooling, but as in the case of her two brothers and three sisters, they cannot afford having her or her siblings living away from home.
Like her classmates, Gechawa has no textbooks, a pen is shared between three, and the dank, crumbling mud hut serving as a classroom unlikely to survive another year.
But she is lucky. In Borena Zone where she lives, in the southernmost region of the country, bordering on Kenya, only five percent of girls ever make it into any schools. This percentage is alarming even in overall terms for Ethiopia, which has one of the poorest enrolment rates for girls in the world: around 40 percent of seven million school-age children.
The appalling lack of education in rural areas of Ethiopia is typified in Borena, and even more so in the Teltele and Yabelo areas, the two most inaccessible parts of the zone, inhabited by nomadic pastoralists and agro-pastoralists.
The few schools there lack even the most basic facilities – and are attended by a mere 17 percent of school-age children. They are overcrowded, and textbooks - if the school is lucky enough to have any at all -are shared sometimes by as many as 27 children.
"Without schools, they are never going to escape the poverty trap," says Aemiro Feyisa, head teacher at Teltele School, attended by 1,400 children, told IRIN. "But in the schools you also need books, chairs, tables – the most basic equipment, things that we don’t have." But he boasts that his pupils are lucky enough to have 24 teachers – one for every 60 children – whereas most classrooms in the area cater for at least 100 pupils, ranging from 10 to 24 years old, but doing the same lessons.
The international NGO GOAL is tackling the problems of education and illiteracy in the area – at some 90 percent, far above the national average of 60 percent – through a pragmatic approach: informal education. This means children – and adults – can attend lessons in the villages where there may be no school, and at times that suit them, to fit in with their work in the fields or herding livestock.
The approach is also ideally suited to pastoralists, whose nomadic lifestyle often means they are moving from place to place, rendering traditional schooling inappropriate. In addition to basic literacy and numeracy, the classes also provide a perfect opportunity for experts to come in and talk about pressing issues – such as AIDS and crop management. For adults, it provides an opportunity to learn about the importance of education, and often acts as an incentive for them to send their own children to school.
The system, which is becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the country, is extremely successful. It is also being used as the blueprint to be emulated by local NGOs. When first introduced last year, some 600 people – half of them children, boys and girls in equal proportions – signed up immediately. They are all still attending.
GOAL, which is also building formal schools and supplying education materials, is planning to extend the scheme across Teltele – one of the largest districts of Borena. The zonal government has given GOAL full backing, and has pledged to provide the schools with teachers when completed.
Catherine Fitzgibbon, the GOAL Country Director, says the scheme is helping people escape the cycle of dependency, but, more importantly, it is also targeting girls.
"It is important to underscore the point that the lack of education is not only a symptom of poverty but a cause of it too. Education radically improves their opportunities. It is the starting point from which other initiatives can be successful. But it is no good just building schools; they need materials and good teachers - all of these to give them a quality education," she told IRIN.
Organisations like the UN World Food Programme are also seeking to boost school attendance by providing children with meals and checking on nutrition. During informal lessons – which usually last two hours a day –children and adults are given basic tuition. After completing 18 months they achieve qualifications equating with those of pupils who have completed grade four at school.
Although communities have complained about girls attending schools and being drawn away from domestic duties, they are gradually coming around to the idea. The inhabitants of one village, Hatussie, even built a seven-kilometre road so that GOAL could start building them a school.
The local government offices realise that without GOAL and the local NGO Action for Development (AFD) – the only charities for hundreds of kilometres providing education and facilities - they will never meet the international target of education for all.
At present the zone’s annual budget of 500,000 Ethiopian birr (around US $59,000) is blatantly insufficient to provide thousands of children with proper education, pay teachers salaries and supply materials. Under federal government guidelines, the construction of just one four-classroom school costs 500,000 birr.
"Of course we need more money," said Berhanu Kefene, of the Teltele education office, which works alongside GOAL. "They are the only organisation here helping us. The longer it [the dearth of education] continues, the greater the divide will be and the more difficult it will be for us to catch up."
GOAL has also devised new school-building plans, using locally available materials at 25 percent of their cost if they had had to be transported from Addis Ababa, about 600 km away.
Girma Guda, an education specialist at the Borena zonal headquarters in Negele, told IRIN that poverty was responsible for the lack of education and the resulting situation. "Families simply cannot afford to send their children away to learn," he said. "They have to pay for their travel and accommodation and food. It is simply too much for most rural families to do. It means that the next generation is threatened by the same problems their parents suffered from - a lack of education that keeps them trapped in this poverty."
Gechawa, who both before and after her four and a half hours of schooling a day carries out backbreaking tasks, hopes that in the future all the children in her village will get the chance to go to school. "I like it at school and know it is very important. Everyone should be able to go and then afterwards they can help their communities. That is my wish, that we have schools and have books to learn."
In Borena the realisation of her dream is still a long way off.