TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Rural Ethiopian school washed away every year finds permanent home in the resilience of a community

in Africa & the Diaspora/Education & Healthcare by

This two-part story tells how an Ethiopian farming community powered through the challenges of building a permanent school structure that withstood, heavy yearly rains.

Awash Kolati is hard to find on the map of Ethiopia. A remote village located in the central Oromia region, it is also one of many rural settlements in which the only school is destroyed by annual rainfall.

There are many factors explaining the cyclical misery in Ethiopia: heavy rains, inadequate resources, poor quality construction materials and the school’s topography. However, this story shares the big dreams of some parents and students who sought solutions to build a permanent structure.

This picture is of school children in the Central Ethiopian region of Oromia. This photo gives the readers a glimpse of children in the area.
Oromia Ethiopian school children celebrate the New Year.

Named after the Awash River which snakes its way through the rolling landscape, Awash Kolati is a market town of just over 11 thousand people in Central Ethiopia. It is 214 kilometers from the capital of Addis Ababa, which serves as the headquarters of the African Union and a magnet for growing foreign investment.

Although Ethiopia boasts economic growth of 11 percent for the past eight years, there is much development disparity and inequality of infrastructure throughout the country. With limited federal resources for construction, the Awash Kolati community made mud bricks and used sticks to build and rebuild their own school by hand. In addition to the losing battle with annual rains, the parent-farmers in the community faced the labour challenges of planting, growing and reaping seasons

They solved this problem by requiring their children to provide labour. The direct result of this was high absenteeism at school during these seasons. While there was a general consensus about the value of education, it was not seen as a priority amongst all the parents.

Awash River is a major waterway in Ethiopia that runs 745.6 miles or 1200 kilometers.
Farmers in Oromia plant potatoes
Girls collect water at a filling station in Oromia.

Life in rural Ethiopia not only requires hard work, but is far away from the conveniences of fast technology and quick communications offered in the city. For the story, the process of hearing from the community, teachers and students themselves proved to be lengthy and complicated. To get detailed questions to them then receive their answers, involved the help of Hawi Alemu, a representative from the charity, imagine1day. Since there are no direct telephone lines and without knowing how to speak Amharic, I had to wait for Alemu to contact community members by mobile phone and translate responses.

I also had to confirm my understanding of the translated responses by checking with the English speaking representative.  Does “late”, for example, mean “deceased” or “former”? Inasmuch, I was determined that the voices of the community—telling their own story—were clearly heard, even if the translation was not in “impeccable” English.

Months later, an intricate and inspirational narrative explains the key players and their role in how Awash Kolati school and community erected a building that would remain standing after annual rains.

A school awash

Market in Oromia, Ethiopia.

In the large and complex country of Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, 80 percent of the labor force works in an agricultural sector whose major export crop is coffee. The demands of farming always competed with education and school attendance.

During the rainy season, nature won. There was no school to attend.  Students stayed home until the next flimsy school structure was rebuilt. Classrooms at the school, typically, had earth beaten floors and were windowless, dark and damp spaces. Many students reported chronic coughs as well as cold and eye infections. Additionally, the absence of well-constructed latrines and water points contributed to water borne diseases among staff and students.

Every year, the Kiremt rains sweep through Central Ethiopia. The flood waters of the rainy season divide the Awash Kolati community, drowning crops and depositing about 122 centimeters, or 48 inches, of rainfall. Without fail, however, the community rallied and remodeled the school using the same mud bricks and sticks which offered no resistance to nature’s onslaught. In many ways, the rebuilding cycle appeared to mirror the planting, growing and reaping seasons.

Awash Kolati school

However, the tipping point came in August 2017 when Zewdita Lemu, a parent and head of the Parent Teacher Association at the Awash Kolati School, decided that the self-defeating cycle of annual reconstruction would have to end. No more.

As an illiterate farmer who was forced into marriage at 15-years-old, Lemu knew that a permanent structure would transform the community and improve the life chances of students. Much like farming, education turned into a seasonal activity. Therefore, she decided that it was the last year she would watch the school dissolve into the familiar pile of sludge and sticks.

With a poor-quality learning environment and unpredictable teaching standards, most parents thought of education as optional, rather than imperative. Moreover, the annual devastation was more than physical. The morale of the community slumped to rock bottom. According to School Principal Mustefa Birka, “the community was sick of building the school every year.” The Kiremt rains seemed to wash away all hopes and dreams of the village: flattening and destroying the expectations of the students and their parents.

Some parents were ready to abandon their children’s education altogether, thus condemning a typical girl to an early, forced marriage by the age of 15; and for boys, the nomadic life of a pastoralist or farmer.

A 2018 World Bank Group report confirmed that in spite of the “persistent deterioration of teaching and learning conditions, which were particularly desperate in rural Primary Schools . . . Ethiopia has seen a remarkable improvement in student enrollment since the civil war ended in 1991, with statistics now above 62%.”

The report added, “However, large class sizes, poor resources, low teacher pay and lack of motivation combined with poor infrastructure to make teaching and learning, a seasonal activity, like growing coffee. While student enrollment had improved, student drop out rates also remained high.”

Villagers could not change the route of annual flood waters, but wanted to change the direction of their children’s lives

Awash Kolati school principal, Mustefa Birka.

Another parent who expressed concern was Jembere Bekele, Head of the Women’s Community Affairs. She knew that education was the potential change agent for her children and her community.

Like Lemu, Bekele cannot read, but wants a different path for her daughters. She did not want them married off as young teens, so she continued to send them to school. In spite of the obstacles and challenges at Awash Kolati School, such as, lack of clean water, gender stereotypes and early marriage, she wanted her daughters, as well as, all of the children, to have opportunities that she never had for herself.

For Kedir Jarso, a 17-year-old student in grade seven, the annual rebuilding of the school was overwhelming in many ways: “There were lots of problems: unattractive school setting, floods, cold, lack of seats, muddy ground and high dropout rate.”

Moreover, Remedan Taju, a 16-year-old female student in grade six, highlighted the impact of the seasonal school on the health of the teachers and learners: “. . .we don’t have quality latrine and clean water so we were suffering from water-borne diseases and sanitation problems.”

Other students confirmed the prevalence of illnesses in the school population and high non-attendance. The absence of clean water and clean latrines points to a particular impact on girls’ attendance.

Birka explained further, “The saddest thing is we build it as quality as we can but it doesn’t help it from being taken by the flood as we are neither professional nor have quality input.”

Would Awash Kolati school become another statistic? Another failed school, adding no value to the students, the community or the country?

Out of the shared desperation, the parents, school principal and the community leaders met to discuss viable options. They knew that the only solution was to build a permanent structure. But, without professional input, training and resources how would this be done?

Clear problem. No apparent solution.

Into this malaise entered a non-government organization with a self-help approach to community development: imagine1day. How would this charity collaborate with and empower this community to invest in its own future and help itself? How would this community of rural farmers help to build its own school and, with help from imagine1day, become its own rescue?

In the second and final part of the story, find out how the Awash Kolati Community Committee and Imagine One Day overcame colossal resistance and challenges to create a permanent school structure in Awash Kolati.

Monica D. Brown is a UK-based teaching fellow, media specialist, poet and training consultant. Studying in the UK and Paris, she is the first producer of the longest running TV programs, Hill an’ Gully Ride, which is still on the air. Selected by the BBC in 2007, to explore her family history took her to Zanzibar and Tanzania, which is chronicled in her book, Journey to Zanzibar. Currently, she teaches media production and English and also operates as a consultant.

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