TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

A plan to build a permanent school structure in Awash Kolati, powers an education revolution in a rural Ethiopian community

in Africa & the Diaspora/Education & Healthcare by

The second story in a two-part narrative, the finale covers how the farming community of Awash Kolati rallied together to build a permanent school for their children. The initiative sparked more than they planned.

In July 2017, the annual rains of Awashi Kolati, Ethiopia, destroyed the market town’s only school—for the last time. After waters receded, the community decided that there would be no more rebuilding of classrooms with the same mud bricks and sticks which they knew would dissolve in the next year’s rains.

They had enough of the chronic health problems which plagued students and teachers and forced everyone into  dark, dank classrooms. Just one month later, the school’s principal, Mustefa Birka, led a group of the village’s leaders—then community leader, Hussein Haji; religious leader, Mohammed Kadir; the head of Women’s Affairs, Jembere Bekele; and the head of the Parent Teachers Association, Zewdita Lemu—to share their frustrations and discuss possible  options. A permanent structure was the obvious solution, but how would a community of poor farmers without construction skills raise the money to do this?

Awash Kolati’s Community Action group. Back: Community leader, Hussein Haji. Front from left to right: rligious Leader: Mohammed Kedir, head of PTA Zewditu Alemu, head of Women’s Affairs, Jembere Bekele and school principal, Mustefa Birka

The charity, imagine1day, offered to partner with the group. Focused on working with rural Ethiopian communities on education projects, imagine1day proposed a collaboration  involving the Awashi Kolati community. The organization would contribute 20 percent of the cost for construction of the school and roads.

Principal Birka immediately saw the long term benefits. Most notable, the people, themselves, would be  responsible for their own rescue. But how would he convince the community, many of whom saw themselves as too poor and powerless to invest in their own future?

To this question,  community leader, Hussein Haji, detailed  the initial response by the community to this idea: “At the very beginning there was opposition, for the community had the idea that the charity funds 100 percent and they were confused about where does the idea of community contribution come from. But then, the fact that the mobilizing team members are reliable and influential people in the community, we are able to reach a consensus to contribute whatever it costs, including the 20 percent of the construction cost.”

| Read part one of a series looking at how a Rural Ethiopian school washed away every year finds permanent home in the resilience of a community |

As a way to encourage the Awash Kolati agrarian village, imagine1day invited the community’s action team to see the construction of a similar school nearby. Out of the experience, came the inspiration to actually complete the permanent structure in Awash Kolati.

From the charge, a culture of student-and-teacher training quickly formed the foundation of community engagement. Students, for example, were trained to support each other. Teachers were trained to use early-grade reading assessments. Student-club representatives were trained to recognise and confront challenges that hinder education, including that of girls entering early marriages.

As for the 20 percent for construction costs, the village’s proceeds from grain, seed and produce  funded their contribution. Haji, then community leader, shares the results of this collaboration: “We are inspired to pay whatever it costs for our school construction right after we saw same school constructed by imagine1day. The community contribution create a sense of ownership.”

Power of the community

imagine1day provided many of the school’s key elements such as school furniture, supplies, playground materials, a library, two blocks of gender-segregated pit latrines, reading corners and water points. Yet and still, the community encountered building challenges. The villagers were  responsible for constructing the road to transport supplies to the site. Principal Birka admitted, “ Having convinced the community to contribute for school construction, constructing the road (to deliver materials) was another challenge.”

The school’s architect, fellow Ethiopian Amberbir Haffu Asegedom, ensured that local and natural materials were used in the construction process. But the annual, heavy rains delayed construction and, therefore, the completion date. Yet, for Bekele and Lemu, the opportunity to transform their community through education energized them both. Illiterate and forced into marriage at an early age, they were determined to use their considerable influence in the community.

Along with leading the PTA, Bekele, head of the Women’s Affairs was clear: “the community has played a pivotal role in the success of education revolution in our community. At previous times, education wasn’t a big deal but things are changed after our mobilization. Everybody in the mobilizing team used its power: the principal, the community elder are highly influential in the community, this is their power. Zwedita, the PTA Head, is rhetoric. She knows the value of education even before imagine1day and she is an exemplary parent in sending her kids to school, so she can convince people and this is her power. Me, I am Head of Women’s Affairs and I am exemplary mother in sending my kids to school. This is my power”.

Bekele also refers to Birka as an energizer of the action group, explaining that “he is the one who did a lot of creating awareness about the value of education. He is the one who encourage us not to give up, no matter how tough it is to convince some people. He always tells us to think about the what the school project completion hold to our kids fate.”

The school that will not wash away, Awash Kolati. Photo credit: Hawi Alemu

 

On September 25, 2018, the Awash Kolati school opened its new doors. The village’s 387 students and 11 teachers now have seven fully furnished classrooms, one library, four reading corners, gender-segregated latrines and water points for the school, and the community. For Kedir Jarso, a 17-year-old student, “the difference between the new construction and the old is like day and night.”

Principal Birka also already noted the impact on the interest and drive of the teachers to teach. Student interest, attendance, and reading habits improved. Of the access to clean water and high-quality latrines, “We are healthy and actively attending our education. No student is absent because of waterborne disease after the new structure.” Remedian Teju, a16-year-old Grade Six student, said.

Feature photo is of Mustefa Birka , Principal of Awash Kolati school and wife, fellow teacher Birka Imbrahim Hussei. Photo credit: Hawi Alemu

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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