ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

‘It’s Not Just Talk and Chalk’

Helping the poorest of the poor at a school in Ethiopia

In a physical education class at the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the students’ challenge is simple: find a group of fellow students and stay close to them.

“We run in a circle and when the teacher blows the whistle and calls a number, we must group into clusters of that number,” explains 10-year-old Henok Tegu of the game they are playing in class today. “Those who don’t make it into a cluster are out of the game.”

The games court of the school, a small space that serves as a football field, basketball and volleyball court, and running track, is the source of numerous whistle shrieks followed by choruses of excited squeals from the students.

For this hour, at least, their sole concern is to stay in the game. But beyond the class, and beyond the confines of the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School, their lives are anything but this simple and carefree. The school, run by the Daughters of Charity and supported by CNEWA, is located in the middle of Kachene, the poorest neighborhood of Addis Ababa. It is the only school in the city targeting the poorest of the poor and one of the very few that is financially accessible to them.

Many of the students are orphans, or have lost one parent. A high proportion of people in the neighborhood are blind. Most of the adults get by on a precarious income earned through begging or occasional labor such as weaving baskets, selling grilled corn on the street or cleaning car windows. The daily worries of the children attending the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School go beyond spelling tests and times tables.

“These children are exposed to many risks due to the poverty they live in,” says Assefa Teklewold Worka, the children’s physical education teacher. “They are exposed to tobacco, alcohol or sniffing petroleum from a very early age. They are also at risk from the various diseases that the slum they live in can bring — and, in some cases, from trafficking and coercion into sex work.”

Despite these dangers, many of the school’s students are trying to stay in the game — to get a better education and, they hope, a better life.

In fact, they are playing to win.

The Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School is a keen example of efficient use of space. Located on an acre of once-abandoned wasteland next to a graveyard, the school has managed to fit 18 classrooms plus toilets, science lab, library, small playing area and staffroom, into the assiduously landscaped and tiered inclines of the property. The safety and hygiene of the school contrasts sharply with the dangers and unsanitary conditions of the surrounding slum areas.

The school was started by two Ethiopian laymen more than 40 years ago to educate the children of lepers who had been completely shunned by Ethiopian society. Kachene and several of the neighborhoods surrounding it were considered taboo.

While the public health problems and stigma of leprosy have since faded, the area is still a neglected corner of Addis Ababa. It is where other citizens come to dump their garbage, which trails down the various slopes of the hilly landscape. Little or no infrastructure is present. The neighborhood consists of improvised shacks constructed of mud and corrugated iron roofs, which leak during the Ethiopian rainy season.

But to the school’s 760 students, this is home.

Home for Netsanet Terefe, 13, is a small shack where she lives with her parents and three brothers. The space is divided by one interior mud wall, painted mustard yellow, on which hang posters of Jesus, Mary and the Archangel Michael. On one side of the wall is a living area featuring cramped seats and a small wooden coffee table with orange bubble wrap as a tablecloth. On the other side of the wall is a double bed for the parents. There is a bamboo ladder leading up to a tiny loft containing a double mattress. It is there that the four children sleep, within a foot of the corrugated iron roof above.

Rent is $13 a year and electricity is about $8 a month. Since neither parent is able to work, paying bills is a struggle.

For now, two of the sons support the family doing jobs in stone masonry, shining shoes and working as fare collectors on the minibuses that transport people around the city.

But Netsanet’s mother, Habetamua, knows the great hope for her children lies in education.

“When they go to school, they will get knowledge,” she says, “and with knowledge they can get work and with work they can get money and with money they can help the family and themselves.”

Netsanet’s plan is to become a civil engineer so she can provide for her family and help build better housing in her neighborhood.

“The important thing I have learned at school so far is that I can change anything,” Netsanet says. “I can break poverty, I can make a comfortable life for my village, for my people and for my country.”

But before helping their country, their village or their family, these children must learn how to help themselves.

“What we hammer into them is that yes, they are coming from a deprived background, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t achieve,” says Sister Mary Mitchell, an Irish nurse with the Daughters of Charity who arrived in Ethiopia in 1996 and served as principal of the school from 2001 to 2011.

“They are very conscious of where they are from and they don’t let that stop them. In fact, in some ways it motivates them. I learned a lot from our kids. I really did.”

Part of the school’s ethos of instilling dignity and respect among the poor children is a policy of financial contribution. While it is the only school in Addis Ababa to target the poorest of the poor, offering virtually free education, the school does require an annual contribution of $5 — $3.50 for a uniform and $1.50 for tuition.

“These contributions change nothing for us financially,” says Sister Mary, “but what is important is that the families make some kind of contribution, for the dignity of the child and the dignity of the family. We don’t believe in hand-outs.”

In extreme cases of destitution, contributions can be waived. The school is also helping a handful of families with rent assistance, to coax them away from sending children out to work and encourage them instead to send them to school. Still, these gestures are always done in exchange for help in the school — a weekly chore of cleaning a classroom, for example, undertaken by a member of the beneficiary’s family.

The $1.50 contribution toward tuition covers a feature unique to this school: a free lunch for every student each day.

“It’s very important for most of the children,” says Sister Baleynesh Wolteji, an Ethiopian who took over from Sister Mary as principal in 2011. “Their parents are often beggars in the streets and most of these children come to school without having breakfast. So to get one meal a day is very good for them and, in addition, it enables them to concentrate on their studies.”

The menu is simple: rice on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and injera, an Ethiopian flatbread, on Wednesday and Friday. Along with education and the clean and safe surroundings of the school, the daily meal contributes to the school’s high attendance rate.

It may also be a key to the students’ excellent academic record. In the past 10 years, only one of the students has failed the state exam required at the end of eighth grade. And Sister Mary explains that this “failure” had an excuse of sorts: The student was absent frequently to care for a handicapped sister.

But stories such as Yohannes Yibeltal, 15, are more common. He hails from an even poorer part of Kachene than Netsanet Terefe, and the living conditions are shocking. The family of seven inhabits a dark, damp and dirty space in a room shared with another family but divided by a wall. At night, Yohannes’s blind grandmother and his youngest sister sleep on a bed at one end of the space; his mother, father and other sister sleep on the other bed at the opposite end of the room. Yohannes and his older brother sleep on the floor.

Despite these arrangements, Yohannes graduated from Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School and is continuing his studies at the nearby Lazarist Catholic High School, where he has just finished the ninth grade. Should he maintain his high grade point average, he will be able achieve his dream of studying medicine at Addis Ababa University.

“I want to be a doctor,” he says. “Many Ethiopians have contracted H.I.V. and when I am a doctor I can help those people.”

His refrain is a very common one among all the students interviewed for this article. Without exception, they have ambitious, inspiring career goals and invariably they tie these goals back to the improvement of their own neighborhood.

Poverty is just one of the cycles in which these children are trapped. Another related, but perhaps more pernicious cycle, is that of social stigma and marginalization.

“The young living in poverty tend to have huge aspirations. But as they get older, they resolve these aspirations with the reality surrounding them,” says Dr. Alula Pankhurst, Ethiopian country director of Young Lives, a research project overseen by NGO Save the Children. The Young Lives project charts the progress of a cohort of 3,000 young Ethiopians living in poverty. “In the end, girls often tend to opt for marriage and boys tend to lower their aspirations.”

Access to education in Ethiopia has improved significantly in recent years, according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. In 1996, only 21 percent of youths were enrolled in primary school nationally. This had increased to 83 percent in 2009.

“Access to education has increased dramatically,” says Dr. Pankhurst, “but overall quality of education has dropped. Average class sizes have mushroomed and student-teacher ratios have decreased. So now, many children are being pushed through the system, but they come out of it without having learned enough.”

Some of the structural obstacles will be mitigated over time, as the management model of many missionary projects transitions from foreign management to management by Ethiopian priests and nuns.

The transition of management of the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School from the Irish Sister Mary to the Ethiopian Sister Baleynesh is a prime example of the changes unfolding in missionary projects throughout the country.

“As local people take leadership of these institutions, more lobbying and advocacy work needs to be done with the Ethiopian government,” says Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director in Ethiopia, regarding the need to switch from dependence on foreign aid to self-sufficiency. “We need to figure out how to create partnerships with local authorities and how to exit the paradigm of dependency on foreign support.”

Currently, the government classifies all religious schools as private schools and denies them any financial or material support. Advocacy and partnerships with the government by groups such as the Daughters of Charity will enable the policy to become more nuanced and possibly unlock funding for schools like Atse Tekle Ghiorgis.

But beyond structural obstacles, there remains much cultural prejudice in Ethiopia toward the poorest of the poor.

“Social background comes into play,” Dr. Pankhurst says.

“Connections and class status mean that despite increased education levels, there is still a high chance that cycles of poverty will be reproduced among marginalized groups.”

But Atse Tekle Ghiorgis at least offers hope that this will change — and hope is very much in evidence in early July, on graduation day.

Children run around in uniform and with their parents in tow, waving report cards that carry their grades for the year. It is a foggy morning but Netsanet Terefe, wrapped in a purple shawl, is beaming, as is her father, who has accompanied her. Netsanet placed second in her class with a grade point average of 87. Next year will be her final year at the school and if her grades remain this high, she will continue on to high school with a scholarship.

One woman, Atsede Gebretsadik — a first grade civics teacher and alumna of the school — surveys the graduation day hoopla in the schoolyard. Another schoolyear is ending. But the work, she knows, is far from finished.

“Teaching is a really difficult profession because what you are doing is creating people’s minds,” she says. “It’s not just talk and chalk, it goes further — into the homes of these children. We realize that yes, we are poor, but we challenge this poverty with education.”

Don Duncan covers events in the Middle East and Africa.

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