Reading, Writing, Arithmetic… and Dignity

In the Summer 2013 issue of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School, and how it?s changing the lives of some of Ethiopia?s poorest children. Below, he offers some further reflections.

In the Summer 2013 issue of ONE, journalist Don Duncan writes about the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School and how it is changing the lives of some of Ethiopia’s poorest children. Below, he offers some further reflections.

While reporting on the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School in Addis Ababa, I was struck anew by the importance of civic education — especially in schools serving students from severely disadvantaged backgrounds.

The children of this school are among the city’s poorest. They mostly hail from the surrounding neighborhood, a slum and former leper colony called Kachene. The power education holds for these children is hard to overstate. Beyond literacy and access to a job market previously out of bounds, education provides them a sense of accomplishment, helping them to recognize the dignity that is their inalienable right.

Many of these children are the descendants of lepers. While leprosy is no longer the problem it used to be in Addis Ababa, their social standing has not improved; they are the lowest of the low in Ethiopian society, a marginalized group approaching India’s “untouchables.” They face numerous obstacles, many of them cultural in character. If the children are to have any hope of overcoming their stigmas, the first step is to learn to no longer give credence to them.

At the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School, a significant part of the educational program is dedicated to civics and moral education. In these classes, the children learn they have a right to dignity. In working to ensure others acknowledge this dignity, the first step is that they themselves affirm it, and learn to comport themselves accordingly. They are strongly discouraged from begging and urged instead to pursue paid labor. The faculty seeks to instill in the children confidence in their own talents and worth, and help them see themselves as being capable of supporting themselves.

By teaching self-respect and self-actualization, the school hopes to see these lessons filter back to the parents, many of whom also resort to begging out of a sense of hopelessness. This is seen as just one of the cycles that perpetuate the poverty and misery in Kachene, and one that the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School is trying to break through education.

Civic education also highlights the social dangers many of these children face, ranging from smoking at an early age to drinking, sniffing petroleum, child labor and even human trafficking and sex work. All these risks are present, to varying degrees, in Kachene. Once again, the teachers at the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School do all they can to protect the children by educating them and strengthening their sense of self-worth.

As I mention in my article in ONE, youth unemployment in Ethiopia is rife and the overall quality of education is falling. In a country where extreme poverty is stigmatized, the fact that these children are educated, some to university level, is significant, even if it may not always bring significant material benefits to the students and their families. However, through the conversations I had with many of the students and their parents, the lessons in civics, self-respect and dignity are every bit as transformative as literacy and numeracy — but these lessons will always bear rich fruit, regardless of the economic or social climate.

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