Asaita College of Teacher Education has a number of primary schools in its cluster. Student teachers from the College do their teaching practicums at these cluster schools, and College Instructors have to visit the schools to assess how the student-teachers are progressing. I asked to accompany the College Instructors on their journey. These schools are not easy to get to, and have not been visited by VSO volunteers in the past. It was a great opportunity to see what the conditions were like for teachers and students at remote schools. The school invited me back to conduct lessons using student-centred pedagogy next week, so I’ll be returning to teach class there.
It’s hard to capture words to describe this school’s location.
There is one paved road in Asaita that comes in 50kms from the the main Djibouti-Addis highway. Most of Asaita’s shops are located on this one main street. If you follow the road all the way through town it stops at Asaita’s southern edge. Right at the end of the paved road there is a busted up World Vision complex. It was ransacked by rioting students from the local high school last year when a teacher asked a student to stop reading the Koran in class. This was taken as a slight against Islam and the anger amongst the students ended up being directed at a Christian organisation that was seen as proselytising. So now, the end of the road has something of an end of the world feel to it, and it was, up until this visit, the farthest I had walked. The unpaved road continues on for another 50kms towards a group of salt lakes straddling the Ethiopia-Djibouti border.
When you drive into Asaita, the scenery is sand, sand sand. One is left wondering why anyone would build a town here, let alone one that is considered to be the spiritual home of the Afar people. There are a few patches of green with enough branches for camels to munch on.
Driving through this desert is the only way in and out of Asaita. The other side of Asaita has the Awash River Valley. It is a breadbasket. The river is irrigated for farmland, and allows for the growth of trees. The drive to Mamole PS was in a 4×4 with this scenery on either side of us for about 10-12kms.
The 4×4 was unable to take us right to the school because of a washout, so we had to trek the last couple of kilometres through some cornfields. There is no electricity after the pavement ends, there are no farming vehicles, and there is no fertiliser. It is just old school farming. The crops get harvested with a sickle. On a side note, the Awash River Valley is where the remains of Lucy were found, though quite a bit upriver from here. Nevertheless, this valley has supported human settlement for a looong time.
It has been raining a bit here over the last couple of weeks. Usually it begins with a dust storm, followed by some amazing lightening. Then the heat breaks and there is some temporary relief with the rain. Drought would mess up this whole farming operation, so I am glad that the rains have come as scheduled this year. This tree was filled with pretty yellow finches. Birds are absent from Asaita, and it was really nice to hear their voices.
The Grade 1 class was very well-behaved. A little too well-behaved. I always expect some attention-seeker to wave and say hello. This group stood to attention. The note-taking skills needed to succeed in the university style lecture taking place were not in abundance, but there was no disruption. The students had notebooks and writing materials, but the school has no library, no teaching resource room, and no electricity. Teaching Grade 1 is not exactly my forte, but I think that I can offer some ideas about getting the students to do something other than listen to the teacher and copy notes from the blackboard.
In addition to not having electricity, there is no public transportation. So the teachers live on campus from Monday-Friday and trek into Asaita on weekends. Cooking is done with charcoal.
It’s a bit strange interviewing teachers about their jobs. I’m not sure how to ask questions such as, ‘What are some of the challenges you face as a teacher out here?’ The answer is obvious, there is no electricity, water must be pumped and stored in the jugs visible on the porch. When the sun goes down, darkness descends. It is a pretty tough gig. Lost in the photo is the heat. The school will shut at 1pm, and the students will return to relatively cooler mud houses. This ‘modern’ concrete building will heat up like an oven.
Education is not highly valued by traditional Afar families. In an effort to increase school attendance, the school offers lunch to the students. This is prepared in the building pictured and dished out to students on break from class.
One picture that I wish I had taken was of the back of the 4×4 when we hiked back out to the main road. People will take transportation to town whenever it happens to come along, so we drove back with about 25 people piled into the back of the truck. On our way back the driver offered to stop at a local plantation where he knew the owner. There were bananas and dates growing there. Everyone piled out of the truck for a look around. It was a really nice garden, and is where lots of wedding photos are taken.