Archive for the ‘Asaita’ Category

transportation to Wanis school















My second visit to a rural school outside of Asaita did not involve a 4×4, but rather a horse-drawn carriage known locally as a ‘geri’.  I have ridden geris around town a few times, but usually only for short jaunts.  This time was a 45mins geri ride each way.  The unforeseen reality of this mode of transport was the metal bar digging into my lower back as we bounced along bumpy dirt paths.  The geri is good for short trips, but long trips are not so comfortable.

The geri followed the same road as the 4×4 going to Mamole, but pulled off the unpaved road after around 1km.  We followed a pathway through a fallow field until we reached a narrow dirt road on the other side of the farm.  We bounced along this dirt road for some kilometres and passed through some small Afar villages until we got to the first of two schools on our itinerary.

We were lucky because the geri  knew the shortcut through the fallow field, and this allowed us to reach the narrow road that led to Wanis.  The previous week visitors the visitors had to walk the last 5kms in because the cart could not get through a flooded part of the road.

shortcut through the fallow field

Bagusafar Primary School

Bagusafar Primary School has a student population of 200.  There is no electricity, and no library.  The setting is very green, and it is easy to forget the school’s proximity to the desert.  We dropped off Yitagesu to conduct his teaching practicum observations, had a quick look around and then continued down the narrow path to the next village to visit Wanis Primary School.

Next to the road were traditional Afar homes, known as ‘ari’.  The families living in these villages sent their children to the two schools that we visited on this day.

Afar ‘Ari’

At Wanis school I sat down and had a chat with the Director (Principal) about life at the school.

Ato Mohammed faces the challenges as Director of Wanis PS

The challenges faced by the school were similar to those expressed at the other rural schools in the area.  There is no electricity.  There is no library.  There is a teacher’s room that is meant to house teaching resources for the school staff, but the room is used as a dormitory by members of the teaching staff because there is no transportation between the school and Asaita. 

Attendance at the school is also a problem.  On the day that we visited only about 40% of the students were present.  It was a Wednesday, and Tuesday is market day in Asaita, so a lot of families had made the trek into town and had yet to return.  Unfortunately, challenges like this abound for the people in this locale, and each challenge takes up quite a bit of time.  Logistical challenges are coupled with the lack of value place on education by the local people.  Getting a job at the sugar plantation that is opening up here is not an ambition held by many.  Surviving in

riding the road between Asaita and Wanis

tough conditions takes priority.  Nevertheless, the school perseveres and slow progress is made.

Solomon and Ousman were the College Instructors that I accompanied to Wanis.  They interviewed the student teachers and their school supervisors, as well as observing classes taught by College students.  The College students had to live at the school for their month long placements.  There are no shops within 10kms.  There is a tap with water, but the groundwater in the area is too salty to drink.  This left the students with river water to use for their cooking and drinking.  This cannot be good for them.

Solomon consults with a member of staff at Wanis

We returned to Asaita in the geri we had come in.  It was lucky that he had waited for us because otherwise it would have been a long walk back.

Ousman prepares for the bumpy ride back

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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.

Mamole PS

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.

between Asaita and the Djibouti-Addis highway

out the unpaved end of Asaita

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.

Eshetu was off to observe student-teachers

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.

the result of our recent rain

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.

Grade 1 class at Mamole

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.

Teachers’ dorm

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.

school cafeteria

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.

most of Asaita does not look like this

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overlooking Awash River

Busy times in the VSO world.  It had been ingrained into my mind not to expect things to move quickly.  The message was that if volunteers spent the first half of a placement cultivating trust so that something could be accomplished in the second half then that placement could be considered a success.  But things here move along at quite a good clip.

On the College ELIC (English Language Improvement Centre) front, I have created a levelling system.  This consists of a baseline speaking test, and an analysis sheet to use in assigning students to a level.  This allows for students to join an English conversation class that is appropriate to their level.  It also gives students the opportunity to see which skills they need to work on in order to improve their English.  The results have been digitally stored in student profiles and will be kept on the ELIC computer.  In this way, College staff will be able to continue utilising the system after my departure.  This is capacity-building in the Ethiopian education sector.

At the moment, workshops run by ELIC are only available to language majors.   The plan is to expand the availability of ELIC workshops to all departments by using the same levelling system.   A science student will be able to attend ELIC workshops and will have a better notion of how the ELIC services can be of benefit.  Students will be able to choose whether to attend a Basic, Pre-Intermediate or Intermediate ELIC class or workshop based on a level of achievement received after completing the baseline test.  The College is excited to expand the services of ELIC to students from the various departments.  Installing this system will exponentially expand the number of students that receive help from the centre.

In addition to coordinating the ELIC at the College, I have begun managing a project funded by the Guernsey Overseas Aid Commission to build a Girls’ toilet and improve the library infrastructure at a local primary school.  This week I met with local education officials to select an appropriate school.  We visited the school to ensure there was space for a toilet and to have a look at the library facilities.  The principal signed on for the scheme.  Next week I will be in Addis Ababa for an ELIC conference and will deliver the paperwork to the VSO Programme Office in order to release the funds.  Then I will monitor the progress of the project, collect receipts and write a report for the funding organisation.  The toilet and the library should be completed by the summer.

location of new toilet

library to be upgraded

library study area

Asaita College of Teacher Education is also working with some NGO’s.  One is called the Development Expertise Centre from Holland.  It is funding a 5 year project to train teachers in student-centred pedagogy.  The College will be supporting teachers in its cluster to help them gain proficiency in student-centred pedagogy.  My role as Cluster / In-service Trainer will be to assist the teachers with taking a student-centred approach to learning.

Finally, I take part in the College’s Higher Diploma Programme.  This course is a prerequisite for all teacher trainers at colleges and universities throughout Ethiopia.  It can be summarised as a crash course in Western pedagogy, and would be familiar territory for any teacher.  The first time the programme ran here it was facilitated by a VSO volunteer, but then one of the course graduates took over as facilitator.  I attend mainly because it is a good way to get to know the teaching staff at the College.  Small group work is how the course runs, and there is lots of opportunity for good professional discussions about teaching with some really committed instructors.  Sometimes I facilitate a section of the module, but the intangible ‘building professional relationships’ seems to benefit the most.

Higher Diploma Programme participants engaging in some active learning

This wraps up my update.  Thank you to everyone that has sponsored my work here.  I believe that the fundraising is 72% complete.  If you feel like you can contribute, please click on ‘Brian’s Fundraising Page’ in the right hand tool bar.  If you could ‘Share’ this blog on Facebook, that would be appreciated also.  Trying to spread the word about the type of work being done in Ethiopia is part of my mandate.

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The first order of business with VSO Ethiopia has been to create an Action Plan that outlines my role with the organisation for the year ahead.  Basically it is an opportunity to write the job that I plan on doing, and I have tried to be realistic and diligent in writing it.

The centrepiece of my project is achieving 10 general objectives.  Each objective has a more comprehensive explanation of action that will be taken to achieve the aim.

handing over the keys to the toilet

Objective 3 is ‘Promoting inclusive education and diversity in the educational sector of the Afar Region’.  The most glaring lack of diversity in Ethiopia’s post-secondary education institutions is in gender representation.  In fact, girls are grossly underrepresented at all levels of Ethiopia’s education system except for early primary.  There are many reasons for this:  work, marriage, and financial strain are few worthy of mention.  Another reason is the lack of toilets for female students.  The argument goes that adolescent girls are unlikely to attend school without having a toilet to use.

VSO Ethiopia has facilitated the building of girls’ toilet at Sinble Elementary School in Asaita, Ethiopia.  Last week my fellow volunteer Peter and I attended the ‘key ceremony’ for the girls’ toilet and the key was handed over from the contractor to the school officials.

The girls present at the ceremony expressed their happiness at having a new toilet to use.

Focus Group discussion at Sinble

Our visit also furthered achieving Objective 6 – ‘Building Community Relationships’.  Handing over the keys in front of the toilet are teachers from the school, the principal and vice principal, as well as an official from the local woreda office.  A woreda is a district in Ethiopia.  Building a professional relationship with people in the community is to be accomplished through visits to local institutions, observing the learning conditions and giving these people and institutions a voice which they would otherwise not have.

The Sinble Elementary School that received a new girls’ toilet is housed in a fairly new building.  Windows do not last long in this town.  They are not really needed as the prevent what small amounts of breeze are around from getting into the classroom, but the glass shards that are left over do not look very safe for the students.

The new school does look like a more modern facility than what was there previously.  The old schoolhouse may have had better ventilation than the new, but there is no electricity in this building and the teaching and learning resources are sparse.

former classroom at Sinble

Another planned action for completing a needs assessment of education institutions in the local region is to hold focus group discussions, and the visit to Sinble  School provided the first opportunity to do this.  Prior to the ceremony handing over the keys to the school administration we gathered with some female students at the College to hear firsthand how pleased they were to have a toilet block for themselves.  The arrival of a new toilet block meant the end of a 200m walk to some bushes at the edge of the campus.  As girls get older they get more and more reluctant to come to school under these conditions.

My contribution to the discussion was the insistence that universal female literacy is a prerequisite for development and that having half of a country’s population undereducated and underemployed is not doing anyone much good.  I encouraged them to continue studying and expressed my hope that they graduate from high school and contribute to Ethiopia’s development.  Peter explained VSO Ethiopia’s role in the project and did an excellent job promoting the organisation.

The male students at the school had noticeably more confidence (at least these ones did).

Sinble students eager to pose for a photo

Another project that is underway here falls under the Objective for promoting diversity and inclusivity in the Ethiopian education sector.  Girls are underrepresented in Ethiopian post-secondary education, and in an effort to help female Afar high school students to pass the university entrance examinations, VSO Ethiopia s arranged to fund extra tutoring sessions for the female students at the high school.

Mohammed Humphries High School

Monitoring this project provided another opportunity to visit a local institution.

The high school is in better shape than the elementary school.  The facilities in the classroom were simply desks, chairs and a blackboard, but it was a classic classroom from a bygone era.  The medium of instruction in Ethiopian high schools is English, and the students are expected to take all of their classes in this language.

old school English teaching

I sat in on an English lesson.  Since part of my mandate here is to promote student-centred pedagogy, it was a little painful to watch the teacher turn around and write two pages of a grammar textbook onto the blackboard and then to read it over with the students.  But on the other hand, the teacher is teaching to a test, and the objective is to give the girls at the high school an opportunity to get into university.

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There are a few public transportation options around these parts.  Each has its own advantages and disadvantages:

timing this photograph was not difficult

The mule cart

Advantages:  Mules do not complain and are unlikely to veer off the road.  Mules just seem to accept their lot in life.  They do really cut loose in the evening though.  They hump and they hump and then they hump some more.  Maybe they are really just taking their time to conserve energy for what they are really interested in.  I just wish they’d keep it down at night.

Disadvantage:  I can walk faster than a bloody mule cart.

The ‘geri’

Advantages:  The geri is a pretty good option for getting around unpaved roads.  They get you to where you want to be in good time, and they leave mule carts in the dust.

Disadvantages:  Horse-lovers beware.  These are some skinny-ass horses running around in the blazing sun.  The driver has a whip.  If the horse slows down he’ll scrape the serrated edge of the whip handle across the rail at the front of the cart, and if that doesn’t work….

Now I have limited horseback-riding experience, but I do realise that it’s sometimes necessary to give a horse a whack with the crop to get it moving, but these horses have it tough and riding in one feels a bit like contributing to animal cruelty.

the clanging of the whip handle is stuck in my head

Joe Camel

Advantages:  The camel transports things more than people.  You can pack a lot more on the back of a camel than in the boot of a car.  There is also the option of creating camel trains and transporting all sorts of stuff.  And you probably have to stop for gas more often than you have to stop and let the camel drink.

Disadvantages:  Spitting.  Also has a history of promoting cigarette smoking to children.

“Hey Joe, whaddya know?”


Advantages:  The bajaj is a pretty sweet ride.  It is a modified tuk-tuk or pedi-cab.  They stop anywhere along paved roads and are rather affordable.  They can definitely help one avoid long, unsheltered walks in the blazing afternoon heat.

Disadvantages:  The bajaj can overextend itself.  The bajaj driver will think that his vehicle can easily navigate some unpaved roads, but the consequence of this is a mouthful of dust and dirt.  Similarly, when driving on paved roads and weaving among transport trailers, there are regular mouthfuls of dust and diesel fumes.

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It is early days here in Asaita.  The first few days have been spent touring around my College and the local area.  I have been busy performing administrative tasks such as opening a bank account, learning my way to the College and trying to avoid getting lost in a warren of little mud houses.  But here is my place of work…

Asaita College of Teacher Education ELIC

Welcome to Asaita College of Teacher Education!  This building is the library and it houses the English Language Improvement Centre (ELIC).  I will take over as the ELIC Coordinator when the current volunteer finishes his placement in the next couple of months.  The ELIC is currently housed in the College library, but efforts are underway to move the ELIC to a part of the College not designated as a quiet study place.  The staff in the library is very strict about the noise levels and the location is not really conducive to speaking English.

The ELIC will engage in activities to strengthen the capacity of English teachers in the Ethiopian education system.  Student-teachers will attend English classes and be introduced to student-centred approaches to teaching English.  Likewise, the instructors at the College will be encouraged to attend lesson designed to promote student-centred pedagogy.

dusty-foot philosopher's walk

This is the walk to work.  Mud is the most common construction material.  Whilst mud may not be the most attractive of building materials it does come with the advantage of being cool.  My concrete house releases its heat at night, so I sleep outside to avoid the oven which is my home.  It is February here, but it is heating up.  Afternoon temperatures break 35 degrees.  Electricity has been off most of the past 3 days, so there are no fans; only shade.  The adage ‘but it’s a dry heat,” does not apply.

school Vice-Principal in front of new girls' toilet block

This picture is of a school toilet block.  The school is part of the cluster associated with the Asaita College of Teacher Education.  There is a lack of toilets for girls in Ethiopian schools, and this contributes to the dropout rate among female students in Ethiopia.  The volunteer that I am taking over from has been overseeing the project to build this toilet.  Asaita really is the edge of humanity.  Ethiopia is a poor country.  Asaita is in Ethiopia’s Afar region, and it is considered to be one of the poorest parts of Ethiopia.  The teacher’s college where I work does not have any toilets for men or women!

out of service classroom

This is the old school.  It has recently been replaced, but it has not been out of use for more than a couple of years.  Obviously there is a lot of work to be done here.  This classroom will be of limited use for achieving what Canadian teachers would call effective learning.  Keep in mind that the students have no money for school supplies and the teachers are not supported with more than chalk.  Girls are often married before they are 15.  They are often betrothed at a much younger age.

new school with a new girls' toilet

This is what the school looks like today.  It is a simple concrete structure.

local students


Though it was a Saturday, these students were hanging around the school.  They were eager to be photographed and had some serious poses well-rehearsed.

So begins my needs assessment for Asaita’s education sector.  The list is going to be long.  And getting the schools and the College the resources that they need will likely be fraught with challenges.

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Afar "Afar (Ethiopia)". Flags of the...

Afar flag

the Danakil desert outside of Asaita

Perhaps because some people were trying to wind me up regarding the hostility of the Afar region’s people and climate, my arrival here has been a rather pleasant surprise.  The College of Teacher Education out here has simple facilities, but the atmosphere is one of growth and expansion.  Things are happening:  gardens are being planted, electricity is becoming more reliable, and buildings are being erected.

The people are friendly.  Students at the College are on holiday, but there are still a few hanging around the campus and they are keen to talk and say hello.  Walking through the town is also a warm experience.  People approach and say hello.  Quite a few people have been coming up to me and speaking in French.  This is because Djibouti is so close and French is the common tongue there.  The Afar people around here seem really pleased when I answer them in French and explain that I am Canadian.

The maple leaf is on full display here.  The Canadian Ambassador to Ethiopia really came through with a large quantity of maple leaf pins, pens and flags.  The staff at the College have appreciated the pins and I am trying my best to promote Canada’s image here.

The town of Asaita’s main road is lined with adobe buildings that house little shops.  There is a hotel that has a fantastic view of the Awash River valley.  It is literally a desert oasis.  It’s green and lush.  It has a sugar plantation.  There is a ton of wildlife.

My work at the College is slowly getting underway.  Today was my first day.  I had an introductory meeting with the College Dean.  There were some officials from the Ministry of Education in town that I met in Addis Ababa a few days ago and their presence got me into the Dean’s office, and my presence on the campus was legitimised.  Funding and resources for my position are coming via the British Council and all seemed content with the route ahead.  My plan is to conduct a need assessment next week.

So there are my first impressions of life in the Afar.  So ‘afar’ so good.

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