Work – way out west

Have had an assignment to do all on my own! Well, on my own except for a translator.  It was in a much more rural setting than Mekelle  – an eight hour drive away, to do  “how are things for you” type sessions in a couple of schools.

I know I’ve said it before, but distances are huge here. It was an early start to get most of it over before the heat of the day. The area we were going to is within the same “region” and our destination nowhere near the region’s border. The journey was fine apart from the comfort breaks (not).

The driver  (ready for a break – or sleep ? ) my translator and the man with portfolio for sugar  – (more on that more later). 

We stopped once on the outskirts of a village and my 3 travelling companions (male) got out. On their return I asked why we’d stopped.  One said, “for exercise”! I asked if the next exercise stop could be away from other people and with bushes around as I needed exercise stops as well. One said, “sorry”, he wasn’t sure how it worked for foreigners! Then trying to be kind he said we’d go for breakfast in a cafe in the next town.  Actually there are times when an open space with bushes is what you want rather than a closet. The cafe was called “The Modern Cafe”, but not sure when it acquired its name.  

When got to our destination, it was the, “where are we going to stay” dilemma. Despite protests from the guys about where I proposed staying, I stuck my ground. I will do shared (cold) shower and shared pit loo with no flush for the odd day, but for a week or more, no. So we agreed to differ. They went their way at 25birr (just under £1.00) a night and I mine at 90 birr (aroun£3.30). On a 70 birr daily allowance for food and accommodation, you can see why we had to differ – my pension comes in handy on occasions like this.

With colleagues for an Ethiopian “Ploughman’s lunch” – mostly meat

 Two of us remained in this town whilst the others continued west towards the Sudanese border to deal with a bit of tricky business. Agriculture here seems to be divided between subsistence level small holdings – the sort we’ve included in photos in previous blogs where small patches of land provide for a family, and huge Government developments which often mean communities are displaced to make way for large scale developments.

It transpires that the Government has selected a part of Tigray to be used for sugar production. Not sure what the scale is, but must be pretty big. This means that the people who live and farm in the designated sugar growing area must go elsewhere. Entire communities have to move, so our office has to arrange for 7 new primaries to be built. They will also have a Secondary school, which they didn’t have before, so that will be a sort of bonus. 

Apparently, all this it has to be done by September. Think everybody is going into temporary housing and schools whilst the move and construction take place. About 2,500 people are affected. Quite a task. I wonder what the schools/teachers feel about it. It must be hard when a big part of school improvement is down to local communities. Accommodation is a big issue. In the new area there are no houses for the teachers to rent either, so the Government is being asked to build them.

Back with us, we spent our time in two rural schools, which were both very interesting. One had electricity, neither had water. At one there was hand pump nearby – at the other the hand pump was 2km away. The basic buildings were quite similar to the town schools, but the big difference was access to services. One had a main road running past it, at the other a new road was being built – in fact to the newly planned Sugar plantation.

The hand pump in operation near one of the schools

There was a distinct trend when talking to the teachers. All teachers want to move to towns rather than live and work in remote places. Given that most of Ethiopia is remote, yet all children must have access to schools, it figures that there are considerably more remote schools than urban or rural ones. You don’t apply for a job, you are allocated a school. Newly qualified teachers are usually assigned to remote or rural schools, then do transfer after transfer until they get to a place they want to be.  Out of about 40 teachers in the rural schools we visited, no teacher was over 32. Older teachers had got their transfers, and this in turn means the average age of teachers in town is much higher. Teachers at Primary level in towns are typically all over 50.

New lines for “Mary had a little lamb” needed please!

Transport is an issue. At one school most of the male staff cycled from the town, but as bicycles for women are unheard of out of the capital, women walk and or/take the bus. An hour’s journey on foot isn’t unusual.

Schools have “supervisors”, a role a bit like the UK School Improvement Partner. Each is responsible for about 10 schools. Many schools have no road access and though a 4×4 would probably get to the schools, supervisors haven’t access to them. One supervisor had acquired a bike to get from school to school and the other had been provided with a motorbike.

The Director and Supervisor – me and said motor bike

Finding houses in rural areas is an issue. School communities are encouraged to build houses for the teachers. One school had built them especially for young single women and this worked well. At another they’d been built but the teachers preferred to do the 1 hour walk to town rather live in houses in remote locations without electricity or water.

Houses  – built for teachers – no electricity or water

Both schools had refreshments available.  One had its own cafeteria serving tea,

bread and cake.

The other school had a “sewa bet” just outside and was well placed for an end of day

drink before the long journey home with beer as well as tea available.

The weekend starts here – with the Director and one of the teachers!                                                                              

Wonder if the tea would have been a better choice?

This woman ran the drink stop off.

Her daughter insisted on a photo

after I’d taken pictures of others.

The cafe seemed unlikely to catch much

passing trade,

but as we left, a camel train called in.


Having said all this, the teachers were quite positive about their schools, working environment etc. but the big issue at the moment is salary. Teachers in the early part of their career earn about 35 birr a day (£1.30) – that will buy you 3 beers in a cafe. Increments don’t make a lot of difference either.  In fact, most wouldn’t consider a beer out any day of the week. Inflation for food ran at about 45% last year, so buying food is the priority.

We had a day spare whilst we were there, excellent as it gave me chance to visit “Abraham’s Oasis” an orphanage and Special Needs school set up by an English and a Dutch woman, both with backgrounds in paediatrics. They hadn’t planned to do anything like this, but one of them was presented with an orphaned baby one night, and things went from there.  They acquired land, got some buildings put up and earned themselves a very good reputation in the area. All children there are vulnerable: orphans /SEN: blind/deaf or have had some sort of life trauma – mutilation, rape or similar. Very moving, wonderful but very sad were new arrivals – 6 day old triplets. Their mother had died in childbirth leaving 6 other children motherless too.


Finally, it was time to come back. I decided to fly – 20 mins compared with 8 hours squashed up in a hot car. There’d been murmurings about additional people needing to travel back, so to avoid overcrowding I generously offered to make my own way back to Mekelle. It meant another flight from the gravel airstrip, but I’m used to it now and have come to appreciate its quirks.

Airport drop off



Leave a comment


  1. Mark & Sandra

     /  08/07/2012

    Really interesting, as always, Barbara. We were left wondering what on earth will happen to the triplets and the other 6 children?

    • Hi Been meaning to get yr email address and send you the update. They are getting on fine after many complications, still at Abraham’s Oasis. The oldest daughter will do her duty by the other children and dad is likely to re-marry.

  2. Lesley Jones

     /  10/07/2012

    Constantly amazed at the travelling around you are doing, it all sounds very different from life in Pangbourne!! I’m not sure I’d want to live in one of the purpose built teacher’s houses either! Found the photo of you with the triplets very moving and it made me wonder what will hapen to them. Is there an adoption/fostering system or will members of the family take them? Will email in couple of days with a photo of the Rev Ben Jones!!
    Love to you and John. Lesley


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