A Tale of Two Worlds – Part 1 – Abeba’s story

My work on CPD as Continuous Professional Development Advisor to the Region takes me out of the comforts of home and office here in Bahir Bar from time to time. We visit schools and find out how they are getting on developing teachers’ skills. Not an easy task when resources (even enough to buy a notebook) are in short supply and communications limited.

My last trip took me east, back towards the Rift valley to towns midway between Addis and Mekelle, about 8 hours drive from here. I was joined by my young colleague Abeba, who recently joined our team. We shared the interviewing of several key staff at a number of schools. As it happened our trip took us back to the village where she spent her childhood and her own primary school was on our “to visit” list. I was able to see both village and school during the trip as well as hear about her childhood, education and family life.

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After our work at her school, we dropped in at the family house a couple of times; these visits moved us into a different world. Whilst John and I have lived in Ethiopia 2 ½ years, it is rare to have a reason to go to into one of the very rural houses. We usually only see the outsides as we drive by. In Bahir Dar, we have a comfortable house, and neighbours and work colleagues also have pleasant houses with relatively easy access to water, electricity and a reasonable level of sanitation. Abeba’s family has none of that.

The house is traditionally built with local materials. People in the country live with very little. Chattels are at a minimum and you wonder quite why or if we in the west need so many different things. You wonder if people in rural Ethiopia have the desire to acquire different things or whether an equilibrium been achieved. There is no need for knives and forks as the food is designed to be eaten easily with fingers. There’s no need for numerous plates and bowls as meals are served on large communal dishes, and so on. Inside the house, the mud walls are shaped to form beds and shelves, so little furniture is needed.

Hard work is very apparent though. The ploughing is done with a hand plough pulled by two oxen. All washing is done by hand, though this village has a tap nearby, so access to water is easier than in many places. Coffee preparation is given great respect, with all the equipment ready to hand, to be served up in one those special coffee cups.

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A great feature of Ethiopian life is the way they always seem to be ready to serve up a delicious meal at any time of day. This is with few shops nearby and those there are have a very limited selection of goods available. Home grown grain, pulses, spices and vegetables are the answer. I thought I’d be able to buy a bunch of bananas to contribute to our meal, but couldn’t find those locally either. We ate outside and were soon joined by groups of children, to have a look at the foreigner! Abeba wanted time with her family so I was then left wondering if instead of just being watched I could do something more entertaining. Several rounds of “If you’re happy and you know it” … meant we could both name one or two body parts in our respective languages quite soon, but my mispronunciation of “ear” as “chicken” caused hilarity. Later, they entertained me with a little show where they demonstrated their Ethiopian dancing skills.

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But, how did Abeba move from exactly the same childhood as these children to one with a job in the regional education office at only 34. A complete contrast of lifestyle from one generation to the next. This is her story and Education was key.

There were and still are gaps in the Ethiopian education system, although it has developed hugely since the “Education for All” programme was set up just over 20 years ago. Primary schools start at Grade 1 (age 7) and run to Grade 8 (age 14). Frequently schools are only able to provide classes up to Grade 4 (age 11) – there simply aren’t the facilities, buildings or funding for staff. Many areas have no secondary schools. If a student from a rural area wants to continue, they frequently find rooms in town and fend for themselves during the week. Some walk for as long as 6 hours on Sunday afternoons to get to school and have the 6 hour return on Fridays.

Abeba went to the local village school we visited until Grade 4. Because the educational infrastructure was incomplete, her education was disjointed. Her school finished when students were 11. Luckily, an uncle had moved away to a town where the school provided education for the next academic year. The family agreed that she should live with him to have another year of school, even though the town was about 6 hours drive away (on today’s good roads). In those days it would have taken much longer. A year later, a school nearer to home had been built. Again this was too far to travel on a daily basis so she stayed with another member of the family until the end of Primary school (Grade 8). For many girls this would have been the end of their schooling and the family would have started looking for a potential husband. Girls are frequently married at this age and younger, and although the legal minimum age for men and women to marry is now 18, many girls are still illegally married well under-age. In the Amhara region, almost 50 percent of girls are married by age 15.

This presented another crossroads – marry, work or continue education. There was no local Secondary school (it starts at 14), but someone else from the family now lived in Bahir Dar, where we live now, so she moved here and in fact went to the Secondary school next door to our office. I won’t write here about the contrast to the UK system, but whilst UK parents sometimes move to make sure they have a good school for their child, at least schools exist up the minimum leaving age wherever you live.

Abeba is now 34. She has near perfect English, a first Degree from Addis Ababa University in Educational Psychology, a four year course which took 5 years because of a student uprising where she, like many other students, was expelled for a year as punishment. She also has a second degree in Vocational and Educational Management, which she obtained whilst expecting her son.

The contrast between the two worlds is huge. Whilst her father’s family had one brother to take over the land, no one from the next generation will follow in his footsteps. Abeba has brothers and sisters and thinks that maybe one of her sisters will return to the village, but that is not certain. One regret is that Abeba’s son,aged 4, will probably never stay with the family in the village. She feels town life and country life are too far apart for him to adjust from one to the other. In just one generation a lifestyle which has existed for centuries and continues in much of the country is lost in this family.

Many factors influence the move from country to town, but education and “development” play a part, which at times makes those of us here with that as our goal uncomfortable with the consequence. As communication of all sorts develops maybe the cycle we have seen in the west might continue – the initial move to town and back to the country. Whatever the future, it was for me a privilege to share a small part of this lifestyle whilst it survives. And thanks to Abeba for sharing her story.

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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  1. Jo Morris

     /  29/04/2014

    Hi Barbara.

    What a great description of rural Ethiopian education, your work and the constraints and determination of a bright young woman. You are having such an interesting time! How will you ever settle back in pangbourne?! But looking forward to you coming home.

    Really enjoy your blogs. Thanks. All well here – was v busy with work in March. April dominated by john falling in our boat and hurting his hand and ear. Have spent considerable tine at JR in Oxford trauma unit. Paramedics were great – the boat was on 3 oil drums in the middle of a very muddy field in middle nowhere! Am also getting to grips with my new super sized Apple Mac desktop!

    When are you next in UK?

    Love to your john. Jo xx Jo Morris Sent from my iPad

    • Barbara

       /  29/04/2014

      Not surprised this took your interest Jo. Lots of things linked to your area of work. Hope J ok soon. B x

  2. Love your blog. Brings me back all the time.

    • Barbara SC

       /  29/04/2014

      Good to hear from you Rob, not too far from Sekota for this trip! Hope all well with you and Jose.

  3. godwin anthony

     /  30/04/2014

    Morning Barb
    always v. interesting; having spent that short time with you both it brings it all back. Education is a right that should not be denied but when one sees a centuries old way of life being disgarded because people become aware, through education, that other things are possible one has to pose the odd question. Nothing to do with the concept of the noble sauvage etc. etc.but basically what we offer to them is a life style far more insecure than what they have at the present. It is right that people should be able to improve their lot but I wonder if our lot is the right one . Must go now- the cook is ruining the foie gras, a daughter is late for her riding lesson and I’m having to use the old bmw as the mercedes is being valet cleaned

  4. Jill Weller

     /  30/04/2014

    As usual I very much enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to part 2. I look around at a house full of ‘home comforts’ which I neither use or need and think to how I have lived out of a couple of bags for the last year and not really missed any material things. Who says that modern, western living is better? Anyway, hope you are both well.

  5. Barbara SC

     /  01/05/2014

    Ant, quite agree re the dilemma, though communication (TVs etc) presents alternatives and therefore issues (without education) and TVs are not too far away from a house like the one in the blog.


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