By 7.30 a.m, the roadsides in rural Ethiopia are thronged with hundreds of kids rushing, exercise books in hand, to school. Conversations with farmers are dotted with references to the importance of education. Are they just saying what they think their NGO visitors want to hear? Not according to a new report from the Overseas Development Institute in London, one of its new series of studies of ‘development progress stories’. Here’s the summary:
“Access to education in Ethiopia has improved significantly (see graph). Approximately 3 million pupils were in primary school in 1994/95. By 2008/09, primary enrolment had risen to 15.5 million – an increase of over 500%.
Progress has been enabled through a sustained government-led effort to reduce poverty and expand the public education system equitably. This has been backed by substantial increases in national education expenditure and aid to the sector, as well as improved planning and implementation capacity at all levels.
Increased regional and local autonomy and community participation have also had a key role in expanding access to education across the country.”
According to Samuel Asnake, the dynamic director of Ethiopia’s Adult and Nonformal Education Association (more on their work in a minute), having got kids into school, the government is now focusing on quality issues, especially in the lagging pastoralist regions, where it is considering options like mobile schools with teaching in local languages, and boarding schools for girls.
But what about the two thirds of adult Ethiopians who cannot read and write? Samuel’s organization is working closely with the Limmu Innara Coffee Union discussed yesterday, using an approach it calls ‘functional adult literacy’. Getting people involved meant asking coffee farmers ‘what do you want to learn?’ and the answer came back, “how to improve the quality of our coffee crop”. So they broke down the coffee production process into 26 steps and these became the syllabus for the literacy programme. Each module follows the pattern of general discussions on the topic, identifying key vocabulary, and agreeing actions (e.g. family discussions between classes). It reminds me of the teachings of Brazilian education guru Paulo Freire, but with the focus on livelihoods rather than social transformation.
So much for the theory, what does it look like in practice? We visited one of the classes in a mud floor schoolhouse, with rain drumming on the tin roof. 30 farmers of all ages were discussing the division of tasks within the family, especially relating to the upcoming harvest. Cards with words like ‘the husband’, ‘the wife’ and ‘the children’ formed the basis of the literacy homework. The women in the group argued that women generally work harder than men, but the men were divided on the issue. The 10:1 ratio of men to women suggested that the women had a point, and Samuel is looking at options such as organizing classes nearer the home, and women only groups to try and get a better balance. But paradoxically, the gender imbalance is partly caused by the success of the methodology – because the content is so relevant to their work, the men insist on coming to class themselves! If you’re worried about the serried ranks in the pic, it was because of the rain – the only dry room large enough was the school, with fixed desks. They normally work in less regimented ways.
The conversation was animated and enthusiastic, with everyone chipping in, clicking their fingers urgently when they wanted to contribute. We left them still arguing, as we ran across the fields back to the car through the pouring rain, inspired, impressed and very wet.
And that is it on Ethiopia for the moment. Back to a more varied diet next week.