Angela Fairbank Travel Writer and Travel Photographer
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Angela Fairbank
Travel Writer

Conversations with elementary and high school students
in Lalibela and Axum, Ethiopia

On Wednesday 17 November 2005 and Thursday 18 November 2005 when I was in Lalibela and Axum respectively, I was fortunate in having the opportunity to talk to a few students about the Ethiopian education system and the challenges facing them and their classmates.

I was most surprised by the great number of students in each class. For instance at Getnet Ababu's school in Lalibela, there are 1040 students in Grade 9 and at his younger brother Amdemariam Ababu's there are 700 in Grade 7. This means that the students go to school in three shifts - 7:30am to 12:30pm, 1:30pm to 6:30pm, or 6:30pm to 8:30pm - the evening shift is for those students who are working all day. The teachers also work in shifts and some of them may work both a day and an evening shift. Despite this, there may still be as many as 85 students together in one small classroom.

The Ethiopian school system is divided into three levels: elementary - grades 1 to 8; high school - grades 9 to 12; and a special preparatory school for those able to go on to university - grades 11 and 12. According to the students I talked to, about 3% do take university studies, and almost all that I asked said that they wanted to become medical doctors!

High school students in Ethiopia generally take ten subjects: Amharic (their national language), Chemistry, Biology and Physics (although many schools have no science laboratories), English, Mathematics, Civics, History, Geography and Sport. Apart from Amharic, the subjects are taught in English, which explains why so many children are eager to practise their English with tourists.

Many children live in the countryside with their parents, most of whom make a living from farming crops such as maize (corn) and teff (an African cereal grown exclusively in Ethiopia), or from selling firewood. The parents (usually the women) then bring these commodities to the local markets and exchange them for items such as clothing. In order to attend school in Lalibela, Wondmnew, Getnet and Amdemariam, seen below, walk several miles into town on Sunday evening, having rented a house there for 50 birr a month (equivalent to about US$5.75 or CDN$6.75 in 2005), and walk home again on Friday evening.

Of course, not only are the schools overcrowded, but there is also an appalling lack of materials. According to Wondmnew Kefylew, his school does not own a map of the world (with foresight I had brought some maps with me) and in the library, he told me, there is only one English-Amharic dictionary for the whole school. I was then shown one that his friend, Ermias Workye, had in his tin-shack shop located opposite Lalibela's Ghion Hotel, and he persuaded me to buy it for him, though I did insist he share it with his classmates!

Another local boy, Johannes Dublik, whose aim is to become an elementary school teacher, had a shoe-shine business, again strategically located opposite the same hotel. As my hiking boots were looking a little tired, I readily agreed to his offer of a clean and polish, in exchange for a world map for his elementary school. Johannes, who is 12, told me that on average he cleans about five pairs of shoes a day. He is in grade 7 and goes to school in the afternoon shift. There are 85 students in his class and football (soccer) is his favourite sport. In Lalibela there are six soccer teams for youths aged 16 and up and five teams for those aged 14 to 16. When I was there each team was actively seeking sponsors to help them buy a soccer ball and showed us lists of donations made by tourists from Europe.

My conversation with Johannes, who incidentally provided me with a top-notch shoeshine, was, interestingly enough, interpreted for me from Amharic to English by 17-year-old, grade 11 student, Ermias Workye, the shop-owner mentioned above, whose own ambition is to work in the health field. His favourite subjects are Biology, Chemistry and Physiology. He loves basketball, soccer and “classical music”, which he defines as the music sung by Celine Dion!

Elementary and high school boys from Lalibela, Ethiopia

From left to right: Getnet Ababu, 17, grade nine, Amdemariam Ababu, 13, grade seven,
and Wondmnew Kefyalew, 16, grade nine, from Lalibela, North Wollo, Ethiopia.
Photographed at dawn.

Further North, in Axum, the situation was a little different. Here I met three boys of different ages all in grade nine who said there were 80 to 85 students in each shift. According to them, Axum has a population of 45,000 and 3,500 students attend elementary school (grades 1 to 8). In three of the six elementary schools in Axum, grades 1 to 6 take the morning shift, grades 7 and 8, the afternoon. There are also two high schools.

Currently these three boys are supplementing their livelihoods by selling trinkets such as gold jewellery, large silver Austrian Maria Theresa coins purportedly from 1780, and necklaces with golden plumwood pendants in the shape of an Axum cross, which they said they bought from women in the countryside and resold to the tourists for a small profit. One of them, I believe it was Dawit Arefyne, said his goal when he finished school was to become a tour guide and salesman or to work with the European archaeologists who go to Axum to unearth the many historical and archaeological treasures still to be found in the Tigray region. His parents are farmers who grow teff, wheat, sorghum and maize and raise cattle, sheep and goats.

Besides gold and silver jewellery, these boys offered me beautiful, elaborate, fairly weighty, silver Axum crosses and religious booklets in the Ge'ez language (a forerunner of Amharic spoken and read only by Ethiopian priests). I was told that these books had been painted by the monks and were covered in golden plumwood. When I asked Dawit what he did with the money he made from the sale of his trinkets, he said he bought books and pens for school and gave the rest to his mother. Every day after school, he said, he studied for two hours and then he went out to sell his trinkets to tourists.

High school boys from Axum, Ethiopia

From left to right: Dawit Arefyne, 18, Tedros Yosef, 15, and Andom Tesfay, 17,
grade nine students from Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia.
Photographed at dawn.

On the way to the airport that same morning, our group made a brief stop in the market, because we had been intrigued by the loaded camel caravans filing past our hotel and headed in that direction. As soon as we arrived in the square, I was met by a bright, cheerful, 7-year-old girl, Rahwa Zerabruk, who greeted me with the information that she was top of her class at school and was in grade 4 because she had “jumped” a few classes. I asked to meet her mother and she happily led me to a small corrugated metal shack where pots and pans and other ironware were laid out for sale. As soon as she saw me come in, Rahwa's mother started pulling out her tourist trinkets: more Axum silver crosses and plumwood-covered Ge'ez-language monk-painted religious booklets! In the short 5 minutes I had to spend in the market, Rahwa and I exchanged e-mail and postal addresses, her mother proudly showed me a certificate (unfortunately, badly spelled and unsigned) attesting to Rahwa's brilliant academic achievements, I asked to take a photo, and then I had to hurry back to the bus.

Rahwa Zerabruk, brilliant elementary school student from Axum, Ethiopia

Brilliant grade four student, Rahwa Zerabruk, 7,
and her proud mother at Axum market, Tigray, Ethiopia.

Lalibela and Axum, Ethiopia, 17 and 18 November 2005

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