On March 16, when the positive cases of covid-19 in the country increased to five, the Ethiopian government suspended classes. During this time the Ministry of Education has launched initiatives so that the training of children does not stop during the closure of schools, but it has not managed to reach all homes and many students have been neglected. The pandemic has become yet another bump in their training, which was already compromised by a limited educational system.
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Jovani is likely to want to continue collaborating in the campaign against COVID-19 in Dessie, his hometown, which is in the Amhara region, in north central Ethiopia. This seven-year-old boy with marked dark circles wants to be a doctor, although now he may not quite understand why he should stay at home, since the elderly have not stopped working despite the threat of the virus. On the other hand, millions of minors like him have not been to school for weeks and must remain at home to avoid contagion.
Despite the limitations of the educational system, Jovani's mother knows that any future option for her children - she has two - is that they go to school. She supports her family by washing clothes by hand and cooking injera, a thin dough that is the basis of Ethiopian food. Since she was widowed, she is the only person who, on a regular basis, has brought home money, a unique room with plastered walls and a tin roof where her grandparents also live.
For the Public Administration, Jovani is a child in a vulnerable situation. That is why he was selected to benefit from the sponsorship program of the NGO IPI Cooperació, through which the family receives a monthly aid of 600 birr (17 euros) and agrees that the little one does not stop studying.
The Ethiopian educational system
306 girls and boys attend Dessie Sefere Selam Primary School. Its director, Tilehun Azahij - shaved head, shirt tucked in, affable - points out that one of the shortcomings of Ethiopian education is that “the learning process has no practical part, it is only theoretical”. Azahij would like her school to have a computer room and laboratory for students to experiment with, but she must resign herself to classrooms with worn walls and chipped desks.
Minors who do not have a radio or television at home cannot study at a distance and are deprived of their right to education
Millenium Primary School is located in Kobo, a town north of the Amhara region where children have become accustomed to the presence of the military who control territorial disputes in the area. The director, Milla Jadea - trimmed mustache, sporty, thoughtful - explains that another of the shortcomings of education in the country is that "textbooks are not adapted to the age of the students." Jadea says that the teachers do not have time to teach the syllabus and that the students pass the course without receiving all the lessons.
Ethiopia is one of the African countries that has been most involved in the training of its minors since the turn of the century. In 2015 the government allocated 4.7% of public spending to education, a figure that places the country in 78th place in the world ranking and 15th in sub-Saharan Africa. These efforts have contributed to practically all boys and girls going to school up to the age of 14, but they have not been enough to ensure quality training. 48% of Ethiopians are illiterate and the average age of the population is 20 years.
Public education in the country of the Horn of Africa is free. The minors begin the compulsory primary school at the age of seven, eight courses await them in which they learn Amharic - the official language of the country -, the language of their respective region, English, mathematics and natural and social sciences. The first stage of secondary school occupies two academic years, ninth and tenth, but it is no longer compulsory, so many girls and boys leave school to contribute to the family economy: only 35% continue to study. Before entering university or other higher studies, the surviving students attend eleventh and twelfth, which are equivalent to high school. Only students who have continued studying from ninth grade learn to use computers.
When Aweke greets someone he offers them his wrist because his fingers end at the knuckles. At age 10, she caught leprosy and had to drop out of school. Since then he has walked with the help of a wooden cane that he handles with great agility. When he felt strong enough, he returned to the classroom and continued his training. Despite the apparent limitations, Aweke does everything himself. He is now 24 years old and in his twelfth year at Weldiya Preparatory School. He wants to be a lawyer.
The teachers do not have time to teach the syllabus and the students pass the course without receiving all the lessons
Without the support of his little brother Kiros, Aweke could not study. Kiros, who is 22 years old, started working so that he could continue in school. The brothers lost their parents a long time ago and if they both studied they could not support themselves, despite the fact that Aweke also receives monthly help from IPI Cooperació. In fact, they live “with the right” in a small house in Weldiya, a town north of Dessie characterized by the traffic of trucks carrying cargoes loaded in the port of Djibouti. On his autorickshaw - a motorized tricycle used as a taxi - Kiros can't keep a safe distance from customers, but he hasn't stopped working these months. You cannot, even if you are exposed to the virus.
The suspension of classes has come at an important moment for Aweke, the year in which he must make the selectivity, which has been postponed sine die . During these weeks he has not stopped studying, on his own, with a determination that can only be equated to his willpower. You don't know when you will take the university entrance exam, but you know you need a high grade to get into law. Also, he feels he owes it to Kiros. That is why he has spared no effort: "I have been reading the textbooks and fragments of the constitution." He has also taken advantage of the days of confinement to write a poem, but prefers not to share it.
Covid-19 exacerbates inequalities
The forced closure of schools has compromised the education of millions of girls and boys in recent weeks. The older ones have been able to study on their own, but the younger ones, who need the guidance of a teacher, have not been able to. With the aim that the training of these minors is not completely paralyzed, the Ethiopian Ministry of Education has set up a television channel and a radio dial to teach classes, a measure questioned because they cannot calculate its scope and, above all, for increasing inequalities between minors who have receivers at home and those who do not, who have been deprived of their education for weeks.
The Ethiopian educational system is characterized by not offering the same benefits to all students. The principal of the Negus Michael de Dessie primary school, Faten - sloppy beard, denim shirt, cordial - indicates that "there are very poor parts of the country, where there is not even food, the children who live there do not have the same opportunities." More than 80% of the Ethiopian population lives in rural areas. The administration does not reach the most remote, which are the poorest in the country. Faten explains that the only way to improve their situation is to increase public spending on education.
Yesuf Mohammed - trimmed beard, American, warm treatment - runs Dessie's Silk Amba primary school and, like his Negus Michael school counterpart, warns of inequalities: “Many schools have been built in recent years, but the facilities tend to be precarious, especially in rural areas ”. Mohammed also points to teachers when he talks about disparate benefits because "not all are professionals." In addition, in some schools the teachers have to take care of many students. The national average in primary education is 43 schoolchildren per teacher.
An orange case
In February, IPI Cooperació volunteers traveled to Ethiopia to monitor the operation of the sponsorship program and interview the children, to whom they brought school supplies. Jovani welcomed his new orange box with joy and enthusiasm and opened it to see the pencils and pens that had to last at least a year. On the way home, two older children stopped him and asked him to show them the case, which then became the stolen orange case.
Ethiopia has 109 million inhabitants and is the second most populous country in Africa, second only to Nigeria. 23% of Ethiopians live below the poverty line and, in the Amhara region, three out of 10 people are poor. Neither pencils nor pens are taken into account in the calculation that sets the poverty line for a region.
They and the sense of duty
Inequalities not only affect minors living in impoverished and rural areas, but also girls. The educational system promotes equality in the classroom and does not discriminate based on gender, but the country's patriarchal tradition prevents them from having the same opportunities as children. That is why an equitable education is being promoted that helps to overcome the stigmas of patriarchy.
The number of girls falls because they marry or go to work in other regions to earn money and send it to their families
Tilehun Azahij, Principal Sefere Selam Elementary School
The political class has also been involved in the promotion of an egalitarian society: in 2018, Sahlework Zewde became the first Ethiopian president and, that same year, Abiy Ahmed, the country's prime minister, guaranteed parity in his government by distributing the same number of portfolios between men and women. However, despite efforts from the educational and political spheres, the feminist message has not yet permeated all layers of society.
Up to the age of 14, girls and boys occupy the classrooms in equal parts. The difference appears in high school, when they are the first to drop out of school. "The number of girls falls because they marry or go to work in other regions to earn money and send it to their families," explains Azahij, who points out that girls have a more developed sense of duty than boys, who only care to eat and play.
These inequalities are multiplied in vulnerable environments, such as rural areas, where there are also cases of female absenteeism in primary school. 40% of Ethiopian women between the ages of 20 and 24 marry before the age of 18 and 14% before the age of 15. It is in rural areas where these marriages have more incidence and where, in addition, there are more cases of genital mutilation female. When the girls marry, they leave their lives, including school, behind to tend to the needs of their new families. Before the wedding ceremony, the groom pays a dowry in cattle - or its equivalent in money - to his fiancée's parents, who will have one less mouth to feed.
Rediet leads the way
On March 8, on the occasion of International Women's Day, the University of Weldiya honored Rediet for her academic excellence. This 20-year-old girl with braided hair is studying Land Administration and Inspection and is one of the few university students in the country. Only one in 20 women goes to university or other higher education in Ethiopia. Although male enrollment is not remarkable either, it represents twice that of female.
Rediet considers herself lucky to have had the support of her family, who could afford to study, and regrets that her father died before seeing her at the university, since it was he who urged her to do Land Administration and Inspection: “I thought it was the best for me". Despite having a home in Weldiya, when she started her degree she settled on campus, she wanted to make the most of the university experience. "I share a room with four other girls and my locker is small, but I like being here," says the young woman with a wide smile and a restless mind.
Many minors in the Amhara region cannot learn to read or write and 14% fail the final exam they take at the end of primary school
The university makes a loan to students, who while training do not pay to study or stay on campus, but, when they graduate, the academic center charges them for their years of study in monthly installments adapted to their salaries. If they don't get a job - youth unemployment is 25% - and they don't pay, they don't get the title. Some, those who want to go abroad or do a specialization, are forced to pay the entire amount at once, since the temporary certificate they are given to seek employment has limited administrative validity.
Rediet worries about not finding a job and not being able to pay the 22,000 birr (600 euros) that her degree costs, although now she is more burdened by losing a semester of study. For weeks she has not heard from the university, which closed a few days after the schools. Rediet longs for classes, but she also longs for waking up to the first lights of the day and walking around the campus while listening to the peeping of birds. It is her personal pilgrimage, in which she seeks the meaning of her days and is convinced that God has a good plan for her. "I have to work hard to discover what He expects of me," she repeats.
Future at stake
According to Unicef, many of the minors in the Amhara region who go to school cannot learn to read or write and 14% fail the final exam they take in the eighth grade at the end of primary school. The children's family environment has an impact on this figure, but the responsibility weighs on an educational system that limits their training and hinders their progress.
Now, covid-19 is also restricting the education of the more than 22 million Ethiopian minors enrolled in primary and secondary schools, especially that of boys and girls who cannot study remotely. In a press release, the director of Unicef in East Africa, Mohamed Fall, warns that “after the prolonged closure of schools, (…) it becomes more difficult for vulnerable minors to return to the classroom”.
The United Nations puts education at the center of all social and economic transformation. In the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, the intergovernmental organization states that “in addition to improving people's quality of life, access to inclusive and equitable education can provide the local population with the necessary tools to develop innovative solutions to biggest problems in the world ”.
Jovani probably had not yet dried her tears when she got home, devastated and helpless after the robbery. He would never have imagined that his grandfather would be waiting for him with another orange case. From the Asian imported van in which they were returning to the hotel, the IPI Cooperació volunteers had seen how he was robbed and had stopped at his house to leave him another.
Hours earlier, in the unique room with plastered walls and tin roof where Jovani now had something to write with again, the grandmother had turned her grandson's dream of being a doctor into a matter of faith: God knows what will happen ”.
Three months later
Schools have remained closed and vulnerable minors deprived of their education ever since. All students, except the eighth and twelfth graders, will pass the course without being tested.
At the end of May, the University of Rediet set up a web portal for students to have access to study materials such as teaching guides. At the same time, the director of his faculty created a Telegram group to solve the students' doubts. They are expected to be tested in late summer, just before the start of the new course. Rediet acknowledges that studying like this, without a teacher's explanation, is complicated.
In early June, Aweke's teachers started sending her assignments through the PDF app. An effort was made so that the students who have to do the selectivity, which still has no date, have more resources to study. In addition, Aweke and her classmates use a Telegram group in which they cooperate to get the best prepared for the exam.
These educational initiatives, like the rest of those that require access to the Internet, were paralyzed from June 30 to July 23; The Ethiopian government cut off internet access across the country to quell protests over the murder of Haachaaluu Hundeessaa, an Oromo musician and activist. "Now any student is desperate," explains Aweke, who, like the rest of his classmates, stopped receiving assignments from their teachers during the shutdown. He, used to getting ahead in adverse situations, confesses that, despite everything, he is optimistic.
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