Author Archives: duncaninethiopia

About duncaninethiopia

An online account of my time with the English Alive Academy in Nazret, Ethiopia during the summer of 2011.

final words and first photos

Here at last are some pictures from Nazret, which means I must be back home and it’s almost time for me to stop writing. You may also notice I’ve changed the theme slightly, from ‘rusty grunge’ to this one, which is called ‘elegant grunge’. I though the transition from rusty to elegant was a good way to describe the process of coming home from Ethiopia!

So the only thing left to say is a massive Thank You for all your support, sponsorship and encouragement. It’s been a great experience and your help has undoubtedly enabled me to make a small difference in the education – and therefore future – of the children I encountered. I’m certain too that it will be of benefit to our own school community as well.

Many of you I’ll see back at The Compass next week; I look forward to catching up and hearing about your own summer holidays. Enjoy what’s left of it!


“No race begins at the start.” – Haile G.S.

I’m writing this from the Haile Resort, on the shores of Lake Awasa in the south of the country. It’s owned by Haile Gebreselassie, the famous Ethiopian long-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist. There’s no sign of him so far; perhaps he’s out for an evening jog around the lake. But I’ve just ordered a coffee, which usually takes as long to prepare as it does for him to run 10,000 metres, so maybe he’ll turn up.

School finished yesterday, and there’s not much more to say on it. I feel reasonably satisfied with the job I’ve done, while also aware that the children still have a long distance to go. As is always the case with teaching, on reflection there are a lot of things I’d have done differently – but then if I was sitting here thinking I’d done everything right, something would be very wrong indeed! The other teachers were desperately keen for me to give a test in the final week, and the kids approached this with a fierce competitiveness that took me by surprise. Afterwards, I was disappointed that they were only interested in comparing scores and finding out who they did better or worse than. Not one of them looked through their test paper to see where they did well and where they might improve in future – which, I believe, is the whole point of assessment. The teachers, too, only wanted to know the results and not their implications. It seems that if you didn’t get a red tick in your book, no one thinks you learned anything. But as Haile says, “no race begins at the start” (it’s imprinted on the napkins here). The challenge is not in beating your opponents, but mastering your own self-belief. And this begins long before a test does (and finishes long after).

Of course, I know our own education system is far from perfect! So I shouldn’t be too critical. Dawit and I have had many lengthy conversations about teaching and learning methods and the merits and weaknesses of both the Scottish and Ethiopian education systems. He is very passionate about education, and the future of this particular school at least is firmly in safe hands. The children have every reason to be optimistic for their future (most of them want to be a pilot or a ‘space scientist’!)

Our visit to ‘Women At Risk’ on Tuesday, though, was quite a wake-up call. We interviewed the mothers, one-by-one; this was mostly conducted in Amharic, with Dawit explaining to me afterwards what had just been discussed. In some cases it would have been hard to guess at their predicament; with others, it was tragically obvious. You can tell – by the ragged clothes and lack of footwear, or the glazed expression in the eyes, or sometimes just the general demeanour – when someone’s not healthy. It was hard to see such poverty in the mothers, but you can at least try to rationalise it to some extent: maybe they made some poor life decisions along the way. But when it’s kids, it seems particularly cruel. Education may not even be a priority; they are simply trying to survive. Here, the race to the start line covers an even greater distance. I admire people like Dawit, and the ladies who run the centre – educated, affluent Ethiopians who have chosen a full-time profession of helping their less fortunate countrymen and women. Together maybe they can start to make some inroads.

My own contribution is over for now, though I’m sure I’ll keep in contact and maintain a link in some form or another. On Monday I have a 7-hour bus journey back up to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s slightly soulless capital. Then after a quick, final souvenir shop, I’ll catch the long flight home on Tuesday evening. Once I’m back in the land of decent internet connections, I should be able to share some photos with you that will tell the story far better than these words can. I’ll also be able to walk down a street unnoticed, and a cup of coffee won’t take 50 minutes to prepare. I bet it won’t taste quite the same though!

finding an Orthodox perspective on life

I thought I knew what a mixed-ability classroom looked like!…

My two classes either side of break each cover a range of approximately 10 years. Within this there is a 12-year old child prodigy, and a 16-year old who really struggles. And everything in between! As well as different abilities, children obviously want to learn in different ways depending on how old they are. Deciding on who to put in which group is a nightmare, and early finishers are inevitable. At least they can help by explaining the task to their classmates – unfortunately they do so in Amharic so I have to trust them that they are not just telling them the answers!

Thinking about it now, I only actually teach twenty-five kids – twelve before break, thirteen after – but under the circumstances it feels like a lot more. Anyway it’s enough, and even knowing the kids like I now do, I have my work cut out trying to make these last few days as challenging and stimulating as possible. I’m just glad there are no behaviour issues!

I’m writing much of the lesson plans myself, as the school’s resources are fairly limited and don’t really cover all the abilities. This at least provides me with a constructive way to pass the afternoon (once the midday heat has abated). Otherwise, there isn’t actually that much to do in Nazret, though I have found a few ways to occupy the time.

Firstly there’s the oddly named ‘BM Pastry’, which is in fact a bar that somehow picks up South African satellite TV and shows the live sport channels. It’s all European footie though, Ethiopians aren’t interested in tri-nations rugby! Further up the main road is the Maya Hotel with its excellent pool and lively community of ex-pats, travellers and wealthy Ethiopians – an ideal setting to enjoy a Mirinda (Ethiopian fanta) and forget you’re in a third world country for a while.

For real escapism though, one of my favourite hang-outs, perhaps bizarrely, is the Orthodox Chapel. It isn’t that I particularly like the building, or the surrounding gardens – both are in fact quite shabby. It’s just that there’s a complete absence of the touts, beggars and hustlers that follow you everywhere else around town (especially if you’re white). “My friend, where you go?” “You want taxi?” “You want sim card?” “You want change dollars?” The street-kids are a little more direct; “You, Ferenji! Give me money!”” I’ve found that the best defence is reflective sunglasses and an i-pod; once they realise they can’t make eye contact, and you’re not listening, they eventually give up. But still, it’s pretty tiring. But as soon as you cross the threshold into the Church grounds they simply vanish. It seems that even the most ardent of street-hustlers knows there’s a boundary there that’s not to be crossed; when it comes to hassling people for money, Church territory is strictly off-limits. I admire the fact that Ethiopia has this level of respect for their state religion – something I think we lost a long time ago.

It’s all incerdibly serene; there are usually a few other people about, mostly dressed in white robes and headscarves (as is the Orthodox custom), some studying their Amharic scriptures or muttering silent prayers, others like me just sitting and enjoying the silence. No one is allowed into the building itself except for priests and deacons (I know because I tried, and I’m neither!) but occasionally a prayer or chant will crackle forth from the megaphone on the roof – something you might normally associate with a Mosque. At this point people seem to either stand up or kneel on the ground, or else just carry on enjoying the sense of sanctuary. It really is difficult to imagine anywhere being quite so peaceful.

It’s back to reality next Tuesday though, as Dawit (who runs the school) and I are going to visit the offices of ‘Women At Risk’. This is an organisation that provides support for single mothers who are homeless. They’re keen to send the children they work with to our school and so give them a chance at least of a brighter future. It sounds like it could be a very rewarding partnership – it will all come down to whether there is enough sponsorship money to go around. For me, it’ll be a timely reminder that my mixed ability classes are no big deal in a land where challenges aren’t exactly hard to come by.

And then by Friday it will all be over! I’ve no idea how emotional it will all get; right now I just feel very lucky to be spending another week with such wonderful people and to be able to offer them a helping hand. I’ll let you know if I still feel the same way next weekend!


time, for a change

There’s an old missionary saying which I love, that goes “the Swiss may have invented time, but the Africans own it.” What it basically means is that life happens at a different pace here and there’s no point trying to hurry it. If they tell you the bus will leave in a couple of minutes, be prepared to wait at least another hour. If you order food in a restaurant they cook it from scratch (assuming they even have it) so you’ll be starving by the time it comes. If all this sounds frustrating, it’s actually quite liberating once you get used to it. All you can do is sigh, roll your eyes, smile to yourself and mutter, “ah, African time.”

But here in Ethiopia time literally does take on a new meaning, as they use a completely different clock. The day starts at sunrise, which is 6am our time every day (it’s so close to the equator that every day is pretty much the same length; they don’t have short winter days and long summer evenings like we do). An hour after sunrise is 1am, which is 7am our time. And so on. ‘pm’ doesn’t begin until sunset, which is of course 12 hours after sunrise, i.e. 6pm our time. In other words, I eat breakfast at 1.30am every day; school finishes at about 6.30am and I’m usually asleep by 4pm! Like ‘African Time’ itself, it all makes perfect sense after a while – but I don’t think it’s going to make jet-lag any easier when I come home!

But despite being on African, or rather Ethiopian time, time itself seems to be whizzing by. I’m already halfway through my placement and am getting a feel for where the children are at in their learning, and what their individual strengths and weaknesses are. For the last fortnight I’ll be deciding what aspects of the English language are the most important for them to learn, and of course how best to deliver them. Sara, the other volunteer, flies back to Italy tomorrow so her classes will be assimilated into mine. This will greatly increase the ability range which should be interesting…

I introduced the rugby ball to the playground on Tuesday; it was met with bewilderment at first but the children gradually realised that passing it with two hands is more effective than kicking it, and that the best way to get someone to release it is to rip it out of their hands, or tackle them to the ground! A dry, dusty playground and bare feet is perhaps not the best conditions for full contact, however, so it’s strictly ‘touch-only’ from now on. Ethiopians are such naturally fast athletes, though, if we could ever somehow arrange an international fixture with Compass I teckon they’d have us down the wings every time!

Anyway, it’s now 9.15am in the afternooon, time for a quick swim before dinner. And if you thought the clock was confusing, apparently today’s date is 1/12/2003! This is because Ethiopia uses the Coptic (surely ‘cryptic’? – Ed.) calendar; it seems the tourist brochures really weren’t lying when they boasted ‘thirteen months of sunshine”…

ingredients for education

As I expected, teaching in Ethiopia is not really what I was expecting it to be. (I hope that makes sense!)

First of all, one of the other volunteers hasn’t shown up, after being denied a work permit. So, there are just two of us (plus a team of Ethiopian teachers) and we are having to combine some classes as a result. Secondly, this being a summer school they are a bit more relaxed about age restrictions – I’m realising that nursery ‘level’ doesn’t necessarily mean nursery ‘age’. In other words, I’m teaching children from age 6 right up to 16, in the same room…

Children come and go, too; the classes started quite small – even by Compass standards! – but seem to be growing day by day. How many more children are still to come seems to be anybody’s guess!

All this makes for a challenging but fun work environment. The school is at least well equipped for jotters, textbooks, pencils etc. And they have an abundance of possibly the most vital resource of all – enthusiastic learners. If that was all that were needed they’d be flying. The children love shouting out answers and are even more thrilled if they get a red tick in their jotters. Home time is celebrated with beaming smiles, high fives and cries of “bye, Mr Danken – see you tomollow!”

But another essential ingredient for success is effective learning styles – or maybe teaching styles. These children can copy anything from the board – and they do, even when I’ve told them not to! And they will happily repeat back anything you say to them, but is that enough? Is that really learning? Today for example, they all left knowing the word ‘prepositions’, but I wonder how many of them would actually be able to explain the difference between ‘in’ and ‘under’. This slightly archaic ‘memorise and repeat ad infinitum’ method is something I can’t hope to alter in the four weeks I have here (three, now). But hopefullt the children will have some fun experiencing different, more interactive approaches to education. At the very least, I’ll have fun giving it a go!

The school day finishes at 12pm – before that sounds too ‘cushie’, it’s honestly too hot by then to be able to function properly. The heat at morning break, when I walk from one school campus to the other, is about as much as I can handle. This morning, though, it was absolutely pelting with rain and our dusty path had become a river. The only way to reach school would have been by boat, and as such we were closed until the weather improved. It was like that snow week all over again!

And what of Nazret itself? A fairly nondescript town, strung out along the main road between the capital, Addis Ababa and the nearest port in the neighbouring country of Djibouti. Actually, I think the quickest route to the sea might be through Eritrea, but the two countries are still technically at war, so all the imports and exports go along this route instead. So it feels like quite a ‘transient’ place, with lots of trucks and lorries passing through. And, as it’s a popular stop-off point along the way, plenty of rather incongruous high-rise hotels. The place I’m staying at currently has a fleet of UNICEF vehicles parked up, presumably on their way to – or maybe from – the drought in the far south-east of the country. But there are also lots of children herding goats with sticks along the dusty paths, and women carrying piles of firewood or sacks of maize – or both – on their backs. A mixture of the modern and the ancient, in other words.

After some early disagreements, my stomach seems to be getting on extremely well with Ethiopian food. Azeb cooks a mean omelette for breakfast, and serves up some deliciously spicy dishes for lunch and dinner; meanwhile, colleagues are lining up to invite us round for coffee. Ethiopia is taking extremely good care of me; I’ll be sure to give something back during the remaining time I have here.

The day before the first day of term

Well I’ve completed my lap of the popular tourist route around northern Ethiopia. It’s popularly known as the ‘historical circuit’ but I think a better name would be the ‘mind-blowingly awesome circuit of impossibly ancient and fascinating places’. We’ve seen castles, underground tombs, island monasteries, a standing stone with an inscription carved in Greek – yes, Greek! – and the ruins of the Queen Of Sheba’s Palace. The last stop was Lalibela, where there are Churches that were carved entirely out of (or rather, into!) the rock some 1,000 years ago. HOW did they do that? How did they know where to start and when to end? How did they get the measurements so exact? And where did they put all the rock that they took out?! It’s absolutely incredible. Soaking in all this history, it’s become easy to see why Ethiopians are such a proud and dignified people.

So now I’m in Nazret where I will start teaching tomorrow. I should probably be nervous, yet somehow I feel relieved. Relieved that the school really does exist; that there really area other volunteers (well, one so far anyway!) and that the food provided is top-notch. The hotel I’m staying in has only had one power-cut so far so that puts it above many of the places we’ve stayed in. It’s also right between a building site and a farmyard so there’s little chance of sleeping in!

I have a big, imposing, green-coloured ‘induction folder’ that I need to look through and which I’m sure will be very useful; however you never learn more as a teacher than on that first day with a new class. I can’t wait…

Graduating round the country

It’s graduation time in Ethiopia! All the local universities are finished, and they are holding their graduation ceremonies for the hundreds of young locals who have gained their qualifications and are now stepping out to begin their careers. All the celebrations means that the hotels and restaurants, as well as being full It’s graduation time in Ethiopia! All the local universities are finished, and they are holding their graduation ceremonies for the hundreds of young locals who have gained their qualifications and are now stepping out to begin their careers. All the celebrations means that the hotels and restaurants, as well as being full of the usual travelers, ex-pats and gap year backpackers, have got large groups of wealthy, middle-class Ethiopians. It’s an intriguing contrast to the many poor Ethiopians that we’ve seen elsewhere. In a country that’s supposedly in the grip of a terrible drought, we’ve been able to buy bottled water wherever we go.

Teaching in Nazret for four weeks is only a tiny contribution; building Ethiopia up into a healthy, safe and prosperous nation is going to be a massive, decades-long challenge. Still, I hope that the children I work with might one day be celebrating their own graduations, and finding a way to invest their skills and talents in their country’s future. Maybe they might become the next Tass, the hotelier who looked after us so well in Gondar (he even whipped up his ‘special remedy’ for an upset stomach; Black Label whisky, soda water and freshly squeezed lime – it worked!) Or Sisay, the excellent tour guide in Gondar whose expert knowledge added so much value to our visit. Or maybe even the group of students at Lake Tana who kept us awake with their lively reggae tunes! I’ve met some fascinating and gorgeous people, and I feel privileged to be among them.

Right now, there’s a ‘coffee ceremony’ going on behind me in the internet café. The wafting scent is absolutely delicious, I think I’ll go and join in!