TRIP TO ETHIOPIA
When I became headteacher at Queniborough School we needed to develop international links with the school. I Googled ‘Educational Links in Ethiopia’ on the internet and found a charity called ‘Link Ethiopia’ and explored the possibility of sourcing a partner school. We eventually were matched with the Yekatit 23 Elementary School in Bahir Dar which is near the Blue Nile Falls and on the Southern shore of Lake Tana. Over the past two years our children have written to penpals and shared learning experiences. During this time, Wreake Valley Community College and Churchill Junior School in Thurmaston have also developed links with schools in Bahir Dar. Earlier this year Queniborough and WVCC obtained funding from the British Council to visit our partner schools during October half term.
I travelled with Mike Hill, a science teacher from Wreake Valley. We were accompanied by James Love from Link Ethiopia for the first couple of days of our trip. I was also taking an extra suitcase filled with stationery purchased with money donated by St. Mary’s Church in the village.
This was my first long haul journey and whilst there was a sense of excitement, I was also quite nervous! We travelled overnight on Friday 15th October landing in Addis Ababa at about 6am on Saturday morning just as dawn was breaking. Nothing prepared me for arriving in the capital city of a third world country! There were people everywhere interspersed with cattle, ramshackle taxis and street vendors. What struck me most was the sheer poverty of the population. Street children lay across the pavements and people just stepped over them while mothers begged by the side of the road, their young child sprawled asleep on the bare path. I felt quite vulnerable and was glad to have my two travelling companions. We visited key sites in the city and met the wife of a Canadian diplomat who helps to prepare curriculum projects for Link Ethiopia.
I was very conscious of being upheld by the Lord during the visit and a passage the Lord gave me whilst reading Isaiah 58 in my hotel room in Addis Ababa, was a real blessing to me during the week:
“If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58 verses 10 and 11
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your prayers whilst I was in Ethiopia.
We flew up to Gondar early on Sunday morning. The ultimate aim of this visit was so I could meet a little girl our family sponsors through Link Ethiopia. It was also an opportunity to speak to Belayneh Sheywaye who had visited Queniborough School last year. Representatives of the Primary Mental Health Team from Leicester were on our flight - what a small world! (What many people in Leicestershire do not know is that the Leicester hospitals have a link hospital in Gondar in Northern Ethiopia. Many medical professionals from a wide variety of disciplines visit this hospital on a regular basis. This includes my husband Steve who is a microbiologist.)
The girl we sponsor, Fekersalem, came to the Link Ethiopia office to be introduced to me. I then spent what was to become a very special afternoon in her company. We walked to her home through a warren of alleyways. Everyone is very friendly and keen to chat. Wherever you go in Ethiopia there is always someone wanting to speak to you! Fekersalem introduced me to her ‘mother’ (she is an orphan and a lady in the local community is now her guardian) and they prepared a meal for me. Fekersalem lives in a shack about 3 metres square and this is where they eat, sleep and store everything they own. We ate injera (a fermented pancake with the texture of foam backed carpet!) and maize cooked on a charcoal fire in the room. This family had nothing and yet they were willing to share their food with me. It was a real privilege to share this time with Fekersalem and her ‘mum’.
We then had a three hour minibus journey down to Bahir Dar where we were to spend the rest of our visit. Leaving Gondar, I saw David Lloyd’s wife, Danuta, walking along a road (David was our old Deputy Head). I have since ascertained that Danuta was also visiting a school in Gondar! The journey erased any pre-conceptions I had about Ethiopia. Admittedly we were in the north and it was just after the rainy season but Ethiopia is a truly beautiful country flanked by mountains and rocky outcrops. That when I was able to open my eyes when we weren’t overtaking on blind bends or travelling at speed with a big drop at the side of the road! We arrived at our ‘hotel’ in darkness which was very basic but many times better than what normal Ethiopians experience every day.
James accompanied me to the Yekatit 23 Elementary School on the Monday morning. I was introduced to Ato Mulugeta, the headteacher of the school and Abundeje who is the school’s link coordinator. There was a real empathy between us as soon as we met and real friendships developed through the week. The school has 1200 pupils and the children attend in two shifts which alternate each week. Teachers also work in shifts and are never in school for the full day! There was a special welcome ceremony for me where I met several of the children who write to pupils in our school. I spent the day touring the school, being introduced to teachers and students and arranging my timetable for the week. The delight of the day was to walk into a mud classroom to discover a deaf unit for about 20 children. This is very unusual for an African school and especially applicable to Queniborough School as we work very closely with the Hearing Impairment Team in Leicestershire. Street children in the community also attend the school.
During the week, I was working alongside teachers, taking classes and meeting a variety of members of the school community to find out how they would like our link to develop. The pupils loved the materials I took from St. Marys. They needed to be taught how to use paints and were thrilled with their gifts of pencils and felt pens.
I relished my half hour walk to school each morning. As I got closer to the school, children would run down the mud tracks shouting, ‘Mrs. Joy, Mrs Joy!’ I soon became known to the parents and community and was made to feel very welcome. I visited the homes of teachers and became increasingly confident at tasting new foods!
On the Thursday Evening a special ceremony was arranged. Staff and children wore national dress and we had a ‘Coffee Ceremony’ which is a key feature of Ethiopian hospitality. The teachers presented me with a parcel and inside was full Ethiopian dress. This was quite an emotional moment as I had been made to feel a real part of the staff team during the week! I then had to wear the costume and dance with some of the children!
Just before I left the school on Friday, one of the teachers I had become quite close to during the week came up to me and ‘out of the blue’ asked me what my religion was. I told her I was a Christian but not like the ‘Ethiopian Orthodox’ protestants. I told her that I believed that you had to make a decision to become a Christian and ask Jesus into your life. “Like me” she said. She went to an Evangelical Church and we had a conversation about our churches. It was amazing as there was just ‘something’ that drew us together during the week.
We left Bahir Dar on the evening of Friday 22nd October after spending our final day in school. This was an experience I will never forget.....and I would return tomorrow! The impact has already been felt in school. Children are talking and sharing about my visit and I can now answer questions with greater clarity. Shared learning will have more meaning and friendships will continue to develop through letter writing. Families are also enquiring about sponsoring a child for themselves and Link Ethiopia is now identifying children most in need in our school in Bahir Dar. Steve will be travelling to Gondar for a week just before Christmas to work with some students in the hospital and I really wish I was going too - one day in the future we may be able to share the Ethiopia experience together!!