Immersion – or the tip of the iceberg

DSC09802My first full day in Addis was a bit of an immersion, an opportunity to see the school and adjust to the pace of Addis life before getting properly stuck in to the project.

Yared met me at 9am. It was so great to see him again – we met last August when he came to Sydney – and to GPY&R – as part of a sponsorship and fundraising drive. He is one of the most humble, passionate and amazing people I have ever met, and I am sure I will write a lot about him over this next month.

The School of St Yared has two campuses – Lower KG and Upper KG are in Faransay near to the French Embassy, whilst Grades 1 – 6 are in ‘’24 compound’ – so named because the name of the district is the Amharic word for twenty four. There’s quite a distance between the two campuses – perhaps a 15 – 20 minute drive.

In the morning, we headed up to the Kindergarten – a charming colourful compound containing three bright and cosy classrooms, an eating area, outdoor play space, kitchen, bathroom, healthcare room and 45 beautiful happy little people. When we arrived they were in lessons,– the Upper KG split across two classrooms were doing maths, whilst Lower KG were practicing reading using Jolly Phonics books. Everyone was concentrating very hard, and I was really impressed with the Lower KG’s grasp of reading given they are only one year into school. After a while, the bell sounded for morning break. Before getting stuck into football and hoolahooping and all sorts of activities, all the students, dressed in their multicoloured sports kit, lined up in the playground, shook my hand and said hello with smiles beaming all over their little faces. It was quite a procession! I got to meet Workadise – my sponsor child for the first time too. He is in Upper KG and is extremely sweet. I am going to visit him at his home with Yared sometime too which I am greatly looking forward to.

At The School of St Yared, the kids are provided with 3 meals a day – breakfast, lunch and a mid morning snack. It’s an important part of the school’s offer, as often there is not enough food to go around at home, and learning is never effective on a hungry tummy! Before playtime, everyone went and washed their hands with lots of soap – the school teaches the children why basic hygiene is important as this is something that their parents aren’t always aware of – before sitting down to a tasty snack of fresh papaya and bread rolls. And then playtime began – a brilliantly loud cacophony of happy energy and fun.

In between joining in with the football, Yared pointed out some of the children and told me their stories. It is very difficult to imagine quite how hard the home life is for some of these kids. One that stood out to me in particular was the story of a little boy whose mother had been bed ridden for a number of years and whose father had left as a result. Knowing the school’s reputation in the local area, the mother made considerable effort to take her son to the school’s selection day. On the way to the school (less than 500 metres from the gates) she fell heavily, and a stone on the road pierced her heart. As she lay dying, she asked some passersby to take her son to the school – he was accepted into KG as she was taken to the morgue. Now he lives in a child run household, and his older sister who is 14 looks after him. Yared tracked down his uncle who came and lived with them for a bit, but as he has his own family too, he was unable to stay. Looking at this happy little boy running around the football pitch, it is utterly unfathomable to think of what he’s gone through in his short life. Seeing the opportunity and the hope that the school has given him, totally reconfirms everything I already knew about how transformative the school is.

In the afternoon, Yared and I drove to the second compound – a much larger space with more classrooms, a bigger kitchen, a more fully equipped medical centre and a larger outdoor area. Some of the classrooms on this site were built by Yared with the help of the local community – one of the many things that show just how much the community value the school and feel a part of it.

The students were in lessons when we arrived, so after a quick walk around, Yared and I talked about his plans for the future of the school and the ways that the school can continue to help lift its community out of poverty. Despite having been in close contact with the school for the last year, I wasn’t totally aware just how much the school does not only for its kids, but for the parents too. Mulu, the school’s nurse and health worker runs regular workshops with the parents on matters of health and hygiene – next week she’s running one on sexual and reproductive health for the parents of Kindergarten children. Yared also told me of a community micro-insurance initiative that he’s got off the ground. Given the extreme poverty that the families live in, when some one gets ill, it is very difficult to give them the medical attention that they need. To help with this, Yared has started an insurance fund; parents all contribute 10 birr (around 60 Australian cents or 30p, I’m not sure how often) which everyone has access to if a family member falls sick and needs medical care, or if someone dies to ensure they can have a proper funeral. The money is stored in a bank account (something that most of the parents won’t have themselves) and to ensure it is only used when it is most needed, the signatures of three people are required to release funds.  In the future, Yared wants to consider how he can make initiatives like this part and parcel of the impact that the school has on the community, and wants them to be able to work with or without his direction. He kept referring to the responsibility he feels for his big family. It really brought home for me just how much the school has community at its centre.

That said, the students themselves are so brilliantly articulate and are receiving a wonderful education. Yared explained how he wants the kids to be able to think outside the box, to be educated rather than just taught to the test, although this is clearly important too. ‘I don’t want my students just to grow up knowing that ‘1+1=2’ I want them to be able to question this, for example, sometimes 1+1=1, like when a man and woman become husband and wife, they are one unit, two parts.’

This sort of provocative critical thinking will one day enable them to become the solution to the poverty faced in their communities, but it was amazing to see how empowered they are already. After lunch, the students have a ‘home group’ session which is a time for personal, health and social education. I sat in on Grade 6, where they were discussing school rules and their new student led support and self governance idea which seemed to be in the early stages of implementation – a small example of the ways in which their leadership skills are being developed.

Later in the day, we had a Skype call with Philippa, the Founder and Managing Director of TIE to discuss the project in more detail. To prevent interruption, Yared and I met with Jess and headed back to Yeka Guest House, where the wifi was better (it’s been slightly hit & miss since, hence this backlog of blog posts.) We had a brilliant talk around the project’s objective – ‘Create the strategy and tools necessary to raise awareness of St Yared’s work and help them to communicate with new sponsors and increase their financial sustainability,’ and set a timeline for the first week. I will write more about this in another post, as this one is slowly becoming a not so small essay!

Needless to say, it was an incredible first day, with so much to take in, and a lot to process!

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