One thing you notice right away in Ethiopia is the children.
Everywhere you drive they’re by the side of the road, smiling and waving. Whether you’re on a newly paved highway or a rutted, back country dirt track, the kids love seeing foreigners and wave at each one. One day I counted 110 waves and it felt like a slow day.
It’s impossible not to feel good when children are smiling at you all the time, but beyond those smiles there’s a story that’s not so happy. Many Ethiopian live in poverty and lack clean drinking water, adequate health care, and access to a good school. Many have to work to help support their family.
The government is making a serious effort to change that, especially in the field of education. School is free, as are textbooks. Even university is free for students who pass a tough entrance exam. The problem is, many families can’t afford to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields or at home. Plus the quality of education varies widely. While some schools are excellent and the university students can be downright intimidating with the extent of their knowledge, rural schools often lag behind.
This is where another common sight in Ethiopia comes in–the NGO. Non-governmental organizations are everywhere, building health facilities or engaging in microfinance. Some do a good job while others are criticized for inefficiency and wasteful spending. I couldn’t help but notice the large number of NGO vehicles in the parking lots of the most expensive hotels, the same hotels my wife and I avoided as being too expensive.
While there’s a lot of justified criticism of how NGOs operate in Ethiopia, one organization that gets universal approval is A Glimmer of Hope. This Austin, Texas, based organization has a huge endowment that pays all its operating expenses, meaning any donations really do make it to those in need. Other than some projects in Austin, they focus entirely on Ethiopia, mainly in education, health, water, and microfinance. I got to visit four Glimmer of Hope projects and found them a step above the usual NGO efforts.
Our four-wheel drive bumped and lurched over a rough dirt road through patches of forest and farm fields. We were only a mile off the main highway and already a half century back in time. There were no shops, few villages, and electricity was a rarity. Strange to say, we were only a half hour’s drive from Gondar, a major tourist attraction. Our goal was the villages of Burbex and Girargie. Here Glimmer of Hope was building new schools, a rural health center, and a well. As soon as we pulled into the dirt schoolyard and got out of the car we got more than friendly waves; we were mobbed. All learning stopped as kids poured out of the classrooms to see the foreigners.
%Gallery-89843%The “I’ll teach you English if you teach me Amharic” game that we played at the source of the Nile started in earnest, and it was with difficulty that we waded through the crowd to meet the engineer in charge of the building project and the principal of the school. They showed us the old classrooms. A long building, made of wood, mud, and plaster, housed a few cramped rooms on which students sat on bare benches. There were no desks, no extra books besides the textbooks the government hands out, and few educational materials besides a blackboard. Across the yard the new schoolhouse was being built and it already promised a huge change. It was bigger, made of concrete, and would be furnished with educational materials and proper desks provided by Glimmer of Hope. Donations for another school project in Dali are being collected through an online purchasing system where you can buy individual bits of equipment, such as $45 blackboard, that go directly to the school.
Deeper into the countryside we visited a school that had even fewer facilities. It was housed in an abandoned home and the kids didn’t even have benches to sit on. Instead they sat on rocks. The only light came through the glassless window and the cracks in the walls, and the only equipment was a blackboard with a hole in it. Yet here, too, kids were learning, at least until we showed up and got mobbed again. These shoeless children dressed in tattered clothing proudly tried out their English vocabulary and showed us their government school books, which were well-written and stuffed with information. The government is serious about education and stretches its limited resources as far as possible. A dedicated student can do well. The government will even subsidize room and board for university students so they won’t be a burden on their families. While this country needs help, they are doing everything they can to help themselves.
A Glimmer of Hope recognizes this and does something few other NGOs do–it hires only Ethiopians for its in-country staff. This avoids a lot of embarrassing blunders where well-meaning but essentially clueless Westerners try to graft their own ideas of development onto a society they don’t understand. And it gives much-needed jobs to Ethiopians, from the people hauling concrete to educated professionals working in the head office. Once a school is built, the local government takes it over and A Glimmer of Hope moves on to the next project.
This cooperation has worked well at a school in Lege Tafo, near the capital Addis Ababa. A Glimmer of Hope is building an expansion, a science lab, and a library while the government is stocking the library with books, funding another expansion, and funding school operations. What was once a middling semi-rural school is fast becoming a science magnet school. The fact that most students walk several miles down from the surrounding mountains to go there is a testament to its reputation, and to how serious the kids are about education.
This is something you see all around the country–twelve year-old girls who want to be doctors, kids doing their homework by firelight, and university students who aren’t applying for foreign visas because they want to stay and build up their country.
With a new generation like this, it won’t be long before Ethiopia won’t need so many NGOs.
Next stop: Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region!
You can read the entire series of Ethiopia travel articles here.