Camara Ethiopia CEO Shakeel Padamsey accompanied Ato Demissew Bekele, Camara Ethiopia Chief Advisor as he returned to his former school in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia half a century after his graduation and soon after his first trip to Ireland, where he was inspired by Irish students, who have learned to master complex ICT skills. While Demissew has been committed to the introduction of ICT in education for many years, what he saw in Irish school children became his vision for students across Ethiopia.

By Shakeel Padamsey

Ato Demissew watches students coding at Gaelscoil Bharra

Ato Demissew watches students coding at Gaelscoil Bharra

Ethiopia has seen a huge growth in the number of schools over the past few years, as the deadline for the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education approaches. Now there are almost 35,000 government schools, over 32,000 primary schools and approximately 2,200 secondary schools. The rate of students enrolled in in primary school is now almost 100%, however by the government’s own admission – quality has suffered hugely.

Camara believes that the quality of education can be enhanced through the introduction of ICT, however, without proper training, ongoing support and without empowering teachers – such technological solutions are likely to have little or no impact in schools. Without providing teachers, school leaders, local government officials and parents with an understanding of the power of computers in transforming education – such projects may just result in dusty and underutilised computer labs.

Ato Demissew sitting in the shade at Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

Ato Demissew sitting in the shade at Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

Camara has been working with regional and local governments across Ethiopia to ensure that ICT in education interventions are properly implemented, so that the whole school and wider community experience the benefits of the new technology and teaching methods. In June Camara Ethiopia’s Chief Advisor and I visited Dire Dawa in order to continue discussions with local government, and to conduct a fact-finding mission.

Dire Dawa is the second largest city in Ethiopia, with its own local government, and used to be a major trade route with goods coming from all over the world. Its role as a major gateway into Ethiopia is due, in part to the French-built Dire Dawa-Djibouti railway, built in 1902. Dire Dawa is 505 kilometres from Addis Ababa, which means a long 12 hour drive along the two lane motorway that connects the two cities – along stunning scenery that includes huge swaths of black volcanic rock. This time, luckily, we took the €30, 45 minute flight.

Dire Dawa is also the birth place of Camara Ethiopia’s Chief Advisor, Ato Demissew Bekele. Ato is the polite title given to male Ethiopians, similar to Mr – but placed in front of the first name rather than the second. So, for Demissew, who gets very cross when I call him Ato, especially after all these years, this return to his home and his former schools has particular significance.

Demissew speaking to students in Gaelscoil Bharra in Dublin, Ireland

Demissew speaking to students in Gaelscoil Bharra in Dublin, Ireland

Recently, on his first trip to Ireland he visited Gaelscoil Bharra, a school supported by Camara Ireland, where he saw primary school children using computers to learn – as well as to write to their pen-pals via email. When he came back, he spoke proudly of a young girl, Georgina, who had downloaded information about Ethiopia to show to him. When he told her that he was from the land of Cassiopeia, confused she ran back to the computer; after a few moments of typing into Wikipedia, he recalled how she came back shouting that Cassiopeia was an Ethiopian queen. This is his vision for all students in Ethiopia, no where they come from, that all students will have access to and an understanding of technology that will empower them to learn more.

Currently, Dire Dawa is home to 1.2 million people – around a quarter of the population of Ireland. However, it currently has only 10 secondary schools, and approximately 35 primary schools. As yet, the city government hasn’t assigned a substantial budget for ICT to schools in Dire Dawa, and in this regard, it is behind other regions and city administrations in Ethiopia. However, the Education Bureau Head Abdusemed Mohammed is hugely enthusiastic about working with Camara to address this, by providing a comprehensive package of training, educational content, support and equipment to all schools within his jurisdiction. He speak confidently and clearly about technical issues including operating systems, he is also a huge fan of Ubuntu – Camara’s preferred operating system.

The topic soon turned to issues of sustainability, needs assessments and existing-resource utilisation. It was refreshing to speak to a political appointee so attuned to the concepts of value for money, and he looked pleased when we talked about our social enterprise model – which places him, as the primary stakeholder, in the driving seat. When I summed this up by saying that ‘his needs are our needs’ – he gratifyingly responded with ‘well, what’s our action plan?’

After this meeting, we take a bajaj, or tuk-tuk, to the school. Ato Demissew lets a few pass after asking them the price. Eventually we get into one, where he passes 2 Birr to the driver for the both of us. That’s less than 6 cents each – for a three minute drive. I later take a similar journey where I, despite my two and a half years here (and a decent grasp of numbers in Amharic) struggle to haggle the drivers down to 10 birr just for myself.

Entrance to Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

Entrance to Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

We get to Ato Demissew’s former high school – Dire Dawa High School and Preparatory School. It is the oldest governmental high school in Dire Dawa, established in 1963. The school now has 1,611 students from grades 9 – 12. The school is located in the old Greek quarter of Dire Dawa, right by the football stadium, and at the city limits. The surrounding areas are dusty in the dry heat, but with plenty of trees providing shade. As we enter, we find the school surprisingly quiet – no students traipsing in their white and green uniforms to or from school. In Ethiopia, students study in morning or afternoon ‘shifts’, attending only 20 hours of lessons per week – and I realised I hadn’t seen any on the road. The guard tells us that the students are on study leave, due to the exams starting on Monday, and that we have just missed them.

Dire Dawa High School Principal, Ato Kebede Teferi Ayinkaw

Dire Dawa High School Principal, Ato Kebede Teferi Ayinkaw

We meet the school Principal, Ato Kebede Teferi Ayinkaw, who greats Demissew warmly. As we entered his office, he and Demissew tell me that his name literally means ‘Heavy’ ‘He who shall be feared’ and ‘Man that cannot be touched’. Demissew jokes that this is a strong Amhara name, and Ato Kebede laughs warmly.

I am told that there are 959 boys and 605 girls attending the school, and he has a staff of 87 male and 10 female teachers. When I ask him about the discrepancy, he complains that this disparity occurs throughout the system, and that unfortunately there are few women occupying senior positions throughout government, perhaps linked to the decrease in girls proceeding to higher levels of education. He tells Demissew about some of the challenges the school has faced over the previous years but assures us that they have been working closely with parents and local groups to address this. Above his desk, he proudly displays nearly a dozen trophies for various sporting competitions.

We discuss their ICT programme, as last year they received a number of computers as a donation through the work of the alumni society. He tells me that 50 are working, but ‘not well’ and that the IT teachers received only basic training. He explains to us that only the ICT teacher received training and other teachers don’t as yet use the facilities. He asks when Camara will supply him with more computers and training for more teachers. When I ask him why, he tells me that the additional computers and training will ‘help the whole school in every aspect: teaching, administration and student private study’. He earnestly tells me that ‘In order to bring quality education to our school, we have to use ICT technology. Camara can help us through computers and training to achieve this’. When I ask Ato Kebede about the government’s plans to provide computers to 300 schools across the country, he tells me that a year or two ago, his school and one other had been supposedly selected, but more than that he didn’t know. Irrespective of this, he assures me that ‘Camara’s training and support will still be essential to improving teaching and learning conditions in the school’.

Girls outside Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

Girls outside Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

As Demissew is looking through some old pictures with Ato Kebede I wander around the school to take some pictures. I almost stumble on some goats happily grazing, worryingly close to the school’s kitchen. Looking around, I marvel at the size of the school – holding around 45 classrooms, each able to accommodate up to 50 students, two libraries and an ICT lab. Half of the classrooms are in a massive, but very well kept, four storey block, and the others are in long adjacent rows. The grounds are massive and, looking around there are fantastic views of the mountain sides, with small stone houses dotted about the place. Demissew joins me and tells me a story or two, from his fond memories of half a century ago, about the exact spot we were standing on.

Boys outside Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

Boys outside Dire Dawa High School, Ethiopia

Outside the school we finally see a small group of students; a group of boys and girls chatting away. One of the boys tells me that he is in grade 11 and is studying natural science, maths, and business. When I ask him about ICT he tells me that he uses the lab to learn ICT skills. ‘We need more computers, of course, but for now, we are only 28 in our class’ he says. I ask him how many will be in his class next year. ‘God knows!’ he laughs, and then looks at me confidently ‘I think we will all be here next year’. His attitude matches the Principal’s earlier comments about the school’s rapid improvement.

As he walked away from the school Demissew reflected on the opportunity he saw in Dire Dawa. He said to me- “With Camara supporting this school in the future, we will really be able to address the inequality in access to technology between urban and rural areas. This school serves students from all surrounding areas, both urban and rural. With the proper use of technology by well trained teachers, these students will get the same educational opportunities as the students in the capital – no, the students in Ireland!”

At the school gates, we see an old lady in bright blue leading a camel laden with firewood past the sign that marks the city limits.

A lady and her camel in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia

A lady and her camel in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia