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Alternative Basic Education keeps pastoral children’s dreams alive

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©UNICEF/HQ06-0505/Getachew
Medina Humed Ahmed (centre), 10, lines up with other girls to enter the Galifega Alternative Basic Education Primary School in Afar Region, Ethiopia.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, 19 June 2006 – Ten-year-old Medina Humed Ahmed opens up about her dreams for the future.

“I want to drive one of those land cruisers, and I also want to fly airplanes,” she declares, pointing up at the cloudless sky above the desert of Ethiopia’s Afar Region. Her words generate a loud round of applause from her family.

In contrast to the confidence she now has, just two months ago Medina wasn’t sure if she would have much of a future. Back then, she spent most of her time helping her mother with household chores. Her contact with the outside world was limited to fetching water, looking for firewood, and taking the family’s sheep and goats in search of pasture.

But now, Medina goes to school – an opportunity provided to her and other pastoral children like her by the Alternative Basic Education (ABE) strategy, which is being implemented by the Afar Region Education Bureau with UNICEF support.

Children of pastoralists

Afar Region, where Medina lives with her family, has a population of more than 1 million, and is one of the poorest regions of Ethiopia. Infrastructure here is minimal, and an estimated 90 per cent of school-age children are not in school, far worse than the already poor national average of 43 per cent.

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© UNICEF/HQ06-0505/Getachew
Medina collects water from a pool left by a recent flooding. Like all pastoral children, Medina started to help with the household chores at a very young age.

Most Afar tribesmen are pastoralists, their lives bound to the fate of their herds of cattle, sheep, goats and camels that they raise in one of the most forbidding environments on the planet.

Children play a critical role in the nomadic lifestyle. Boys as young as eight start to herd their family’s sheep and goats while girls help with household chores. Medina was just one of the many pastoral children who were deprived of a chance to realize their right to an education.

Both school and family responsibilities

The ABE system responds to the urgent need for an education that suits the special needs and constraints of pastoral life. It provides flexible school hours, allowing pastoral children fulfil their household responsibilities while still finding time for school. The teachers are familiar with the community, and understand the pastoral lifestyle.

“Teaching is a profession held in high esteem by the Afar people,” says 20-year-old ABE facilitator Mohammed Adam Mohammed. “What can be greater than to bring enlightenment to one’s people? I live with the community, sleep with them and eat with them. If they have to move from this place then I will move with them too.”

These days, Medina gets up at the crack of dawn and joins her 12-year-old brother Mohammed to take their family’s sheep and goats out to pasture. They leave early in order to be back in time to collect their school books. By 8 a.m., both will be present at the school door for morning line-up and exercises along with more than 40 other students.

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©UNICEF/HQ06-0505/Getachew
Medina (far right) with her grandmother, Robi Ibrahim, and two other friends. Since she started going to a school specially designed for pastoral children, her family has adjusted their lifestyle so that her education will not be interrupted.

Their lessons include instruction in the Afar and English languages, mathematics and environmental studies. Class times are set by the community. Some classes are taught on Saturdays, and the ABE school year is sometimes longer than regular school year, in order to make sure that children have time both to attend school and to help with family chores.

Staying with the children

“Alternative Basic Education is enabling the emergence of a new generation of educated pastoralists in Ethiopia,” said UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia Bjorn Ljungqvist. “If we are to succeed in providing primary education to all Ethiopian children, including all girls, then the systems we provide must be able to accommodate the lifestyles of the hardest to reach children.”

To bring more children into school, UNICEF is scaling up its support in Afar region. More than 150 more ABE centres will soon be built, providing education to some 7,500 children.

Where ABE schools are up and running, life is beginning to change for Afar pastoralists.

“I prefer our nomadic life because I believe that it is better for us,” says Robi Ibrahim, Medina’s grandmother. “But we have decided to stay here with the children while most of the other adults have moved away with the animals. Why should our children be left behind while others go to school?”

“Only Allah knows what Medina’s future will be but I believe getting an education will prepare her to make the most of her life,” she says.


 

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Video
19 June 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on a new approach to education that allows many pastoral children in Ethiopia’s Afar Region to attend school.
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