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Sonja Darlington - Teaching in Ethiopia

Classroom murals

My name is Sonja Darlington and my story begins with my desire to go to Ethiopia after meeting the US Tesfa coordinator Dan Roskey. He visited me twice at Beloit College, where I am a professor in Education and Youth Studies, to discuss Ethiopia and the Tesfa schools. From then on (early fall 2008), I began looking for a way to get to Ethiopia, as well as, I began to work on a first year seminar on Ethiopia and Sudan for fall 2009.

A year ago now, I applied for a Fulbright-Hayes Grant through the University of Pennsylvania, and I really wanted to be part of this 15 person contingent, but I was not a high school history teacher - the requirement. Therefore, after my rejection letter in spring 2009, I looked all over the web for a way to get to Ethiopia, which would not be as a tourist. After all, I had done research in Tanzania over the past ten years and had visited many countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Senegal, Botswana, and South Africa, in order to participate in international conferences, and I wanted a learning experience that matched my previous efforts.

Ethiopian colleagues

By looking up Woof, a volunteer organization that many of my students had traveled with for an organic farming experience, I came across Projects Abroad. Three weeks before my trip from June 21 to July 22, 2009, with the support of my daughter, a professor in creative writing at St. Joseph in Philadelphia, I decided that Projects Abroad was the right organization for me. I could volunteer to teach and at the same pursue my research interests, as time allowed.

The highlights of my visit were the following experiences:

I met Dejene Kasse, Head of Practical International Language and Leadership School, who organized my volunteer work as a teacher. I taught English to 13 to 70 year-olds from 3:00 to 7:30 five days a week. For those late afternoon hours, I met daily with over 100 bright, enthusiastic, hard-working students who engaged me in conversations not only in English, but also discussed my passions: the importance of education, sustainability and our individual responsibility, personal development and leadership, and the challenges for American youth, given their lack of knowledge about African countries. For readers, there is no way to describe the warm, family-like reception I received and the mutual learning that both the students and I enjoyed.

Preparing dinner

For one group of approximately 40 students, I, along with Dejene, whose idea this was, had students in smaller groups of 5 plan their own school: name it, design it, draw up a school menu, describe its uniqueness, and outline its curricular focus. A week later, students did presentations of their schools. Each group reported from the perspective of the principal, office secretary, groundskeeper, teacher representative and budget director. The plans were brilliant. Schools had fine arts classes, recreation centers, libraries, student-planted gardens, IT departments, and a staff who knew every student by name and cared about all the respective families.

During my morning hours, the teachers at Practical hosted me by following up on all the sites I needed to see and people I wanted to meet. They took me to the National Museum, School of Fine Arts and Design (Addis Ababa University), Shama books publishing house, the homes of artists, such as A. Sherif, and to nearby sites, e.g., Entoto, Lake Langano and Awasa, Negash Lodge. Here I was a 59 year-old professor and my daily hosts and best friends were 28 year-old teachers, who were unimaginably gracious and accommodating. We talked and talked and talked! We interacted as researchers, teachers, learners, travelers, dinner companions, and family.

My host family continued the educational experience. Atsede Woldegebriel, my host mother is the owner and director of Lemlem School, a K-10th grade private school that she started and in which her son, Zerey, and her daughter, Eldana, are both teachers. Lemlem is a wonderful school that boasts a strong academic commitment and a family atmosphere. When I visited, students clamored to get pictures of themselves, as they love Lemlem and many arrive early to greet their friends and hug their teachers. The colorful murals that surround the schoolyard are the creative inspiration of Zerey; and, they add to the wildly, joyful feeling one gets at being on the lovely grounds of Lemlem.

Sharing a meal

While in Addis, I also went to a Tesfa school site and enjoyed a brief, but most enjoyable visit with Ms. Alemu, the Tesfa director. Currently at this site, kindergarten children are enrolled in classes. The school is an open, inviting place and the curriculum is directed towards supporting children with few opportunities. I felt the nurturing environment around me, despite the fact that it was winter vacation and no students were present. Other Tesfa school are in Mojo and Debre Zeit—they are part of the Tesfa effort to open more schools for students who are least likely to have educational support.

Everyone in Ethiopia knows that electricity is scarce in the winter time and everyone goes into a different mode when the power is cut off—which is approximately every other day for 8 hours or more. However, what “ferengi,” like me, don’t realize at first is the aptitude Ethiopians have to initiate their own power—to walk up eleven flights in a high-rise, when the lift is not working, like Tesfahungen, my host father; to study for final exams in the dark, like Atsede, my host mother; to play for hours with doggies, like Fedawit with Rockie, and Micro, my host family sister and her pets; to make strong Tej, like Letei, my host family housekeeper; to carry out research in the rural areas where there is little protection from the rain, like my friend Solomon, the Anthropology teacher; and to teach with integrity, like my friend Dejene (a genuine Dewey teacher), who cares fiercely about the quality of experience at his school.

With local friends and colleagues

Finally, it seems obvious that I found my experience in Addis Ababa fantastic. I loved every minute of it, minus the times when I tried Kitfo (raw meat), as I prefer the fasting food eaten by many Ethiopians. Seriously, I can highly recommend Projects Abroad, as a volunteer organization that provides all the supported needed. The staff in Addis were most attentive: from meeting as an entourage at the airport, to welcoming me to my new home, to providing a solid orientation to my surroundings, to following up with me personally at the work site once a week, to hosting parties at places, like the Habeshah, where one can eat all the injera, drink all the Tej, and dance all night like crazy—from the hips up! For those of you still reading, take a chance and visit Addis Ababa. You will find your experience a milestone in your life from which you can rejuvenate yourself for years to come.

Oh, and for those of you who love languages, Amharic is beautiful. Try learning the write the script and speaking in Amharic!

Sonja Darlington
Professor, Beloit College
Beloit, Wisconsin

Sonja Darlington

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