For pastoralist children in the isolated Afar region of Ethiopia, access to education has always been extremely limited. For girls, there is even less opportunity. The Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), which began its first literacy program in 1996, is responding to the situation.
Since APDA started the literacy program, it has evolved to improve the coverage and quality of education in the Afar region, with an emphasis on education options that are appropriate for pastoralist children. While primary level education was being achieved in many areas through a combination of mobile and static education, the next challenge was to come up with a solution for how the children would continue their learning.
As an extension of the literacy program, APDA has been piloting a strategy that will ensure more girls gain access to education on an ongoing basis.
Through The Road Less Travelled, a partnership project led by Anglican Overseas Aid, APDA has established a student hostel in the town of Asayita. Pastoralist children from remote rural areas move to the town to live in the student hostel accommodation during the school term, so they have the opportunity to continue learning. The project supports the students to live while they attend the local government school from grade five onwards.
A key priority of the hostel is to increase girls’ participation in education – a challenge that has been met with some resistance from pastoralist communities. One factor that has helped to pave the way for Afar girls is the presence of the hostel house mother, Lako.
Lako is a mother from the same remote community as the students, and responded to APDA’s search for a volunteer house mother.
“They needed someone, so I said I’d go,” she says. “The best thing I can do is look after children. If our children learn, we can have a great future.”
During the school term, Lako is the caregiver for a group of 27 students of various ages, including 12 girls. As a mother of nine children, she has plenty of experience and is trusted by the community. Most of her children are grown up with their own families now, but her youngest child, Salama, lives with her at the student hostel along with two of her nieces.
Lako is a strong advocate for girls’ education. She is illiterate, and before APDA’s program began in the area she remembers there were no opportunities for education in her community. But she believes girls can be just as smart and do just as well as boys in school. “Let our sisters learn,” Lako says.
She works with the Community Development Committees, clan leaders, and women’s leaders to explain and promote the benefits of girls’ education. At first she faced a wall of concerns – the community was worried about the girls’ safety in the town. Beyond that, they were worried that if they got an education, the girls would never return to their community.
But for Lako, the chance that some of the students will return and give back to their community what they have gained through education is a chance worth fighting for.
“What are we doing here if not to go back to teach our community? What are [the students] here for, if not for that?” she says.
In the first year it was difficult to get girls into the hostel, but ongoing community consultations meant that in time people began to come around to the idea and realise the benefits of giving their daughters the opportunity to get an education.
When the students in Lako’s care are asked what they dream of doing when they grow up, many talk of going back to their community and becoming teachers, health extension workers, and doctors.
“These children learn, we then have a future, they will be the future. Before, there was no education … but in the hands of these children, even the Government will come to realise [the Afar] know our rights, we’ll work for our rights,” says Lako.
“Before APDA, we were people with closed eyes, and no idea what is going on around us, no idea how to care for ourselves. Now we have women’s extension workers, we have literacy teachers. If these children learn, the future will get brighter and better, thanks to the organisation.”