Forty years ago I arrived in Ethiopia to work with the Peace Corps as part of their Rural Development Program. Ethiopia was at that time, and unfortunately remains today, one of the least developed countries in the world. Although its problems were no different from those suffered by most underdeveloped countries at the time—namely lack of education, health facilities, sanitation, infrastructure and a working middle class—it had the further disadvantage of a history of feudal land ownership supported by the policies of His Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie.
Up until 1968, the primary focus of the Peace Corps was to provide teachers to the developing world to help them overcome their tremendous shortage of trained educators. Shortly after that, however, they began to enlarge their mission by sending volunteers to work in such new areas as farming, irrigation, rural electrification, wildlife and fisheries improvement as well as many other rural development activities.
My job was to organize and advise weavers’ cooperatives in southern Ethiopia. Peace Corps was successful when their mission was limited to placing teachers in very structured settings such as elementary or secondary schools. Rural developments projects, as we quickly learned, usually are effective only when additional monetary or infrastructure improvements accompany the manpower. My two years in Ethiopia were highly enjoyable and personally enriching, but I would be hard pressed to allege that the country was any better off for my having been there.
One of my most vivid recollections from those two years was the memory of seeing some children walk three or four miles a day in order to attend school. Most villages could not afford to support a school and even if they could attendance was seriously limited by the fact that children were often needed in the fields to help with the family farming. Girls were even less likely to have the luxury of going to school as there was water and firewood which had to be gathered daily and these tasks were traditionally done by females.
The literacy rate in Ethiopia is currently about 45 percent. While there have been many new schools built within the past 10 years, in rural areas there are still many communities with no realistic access to an elementary school. This motivated my creation of the Central Highlands Foundation three years ago. This non-profit group helps provide schools and educational resource materials to rural villages in southern Ethiopia. Two years ago, we opened our first school in the village of Bale, approximately 200 miles southwest of the capital, Addis Ababa.
When I first visited the village there was a makeshift “school” which was holding classes under a tree and being taught by a high school graduate. At the time, the local leaders estimated that if a school were to be built as many as 1,000 children would attend. This seemed like a worthwhile project and we built a school using private donations. In October of 2008, on the opening day, 2,500 students were in attendance. Twelve additional teachers had to be hired and the school went to a split session, morning and afternoon. Most class sizes are over 120 students. Since there was no previous school in the area many of the students in the first grade are over 18 years old.
In addition to a lack of available schools there is also a tremendous shortage of books and other educational supplies. I have been in schools where there may be only one or two total books per class and the children simply read the same ones over and over. We are in the process of sending a 20 foot container of books that have been donated by various sources in the U.S.
My next project is to establish a micro-credit program in several villages in southern Ethiopia. Providing loans to potential small business owners and farmers has been a very successful model for development. Loans as small as $100 to $200 have been enough for individuals to expand or even establish their own business and I am convinced that there is a tremendous need and desire for micro-credit financing.
A simple story illustrates the importance of education to Ethiopians and parents’ desire for a better life for their children. Local residents were asked to help clear the site in preparation for the school we built. A woman who was five months pregnant and already had a child strapped to her back arrived and began picking up rocks. When told that she did not need to help, she said, “But how can I send my children to school if I don’t help in its construction.”