‘It’s Not Just Talk and Chalk’

Helping the poorest of the poor at a school in Addis Ababa

by Don Duncan

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In a physical education class at the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the students’ challenge is simple: find a group of fellow students and stay close to them.

“We run in a circle and when the teacher blows the whistle and calls a number, we must group into clusters of that number,” explains 10-year-old Henok Tegu of the game they are playing in class today. “Those who don’t make it into a cluster are out of the game.”

The games court of the school, a small space that serves as a football field, basketball and volleyball court, and running track, is the source of numerous whistle shrieks followed by choruses of excited squeals from the students.

For this hour, at least, their sole concern is to stay in the game. But beyond the class, and beyond the confines of the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School, their lives are anything but this simple and carefree. The school, run by the Daughters of Charity and supported by CNEWA, is located in the middle of Kachene, the poorest neighborhood of Addis Ababa. It is the only school in the city targeting the poorest of the poor and one of the very few that is financially accessible to them.

Many of the students are orphans, or have lost one parent. A high proportion of people in the neighborhood are blind. Most of the adults get by on a precarious income earned through begging or occasional labor such as weaving baskets, selling grilled corn on the street or cleaning car windows. The daily worries of the children attending the Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School go beyond spelling tests and times tables.

“These children are exposed to many risks due to the poverty they live in,” says Assefa Teklewold Worka, the children’s physical education teacher. “They are exposed to tobacco, alcohol or sniffing petroleum from a very early age. They are also at risk from the various diseases that the slum they live in can bring — and, in some cases, from trafficking and coercion into sex work.”

Despite these dangers, many of the school’s students are trying to stay in the game — to get a better education and, they hope, a better life.

In fact, they are playing to win.

The Atse Tekle Ghiorgis School is a keen example of efficient use of space. Located on an acre of once-abandoned wasteland next to a graveyard, the school has managed to fit 18 classrooms plus toilets, science lab, library, small playing area and staffroom, into the assiduously landscaped and tiered inclines of the property. The safety and hygiene of the school contrasts sharply with the dangers and unsanitary conditions of the surrounding slum areas.

The school was started by two Ethiopian laymen more than 40 years ago to educate the children of lepers who had been completely shunned by Ethiopian society. Kachene and several of the neighborhoods surrounding it were considered taboo.

While the public health problems and stigma of leprosy have since faded, the area is still a neglected corner of Addis Ababa. It is where other citizens come to dump their garbage, which trails down the various slopes of the hilly landscape. Little or no infrastructure is present. The neighborhood consists of improvised shacks constructed of mud and corrugated iron roofs, which leak during the Ethiopian rainy season.

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