Text: Jorunn Valbø Tran, Ungdom i Oppdrag, Photo: Harvest Church of God (HCOG) i Etiopia
On the way to attend a new school opening in Simbo, Ethiopia, we found ourselves making a sudden stop a couple of kilometers before our destination. Our driver said that the view was good from here, so we climbed out of the car to take in the beautiful landscape of African trees indicative to the region. A couple of mud huts with straw roofs were built by the side of the road where we stopped, and we were quickly surrounded by a group of curious observers. There was a young pregnant woman holding a crying baby who smiled at us. Between her legs another two children tried to hide themselves from us, and we found out that she had another child living in the capital city. “How old are you?” we asked her. “Twenty-four,” she replied with a smile. “How old is your oldest child?” we wanted to know. “Eight,” she answered and glanced at her son. We also learned that she was Wife Number Two of a man who ‘had lived a long life.’ She was only able to attend school for two short years; if she had received more education she would have been able to marry a bit later in life, but this wasn’t to be for her.
By the woman’s side stood three teenage girls who giggled shyly. All of them were around 15 years old and attended second grade at school. The younger village children crowding around us did not go to school, since the nearest school was an hour’s walk away.
Finally we had to continue our journey. Inside the car we all sat silent a few moments, taking in what we just experienced. How could a young mother of four with another on the way meet us with a smile? Will the teenage girls soon have to discontinue their education to become Wife Number Two or Three to an older man? It there truly a future and a hope for the little ones that crowded around us?
A school also for girls
“This story is from our trip [to Ethiopia] in November, and is a good example of why we do what we do,” says Runar Byberg, second leader for Youth With A Mission Norway. “Many girls grow up in impoverished conditions with no chance of going to school, mainly because the way [to school] is long and dangerous. Besides, It takes them the whole day just to fetch water for their family – and schools do nothing to facilitate the education of girls,” he says, mentioning the lack of toilets for girls as an example. Without their own toilets the girls must use the corn fields to relieve themselves, and the danger of rape or child brides being robbed in the fields makes the endeavor too risky for them.
Removing the hindrances
Education is a key to climbing out of poverty. There are many opportunities for children in Ethiopia to receive an education, but there are a number of things that hinder girls from attending school. “We are doing what we can to remove these hindrances,” continues Byberg. When girls receive an education, there is no need for them to marry at fifteen. Instead, “they can take responsibility for their own lives, find a job and be given a voice,” states Byberg. Schools with toilets facilities for both boys and girls built close to villages that currently do not have a school offer a future and a hope both to children and the community.
Nine schools and 4500 children
For a number of years YWAM Skien has cooperated with Harvest Church of God (HCOG) in Ethiopia. The first school was completed ten years ago in Kofale. Along with a project group from Norway, Runar attended in November the opening of their ninth school, which was built in Simbo. There are currently 4500 children attending preschool and primary school in these buildings, and around 50 percent of the students are girls.
Water pumps and drama club
Other initiatives have been taken in addition to the construction of school buildings. The installment of water pumps is one of these initiatives, allowing the girls to avoid having to stand in line for up to two hours to fetch water for the family – time better spent learning in school. The schools also function as community centers outside of class time. “Through the use of various activities we can address problems in our society, focusing heavily on the education of girls,” states the project leader from HCOG, Mekibib Tasew. He gives the example of a drama club that gave a performance for parents and others from the local community. The drama they performed touched on the themes of polygamy and equality. “Not only did the parents beam with pride at their children’s performance, we could also see that the message touched them and caused them to think.” They also introduced ‘Girls’ Education Day’ on the 8th of March each year, celebrated not only by HCOG schools but by others as well.
Better results than government schools
According to national evaluations of Ethiopia’s schools, the schools of Harvest Church of God have received better ratings than the state-owned schools. The performance of the children attending HCOG schools is also better. Bekibib and the others working on the project have acquired valuable knowledge and experience on how best to cooperate with the local community, and the best way to run a school. Since most of the schools are located in areas that are more than 90 percent Muslim, they have also learned about conflict resolution. The HCOG schools are highly respected and appreciated in the community, and no one has tried to hide the fact that the schools are administered by Christians. “A key in working in Muslim areas is transparency,” commented Mekibib. No overt preaching is done in the schools; instead, children learn relevant biblical values and principles. “We believe this will contribute to bringing change to society,” concludes Mekibib.