Well my friends, Keith has been getting lots of responses to his e-mails. Me, not so much. This
is beginning to cause tensions between us - after all, who has the degree in English, who is
actually teaching writing in Ethiopia??? But who gets the glorious comments about his
writing ability? (Well sure, you throw in a picture of a large guy on a very
small horse, that’s bound to get a few laughs...) After much rumination, I’ve come to the
conclusion that poverty is the problem. My e-mails thus far have focused on
the "darker" side of Ethiopia. Here now are some of the quirkier aspects of the life
of a Ferenj (startlingly White-One) in Ethiopia.
The teachers here have a very difficult job, having said that, they have a slavish devotion
to the textbook, English for Ethiopia. One day, while observing a class
(I’ve observed 30 of them, always proceeded by the students standing when the teacher and
I walk into the room, with lots of whispers, ‘ferenj’, ‘ferenj’, and in the primary
classes, the students stand and sing the alphabet in a tune different from the one we
use in Canada!), I witnessed the craziest example of such devotion. There are
not enough textbooks of course, sometimes 6 for a class of 100. So often the teacher
stands at the front of the room and holds up the textbook, as though anyone but
the front row could see. This teacher was teaching Grade Two and the textbook had pictures of
various things: two boys, three girls, four stones, etc. To point at these
indecipherable pictures, the teacher was using a pencil, holding it up to each picture in the
textbook. Such was her devotion to the textbook, that she was using a real pencil to
point to a tiny picture of three pencils to make the class recite, "There are three pencils" over
and over. Of course the class could see the real pencil, but did not in any way
realize that that was connected to the tiny picture that they were 'describing", but
could not see!
The chain of command reaches much further up than it does in Canada. It is nothing to
ask the Dean of the College for things. In fact today I wanted something printed out. The
English Department has a computer, but not a printer, so I was told to go to the Academic
Dean’s secretary to print my document out. Then the demanding Ferenji wanted this document
photocopied. I went to the Head of the English department, thinking surely a man of this
stature should be able to help me - he directed me to back to the Academic Dean!
Keys are another strange issue. They willingly gave me keys to the brand new computer
lab, with twenty state of the art computers, but for some reason will not give me a
key to the shint bhet (toilet). This reluctance to give me a key led me to
believe that it was a luxurious shint bhet with a flusher and perhaps even toilet paper.
Imagine my surprise when I was finally able to borrow a key, to find out that in fact,
the carefully guarded shint bhet is simply a hole in the ground, albeit a hole in the
ground with four walls and a large padlock around it!
The new semester is over two months late in beginning. Every two weeks I hear, it will begin
in two weeks. Apparently now it is going to start next week, this time for real.
Excitedly, I go a Habesha (Ethiopian) collegue: ‘I hear the new semester is going to start
next week!’ He is only cautiously optimistic. ‘Well, yes..’ I say, ‘So I will
start teaching on Monday?!’ ‘Well, God knows’ (this is a common expression in this very
religious country - I once made the mistake of telling someone I was not particularly
religious - I have not repeated this mistake - I am a Protestant while I’m in
Ethiopia, and yes, I know a few Bible verses in case anyone asks). Well, I’m thinking,
yes, God does know, but I was hoping you would also know, since you are the head of
the English department. Apparently classes will start next week, sometime
between Monday and Friday!
Wish me luck!