Learning Under Fire
issue 180 - February 1988
Learning under fire
Every day there is danger. Every day the Ethiopian planes
may swoop down from the sky. But in embattled Eritrea the people
are eager to learn and the teachers keen to offer them a
new kind of education. Richard Swift reports.
'Teaching at home is a bloody waste of time - the students are so alienated that they are just not interested.' The words belong to Paul Highsmith, who taught in England and Wales for six years but now teaches in the liberated zone of the emerging East African nation of Eritrea. 'Here it's like another planet. You can't keep the students away. Even if they're sick you have to fight to get them to leave class.'
At first sight the Sahel region of Northern Eritrea looks forbidding. This terrain of rocky canyons and dusty valleys is well suited to defence against the Ethiopian army in a war of independence that has lasted 25 years. But it is ground which does not appear to be fertile for anything - let alone an attempt to build an alternative to Africa's elitist and beleaguered educational system. Yet that is exactly what the educational department of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) is trying to do.
The centrepiece of liberated Eritrea's new educational system is Zero School. The school is scattered in a series of classrooms that dot several interlocking valleys. Each classroom is built of sticks and foliage and is either carefully camouflaged under trees or else dug into the sides of rocky hills. Every village school in Eritrea is designed in this way so as to prevent detection from the air by the MIGs and Antanov bombers of the Ethiopian air force.
Zero School is unlike any school you could ever imagine. Yet it's all here. The chemistry lab carefully hidden under two olive trees. The history class working in a structure of earth-coloured sticks tucked half way up a steep slope. Grade Two is studying next to a ditch in which they can take cover if the planes should strike today. And way above it all, on top of a nearby mountain, are the anti-aircraft guns which seem to provide scant protection for these 4,000 students.
The threat of attack is very real throughout Eritrea. In 1985 several of Zero School's students were killed in an air raid. But so far the MIGs have not returned. Schools elsewhere have not been so lucky. One teacher described the effect of an air raid on the students. 'It's a terrible thing. The children are terrified. They come to you because they think that you can stop it and save them. Their terror doesn't stop even when it's over. It's better to be alone when the planes come.'
But Andebraham Giorgis, who heads up the educational division of the EPLF, is as interested in talking about the achievements and challenges of education as about the difficulties resulting from the war. 'We are engaged,' he says, 'in a profound struggle to change people's way of thinking. their entire approach to problems.' The educational system reflects the EPLF's commitment to socialist equality and the rights of women. Classes are strictly coeducational, with girls encouraged to enter all fields - particularly technical ones. This is no mean achievement in a region which is dominated by the Islamic Sharia law and where nomadic men feel very threatened when their wives and daughters go to school.
The classroom content reflects a clear socialist bias. For Cubo, who teaches history, the causes of World War I have more to do with the battle over markets and raw materials than with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand (the classical explanation that children are offered from Melbourne to Montreal).
The Eritreans want their educational system to contribute to the total transformation of this Red Sea country, which has been under colonial occupation by Ethiopia since the end of World War II. And considering two-thirds of the Education Department's activities take place behind Ethiopian lines - in what the EPLE calls semi-liberated areas - their achievements have been impressive. Last year 25,000 students were enrolled in 135 schools throughout Eritrea. This is a drop in the ocean for a country of around four million people with an illiteracy rate of some 80 per cent. But it's an impressive start considering the lack of resources and the continual Ethiopian air raids.
The EPLF's approach to education is different from that of other African countries. This is readily pointed out by Acia, one of Zero School's science teachers. Acia is a little man with merry eyes who taught in different parts of Ethiopia until 1980. 'There I only cared about the money and all the other teachers were the same. Teaching was a very low-status job and you just waited until the day was over. The students picked up the lack of concern on the part of their teachers and became indifferent. Their attention wandered and they lacked any discipline to learn.'
According to Acia the whole Ethiopian system was based on individual advancement and your marks in the final national exams. 'If you did well you became a manager, got a job in the airlines or a good position in the army. Those who did poorly often became teachers.' Acia points out that the Eritrean approach emphasizes how the student can best relate to the overall needs of a society in which every individual is respected. There are still examinations, but students are allowed to take them several times to build up their confidence. A highly competitive approach to learning is discouraged. The teachers of liberated Ertrea have to be committed because none are paid. In EPLF territory there is no money - people just receive what they need to live.
The enthusiasm and passion for learning among the students is obvious. Many have made sacrifices to become educated. Feshaie is a bullet-headed 12-year-old who wears a striped T-shirt and shorts that are too big for his skinny frame. He claims he had no chance to go to school in his home town, Ethiopian occupied Asmara. But he heard stories that living conditions were better in the North and that there was a chance of an education there. In late 1984 Feshaie and a friend left home and simply walked until they found some EPLF fighters. He wants to be a teacher when he graduates.
Such stories are not unusual. Many students are orphans or have been separated from their families. One boy called Haile Nehari actually escaped from prison - he had been put there after his sling-shot aimed at a pigeon had hit an Ethiopian soldier instead. He counts himself lucky to have avoided being shot.
In Zero School a teacher's questions are greeted by a sea of waving hands and shouts of the teacher's nickname - no turgid academic respect here. Students are encouraged to take an active part and regular sessions are held in which they can criticize their teachers. Student participation in their own education often starts with the construction of their own classrooms. In such circumstances education becomes much more than the dead-end routine it so often seems in the industrialized world.
But the difficulties the Eritreans face in educating both old and young are still formidable. Students must make do with two exercise books for the entire year.
There are shortages of maps, blackboards, texts and, most of all, teachers. The Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea is treated by nearly all foreign governments as an 'internal' political question - this means there is very little direct government aid to the EPLF's educational and social programs. Eritrean educators are frustrated that they cannot meet the demand for basic education.
So far all the Eritreans have been able to do is provide a basic education. After that students go off to vocational and on-the-job training. The curriculum is skewed towards the practical subjects that can most easily be integrated into economic production - the sciences, engineering, mechanics and health studies. Given the situation this is quite understandable. But there is a danger that education might become confined within a strictly utilitarian approach that neglects literature, the arts and social sciences. The basic courses stimulate a passion for learning, but a student interested in history or music has very limited opportunities to pursue that interest.
The Eritreans are aware of the problem. Andebraham holds that: 'You can't build a country only with technical experts. You need people with all kinds of skills: in sociology, psychology, politics and economics'. Still this is something to be watched, since revolutionary movements have the unfortunate habit of elevating temporary necessities into patriotic virtues - plumbers are more valuable than poets. But as you hear the laughter, songs and shouts echo off the barren Sahelian hills you can't help but feel that Eritrea provides an optimistic boost for those who retain a faith in education.
Richard Swift is a co-editor of the NI based in Toronto.
He is also a trustee of Oxfam Canada, with whom he travelled to Eritrea in November 1987.
Aotearoa's hamburger chain
The Thatcher New Right market-led shake-up of the British education system has not been imported into Aotearoa. But it's on the way, and the philosophical and political battles will be fought and the decision made, one way or the other, in 1988.
Prime Minister David Lange may be known internationally as the David who slew the nuclear giant, but locally he's better known as the man whose monetarist Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, has led a successful crusade to corporatize government and unshackle the economy. Labour's promise in last August's election was that it would turn its prodigious energies to social services in its second term. Having gained that second term, Lange appointed himself Minister of Education, swapping his foreign-affairs portfolio with Russell Marshall, thus signalling a major initiative in education reform.
Marshall hasn't so much tampered with Aotearoa education as launched a phalanx of studies and reviews which are now landing with thuds. So weighty and at times contradictory are the findings and recommendations that David Lange has established another committee to sift through them and recommend Government action in the reform of educational action. This is headed by a businessman, and some worried educators see its recommendations as a foregone conclusion, and its administrative brief as the thin end of the wedge of structural reform.
What the weighty reports do have in common is evidence that the high social ideals of a liberal egalitarian education system in practice fall short of the mark. The New Zealand Council for Educational Research identified women , Maori, Pacific Islanders and other non-Europeans, the poor, disabled and rural dwellers as educationally disadvantaged. However, these amount to some 60% of all students.
The state of play in Aotearoa at the moment is: so now everyone knows about the inequities in paradise, what are we going to do about it? Treasury, in its 295-page August 1987 document on education, opted predictably for an open market, hands off policy in which schools, if left to their own devices, will become more efficient and accountable to their customers. Treasury does, however, recognize a social dimension to education and recommends government intervention to help the disadvantaged. Given the numbers of the disadvantaged, critics of the Treasury ridicule the whole proposal. Meanwhile the State Services Co-ordinating Committee has recommended that secondary schools be run by higher paid managers instead of the traditional principles, with the right to sack teachers and determine their pay. Thus let loose in the real world of competitive survival, it argues, teachers and therefore schools will become more accountable. Teachers don't like the idea, and have said so, loudly.
At the bottom of the argument about running state schools like a chain of McDonalds' hamburger restaurants handing out Big Mac gift vouchers to disadvantaged kids, is the issue of whether education is ultimately just an utilitarian service to the marketplace that can be understood in simple commercial language, or something more important and fundamental that warrants different treatment. Treasury and other Government agencies reduce education into commercial language to understand it. Many believe the Government recently took the confusion between public service and commercial logic to it ultimate fatuity in another area when it announced it would shut down one third of all the country's post offices to provide the public with, in its words, a better postal service.
On past evidence like the post office closures, changes to education are likely to be draconian. The Government's propensity is toward a New Right solution to current ills; the political reality, given angry teachers and educationalists, is another matter. The irony is that the Labour Government has set up and funded handsomely a Royal Commission on Social Policy which will make its report at the end of 1988. Early indications are that its findings and recommendations will not please the market lobby. But given the speed at which this Government is moving, few doubt that the new education reforms, whatever they may be, will be firmly cemented in place by the time the Commission reports.
Brett Riley is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the NZ Listener.