When 25-year-old Mustepha Birka first heard that he was being transferred to Awash Kolati Primary School to become its principal in 2013, he considered quitting the teaching profession instead of taking up his new post.
“I had overheard people talking about problems in this school before I was going to be hired here, so I secretly came and saw the situation for myself.”
The school is located amid a collection of rural farmsteads nestled in the highlands of central Ethiopia, in a shallow valley surrounded by soaring mountains. The cool climate and rich rainfall make the area ideal for growing coffee—which most of its residents do. But every year, during the summer season of June, July and August, the rains also bring high winds and floods that wash away everything in their path.
The classrooms were the biggest casualty of these deluges. Built by the community out of wood and mud bricks, they were in a state of constant disrepair as residents struggled to keep up with the relentless need to rebuild.
One afternoon, as 45-year-old farmer Jembere Bekele arrived to pick up her two youngest children from school, a flash flood roared down from the mountains, demolishing a classroom right in front of her. Luckily it was empty, but less than half an hour before, it hadn’t been.
“It would have hurt our kids,” she remembers, still shaken by the close call.
After seeing all this, Birka initially turned down the principal job. But his superiors insisted, and as a junior teacher he had little choice. He took up the post and hoped the school’s conditions would improve. It wasn’t just the classrooms that made teaching there unpleasant, though. He remembers constant shortages of school supplies, including blackboards, seats and desks. Students sat on dirt floors in dark, airless classrooms or outside under trees when the floods came in the rainy season.
The environment took a toll on him. Even though Birka met the woman who would later become his wife, a trainee teacher who arrived at the school a year after he did, he continued to try to get transferred to another school. He admits he took out his frustration on his staff.
“I used to write letters to teachers and cut their salary whenever they did something wrong,” Birka says, as he smooths out the page of a school register with edges gnawed by rodents.
For two years, Birka ran the school and watched the community twice rebuild the classrooms in a seemingly useless cycle. But in 2015, Zeweditu Alemu, a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, visited a nearby community and noticed its newly constructed school. It had fully equipped classrooms, a library, gender-segregated toilets and water points that provided drinkable water to the students and the community.
“I dreamed of seeing a school like that constructed here,” says Alemu. She discovered that it had been built by imagine1day, WE’s Ethiopian in-country partner. The group works with communities in the region to improve school infrastructure, in the hope that it will encourage students to enroll and remain in school. The PTA immediately reached out to imagine1day and asked for help.
“We were sick of building every year,” says Bekele. “We wanted to build lasting classrooms for once and forever.”
Even though she’s illiterate, Bekele is among the minority of parents who have always insisted that all their children go to school, regardless of the circumstance or their gender. Her commitment to education is well-known.
Born into a rich coffee-farming family, her parents didn’t believe there was any value to educating their girls. When she was 13, she was married to a man who beat her whenever she asked him to allow her to go to school. One night, after she’d defied him to attend a class in a nearby government school, he beat her so badly that he left her with a permanent scar on her right thigh. She eventually left her husband, but never learned to read or write. She is determined that her eight children will not suffer the same fate that she has.
“I am here in this condition only because I didn’t get an education. I don’t need my kids to live the same life of illiteracy that puts you in the dark,” she says.
Many parents in Awash Kolati preferred to keep their children at home rather than risk the school’s dangerous conditions, causing high rates of absenteeism and dropout among the students. And the school had a hard time keeping new recruits and tutors.
Before one brick could be laid down for a new school, the community had to have its own education. Bekele was invited to join a special committee to convince the other parents and community leaders of the power of education. Then imagine1day started training school staff in important life and leadership skills, like conflict resolution, goal setting, and improving teaching methods.
In June 2016, the local education office and imagine1day decided that the community was ready, and the primary school at Awash Kolati became a top priority for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, one more major obstacle was literally blocking their path: there was no viable road to the community, and no way to deliver building supplies for the new school.
So, over the next six months, Bekele and the other community leaders worked to raise money and find labourers to help build a new road to the community. They also agreed to pay for 20 per cent of the cost of the school as a sign of their commitment to education. Donors would fund the rest.
Farmers sold their seed stock ahead of the harvest to raise money for their donations. During Friday prayers, imams solicited their congregants, asking them to contribute what they were able. Prominent women like Bekele and Alemu relied on their personal connections to convince people to chip in, even dipping into their savings to donate on behalf of those who could not afford to.
More than once, members of the community wondered how they would ever raise enough money to make their dream school a reality. To keep morale up, the mobilization committee held tours of the dilapidated classrooms.
“I asked them whether it would be better to contribute a lot of money for a lasting solution, or to just keep building the old school every year and let our kids keep learning in such an ineffective environment,” said Bekele. Her tactic never failed.
Two years later, during November 2018, eight classrooms, two blocks of eight gender-segregated pit latrines, a library, a playground and a water point were inaugurated at Awash Kolati Primary School. That evening, as several hundred people from neighbouring communities descended on the new school in a frenzy of celebration, Bekele walked slowly from class to class, accompanied by her youngest son, Daniel. She was glowing with happiness.
“I used to always worry that these kids of mine, for whom I am going through the thin and the thick, might die one day from the old school falling on them,” she says. “Now, my biggest worry is gone and even if I die tomorrow, I won’t regret it, having seen the inauguration of this school.”
For Birka, the decision to take the job as principal of Awash Kolati Primary School continues to pay off.
“I decided to have my legacy be the construction of this school, and that’s why I am still here,” he says, cracking one of his rare smiles. “I see a very big light, a very great destiny, for the teachers and the students of this school in the future.”
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor, and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling them or not.