Over the Wall
My classroom faces an outside wall of the Bingham compound, the other side of which stands a government school. Birhan Bir school as it is called is attended by four of our Y’tesfa Birhan girls (the ones who recently experienced a fire at their homes). The Kindergarten building, which they probably attended when they were younger, is located further along the main road on the opposite side.
My phone told me it was 24 degrees but under blue sky and sunshine with little breeze it felt much hotter as we wove our way along the road trying our best to avoid moving taxi vans and many stationary obstacles. My fellow visitors were the Bingham campus manager and one of his Ethiopian staff. They were going to inspect the work being done by some Bingham workers in response to the Kindergarten’s request for a double-sided hand washing trough, a drinking water tank and a small corrugated iron hut to be used as a medical room.
We knocked on the grey metal door and were admitted to a compound with single storey buildings along two sides of a small muddy field. Expecting to hear a cacophony of children’s voices, it was strangely quiet except for the noise of the traffic outside. There were doors at intervals along the buildings. I wondered if there were actually any children present, as all I could see was a lady in a white coat sitting in each doorway. I was introduced to the director who was crossing the field carrying a large picture of a cat - or maybe a rabbit - which had been drawn and coloured. She was heading towards the new medical hut to stick this poster on the wall inside. I explained that I was the kindergarten teacher from Bingham Academy and she willingly led me towards one of the classrooms.
As the lady in the doorway moved aside the reason for the quietness was obvious. Every desk was over-populated by small children, each one had their head on their hands. Apparently, this was ‘rest time’ after lunch. Having been to other Ethiopian schools I was impressed that the classroom walls were decorated inside. They were adorned by Fidel (Ethiopian letters) and in this classroom for the oldest Kindergarten children, even some Western numbers. The children were clearly not allowed to lift their heads, but some gave me a cautious wave. Not wanting me to be let off lightly, the director was keen to test me on my knowledge of Fidel, and so I had to identify each of the characters pinned to the wall. Clearly ‘thinking time’ is not allowed and if I hesitated, the correct sound was firmly offered.
The next classroom was similar but the director, still carrying her cat/rabbit poster, wanted to point out the collection of empty Sprite bottles for counting, and a piece of card on which was stuck a collection of beans and pulses. These were covered with clear plastic which was coming away from the edges. The purpose of this was unclear. She then drew my attention to a small chair decorated with shiny wrapping paper. “Ah - melkem lidet” (Happy Birthday) I suggested. “Excellence,” she replied in English, waving her hand towards the class in front of her. I asked if I could take a photo, so the director moved to the centre of the room indicating to her staff to stand aside knowing that she would be certain to be part of the photo. This happened on more than one occasion.
The director then invited me to see “beds”. Inside this ‘bedroom’ were 120 (I was told) tightly packed small bodies resting on mattresses laid out side by side. It was very hot. (Their uniform is a knitted jumper and shirt). One of the teachers asked hopefully if I could provide a washing machine to launder the sheets. Once outside the director herself asked me for puzzles and colours. (I do appreciate from experience that locally purchased coloured pencils are difficult to use.)
The next room was adorned with fading photos of the previous year’s graduating kindergarten students, resplendent in their tiny mortar boards and gowns. The number of photos was an indication of the burgeoning class sizes.
I offered my thanks for the tour only to be led along to one final room. This turned out to be the staff room. The director took me along to show me how they had decorated the walls. I was more interested in the five or six teachers lying on three mattresses and half a dozen more sitting around on plastic chairs and leaning on tables. Obviously ‘rest time’ is not only for the children!