The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
A School in Erfa
Author - Sirgut Yadeta
Last year Nicholas Garland, political cartoonist, wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph about his visit to the Lalibela Education Alternative Project (LEAP) in Ethiopia. This has been briefly updated (with details of the school's opening and the plans for 2008) for News File by Sirgut Yadeta, who runs the Weekly Telegraph website and is one of the two managers of LEAP.
Three years ago, two friends - an Ethiopian woman and a Scotsman - decided to build a school in Erfa, a village near one of Ethiopia's holiest towns, Lalibela. Children in Erfa had no school. There was nowhere for the 500 children in the village to get an education. The nearest school, three miles away, already had 80 to a class.
I got involved with fund-raising and by the end of 2007 over £60,000 had been raised; much of the cash came from Daily Telegraph readers who responded generously to an appeal.
Enough money had been raised by the early part of 2007 to start building and in June of that year I stood with the two friends in Erfa inspecting the near-completed first building. Made of stone, it is 10 times the size of the thatched mud huts clustered on surrounding hills where prospective pupils live. It dominates the dusty landscape - but it is merely an outbuilding. The classrooms, latrines and dwellings for the staff would soon be on their way.
The Scotsman turned away, screwing up his eyes in dismay: "Oh, hell." They'd started building in the wrong place. It wasn't 'by the big tree', as instructed, so the plans were wrecked.
When the school was first mooted in 2005, local farmers realised what it would mean for their children's future and promptly set aside land for it - then kept offering more. At least there was plenty of empty ground on which to scope out a hurried new design. The design setback was far from the first we'd encountered.
In order for the school to blend in with traditional local architecture, the main building would be circular, with a cone-shaped roof. Given that it would tower over the mud huts in the village, the farmers - all devout Orthodox Christians - were concerned that it would dominate the nearby church.
"Are you some sort of religious organisation?" they asked. "Have you come to convert us to a different faith?" It took a while to convince them that this was indeed a school and nothing more.
As a token of gratitude for their land, the Scotsman presented them with a leather-bound, 19th-century bible. Puzzled, they asked as delicately as they could, why would you give a present that was obviously second-hand? Wouldn't a new bible be a better idea?
To their amazement, we explained that battered old stuff from the 19th century is particularly highly prized in England.
Accepting this, they departed, bewildered by the strange ways of their visitors. Negotiating cultural differences is the trickiest part of any charitable effort. It is a two-way traffic.
After an hour at the school site, our party moved off to be shown a well that had been dug by a dried-up riverbed. Topped by a shiny new manual pump, and with the onset of the rainy season, the well should have been full. But the pump does not work.
The men who built it know it is useless but no effort has been made to fix it. The absence of forethought and any attention to maintenance was as puzzling to our party as the battered old bible had been to the farmers.
The good news now is that at the end of September 2007 the school opened with two classrooms and 100 children in total in attendance. The age group varies between 7 and 14 years old. A child's age is determined by the unique method used locally. If a child is able to touch his/her left ear by his/her right hand then that child is believed to be above 7 years old. Very different from the usual way, but we were told it works.
There is a considerable amount of building work planned for the year 2008. We hope to build two more classrooms and a skill development training building. This will enable us to accept more students in the 2008 September intake.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, Ethiopians created one of the wonders of the world: in Lalibela, less than an hour's drive from Erfa, they carved a series of churches from the living rock of a mountainside. Standing beside these churches, your mind rebels against what it is asked to believe: that the walls and pretty windows, the steps, doorways, graceful arches and pillars include no stones, bricks or beams, but have been hewn from one vast boulder.
It is not surprising that some people believe the churches were built by angels. Now if they'd just give us a hand with this village school.........
If you would like to know more about the Lalibela Alternative Education Project (LEAP), or would like to make a donation, the contact details are:
Phone: 07932825839 and Website: www.leap-ethiopia.com