In rural Ethiopia, the bright morning sunshine is hot by 10am. Outside, the rolling fields of grain gleam golden as far as the eye can see, dotted occasionally by grazing animals and groups of people cutting or threshing the grain.
Inside a little building at the top of one of the hills, several youths gather in a cool room, its grass thatch walls and roof are a welcome respite from the heat and flies. The walls are adorned with numerous, colourful charts depicting numbers, letters of the alphabet, animals, colours and words. In one corner, a tall cupboard containing children’s story books stands open.
It is Edoro’s Gend Kest reading centre, donated by a community elder and decorated by the volunteers who drew many of the charts hanging on the walls. Gabrielselassie, 16, is one of the youth volunteers responsible for running the centre. Now in his first year of high school, Gabrielselassie previously attended Babu Edoro Primary School in the valley located below the reading centre. The sound of children’s voices can be heard through the open windows. “Working at the reading centre is enjoyable, because I like children and we have fun while learning,” explains Gabrielselassie.
“When I was in Primary School, we started play-based learning at our school and our lessons became so interesting. I lived far away, but I did not miss any day of school because I enjoyed learning so much. That is why I volunteered to work at the reading centre; I love being in a classroom.”
Gabrielselassie is one of 34 volunteers trained by Right To Play to support 10 reading centres in this rural farming community in Northern Ethiopia. Here, children work alongside their parents in the grain fields and look after livestock all year round. As a result, they attend school irregularly and miss several lessons each week. The reading centres fill in their knowledge gaps by helping the children catch up on basic, foundation skills in reading, writing and numeracy. Without mastering these, children find it hard to stay in school and eventually drop out altogether.
The volunteers aged 14-18 are trained in child care, production of age-appropriate teaching aids such as charts and picture cut-outs, as well as numeracy and literacy. Right To Play relies on volunteers from the community who know the culture and background of the children and appreciate a chance to give back to their community. Now in its second year, the program is helping hundreds of children get the extra help they need to stay in school.
Every weekend, Gabrielselassie and two other boys from a nearby high school, Tarekegn,17, and Tariku,14, volunteer at the reading centre near their former Primary School.
On the busiest days, the three friends host over 80 children between the ages of four to 14 at the centre. For two hours, the children improve their reading, writing and numeracy under the tutelage of the older boys. The charts on the walls are useful as learning aids for the English and Amharic alphabets, as well as numbers, words, names of animals and colours. Time at the center is divided into four different activities, including story time, sharing experiences, singing and dancing. During story time, the volunteers read story books from the small library to the children and lead a discussion afterwards to enhance their comprehension and use of language.
Gabrielselassie wishes he had had access to such a reading centre when he was younger. “School was difficult for me until we started playing in class and I began to enjoy school,” he says.
When Right To Play started its collaboration with Babu Edoro Primary School in 2015, Gabrielselassie was in Grade 5. His teachers were trained to deliver play-based lessons in all subjects including English, Amharic and mathematics. That’s when Gabrielselassie experienced a positive change in his attitude towards school.
“My teachers played games in English class and reading became easier. I also enjoyed mathematics more because we spent time outside doing numeracy relays,” says Gabrielselassie, adding that he wants to be a teacher. “I wasn’t surprised when I passed my exams and joined high school.” When offered the opportunity by his teacher, Gabrielselassie jumped at the chance to volunteer at the centre because he “likes children and wants them to enjoy school,” like he did.
It is also giving him a chance to practice his dream job. Gabrielselassie understands how and why the reading centre is integral for children in the area who have just entered primary school and can’t read or write.
“We work with them patiently and praise them when they make progress, step by step,” explains Gabrielselassie. “Usually, after the summer, they have learnt to read and write.”
The reading centres are open on weekends only during the school term and every day during the three-month summer break. At Gend Kest, all 83 children attend regularly because it is only for two hours a day. Story time is the most popular activity, followed by song and dance time.
Gabrielselassie and his friends take turns leading each activity; sometimes different activities involving a variety of groups of children happen simultaneously. The little room gets noisy and crowded, so the older boys often take some children outside for a game. “We play with the children the way our teachers did with us and we can see that they enjoy themselves,” says Gabrielselassie. “That is why they never miss an opportunity to come to the reading center.”
In the nearby Babu Edoro Primary school, where most of the children in the community are enrolled, the teachers acknowledge that the reading centre is making a positive difference. Shewaye, 26, a teacher of English and Amharic says “the reading center is an important part of our lives now, just like the fields and the school. The children spend time everyday in one or all of those three places.” With an expansion of Right To Play’s volunteer program planned for later this year, soon more children in rural Ethiopia will have opportunities to have fun while helping each other learn.
Story and photos by Lilliane Pitters