Growth and drought

Progress at AMU

In Africa things move somewhat slower, don’t they? No, they don’t.

In two years’ time the number of universities in Ethiopia was extended from the established old 9 to a total of 22.
Some recent developments are not much less ambitious.

My manager Fikru and I had prepared a boost for the AMU ICT department, proposing after consultation of all faculties in April a catalog of ICT services that must be urgently set up, for approval by AMU management. It effectively called for quite some money, tripling the number of dedicated ICT posts from 4 to 12 (…), and specifying skills requirements. To discuss it, we met with a President that had just come back from Addis with new Ministry directives. He looked somewhat grim when he told us that Higher Education must expand drastically now, and that its emphasis must shift to educate engineers. In 2005 (we are in 2000 in the Ethiopian calendar; 2001 will start in September 2008) AMU, now having 8 000 registered students, must have 30 000; in a 70% - 30% ratio of science and engineering versus the other subjects. The next semester will already see an increase at AMU in engineering freshmen (electrical and computer science) from 300 to 2000, in water technology a similar increment. ‘And don’t forget, these figures are not estimates, they are solid! This is not a proposal, we must commit! Do or die! Sorry, may I smoke?’

On one hand, it made the job of defending our ICT proposal simple. Is there any escape but to approve? With such new growth scenarios, a well thought out ICT plan that applies to previous thinking can never be too ambitious, and a Ministry that changes the goalposts so drastically meanwhile cannot refuse to fund it. Yet, the formal approval to start recruiting took still quite some deliberations and red tape, so it is actually just starting now. And we must see whether we can really get the required skills. Not many skilled staff are around; new graduates have often focused much on theory but little on hands-on work (what can you do with a terribly slow Internet country-wide); government salary scales are not high; and Arba Minch is considered remote, hot, and uneventful by quite a few Ethiopians.

One aspect in which I did not really get it my way was that the new ICT staff will nominally be appointed in faculties, although the condition is that they will spend 100% of their time in the ICT department on ICT work. The pay scales for ICT staff would not otherwise attract skilled people – but I can see it coming that faculties will claim ‘their’ staff’s time for teaching. We have some assistance from faculties now, and just when you ask ‘can we please discuss the planning’ or worse, ‘could you please look at why the ftp server is so slow’ the answer can be ‘sorry, I have class now’. The teaching profession has more status than ICT or any of the support services. Fikru is aware of this snag – after all he is a part-time teacher himself. Perhaps we can select proper non-teachers during the recruitment phase...

As much as we could we had already started work, mainly with the system engineer and another colleague from Electrical Engineering, on some of the services deemed most urgent. That is, LAN and campus fiber network extension (difficult interactions with suppliers, cumbersome procedures); defining resilience in LAN and Internet access, and starting procurement for that (heavy procedures again); preparation for the Ministry-instigated tuition-by-videoconference project; preparation of the Data Centre for things to come; creating shared data areas for e-books access, and so on. Staff here are often volunteering to work weekends if things are urgent, and these two gentlemen also put in a lot of effort. Really dearly needed will be the recommended measures to bring computer viruses under control. They are rampant everywhere in Ethiopia, and, outside work, anyone hearing that you work in ICT will want assistance. If you value your time off work, fake ignorance; else carry your flash with AVG 8 with you wherever you go.
The most unrewarding aspect of the job is the total lack of interest in service by the carrier-monopolist ETC. Very pleasant is that management and close colleagues do consider that there is some value that I can add, and often ask for my views on things and actually use the feedback. One would perhaps hardly expect otherwise, but there are other VSO volunteers in other placements that say they have less of this interaction.

Side Projects

Hanny meanwhile spends much of her time working too. The project for the provision of a rural nearby school with school benches is progressing well. Thanks to all that contributed! The funding is complete, and the work progresses rapidly. A first report is available, and a second will follow soon (one or two weeks). We still envisage completion of the installation in July. Apart from that, Hanny gets drawn into several initiatives related to the two Dutch foundations that give support in the Arba Minch area. The people back in Holland find it very practical to have some local representation around that can quickly go and have a look to deliveries, requirements, assess needs, etcetera. Hanny in turn is greatly helped by Assefa, a graduate AMU student Water Technology who grew up as an orphan himself at a mission station, and who does much of the interaction with local teams. The orphanage run by Tsehay still draws much of Hanny’s energy, not so much in terms of care for the children, but for things like attempting to achieve compliance to bookkeeping rules required by donors, and for preparing both sides’ expectations if there is an imminent visit from a new potential donor.

Against a general backdrop of…

Unfortunately, however pleasant the small-scale world of our day-to-day activities may be, the situation as a whole in Ethiopia seems not to develop favorably. The effects of global problems are noticeable here too; over the past nine months for example the cost of fuel imports exceeded the total export earnings; and with the present oil price explosion this can only get much worse. Food prices are sharply rising, with the price of staple food like tef and maize doubling over the past two months. Adding to that, partly causing it, is the weak rainy season. In some areas there has definitely not been enough rain to give a harvest, and weak plants are eaten by insects. Cattle, often kept as a buffer to sell in difficult times, have here and there been dying from diseases. The Arba Minch area itself is not suffering that much, with its irrigation from the river Kulfo, but further to south and west the situation is worse. Unrest between nomads and pastoralists is somewhat on the increase, with casualties even on the side of intervening army units. The failing rain makes the capacity for hydro-electric power generation insufficient. Many cities including Addis are now on a regime of two days on and one day off. No electricity that third day, except for big companies and the universities (at least till now). Small enterprises get in trouble, and the technical college on the compound of which our house is situated cannot use the woodwork and metalwork machinery often enough for classes and production; ICT courses suffer too. A few weeks ago the relations with Eritrea became tense again over alleged military threats by Eritrea; and the Ethiopian army still has its hands tied (and money drained) with its intervention in Somalia, from which it was due to withdraw long ago.

Free time

We haven’t gone holidaying much yet! The Ethiopian Easter week (Good Friday was here 25 April) we spent with volunteer colleagues in Awassa, the nearest town (270 km), a pleasant city bordering on a small lake with beautiful birdlife. In July we will have visitors from Holland wanting to spend a few days in Arba Minch with us as part of their tour. We moved to a 3-bedroom house on the same technical college compound, so we can host guests (if they are prepared to cope with the fluctuating water supply). We lost our beautiful view of the escarpment, but got a beautiful view of lake Abaya in return…

PS Fortunately, since I wrote this on Sunday, there have been heavy rains for two nights, at least in Arba Minch. This morning around seven, even power came on suddenly, although it is a scheduled switch-off day and it had indeed gone sharply at midnight... Maybe things are changing for the better!


Hans en Hanny
P.O. Box 2136
Arba Minch - Ethiopia
Hanny:+251 916 854 268
Hans : +251 910 008 643