Knowledge factory Arba Minch University delivered its annual production on 15 July. Over 2200 Bachelors graduating! One of the big student restaurants was temporarily converted into a ceremonial place that could seat all these new graduates, plus the senate and part of the teaching staff. Everyone in academic gown, of course. Thus we spent a full morning on the formalities: solemn vows by all new Bachelors about good and patriotic conduct, prizes awarded for the best students, the reading out of numbers, grades and results. Speeches. All the time, family and friends waited outside or in the other big canteen, where events were projected on a big screen. When the new graduates finally poored out of the restaurant, these waiting people could at last congratulate their kin, pictures could be taken, and the family would be shown the places where all the sufferings of the study had taken place. Watch a few happy people, and spot the student with the best academic results of all (sporting the cup) here.
The end of the academic year is a turning point in many ways. Not in the least for academic staff turnover. Teachers are entitled to academic privileges depending on their number of years of service. Many teachers themselves have only Bachelor qualifications. A government program sponsors the training of 10000 Masters and 2000 PhDs over 5 years, often at universities in China and India (for cost reasons) if the postgraduate education cannot be had in Ethiopia yet (which is often the case). After getting the degree, you are supposed to serve another two or three years at the university you served before – though there is no watertight control on that. If you are smart, you can find your own scholarship in Europe or USA to get your PhD, sometimes without the obligation to come back. All this is good for the individual, but a complication for the university’s “teaching and learning process”.
From mid July till end of September, when the new academic year starts, the regular students are gone, but a new batch of trainees flood the campus: summer course students. Often teachers of primary or secondary schools, these people grab the opportunity to further their education during their schools’ summer break. AMU academic staff gets a nice second income in that period from teaching summer courses. Non-academic staff at AMU is entitled to follow summer courses to a certain extent. That is a smart benefit! Some work therefore doesn’t get done during summer… Also, the Ministry of Education schedules specialist trainings for ICT staff in Addis during the summer. Good thing too – with a shadow side however: trainings can take many weeks.
… of all these things was not favorable for progress in AMU’s ICT area during July, August and part of September. The busy examination and graduation time delayed the placement of the advertisement for 8 new ICT staff – agreed in mid May, placed in mid August. A scholarship scored in Torino, Italy by my boss Fikru, the ICT coordinator will remove him from the scene before year end – and as he needed to arrange visa and formalities, and married and had holidays, he was away for the best part of two months. The systems administrator and others from the existing ICT crew were on training in Addis for over two months – and the systems administrator broke his contract with AMU three days after he returned from Addis and went. The remaining ICT staff had summer class. I found myself ‘deputizing’ for quite a few people… In order not to get a feeling that nothing happened, I set up a simple Intranet service with some teaching and learning content that was around; which is well-appreciated meanwhile.
Things went uphill again from second week September onwards. Applications had come in for the 8 ICT posts; we held interviews in Addis and Arba Minch. Not many experienced people (most applicants were fresh Bachelors, very little experience, little hands-on knowledge) – but for 6 out of the 8 posts we found suitable candidates. The two top positions: system administrator and network administrator, we could not fill yet. Later, perhaps! In parallel, room had to be created for the new staff. Complications there, because the infra department was more than busy to enable the larger influx of freshmen to have dorms (AMU is supposed to grow from 8 000 to 12 000 students this academic year)… Another issue soon to be given attention is a revamp of the Data Centre. The electrical installation is very bad (under-dimensioned, and none of the ground wires is connected), dust can easily enter (and will), there is no UPS and no generator – but power cuts are frequent. These conditions have already caused expensive equipment to fail, amongst which, recently, the supervisor engine of a Cisco core switch. We ran a mini-tender for replacing it with the newest model, but that would cost over 40 000 USD. World Bank money would be available under certain conditions, but my Dutch nature considered that excessive – it has to be paid back sometime, isn’t it? So I took a small personal gamble in ordering a used supervisor engine from a second hand equipment broker in California (that was only 150 USD…), had it shipped by DHL to Addis (that was 500), and paid the import tax over it (>200%...). In no way University procedures could handle that. I am anxiously awaiting results. We shall know soon.
After all these people having been away and me standing in for several of them, Hanny and I had our turn. We had a two week tour of the North of Ethiopia, in a rented car with driver. Beautiful landscapes, great places of culture. And lo and behold, as a tourist, suddenly you appreciate things that you had difficulty coping with in the work. Like resistance to change... Now we were visiting centuries old monasteries that are still in use and have magnificent things to see, on small islands in the biggest lake of Ethiopia. Or other places where ancient stuff is preserved, like the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Unesco too has attempted to ban change due to rainfall or other weathering there, with big roof constructions over the sites. Good holidaying country, Ethiopia! The time of year we made our trip, late September, turned out to be a great choice. Brilliant flowers everywhere, lots of crops in the fields. Celebrations for the Finding of the True Cross (Meskel), and the annual name days of Saint Gabriel and Saint Mary fell in the period too. Check out a short series of highlights with these pictures.
It just seems so. The tef and barley standing high and ripe in many fields, maize yielding wonderful harvests… Yet the international news media still speak of a growing number of people in need of food aid in Ethiopia, now standing at an incredible 6 million. Before our trip we have seen large convoys of aid trucks in the south, and have watched in some villages how the aid was administered. A very well organized, smooth though lengthy process whereby officials of the Kebeles (lowest administrative units) register and hand out the quantities of sorghum or wheat to all those that have been called to come (sometimes from quite far) and collect their share. To see the real effect of the food shortage you would need to go deeper, to clinics and health centres, or just homes, with their malnourished children… Many Ethiopians do not like the impression that the world has of the country: a land where famine is endemic and strikes again as soon as rains fail a few seasons. But we can’t help seeing some truth in that impression.
Our regular readers will know that the school desk project at Zigit Bakole School is finished. The desks are in use now! The next challenge is an improvement in the sanitation of the school. The existing pit latrines are in very poor condition (hold your breath if you really want to see how poor), and with the school and the Woreda (next administration level up from Kebele) we are in discussion about VIPs: Ventilation-Improved Pit latrines, made to standards that are already applied elsewhere in projects. The school will need to grow this year, which either means that the already crowded classrooms will get fuller yet, or that extra classrooms must be built. The community itself already raised enough money to build two extra classrooms – work has started. The school and the Kebele see a further four extra classrooms as a priority. We have committed to fund the building of an additional four classrooms. These classrooms are in the style of the existing ones: a stone foundation on which a wooden, mud-filled frame is erected, topped by a corrugated iron roof. The Ministry of Education does not fund any building activity, but it provides and pays teachers in ratio to the number of classrooms in use. So the school’s benefit is evident. We think we can fund the VIPs and the classrooms by some leftovers of the school desk project, hopefully by a share of a VSO pot that was made available for sanitation improvement by the government of Jersey, plus the proceeds of Geert Over’s retirement farewell party at the EPO (thanks Geert for the idea, thanks to all your guests for their contribution!), plus some own money, plus some donations we already received again, plus whatever any people that feel they would like to contribute will donate. For particulars of how to help see How to help.
And then, on 11 September, at the end of the shortest and 13th month of the Ethiopian calendar (Pakume), there was the Ethiopian New Year again. And this week, the first of the second month, the new Academic year started. Melkam Addis Amet – Happy New Year!