Dateline Eritrea: Ciao Asmara
What challenges does daily life present to teachers in war-torn nations?
I had heard tales of an exciting new country that defeated the stereotypes of Africa — a country where volunteers were desperately needed, where people were united to help build their new society and where aid was used to enable the people to help themselves.
Inspired, I accepted a teaching post in Keren, the largest of Eritrea’s five major secondary towns and the regional capital of the Anseba Region.
One of the reasons teaching in Keren was so hard was the shortage of teachers. When the Eritreans voted for independence, the Ethiopian teachers — who had made up the majority of the teaching staff — simply got up and left.
To replace them were the educated soldiers of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritreans who returned from Ethiopia. But they were not enough.
The 1998-2000 outbreak of the decades-long conflict had disrupted education so much that for many children in the villages there was no chance of schooling, or that schooling was in Amharic, the Ethiopian — not Eritrean — language. So now, with freedom, the backlog of students was coming through.
The classes I taught had around 75 students each, of all ages between 11 and 25. The numbers problem was so acute and the number of schools and teachers so small that the education authorities ran a “split-shift” system.
Each school had two schools’ worth of students. The first shift started with assembly, flag-raising and singing the national anthem at 7 a.m. That meant that students and teachers had to be at school by 6:45 a.m.
Lessons would continue through the morning — with a short break — and finish at 12:30 p.m., when all the morning’s students would go home.
As they were going home the afternoon shift would arrive at about 12:45 p.m. for assembly at 1 p.m. Then lessons would continue for the afternoon shift, with a short break, until 6 p.m.
It was at school that I came face to face on a daily basis with the myriad of problems that wars leave in their wake.
There were the children who had survived stepping on a landmine. They had usually lost one or two legs to above the knee, and also one or both eyes.
There were the children whose parents had been killed and who lived with relatives — aunts and uncles would be responsible for as many children as were left to them. They turned up on parents’ day and did a tour of the school, inquiring about each of their charges.
But most of the effects were subtler. There were disturbed children who had seen people raped or murdered — often parents, brothers or sisters.
There were children who had been born and had grown up in Sudanese refugee camps, and saw little point in education.
Students whose families — displaced refugees or simply people unable to get a job in Eritrea’s ravaged economy — didn’t have enough money to feed them.
There were the couple of students who every year died of diabetes, or caught TB or a simple disease like dysentery or giadia.
The children with these illnesses stopped coming to school all of a sudden, and then the message came through, weeks later, that they had died.
These kind of life experiences meant time in the classrooms — where 80 students sat three to a desk and three to a book — was as much about crowd management as teaching.
Fights over book space, missing pencils or how much seat each student got were regular. Copying was endemic. Lethargy was also compulsive for some students.
There were times I almost broke down because it was all so hopeless. Sometimes, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep. Those were days I dreaded stepping into the classroom.
Each day started with assembly. Teachers would take a stick and chase students out of classrooms and from behind walls, and herd them into line.
The students loved the daily chase and excitement of it all. There was a constant escalation of tactics on both sides as the term progressed.
The teachers would begin to throw stones at the students, who would whoop and yell. Students would leap out of classroom windows and run behind the back of the class. Teachers would work in pairs, taking both sides of the classrooms to catch all the students.
The daily stress of work and its conditions compounded the poverty we all lived in. I got the same wage as my colleagues, which worked out to £60 a month.
The low pay contributed to the demoralization of the teaching staff, all of who had children or parents to care for. Their euphoria had quickly evaporated after Eritrea’s independence when they realized what liberation really meant for them.
They blamed the students’ poor discipline on a number of things. Some said it was the history of revolting against the old rulers, and others that the economy was so devastated that there were no jobs for people with an education.
Many agreed it was because the way to prosperity in Eritrea didn’t lie in education, but in whether you’d been a fighter with the EPLF — or not.
This was certainly a problem. The whole education system was run by liberation front fighters, from the Minister of Education to the director of each school. Some of the fighters deserved their positions — others did not.
The ministry preserved the command-style system of management that they had used in the war, but which was unsuitable for civilian staff and civilian life.
There was a highly centralized system of control, with no question of discussion. Management was a matter of issuing orders.
Many of the fighters had ill-disguised contempt for the teachers who were educated under the Ethiopian system. They wore good clothes and were fluent in Amharic, danced to the tunes of Mahniud Ahrned and looked to Addis Ababa — not Asmara — as the cultural center of their lives.
The conditions in the school ground everyone down fairly quickly, and towards the end of term, violence became depressingly common. I was shocked at first to see teachers punching or kicking students, but it soon became a regular event.
Occasionally, teachers would have to be dragged off by colleagues and pulled back to the staff room. There was always the grinding oppression of overwork, stress and extreme physical conditions.
By the end of the 23-week terms, we were all utterly exhausted — a deep fatigue that hollows you out to a shell.
Once my friend Habtewolde, one of the teachers in the English Department, found two grade six students who had kidnapped a grade seven girl and were raping her in one of the old Ethiopian trenches.
He trussed them up and dragged them back to the staff room. The police were called. They brought their cattle prods with them. When the other students saw what was happening, they charged out of their classrooms and gathered to watch.
Violence had become such a part of the national psyche that some people weren’t able to let go. In a horrible way, I think many of the teachers and students in the school were addicted to it.
It was towards the end of my first term that I found myself so angry with a student that I grabbed him by the shirt and raised my hand to punch him. The class went silent. Someone at the back giggled.
That night, I went for a beer at Arregai’s and then walked home through the narrow streets of the souq and along the riverbed. The brothels were busy — the lights were on and the music was loud.
I got home, put on some music and lit a candle. I was still tense, and could still feel the anger. I imagined punching the student, how I would have felt if I had — then blew out the flame and wondered what the hell this country was doing to me.