I took my exam like all the other hopeful Ethiopians eager to join higher learning institutions. I went to one of Ethiopia’s finest universities, Addis Abeba University (AAU). My four years at the school were educational, though not in the ways I had hoped.
Nonetheless, there was some consolation in the fact that it was eye opening.
I am a great believer in the educational system, as a tool people can use to transform themselves. One of my idols in life is activist and lawyer Yetnebersh Nigussie, who has repeatedly said that the opportunity to be and stay in school was the reason she became the person she is now. Today she is a symbol of strength and an inspiration to many.
While there are many exceptions like Yetnebersh, the promises that being educated often entail are not realised. As a researcher, I have travelled and heard many stories from women and girls all around Ethiopia.
On one visit, we asked mothers why the family chose to send their girls to school. While there were various answers, one could get the feeling that parents expected too much from the children they sent to school. Some hoped that after graduation, their child would come back and build them a house near a highway.
I remember thinking at the time – myself a graduate – I would not be able to afford all the things that they were mentioning. In the rural areas, there is a tremendous pressure not only to see the person succeed but to carry the responsibilities of their family.
As I sat in the sun in the small dusty town, I thought how many of my classmates in the university, or elsewhere in my country, were under similar pressure.
I am not talking about us, the privileged who have educated and healthy parents who can take care of themselves. Those of us whose parents put us through school for our benefit and not for the promise that educating the child would change the life of the whole family.
In that same town where parents are expecting transformative changes from their children, educated teachers are staying in small rooms near the schools they have decorated with motivational quotes about the better days to come and finding true love.
Looking at their five-centimetre thick mattresses on the floor, I imagined what their future would be like.
Did they feel satisfied with where they were? But then, I wondered, are any of us?
There is no precise formula for success. But imagine someone’s disappointment the moment he or she realises that life is not always as promised. Take me. My experience at AAU was not everything I had expected it would be. I thought it was going to be all intellectual conversations, debates and growth.
I did not experience that though. The classroom I was in, was made interesting by the fact that students had to be in unfamiliar surroundings with people who would normally have never crossed their path.
I was in a class with students who were farmers, lived in border areas, those who have witnessed conflict and many with very colourful backgrounds. One can imagine the intrigue of being in a classroom full of people that come from the most diverse backgrounds under one banner of being the next generation of thinkers and doers.
However many university students would only be thinking about grades and not necessarily growth. And sadly, plenty of the instructors felt the same as they were under those similar pressures of life. The instructors were fighting the same war within themselves. And so the experiences of those who passed through the university were shaped as thus.
Standing at the balcony of a startup hub in Addis, a friend from grade school told me, “ I am going to Arat Kilo today to talk about my innovation and how to make it in the world after graduating in engineering.” We got into a conversation about the educational system regarding which he commented, “You know if they had a decent internet connection, I would tell them to quit school and educate themselves.”
I thought what a world that would be. But the truth is that the aims of education and school are entirely different things. One can be educated through various means but going to school is learning in conformity. It is a socially constructed physical space to make us all answer questions of life the same way.
Even though the promise of an educated person’s life is not as promised, it is a start. At the very least, there is clear and visible change all around us. The change may not be what we expected, but we start with what is in front of us and do our very best with the resources available. At least right now we have a shot at creating the life we want.
And in the future, we can also opt for a more creative, critical and open-ended type of education. Maybe the promise of an educated workforce does not apply to those in the immediate future, but to those with the opportunity to look further down the line. In the future where we can build to have access to the resources we need.
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