Educating Nomads: Ethiopia’s Afar and The Fight for Learning

“If schooling means the children leave home, then no generally they aren’t keen.” The programme coordinator of Afar Pastoralist Development Association has witnessed first hand the reluctance amongst Ethiopian Afar families to send their children to state schools. The Afar people, largely nomadic pastoralists working in arid regions across Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa, derive the vast majority of their income from trading livestock. In order then to graze their animals sustainably and find safe access to drinking water, the Afar must make journeys of hundreds of miles, several times a year. This necessarily mobile lifestyle makes conventional classroom education a literally distant prospect.

The bare figures tell their own story. Only 9% of Afar children will receive primary level education, significantly less for girls. Perhaps more worryingly, in spite of various global development goals and targets centered on access to education, these figures have barely altered in the last decade. This is in Ethiopia, a country with growth outstripping China’s at 8.5%, lauded for many aspects of its development agenda, with an education budget reaching record highs and extremely high official school enrolment.

More than physical distance though contributes to the difficulty Afar children face in obtaining an education. Educational options are distinctly limited. Boarding schools in cities often lack secure facilities, making parents particularly reluctant to enrol girls. More fundamentally, families may judge expensive boarding school fees an unwise investment. Children have an active role in pastoralist communities from an early age and their contribution would be missed. The education they will instead receive is perceived as being of dubious relevance and something which may eventually alienate their child from their livelihood and culture for uncertain reward.

A survey by NGO Education for Nomads confirms that in the Afar region, Kenyan pastoralists were concerned children would return from school “modern,” with no skills or interest in pastoralism. Adding weight to these fears, an African Development Bank/UNESCO report into educating nomadic people confirmed there has been little adaption of timetables or the Ethiopian curriculum to meet the learning aspirations of nomadic pastoralists, who comprise 12% of Ethiopia’s population. If one of the circles which needs squaring is a mobile people and a sedentary education system, the unpopular response of the Ethiopian government has been a settlement scheme, officially voluntary but described by locals as in effect forcible. Afar opposition to the scheme does not solely stem from pride in their heritage. An APDA representative argues the Afar see their future in pastoralism because “there are no other opportunities.” Large scale development projects in the Afar region including railway construction, potash mining and huge crop farms have provided very little employment, and unemployment in Ethiopia overall stands at 17%.

Rather than coerce people into settled life, APDA like many regional NGOs runs mobile schools, tailored to the lifestyle, needs and desired skills of the Afar pastoralists. Teachers are embedded within a community and camels are used to transport basic learning materials with the group as it moves. Crucially unlike most state schools, teaching is in the local Afar language rather than Amharic, the national language, of which many students and their families have little knowledge.

Unsurprisingly, these mobile schools have proved much more popular with the Afar community than conventional schooling. The successes of the programme, which has run for twenty years, have encouraged greater enrolment. Attendance of girls in particular has increased dramatically, although it remains slightly below 50%. On that note, APDA are keen to emphasise the positive impact in-community learning has had for Afar women. Local women have worked with APDA to campaign against Harmful Traditional Practices, such as female genital mutilation, child marriages and forced marriages, which have been common historically in many pastoralist societies. Using accessible mediums like dramatic and musical performances, these campaigns have made significant progress in communicating the serious damage these practices cause. Such initiatives perhaps emphasise the understated impact of informal education, not measured by international standards like the Millennium Development Goals. APDA though believe ultimately it is “essential” girls receive a full education if women are to strengthen their role within society.

APDA readily concede mobile education has its limitations. Only basic level teaching materials are easily transportable with current resources. Quality is another concern; with limited funds for wages, attracting experienced, qualified teachers to such a challenging position is difficult.

Distance learning is one way to effectively support mobile schools. Using mainly radio, but also mobile phone and internet services, fairly complex educational programmes can be delivered remotely, allowing pastoralists to learn whilst working in their community. Teachers can then monitor progress and grade work with limited materials, whilst students can work towards nationally recognised qualifications. A further report by Education for Nomads in Kenya strongly recommended distance learning as an effective educational tool in pastoralist societies. APDA investigated the possibility of running a distance learning scheme in the Afar region, but found the costs of establishing and delivering the programme beyond their resources.

In a nation with strong economic growth and huge foreign investment, it may seem strange that the central obstacle to improving pastoralist education remains a lack of support and finance. Investment to expand and improve mobile schools and distance learning was highly recommended by both the ADB/UNESCO 2005 and the Commonwealth of Leaning 2007 reports as having potentially transformative effects on the prospects of nomadic pastoralist populations. In Ethiopia though, little significant financial commitment from any public, private, national or international body has yet materialized.

Despite problems of resource and scale, innovations like mobile schools and distance learning prove educational ideals and nomadic pastoralist social values are far from incompatible. Education can evolve to become more relevant, accessible and appealing to nomadic pastoralists. Societies meanwhile, are never static: education from within the Afar community has strengthened the role of women. Traditional skills like animal husbandry and herd management have been improved upon and better utilised. Additionally, education can offer young people born into pastoralist societies a wider range of opportunities.

Effective investment in education though would need to be accompanied by investment in Afar pastoralist society itself. APDA note that as Afar living standards have declined in recent years, and education has slipped down the list of priorities for many families. Simply surviving has become paramount. Industrial development in the region has been largely detrimental to Afar quality of life. Pollution has damaged water sources, large agribusiness projects have restricted land access and invasive species have led to a decline in edible grazing.

Attempts to improve education will have to be holistic, but education standards are unlikely to rise whilst living standards are falling. Despite promising educational innovations and recognisable enthusiasm for learning across Afar society, Afar pastoralists’ hopes for a systematic improvement in educational access and quality in the near future remain muted.