Vince Crawley's Africa Blog

With Evening Discussion Groups, Americans at Camp Lemonnier Help Djiboutian Students Learn English

Posted in Uncategorized by Vince Crawley on September 15, 2010
DJIBOUTI CITY – A Djiboutian girl answers a question while Americans Shane Junkert (right foreground) and Alex Rodriguez listen during an English discussion group in May 2010. (AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley)

[Note: I was just in Djibouti for a brief visit. A few months back I was able to spend several days at U.S. AFRICOM’s Camp Lemonnier, and one of the evenings I went out with a group of volunteers who spend five nights a week visiting local schools to participate in U.S. Embassy-sponsored English Discussion Groups. Basically, if you have a free evening, you show up at the camp chapel at nightfall wearing civilian clothes, put your name on a list, and take a van into town to meet with classes of children or young adults, many of whom make a special trip to school in the evening for an opportunity to converse with native English speakers. Djibouti is a cultural crossroads. Somali is spoken in many of the homes, Arabic is a market and business language, French is a cultural and government language, and increasing numbers of Djiboutians are learning English to help their country become more of a regional and global trading and trans-shipment center.

DJIBOUTI CITY - U.S. Navy personnel Raul Barrientos and Dale Paragili lead Djiboutian students in an evening English language discussion group at the Alpha school May 5, 2010. (Photo by Vince Crawley, U.S. Africa Command)

On my visit to the Alpha School one evening in May 2010, I tried to keep my journalist hat on, observing from the sidelines while the young military personnel interacted with the students, who were middle school and high school aged. The Djiboutian teens got to pick the conversation topics, and they focused almost exclusively on relationships and gender politics in a fascinating culture that seems to include both ancient traditions and an assertive attitude among many young women that can best be described as feisty. At Djiboutian government and business offices earlier that day I had met with several strong-willed women who left no doubt that they were in charge and intended to be effective. One of them opined that women-to-women meetings were really the only way to get something worthwhile accomplished.

After dark I found myself with a small vanload of Americans at the Alpha School, not knowing what to expect from this so-called English Discussion Group. To set the agenda, a young person wrote on the blackboard: “Is the love exist in the world or not? Yes, why? No, Why?” The grammar wasn’t perfect, but the question is timeless. At one point in the middle of the evening, one of the young ladies turned to me in the midst of a discussion about marrying for love or money, and asked my opinion on whether there are cases of men who marry for money even if there is no love. I tried to find the tone of parental all-knowingness that I use with my own 12-year-old, but suspect I came across as just another out-of-it foreigner.

DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti - Raul Barrientos. a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, leads Djiboutian students in an evening English language discussion group at the Alpha school May 5, 2010. (Photo by Vince Crawley, U.S. Africa Command)

With Evening Discussion Groups, Americans at Camp Lemonnier Help Djiboutian Students Learn English Story and photos by Vince Crawley

DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti — Five evenings a week, a handful of American military volunteers from Camp Lemonnier put on civilian clothes and take a van into the city to visit Djiboutian classrooms and take part in English conversation groups that help support the U.S. Embassy by providing Djiboutian students a rare opportunity to converse with native-English speakers.

Omar Mahamoud Ismail, director of the Alpha School, explained that his students are glad for a chance to try out their English with Americans.   “There is a nice perception between the Americans and the students,” Ismail explained, “so they do well with each other.” The school has 400 students between the ages of 12 and 30. Several dozen of them made a special trip to the school this particular Wednesday evening to take part in the program, called English Discussion Group. The walls of Ismail’s tiny office were covered with printouts of English language nursery rhymes. An electric fan chopped through the hot humid air. Electricity isn’t reliable in this part of town and the school can’t afford a generator, Ismail said. However, there was no electicity outage during the Americans’ visit, and the classrooms with wooden benches remained illuminated by dim bare bulbs.

DJIBOUTI CITY - Omar Mahamoud Ismail, director and English teacher at the Alpha School in Djibouti, in his office in May 2010. (U.S. Africa Command photo by Vince Crawley)

Camp Lemonnier last year had 360 volunteers who donated 6,000 volunteers to take part in the English Discussion Groups, said Master Sergeant John Roxbury of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. Usually about four to six volunteers show up for each of the Sunday-through-Thursday evening sessions (Friday and Saturday are the weekend in this predominantly Muslim country).
Djibouti is a small nation on the African side of the Red Sea, a cultural crossroads since the beginning of a human history. A former colony of France, the French language is widely spoken. The language at home is predominantly Somali or Afar, depending on a family’s cultural background. In the marketplace and in business, Arabic is widely spoken. Younger Djiboutians increasingly are learning English as their country seeks to be a regional trading hub.   Participants in the English Discussion Group visit different schools each evening, with the schools selected by the U.S. Embassy.
Shane Junkert, a Navy Petty Officer Second Class, said he’d already volunteered more than 60 hours since November. The discussion group, he explained, was a good opportunity to interact with local Djiboutians.   The students, Junkert said, select the topics they want to talk about. During this Wednesday evening, the mainly high-school-aged students wanted to talk about love and marriage, whether marriages should be arranged, whether people should marry for love or for money.

DJIBOUTI CITY - Djiboutian students and U.S. volunteers from Camp Lemonnier take part in an English discussion group in May 2010. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Vince Crawley)

“If love exists in the world, then why do people always get divorced easily?” one student wanted to know.

“I don’t need a man,” proclaimed another young woman.

One teenaged boy wrote the discussion topics on the blackboard.

“At what age will you get married? Is it arranged?” asked one of the questions. “Why do women marry a rich man?” asked another.

“Is the love exist in the world or not? Yes, why? No, Why?” the boy wrote. Junkert helped correct the grammar to “Does the love exist … ?” Followed by an evening’s discussion of a question as old as humankind.

(Vince Crawley is Deputy Director of Public Affairs for U.S. Africa Command – U.S. AFRICOM)


At Hanna’s Orphans Home, ‘Big Sister’ Cares for more than 200 Kids in Ethiopia

Posted in Uncategorized by Vince Crawley on September 13, 2010
Hanna with children

Hanna Teshome at Hanna's Orphans Home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in August 2010.

Two of Hanna's more than 200 children pose for an after-school portait in August 2010.

(Note: I’ve visited orphanages in several countries and am familiar with the issues of children raised in institutional settings … most tellingly in an Eastern Europe orphanage where the babies remained spookily silent because, unlike infants in a family, they  had been left alone too often and had learned their cries would not be responded to. When I stopped by Hanna’s Orphans Home during a recent AFRICOM business trip to Ethiopia, I immediately noticed that the kids didn’t behave like institutionalized children. They sought attention from adults but weren’t starving for it. When we stopped in completely unannounced, they were playing games or doing homework, or clustering in little social circles to swap gossip. In short, they reminded me of afterschool kids just about anywhere else in the world.)

At Hanna’s Orphans Home, ‘Big Sister’ Cares for more than 200 Kids in Ethiopia

Story and photos by Vince Crawley

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — At last count, Hanna Teshome had 233 children. Three call her “mother.” The other 230 call her “Tete,” which is Amharic for “big sister,” and they live in more than two dozen rented homes throughout Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa.

Nearly all of the children found their way to Hanna’s Orphans Home after their parents died of HIV/AIDS. A few have parents who are serving time in Ethiopian prisons. A few more have gravely ill parents unable to take care of them.

By living in rented homes instead of an orphanage, “they are living in the community,” Tete Hanna explained to visitors one recent August afternoon. “They will have a social life. They can say, ‘We have a house.’ I don’t want them to live in an institution.”

The children’s ages range from 2 to 26, and they are fed, clothed, housed and educated primarily by donations.

A youngster poses with jacket during Ethiopia's cool rainy season in August 2010.

The houses have televisions and usually a computer, and each home is run by a house mother. Older children take turns being house leaders, usually for two months at a time.

Nearly all the children attend school, and Hanna has an extensive library of textbooks. After classes her children gather in her school compound for homework, after-school games and socializing before making their way to their homes.

Older children attend university. As long as they keep their grades up they can stay with Hanna until they finish university or technical school, she said. So far more than 20 of Hanna’s children are graduates who’ve moved out to begin raising families of their own.

Hanna also is beginning to look into ways to care for the elderly.

Unlike many of Ethiopia’s orphans, Hanna’s children are not available for international adoption. Thousands of Ethiopian children are adopted internationally each year, (the U.S. Department of State reported 2,277 U.S. adoptions from Ethiopia for 2009), but not from Hanna’s Orphans Home. People have asked her, but Hanna said she’s firmly against it. “They have to be in their own country,” she insists of her children. “If anybody wants to help them, they can help us right here. They will stay here with their language and their culture. When they grow up they will help their own country.” (more…)