by Tom Weck (Ethiopia 1965-67)
After graduating from Stanford University, I felt compelled to give back something to those who were less fortunate than I. I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Ethiopia in a solo posting in the tiny village of Haik teaching English, math and science to 7th and 8th graders. I taught every period of every day (I got to teach Science as well – as a bonus) to about 25 students in each class and thoroughly enjoyed them. All were eager, if not desperate, to learn as they knew that a good education was their ONLY path out of a life of abject poverty (at the time Ethiopia was the second poorest country in the world).
The standard approach to teaching throughout the country was rote memorization. The teacher wrote out an English sentence or math problem on the blackboard, and the students copied them in their notebooks. The tests consisted of writing out what the students had copied into their notebooks, without using their notebook, on a blank sheet of paper.
The first day in class I announced that I was not going to teach them to memorize; I was going to teach them how to think. The first test confounded them. One student politely asked: “But sir, you did not write out this math problem before.”
I let this test become a practice test but advised them that all future exams would test their mastery of principles, not memorization. With only one exception, they were all smart and learned quickly.
I created my own curriculum.
In English, first came irregular verbs along with the tenses. As there is no future tense in Amharic, initially this presented a challenge, but they overcame that hurdle. I included what I deemed to be the most common irregular verbs – say 20.
As an example, the verb ‘to see.’ I would give them a sentence with this as the verb, and they would have to write the same sentence using ‘I saw’ and ‘I have seen.’ As they progressed, I made things more difficult (such as ‘I would see’, I would have sceen, etc.). Then they learned basic vocabulary. This morphed later into writing a five-sentence story using say, three or more irregular verbs, using different tenses. This was very difficult for them, but they all got the hang of it slowly but surely. I should add that without exception, their handwriting was atrocious. We therefore spent the first 5-10 minutes each class on improving this skill.
We had many lessons on prepositions, the use of which many American have not mastered. Simple rule: a preposition takes the objective case. What could be easier. And then there were adverbs and adjectives. There were a lot of grammar, grammar, grammar lessons.
I came across a book of simple English poems. I rewrote a dozen or so, putting them into an appropriate Ethiopian context. They loved the poems. In short order, they memorized them all. I encouraged them to pound out the rhythm on their desks as they recited the poems. I did not care how much noise they made. This was their favorite activity.
Then, on occasion, I would read them a story and we would discuss it. At first, they were shy, but we got over that.
In math, I quickly went into simple equations. I pounded into them the sanctity of the ‘equal’ sign. If you did something to one side of the equation, you had to do the same thing on the other side to keep it an ‘equation.’ I considered violating this rule a mortal sin. This was the only time I put the fear of God into them.
As they progressed, I made the equations more challenging – such as introducing an x-squared into an equation. I even experimented with ‘two equations with two unknowns’, but I was pushing the envelope very far. Some finally got it, but some did not. I made this an optional activity rather than a requirement as part of their grade.
Along the way, I taught them little tricks of the trade. If you know, for example, what the square of 11 is, you can easily calculate the square of 12 in a few seconds, and so on. I then showed them the simple equation that allowed you to do this. This was beyond some of them. It was not a requirement; it was recreational.
In science, there was something uncommon. There was a textbook that was useful. I used this as my teaching guide.
In the two years I served, each year, there were three national scholarships offered at the end of eighth grade in each Province for a 4-years scholarship including room & board and clothing, medical care and a small spending allowance to the best private school in the capital, Addis Ababa (General Wingate School) with a virtual guarantee of a subsequent full 4-year scholarship to the best university in the country.
For students living in poverty, education was their ONLY pathway out of poverty where they could blossom based on their capabilities, not on the station in life from which they came (a dead end), where they would have a chance to better themselves and enter the middle-class or higher in society.
Out of what I think amounted to the several thousand of 8th graders in my province competing for this coveted prize each year, the previous three winners each year all came from the provincial capital or another large city. I entered my two best students, and everyone thought my idea of entering anyone was preposterous.
My two students won two of the three scholarships. In fact, my students won half of all the scholarships, 3 of the 6 scholarships offered over the two-year period while I was teaching (2 the first year and 1 the second year). Everyone was amazed, particularly since my tiny village had never entered anyone to take the exam. When the astounded principal asked me my secret, I simply said: “I taught them how to think.”
One of my winning students went on to win a Ph.D. in anthropology from a university in Paris and another became a principal of a high school in Ethiopia. The third, maybe the smartest, contracted TB a year after I left the country. It was a 2-year battle to recovery. I sent him money from the USA so he could get the best treatment. Then, in the interim, because the monster, Mengustu, who had taken over the country by murdering Haile Selassie hated America, any communication from the USA put the recipient in danger of imprisonment or execution. I stopped writing my third student and lost track of what happened to him.
I had noted that most of the students in the school had trachoma in some stage of development. Left untreated, this could lead to blindness for about 15% who were afflicted. This troubled me enormously. It would sometimes keep me awake at night.
At my repeated entreaties, the Peace Corps finally sent up a doctor from Addis Ababa to make an examination of each of the approximately 200 students. He reported to me that virtually the entire student body was infected.
I proposed a treatment plan to the Director of the Ethiopian Program in Addis Ababa to which he agreed. I would give each student a 6-week treatment program (which I had researched would cure the disease) that consisted of tetracycline ointment in the eyes 2 times every day.
The Peace Corps sent me 2000 tubes. The logistics of the program were the biggest hurdle. Among other things, I had to devise a system where even the first graders would have their treatment continued over the weekends as well.
Six weeks later, the same doctor returned, examined each student. He said he could not detect trachoma in any one of them. This, of course, did not address the problem of reinfection, even with the lectures I gave (with the aid of translation to the youngest students) on how best to avoid reinfection, but I had done all I could. I considered this program my biggest achievement during my two years in Ethiopia.
I also introduced basketball and baseball to the school – the 7th and 8th grade boys made a regulation-size basketball course and posts for the hoops. From the Peace Corps, I received two hoops with nets and two basketballs. I received two bats and two softballs as well. The boys loved playing these two sports after school – one of them one day and the other one the next day.
Initially I was Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, but they caught and, as seems to be true of every boy in Ethiopia, all of them could run endlessly without any signs of tiring. Especially in basketball, they simply wore me out.
The Peace Corps life in this little village carried some hardships that I will not recount as every PCV knows about that – other to say that there were a number of small critters that liked me more than I liked them.
At night, under a Coleman Lantern I read books, I tried my hand at writing, and I listened to BBC. I became friendly with three of my neighbors. I supported two very needy and gifted 8th graders each year (in an adjoining hut): a roof, bed, blanket, simple footwear, basic clothing, medical care as needed, and nutritious food – and use of the outhouse.
In exchange they washed my clothes, did some market shopping for me, and watched the water boil. At 8000 feet, I let it boil for 30 minutes. The Peace Corps gave us five immutable health rules; I followed them religiously and never was sick apart from the trachoma I caught while carrying out my program. In the prescribed six weeks, I was cured.
I felt fortunate to be in the Peace Corps. Now knowing what it would be like, I felt privileged to be in it; it was a formative time, part of growing up.
Tom served in Ethiopia for two years 1965-1967. He then went to Harvard Business School, graduated in 1969, and joined the Louis Berger Group, an engineering/ environmental/ economic consulting firm consisting of an international company and a USA company. He joined this international company where he worked on economic development projects. Tom and his wife, Sandy, lived in Nigeria, Uganda, Iran, and Yugoslavia over the next four years. Next he transferred to the USA company with a staff of 40 professionals where he spent the rest of his career. During his 30-year career he rose to become President of the USA company and grew the staff to 400 professionals. Upon retiring, he has devoted himself to writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also assisted his three sons in the launch of their businesses. And it all began in Ethiopia as a PCV.