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Gayle Lindsay - School Sports in Ethiopia

When I saw there was a volunteer project on offer that combined sports coaching with athletics training I knew I had to do it. I didn't really know too much about Ethiopia apart from the fact that it is home to some of the fastest long distance runners on the planet, most notably the legendary Haile Gebrselassie. However, having completed my three week stint in Ethiopia and having loved every second of it, I can honestly say that it is one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. It was also one of the most inspirational, humbling and rewarding experiences.

Impressions of Ethiopia

Volunteering abroad

When I arrived in Addis Ababa, I was picked up by my Projects Abroad coordinator and given a cultural induction where I discovered that the country actually uses a different calendar to the rest of the world. The Ethiopic calendar has 12 months of 30 days plus a 13th month at the end of the year that has 5 days (6 in a leap year) and they are currently in the year 2008. They also use local time rather than international time. For them, a new day begins when the sun rises (i.e. 6am international time), hence their local time is 6 hours behind international time.

After my briefing I was taken to meet my host family, who I stayed with for the duration of my project, I believe living with a local family provided a truly authentic cultural experience and enabled me to experience the realities of everyday life in an Ethiopian household. I was greeted by my family with a traditional coffee ceremony and I soon learned that this forms an integral part of their social and cultural life. During my three week stay they arranged excursions for me, taught me a lot about Ethiopian traditions and customs, fed me extremely well and generally made me feel very welcome in their home!

The city of Addis Ababa where I was based is vast and somewhat overwhelming. All of the streets seemed to look the same at first - all lined with little grocery stalls seeming to sell the same things, people selling merchandise on the pavements and cars, buses and people generally everywhere you looked. I read that people will only ever stop you to ask for one of two things; directions or money. I knew it was highly unlikely that an Ethiopian would request directions from me (an obvious tourist) and so based on a process of elimination, I decided it was generally best not to engage in conversation with people on the street. However, I never felt unsafe and the Ethiopians I met during my project were such friendly, welcoming and respectful people.

Teaching sport

School Sports in Ethiopia

My assigned placement was Lemlem school, a private school founded by head teacher Atsede Woldegebriel and which is funded mainly by student contributions of about 50 birr per month (less than £2). A typical day starts at 8.15am with the school assembly and this is followed by 7 periods, each lasting 45 minutes.

My first lesson gave me a taste of how tough it is to teach sport in an Ethiopian school - the average class size was between 40-50 children, and there was a distinct lack of equipment - 1 basketball, a couple of footballs and a few skipping ropes for the whole school! However, what the school lacked in equipment, the children made up for in enthusiasm and energy - it was truly humbling! The majority of my lessons were with the younger children (grades 1 to grade 7) and the teacher generally let me take the lessons, whilst she assisted with translation and discipline.

I had offered to help the children with their English during my free periods and I was given the opportunity to help grades 1 and 2. I usually assisted in marking their homework or explaining the classwork for the day and it was interesting to see the massive differences in ability across the class. During one period I also had the privilege of sitting in on the 3rd grade music class. They all stood up to greet me as I entered the room and I was surprised to see that there wasn’t a musical instrument in sight. Instead they sang various songs in unison from the blackboard and from their exercise books and I was sad when the lesson had to come to an end.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the school; my only regret is that I wasn’t there for longer!

Running with an Ethiopian athlete

I was paired with Legesse, an athlete who can run 10km in an impressive 31 minutes, and it was a true honor to train with this man. We met 3 times per week and each session typically involved a 50 minute run through the forest, where a lot of top athletes can be found training. On a couple of occasions we ran to the top of the hill (battling with the effects of the high altitude). It was worth all the huffing and puffing though as the views from the top over Addis were amazing. You don't really appreciate the vastness of this city, which is home to around 3.4 million people, until you're looking down on it. Legesse was a great running partner and, by the end, a great friend too!

Closing sentiment

Words can’t describe the feeling you get from putting a smile on the faces of these children and being able to transport them into a world of sport and games, where the amount of money they have has no impact on their level of enjoyment and where the troubles of everyday life simply seem to disappear in those moments of excitement. It was a truly unforgettable and life-changing experience and one I would definitely recommend to anyone who has a passion for sport and a desire to make a difference in an African school!

Read more about School Sports in Ethiopia.

Gayle Lindsay

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