I recently wrote about the transformative effect of youth summer camps in Ethiopia while describing Mekele Camp GLOW 2014. As foreigners we are able to synthesize a little piece of America here in Ethiopia for a week or two at these summer camps; there are rules, people speak English, punctuality reigns, and I understand what’s going on most of the time. This contrasts with my normal life here in Ethiopia where I’m never quite sure what’s happening as I negotiate this mysterious country.
I just attended the Youth Solidarity and English Language (YSEL) summer camp for a few days in Debre Zeyit and was blown away by how American this camp was. This camp transformed a little piece of Ethiopia into a real American summer camp. The camp is held on a beautiful compound which had nice dorm rooms, excellent food, friendly staff, immaculate landscaping, and even a functional computer lab. However what really made this feel so American was the English only rule: All students must speak English, ALL THE TIME. This means I could once again eavesdrop on student conversations, classes didn’t waste time with translations, and I had to bite my tongue over and over again when I instinctively responded in Amharic or Tigrigna. I felt American again.
The reason for this English only rule is so students improve their English language abilities, obviously, but also because English may be their best form of communication. Ethiopia is home to more than 80 local languages and although Amharic is the official language, many people don’t speak it well. All of the 44 students attending the YSEL summer camp were interviewed for their English abilities and are pretty impressive English speakers. Since these students come from all 11 different regions in Ethiopia, and represent a huge variety of peoples and cultures, it makes as much sense to use English as the lingua franca as using Amharic.
This is the second annual YSEL camp in Ethiopia. The camp is organized by the NGO American Councils for International Education and is fully funded by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. It’s a pretty interesting program that developed from the American Councils’ international exchange program. The American Councils for International Education facilitates exchange students around the world and Tom Toomey, the YSEL Ethiopia Camp Director, has been working with youth from Afghanistan for years doing similar camps.
These camps offer a great way for students from all over these diverse countries to come together and work as one group. According to their press release, “the goals of the YSEL-Ethiopia program are to improve English language skills, develop critical thinking, build leadership skills and create solidarity among the 44 students from the diverse areas of Ethiopia.” These high school students rarely have a chance to interact with students from other regions and this camp provides a forum to create new friendships and share ideas among the leaders of tomorrow’s Ethiopia.
In order to attend this program, students had to submit a comprehensive written application. Over 300 students submitted an application and around 100 were selected for interviews with Camp Director Tom Toomey and Assistant Director Endalkachew Tesera. These students represent the best of the best and aspire to become astronauts, doctors, engineers, and pilots. Ultimately 22 female and 22 male students from all 11 regions in Ethiopia were selected to attend the month-long summer camp.
They will be taught by Peace Corps Volunteers from the Education sector. Paul, one of the teachers mentioned how exciting it was to be teaching students with such a voracious appetite for knowledge. They want to learn! I was lucky enough to be invited along to facilitate a few sessions about “burning issues” in Ethiopia and how it’s up to youth to make changes and improve the current state of this country. Over the course of 3 days we brainstormed, rehearsed, and filmed 8 different public service announcement videos that the students can bring back to share with their communities after leaving camp. The idea for this session originally came from Shayna‘s session at the 2014 Mekele Camp Glow where we filmed 7 dramas with great results. The YSEL-Ethiopia students loved it and they all participated in creating messages about drug abuse, corruption, work ethic, cleaning the environment, and immigration.
While at camp I sat in on some classes held by Education Sector Peace Corps Volunteers Paul, Jennifer, Pete, and Merre. On Friday night there was a talent show and on Saturday we visited a local factory where they build everything from bicycles to buses to tanks. It was a fun few days to spend with these great kids in this little American summer camp, which just happened to be in Ethiopia.
Hats off to the talented PCV teachers, the camp staff (Tom, Endalk, Birhan) and the 4 amazing Ethiopian counselors for making this camp possible! And thank you, American taxpayers, for funding it!
You can read more about the camp and follow along for the rest of the month by reading the camp blog here: http://yselethiopia.blogspot.com/
And now here are a bunch of photos: