How a school trip to Africa opened up a new world, and a different outlook, for Dubai school children
Lending hugs at an Aids orphanage; witnessing levels of poverty usually confined to hard-hitting documentaries; building shisha tents. These are not activities typically associated with school trips – but then Ethiopia isn’t your run-of-the-mill academic destination.
Held in December 2008, the eight-day venture was part of Week Without Walls, a community-based component of the International Baccalaureate. It attracted 20 students aged from 12 to 16, keen to do something a bit different from the more touristy options being offered by their school, Dubai International Academy (DIA).
‘You could watch plays in France, or visit Egypt for the pyramids, but when I heard about the Ethiopia trip I knew that it was something I wanted to do,’ says pupil Lisa Van Doeselaer, 15.
Unsurprisingly, securing permission to take a bunch of inexperienced rich kids to Africa ‘had taken a bit of convincing’, says David Turner, the teacher who – eventually – made it happen, along with his female counterpart Suha Ayoub. ‘All the news you get from Africa and Ethiopia, in particular, is bad news,’ he says.
‘Droughts, famines, wars; you never hear anything positive about the region. One of the parents’ biggest worries was our plan to visit an Aids orphanage – plus the water, food and all the inoculations.’ But, central Ethiopia is generally a very safe place, with violence contained to the borders.
The trip was to get off to a traditional enough start with the teens bedding down in dorm-style accommodation, the girls occupying two rooms of the kindergarten they were helping at, and the boys in another one.
Jet-setter Jay Okereke, 16, had arrived later than the other kids after flying in from Mauritius, and by the time he showed up, his classmates had already set up camp for the night. ‘I looked around at the sleeping bags and thought, “this could be fun”,’ he says with a smirk.
Over the next few days the kids toiled away, planting a garden while also making friends with the pupils at the Addis Ababa-based British International School (its 73-year-old principal Ann Rispin had played a key role in helping David to arrange the trip).
The first thing on the comfortably raised youngsters’ to-do list was heading to the market to buy soap – which proved to be a big eye-opener. ‘There were 15 little children around me asking for money. They were wearing towels instead of skirts and their shirts were ripped,’ Lisa remembers. ‘I felt awful because for us, that money was nothing, but those kids would die to have it.’
But the purpose of visiting Ethiopia was not to make the children feel guilty, or even charitable: there was learning to be done. David wanted the kids to discover that empathy is more useful than sympathy; to appreciate that happiness is not always reliant upon wealth, and to experience other cultures while learning practical lessons about economics and the environment.
The benefit of doing all this ‘in the field’ was, of course, that the kids would also have fun and gain a deeper understanding than if they were stuck in a climate-controlled classroom in Dubai.
After they’d finished their work at the kindergarten, the teenagers were rewarded with a camping expedition, which involved trekking down to Wenchi Crater Lake and pitching up for the night (which, if our own tent-constructing experiences are anything to go by, would have had the added bonus of ticking the ‘team-building’ box on the learning outcomes form).
But, unlike previous nights, when the kids had been presented with disappointingly international fare, their dinner was to come from an altogether more traditional source. ‘The local guides killed a lamb,’ Jay says. ‘There was a protest from some people, but I ate it – I had to try it!’
Of all the eye-opening experiences the students had, though, the Aids orphanage clearly had the most profound impact. The children there weren’t necessarily infected themselves (there isn’t the funding to test whether they are or not) – but they had all lost one or both parents to the disease.
Jay explains, ‘We’d been told what to be careful about – just to check for blood and not to kiss them and stuff – but we weren’t really conscious of it; we just played with them like they were normal kids.’
Perhaps what the children found more difficult to comprehend was the environment in which the orphans were trying to learn: Lisa tells us that there were 40 to 60 infants per class – ‘they were just desperate to get some attention, you know’? – and that the play area was more horrifying than welcoming. ‘Instead of dolls, they had legs and heads of dolls. It hardly said “play here”,’ she says.
The truly humbling thing about the DIA students is the amazing maturity they show when talking about their trip: throughout Time Out’s visit to the school, sentences you’d usually expect from a seasoned Africa veteran tripped off their tongues in a refreshingly unselfconscious manner: ‘The people there were so welcoming, they wanted to give us everything they had – that’s a better way to think about Ethiopia rather than just seeing it as a poor place,’ said one.
‘The fact that the kids are so grateful to go to school when we spend our lives moaning about it made me really appreciate what I have’, said another, and, ‘I had to go and cry in the office at the Aids orphanage but then I thought, “What good is this doing them?”’
When asked whether he plans to repeat the trip this year, David grins and replies, ‘Definitely – I still have parents emailing saying what a fantastic time their kids had.’
As we wrap up the interview, he encapsulates the purpose of taking kids out of their comfort zones perfectly: ‘It changes you, doing something like this. You get people in Dubai who whinge about being poor because they can’t afford to go out for a drink, but when you see real poverty and witness the strength of character demonstrated by these people, it stays with you for the rest of your life.’ We’ve got a feeling his students would agree. With thanks to students Aman Ghose and Ghazal Watfa for supplying all photographs.
So what next?
Even the best schools in Ethiopia lack basic resources that people in richer countries tend to take for granted. While they were there, the DIA students contributed nearly Dhs4,000, which was enough to cover four teachers’ salaries and rent at the Aids orphanage for two months.
They may be comfortably ensconced back in the luxury of Dubai now, but the kids haven’t forgotten how much a small financial contribution can help. Raunak Datt, 15, has been in touch with the Aids orphanage they visited to think of ways to do more fundraising, like doing bake sales. But in the long term he has grander ambitions, like organising a big charity concert.
Aman Ghose, 16, has gone one step further, by deciding to extend his work on Ethiopia into a three-year project. ‘There isn’t a shortage of water there; it’s just that they don’t have the infrastructure in place to distribute it properly,’ he explains.
‘I want to create awareness of the lack of accessibility to clean drinking water through photography – I’m going to design posters and raise money for the cause.’ Aman also plans to return to Ethiopia soon.
Teacher and organiser David Turner is keen to stress that actually visiting and helping out has a far greater benefit on children’s learning, but, of course, financial help is always gratefully received. If you would like to contribute, email David Turner on email@example.com for details.