Link up to a world of difference

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Nicci Crowther looks at ways of making contact with schools and students as far afield as Ethiopia

Kirkos Youth Centre lies a mile from the centre of Addis Ababa, behind a high concrete wall. Outside, the city teems with people - a jumble of shanty roofs forms a rusty patchwork of corrugated iron. Inside the centre compound, a teenage rock band tunes up in the hall. It's Saturday morning, but most of the young people are sitting quietly under the trees doing their homework.

These children take education seriously. With schools operating a shift system of three sessions a day, and homes desperately overcrowded, the youth centre is a haven of calm. Run by the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia, it provides health information and counselling alongside table tennis and drama groups - and a quiet place to study.

Young Ethiopians' experiences mark them out as very different from British teenagers. Melaku Abraham, aged 18, writes: "I remember the famine when I was growing up. All the people were suffering. Many of our friends and families died. In the civil war, schools, houses, hospitals and churches were burned and destroyed."

But scratch the surface, and their preoccupations are startlingly similar. "Many people come from broken families in Ethiopia," writes one boy. "The reason is that many people married when they were very young and become divorced, like my parents." Another writes: "The drug our country's youth uses they call hashish. They buy it at great expense, in secret."

One student is from Tigray, home of the country's new rulers, in the north of the country. He encounters prejudice from the dominant ethnic groups living in the capital. "I don't like this discrimination of race," he writes.

Young people attending the centre are encouraged to take responsibility for many activities. Samson Yilma, a bright, friendly technical school student, is one of five "peer educators", who have been trained in sex education counselling. He and his friends have also started a journalism club to exchange ideas on how they might improve skills that might eventually lead to a job on a newspaper.

The club has 15 members, ranging in age from 14 to 20. They meet regularly to talk and pass round whatever newspapers they have managed to get hold of. What they want now is access to the wider world - "hot news" - and contact with other young people with similar interests.

"We all want to become journalists," writes Samson. "If we had contact with high schools in your country, we could share ideas. Please connect us."

English is these young people's second - or, in some cases, third language. But they are keen to practise and desperate to communicate. School or youth groups that would like to set up a regular correspondence with the Kirkos young journalists can fax Kirkos Exchange on 0171 813 0850.

u Education Partners Overseas (associated with the Central Bureau, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1. Tel: 0171 389 4693) regularly puts UK schools in touch with institutions in other parts of the world. In return for a small membership fee, the organisation can match up schools on the basis of age, particular projects or areas of study.

u For almost three years, Ansford Community School in Castle Cary, Somerset, has been linked with Mufulira Secondary School in Zambia. Not only have there been exchange visits of teachers and students, but the Zambian experience has enriched the national curriculum at Ansford, with examples being drawn from the art, music, geography and technology of the region.

According to project co-ordinator David Weatherly, the scheme has had a profound effect on the whole school community. One young Briton wrote of the visit to Zambia: "Even though the people there have barely nothing, they all join in and work together to help one another in their community."

u North-south links can also be arranged through The Development Education Association (29 Cowper Street, London EC2. Tel: 0171 490 8108, Fax: 0171 490 8123), UK One World Linking (Chesterfield Town Hall, Rose Hill, Chesterfield S40 1LP. Tel: 01246 345345) and the Commonwealth Linking Trust (Commonwealth House, 7 Lion Yard, Tremadoc Road, London SW4 7NQ. Tel: 0171 498 1101, Wednesdays only).

u Young people's views on relationships, parents, sex and reproductive health are the subject of Generation 97, a survey of 600 young people from 52 countries, published by the United Nations Population Fund and International Planned Parenthood Federation. The report contains statistical summaries and direct quotes and is available from International Planned Parenthood, Regent's College, Inner Circle, Regent's Park, London NW1 4NS. Tel: 0171 487 7900;

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