My African adventure

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Instead of receiving wedding presents, Nathalie Allexant-Rowland asked for donations to build a school in Ethiopia. She tells Victoria Furness about her experience

Most couples ask for vouchers or money to fund their honeymoon for their wedding present. But Nathalie Allexant-Rowland, a Year 1 teacher at Downton Primary School near Salisbury, and her fiance decided to build a school and asked their wedding guests to help fund it.

The proposed school is in Merkato, one of the poorest districts in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and is being built by the Tesfa Foundation, set up by Dana Roskey, an American, four years ago. The charity has built five schools to provide early years education to disadvantaged children where there is no alternative state provision.

Nathalie heard about the charity through Mark Charman, a friend who she worked with at Gallions Primary School in east London for several years. He became involved with the foundation after taking part in a charity mountain run in Ethiopia and was planning to re-visit the Tesfa schools to offer his teaching expertise.

Mark, now a research executive with a London-based research organisation and an educational adviser to Tesfa Foundation, says: "Only 3 per cent of children aged four to six years old are currently accessing an early years education.

"The immediate need addressed by Tesfa is to provide the fundamental start for success in life: good quality early years education, which is crucial to vulnerable children in helping lift them from the trapping of the cycle of poverty they are born into."

When Nathalie moved to Downton last year, she wanted to involve her new school in fundraising for Tesfa. "Having taught in a multicultural environment in Newham, east London for eight years, I believed that creating a link between my current school and one of the Tesfa schools would be as valuable for my pupils as those in Ethiopia," she says.

"My headteacher was supportive of the idea and with my Year 2 class we began by sending letters and emails, and then doing a joint art project that involved my children creating half a picture, sending the pictures to Ethiopia and the Tesfa children completing them. We also held a bring and buy sale in March, which raised Pounds 250."

In June, Dana visited Downton after learning about its fundraising activities. "Meeting Dana was an incredible experience as he was able to explain his vision for the Tesfa schools," says Nathalie. It was then that she mentioned the idea that she and her fiance would ask their wedding guests to donate money to Tesfa instead of buying them gifts.

"It seemed logical that we raise money for Tesfa as we knew the charity was so small that money wouldn't get lost in overheads. My husband and I are also mad about Africa, and were getting married in Zambia, so we wanted to give something back," says Nathalie.

Dana was interested but suggested Nathalie go one step further and raise Pounds 5,000 for a new school he was planning in Merkato. "He was also interested in my professional input and suggested that I might want to become more hands on and play a part in influencing the school's ethos, practices and policies," she says.

This wasn't something Nathalie had anticipated when she began fundraising for Tesfa, but she was keen to get involved: "I'm not interested in having a management role in England - although I was an Advanced Skills Teacher in London - but I was keen to have an impact in this area."

Nathalie's wedding guests donated Pounds 1,200, leaving a shortfall of Pounds 3,800 to be found through other fundraising initiatives - an autumn bazaar run by parents, involving cake sales, toys, books, face painting and crafts, raised just under Pounds 800, while another parent raised money for the charity by taking part in the Great South Run. "The support within the community has been uplifting and continues to grow," she says.

In October, Nathalie travelled to Ethiopia with Mark and Lyn Cooke, another ex-Gallions teacher, who is now an adviser for Newham Council, to deliver teacher training in some of the Tesfa schools. Despite her experience of travelling around Africa, she admits it was a culture shock. "The level of poverty was overwhelming. The streets were filled with homeless people: mothers breastfeeding, children walking alone and desperate people constantly asking for money and telling us how hungry they were," she says.

Nathalie taught in three of the Tesfa schools during her 10-day trip and did a day's teacher training on using the arts to deliver the curriculum. "I did a lot of storytelling work with the children, using picture books, dance and drama work, as it transcends the language barrier well," she says. In the teacher training session, Nathalie also tried to involve the teachers in discussions about creativity and the play-based, kinaesthetic approach to teaching used in English primary schools.

"The Ethiopian teachers were keen to try out the new techniques and we spent time after school with them developing their existing planning, and moving them away from the traditional chalk and talk method, which pervades their teaching styles."

She also joined Tesfa staff in looking at potential sites for the new school and met the proposed lead teacher to discuss its ethos. "I felt so privileged to have such an input in the new school," she says.

Nathalie returned to England in early November and spent a week with her Year 1 class doing the same activities she'd carried out with the pupils at the Tesfa schools. She believes this is important as it creates a link between the schools and gives the pupils a global awareness they wouldn't otherwise have. "They had a lot of misconceptions about Africa before - now they are becoming more globally aware and seeing how fortunate they are," she says.

Downton School isn't officially twinned with the Merkato School, but Years 1 and 2 are. "We wanted it to be sustainable so we're building up slowly," says Nathalie. In the meantime, she still has just under Pounds 2,000 to raise if the school is to open in September 2009, so fundraising continues in earnest.

Nathalie has found the whole experience of working with Tesfa life changing. "This charity may only be small, but it undoubtedly has a huge impact on the lives of many children and their families," she says.

The impact it has had on her has been both personal and professional: "When I was teaching in London, I felt a great sense that I was reaching out to a lot of vulnerable children, whereas Downton is quite an affluent village, so it has given me that side of my career back. Having an influence over the curriculum and values of the new school has also made me think about what I value in education. The fact our wedding has some kind of legacy is exciting too," she says

If you want to donate to the new Merkato School you can do so by visiting www.justgiving.comallexant-rowland. Information on the Tesfa Foundation can be found at


- Letter writing Children at Downton write letters rather than emails to their penpals at the Tesfa schools: "The electricity goes down a lot in Ethiopia so email hasn't been as successful for us," says Nathalie. "Also it gives the children a purpose to their writing and builds a sense of excitement when their letters arrive."

- Use real-life case studies When Nathalie was in Ethiopia she visited the home of Yigremachew, a nine-year-old boy who is sponsored by Mark, through Tesfa. On her return, Nathalie used photos of Yigremachew's house and hobbies to demonstrate to the children that although he lived in completely different circumstances from them, he did the same things they did, such as football, singing and colouring.

- Teach the same lessons Nathalie's class might not be able to visit Ethiopia, but she was able to give them an insight into what life was like by teaching her pupils at Downton the same lessons she taught in the Tesfa schools, and showing them pictures of the other children taking part in the same activities.

- Use visual aids Nathalie found her picture books and puppets immensely useful when trying to teach children in Ethiopia, as they helped overcome the language barrier. Back home, she created a display in the classroom with pictures of the Ethiopian flag, the local alphabet and pictures of the children at the Tesfa schools to bring the country and culture alive for her pupils.


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