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Tynesiders on odyssey to Eritrea

Eritrea. Norham community technology college in Tyne and Wear is in what Ofsted calls an area of social deprivation".

But a visit by pupils to the dusty, high-altitude village of Adi Wagera in Eritrea put their circumstances in perspective. They saw how children fetch their water from the village pond, electricity is non-existent and classroom furniture is made of stone.

The visit was the culmination of a campaign at the school that raised Pounds 52,000 to build two classrooms at a school, toilets for an education centre, drinking water for a village and fund the half-term trip to this north-east African country by five teachers and 10 children.

Dirty kids with healthy smiles and ululations from the village women welcomed the Norham party to the village, reachable only by four-wheel drive. "It's a life-changing experience," said Sarah Atkinson, 32, Norham supply teacher and the driving force behind the two-week trip.

Poor even by African standards, Eritrea is recovering from recent war with neighbouring Ethiopia and persistent drought. The average Eritrean earns just pound;80 per year, and half cannot read or write.

Last Christmas, Ms Atkinson and husband Nick, 34, a chartered surveyor, gave a presentation at Norham about their two years in rural Eritrea with British charity Voluntary Services Overseas. This sparked the campaign.

"Fate seemed to be telling me to do it," said Ms Atkinson.

Sponsored runs, talk-ins with soccer stars, a coast-to-coast cycle ride, no-uniform days, and donations from the British embassy in Eritrea and property firm DTZ have all been essential ingredients.

The cash for materials was transferred through VSO, and villages provided the manpower.

"When you look at the deprivation, you wouldn't think education would be such a priority. But it is," said senior teacher Helen Lowton. "Here, the students walk for two hours or more every morning to to school," she said, describing schools of 3,000 students, 50 teachers, two teaching shifts, and 90 children per class.

Teachers are paid little, often working far from their families. In some schools, United Nations workers give pupils their only regular meal - lentil soup and bread. "Each of the children brings a stick each day for the fire to cook lunch. So that's the kids' contribution," said Ms Atkinson.

Norham wants to maintain its Eritrean link but does not expect it to be easy.

Pupils were unruffled by the hardships they had to face on the trip, including a lack of running water, and intermittent electricity. "Now that I have done it, I think I could do anything," said Laura-Jayne Stabler, 15.

"It just made us think a lot about life, how people live differently to us," said Stephanie Young, 15.

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