Area teachers raise money for 2015 visit by their Ethiopian counterparts

ADDISON COUNTY — A group of local teachers who spent two weeks in Ethiopia this past winter are raising money to bring their Ethiopian counterparts to Vermont next year.
Lincoln’s Burnham Hall will play host to the Vermont-based New Nile Orchestra this Saturday, June 14. Proceeds from the show will benefit the Action for Youth and Community Chance, a non-governmental organization that promotes social causes in Ethiopia.
The teachers who traveled to Ethiopia will cook authentic Ethiopian fare for the event.
Five Addison County teachers — Elaine Pentaleri of Vergennes Union Elementary School, Stacy Carter and Barbara Yerrick of Monkton Central School, and Matthew Schlein and Becky Dowdy of Vergennes Union High School — traveled to the East African nation this past February.
The New Nile Orchestra, which bills itself as “New England’s Finest Ethiopian Funk,” which was founded by Panton  musician Ron Rost and the-now famous Seleshe Damessa, who has since returned to Ethiopia. The band is led by singer Kiflu Kidane, a half brother of Damessa who immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 1990.
Many of the New Nile Orchestra’s grooves use time signatures unfamiliar to American ears. While most Western popular music is composed in 4/4 time, many of the band’s tunes are in 7/4 or 13/8. Organizers of Saturday’s event say that the New Nile Orchestra, a dance band, creates infectious rhythms that, combined with Kidane’s remarkable dancing and singing, inspire even the most committed wallflower to get up and dance.
The teachers’ trip was a coordination with the Action for Youth and Community Change, or AYCC, which is run by young professionals in Awassa, a city of 165,000 in the heart of Ethiopia, the largest landlocked country in Africa.
Pentaleri said arriving in Ethiopia, which lies just north of the equator, was a welcome respite from the cold Vermont winter.
“We left the cold February and arrived in 80-degree weather and bright sunshine,” she said. “I was immediately struck by the fine weather, and how happy most of the people were I encountered.”
Pentaleri said Awassa is remarkably different from Vermont. For example, it has little infrastructure.
“I opened the door to the place we were staying, and goats, donkeys, cattle and horses were roaming through the streets of Awassa,” Pentaleri said.
VUHS teacher Matthew Schlein, who works in the Walden Project, said he enjoyed the culture of Ethiopia.
“There’s a fun feeling at 7:30 in the morning, walking down these dusty paths with this swarm of kids, donkey carts and taxis,” Schlein said.
Schlein said he became aware of how teachers in the United States and Ethiopia hold different places in society.
“For them, teachers are the least valued of the professional class, in terms of monetary compensation,” Schlein said. “To reflect on what life is like for them gives me insight into my culture.”
Schlein said that he also learned that some facets of teaching transcend culture, class and religion.
“The type of people that are drawn to teaching really care about the future,” Schlein said. “They have a strong belief in what they’re doing, and they’re doing it with so few resources.
Pentaleri said she had a similar experience.
“We met very talented and dedicated people, and came to understand the universal culture between teachers,” Pentaleri said. “They’re dedicated to what they’re doing, no matter where you go; that’s really important and beautiful.”
Schlein said the school the Vermont teachers visited enrolled 6,700 students. Class sizes were as high as 90 — a number unheard of in Vermont.
“The have a student-teacher ratio of 70 to 1, 80 to 1,” Schlein said. “In Vermont, we’re 10 to 1. I feel grateful to be able to teach here.”
Schlein added that the Ethiopian students and faculty marveled at the technology available to Vermont students. For them, Schlein said, the idea that students in the Walden Project would forsake computers to learn outside was absurd.
“To them, that was the strangest thing — the idea that we wouldn’t avail ourselves of technology,” Schlein said. “They’re very interested in what we’re doing in America.”
The Vermont teachers primarily taught English to the Ethiopian students. The dominant ethnic language of that region of Ethiopia is Amharic, though Pentaleri said that most educated people also learn English.
Schlein praised AYCC for its work in Africa.
“They’ve for the last 10 years held AIDS awareness circuses in remote villages that have no access to media,” he said.
Schlein commended the group for using art and theater to speak out against genital mutilation and to promote women’s rights.
“It’s all about the youth of Ethiopia,” Schlein said. “It’s run by really smart, wonderful 20-somethings that are taking their future into their hands.”
The local teachers traveled to Ethiopia as part of a course offered in conjunction with Castleton State College, the Vermont Folklife Center, the Willowell Foundation and AYCC. The two year course, “Vermont to Ethiopia and Back: Integrating Stories, Culture and Place in the Public Schools of Ethiopia and Vermont,” will develop multi-year relationships between schools in the United States and Ethiopia in the form of alternating teacher exchanges. Several teachers from Awassa will travel to Vermont in 2015 to spend two weeks with their teaching partners in classrooms.
At the June 14 benefit doors will open at 6 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for students and AmeriCorps members. Admission will be free for children younger than 10. In addition to the Ethiopian cuisine, there will be a cash bar. For more information, visit www.willowell.org.

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