Teaching the Human Experience: Lessons From Ethiopia

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Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad

University of Pennsylvania Center of African Studies

“Teaching the Human Experience: Lessons From Ethiopia

In Defense of Female Educational Access

Examining a Changing Culture in Ethiopia
Developed by Michelle Alcaraz-Rogers

Traditionally the education of women in rural Ethiopia has been devalued and denied. Although education is lawfully open to women, there still remain social implications that point negatively on the education of women. Culturally women are married away from the family or sent to work in mostly domestic fields to contribute to the family structure. This more continues to dominate in many traditional and rural Ethiopian communities.

This lesson allows students to study the mores and folkways of Ethiopian society through the reading of a children’s novel and articles that display the cultural norms and their proponents.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Identify elements of a story.

  • Identify cultural mores and folkways in Ethiopia

  • Consider the traditional role gender plays in decisions made by girls and boys in different parts of the world.

  • Compare and contrast their culture and/or other cultures with that of the Ethiopian cultures.

Grade Levels:

Disciplines Encompassed:

Literature, History, Gender Studies, Sociology

  • The Fig Tree by Genet Araya.

  • “Alice Who Sees Mice.” From The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

  • Recording of The Fig Tree read in Amharic.

  • Internet access for research.

Warm –Up
Students should have an understanding of the following terms:

Mores Rural

Folkways Urban

Culture Tradition

  • The class will read Sandra Cisneros’ “Alice Who Sees Mice” and journal about what is going on in the story using the following guided questions.

  1. What is the tone of this story?

  2. What type of society does this story depict?

  3. Identify the probable conflict in the story.

  4. What theme do you think carries this story?

  5. How do different characters deal with the conflict in the story?

  • Students will listen to the reading of The Fig Tree in Amharic while looking at the pictures provided.

  • They will be asked to consider the following:

  1. What is the tone of this story?

  2. What type of society does this story depict?

  3. Identify the probable conflict in the story.

  4. What theme do you think carries this story?

  5. How do different characters deal with the conflict in the story?

  • After answering the questions from listening to the story, we will discuss the elements of a story in defense of our predictions from the Amharic reading.

  • We will then read the story using the English translation while remaining aware of the presented questions.

  • After the reading we will pull out ideas that may contribute to the understanding of cultural mores and folkways in Ethiopia in regards to gender roles.
  • Students will then be guided to read selected sections of an article on the culture of Ethiopia. They will find and track evidence about the society from the predictions they made and list them on the provided chart. The article is found on http://www.everyculture.com/Cr-Ga/Ethiopia.html (Sections pasted to the end of this document for easy access). The focus should be on the following researched sections: “Gender Roles and Statuses;” “Marriage, Family and Kinship;” Socialization.”

  • In order to contextualize some of the collected information and discussion, the class should read chapter six of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, which deals primarily with the consequences of child parenthood.

  • Students will use the information collected from the readings and the other resources about why people may be unwavering in light of a changing culture.

  • They will also use these resources to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of educating girls.

Culminating Activity Options:

  1. Students can research education of women in other cultures to compare and contrast the traditions in relations to educational equity and access.

  2. The class can hold a formal debate for and against changing cultural mores and folkways.

  3. Students can research organizations working to

Works Cited

Araya, Genet. The Fig Tree. Rehobot: Ethiopia, 2007.
Cisneros, Sandra. “Alice Who Sees Mice.” The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1984. 31-32.
Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. “Maternal Mortality—One Woman a Minute.” Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Knopf, 2009. 93-102.

Works Consulted

The World Bank. Education in Ethiopia: Strengthening the Foundation for Sustainable

Progress. Washington: World Bank, 2005.
Macionis, John J. Society the Basics. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2007.

Poluha, Eve, ed. The World of Girls and Boys in Rural and Urban Ethiopia. Ethiopia:

Forum for Social Studies, 2007.

Additional Resources:

“Escaping Marriage for School” http://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/reallives_384.html
“Fighting Early Marriage to Increase Girls Education” http://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/reallives_384.html
“Samia Sadik: An Inspiration For Girls’ Education” http://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/reallives_384.html

Cultural Predictions from

The Fig Tree

Support for Predictions

from the Text

Support for Predictions

from the Article



Division of Labor by Gender. Traditionally, labor has been divided by gender, with authority given to the senior male in a household. Men are responsible for plowing, harvesting, the trading of goods, the slaughtering of animals, herding, the building of houses, and the cutting of wood. Women are responsible for the domestic sphere and help the men with some activities on the farm. Women are in charge of cooking, brewing beer, cutting hops, buying and selling spices, making butter, collecting and carrying wood, and carrying water.

The gender division in urban areas is less pronounced than it is in the countryside. Many women work outside of the home, and there tends to be a greater awareness of gender inequality. Women in urban areas are still responsible, with or without a career, for the domestic space. Employment at a baseline level is fairly equivalent, but men tend to be promoted much faster and more often.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Gender inequality is still prevalent. Men often spend their free time socializing outside the home, while women take care of the household. If a man participates in domestic activities such as cooking and child rearing, he may become a social outcast.

The education of boys is stressed more than that of girls, who are supposed to help with household work. Girls are restricted from leaving the home and engaging in social activities with friends much more than boys are.


Marriage. Traditional marriage customs vary by ethnic group, although many customs are transethnic. Arranged marriages are the norm, although this practice is becoming much less common, especially in urban areas. The presentation of a dowry from the male's family to the female's family is common. The amount is not fixed and varies with the wealth of the families. The dowry may include livestock, money, or other socially valued items.

The proposal usually involves elders, who travel from the groom's house to the parents of the bride to ask for the marriage. The elders are traditionally the individuals who decide when and where the ceremony takes place. Both the bride's and groom's families prepare food and drink for the ceremony by brewing wine and beer and cooking food. A great deal of food is prepared for the occasion, especially meat dishes.

Christians often wed in Orthodox churches, and a variety of wedding types exist. In the takelil type, the bride and groom participate in a special ceremony and agree never to divorce. This type of commitment has become rare in recent years. Wedding garb in the cities is very western: suits and tuxedos for the men and a white wedding gown for the bride.

Domestic Unit. The basic family structure is much larger than the typical Western nuclear unit. The oldest male is usually the head of the household and is in charge of decision making. Men, usually having the primary income, control the family economically and distribute money. Women are in charge of domestic life and have significantly more contact with the children. The father is seen as an authority figure.

Children are socially required to care for their parents, and so there are often three to four generations in a household. With the advent of urban living, however, this pattern is changing, and children often live far from their families and have a much harder time supporting them. Urbanites have a responsibility to send money to their families in rural areas and often try their best to relocate their families to the cities.

Inheritance. Inheritance laws follow a fairly regular pattern. Before an elder passes away he or she orally states his or her wishes for the disposal of possessions. Children and living spouses are typically

An Ethiopian woman looking at fabric in Fasher.
the inheritors, but if an individual dies without a will, property is allotted by the court system to the closest living relatives and friends. Land, although not officially owned by individuals, is inheritable. Men are more privileged then females and usually receive the most prized properties and equipment, while women tend to inherit items associated with the domestic sphere.

Kin Groups. Descent is traced through both the mother's and father's families, but the male line is more valued than the female. It is customary for a child to take the father's first name as his or her last name. In rural areas, villages are often composed of kin groups that offer support during difficult times. The kin group in which one participates tends to be in the male line. Elders are respected, especially men, and are regarded as the source of a lineage. In general, an elder or groups of elders are responsible for settling disputes within a kin group or clan.


Infant Care. Children are raised by the extended family and community. It is the primary duty of the mother to care for the children as part of her domestic duties. If the mother is not available, the

Colorfully robed deacons at the Timkat Festival in Lalibela.

responsibility falls to the older female children as well as the grandmothers.

In urban society, where both parents often work, babysitters are employed and the father takes a more active role in child care. If a child is born out of wedlock, whoever the women claims is the father is required by law to support the child economically. If parents get divorced, a child five years old or older is asked with whom he or she wants to live.

Child Rearing and Education. During early childhood, children have the greatest exposure to their mothers and female relatives. At around the age of five, especially in urban areas, children start attending school if their families can afford the fees. In rural areas, schools are few and children do farm work. This means a very low percentage of rural youth attend school. The government is trying to alleviate this problem by building accessible schools in rural areas.

The patriarchal structure of society is reflected in the stress on education for boys over girls. Women face discrimination problems as well as physical abuse in school. Also, the belief still exists that females are less competent then males and that education is wasted on them.

Higher Education. Children who do well in elementary school go on to secondary school. It is felt that missionary schools are superior to government schools. Fees are required for missionary schools, although they are reduced considerably for religious adherents.

University is free, but admission is extremely competitive. Every secondary student takes a standardized examination to get into college. The acceptance rate is approximately 20 percent of all the individuals who take the tests. There is a quota for the various departments, and only a certain number of individuals are enrolled in their desired majors. The criterion is the grades of first-year students; those with the highest marks get the first choice. In 1999, enrollment at Addis Ababa University was approximately 21,000 students.


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