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An Ethiopian photographer captures the hope and resolve inside the country’s oldest university

Samrawit Asmer says the dust and dirt around the campus was “very demoralizing.”
Wongel Abebe
Samrawit Asmer says the dust and dirt around the campus is “very demoralizing.”
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For millions of Ethiopians, access to higher education is a luxury they can only dream to attain. But over the last decade, as the country experienced an economic boom, it also underwent a rapid expansion in educational infrastructure.

While there are still regional and gender disparities in basic proficiency, primary school enrolment doubled to 90% in the last decade, according to the World Bank. In 2000, the Horn of Africa nation only had two universities but now has up to 36 public higher education and 98 private institutions, according to the ministry of education.

The reality at university campuses is the subject of photographer Wongel Abebe’s latest project. Abebe specifically focused her lens on Addis Ababa University, her alma mater, and the largest institution of higher learning and research in Ethiopia. Abebe’s project, dubbed “AAU Stories: Students Speak,” started as part of a research assignment that looked at the lives of students on the campus. Along with her friend Nafkot Gebeyehu, Abebe spent hours interviewing and photographing students on campus, asking them about their personal and educational experiences.

The students didn’t hold back; they spoke at length about their hopes, frustrations and resolve while studying at AAU. Some spoke about electricity outages, bad food at the campus cafeteria, tedious class registration processes, missing grades, absent teachers, dirty dormitories and poor lab facilities. Others also spoke about friendship, about making it to the capital from small towns, about the power and place of education in their lives. The emerging picture from Abebe’s project provides a rather unique insight into Ethiopia’s oldest university.

Nathnael Dejene and Yohannes Fassil are freshmen students studying computer engineering. They said that they were surprised to find that the lecturers at their math and civics classes were absent for several weeks. “This later caused us to rush through the courses before the exam period,” they said. But when the semester ended, Bereket Tafesse, a fourth-year civil engineering student, went to check on his grades. “Three of them were missing,” he quipped.

Wongel Abebe
Nathnael Dejene and Yohannes Fassil

Beyond the classroom, students also complained about their living conditions. Tamrat Bushra is a third-year sociology student who lives in the university’s housing. “The smell in the dorms has three stages,” he said. “First is the infused smell of the shoes and sweat of the eight different students in the dorm room. Then, as you step out into the corridor, the concentrated smell of tobacco and khat greet you. The third is the intoxicating smell of the bathroom that seems to physically shove you back when you try to step in.”

Wongel Abebe
Tamrat Bushra

Samrawit Asmer, a print and web development student at the school of journalism, said the dust and the dirt around the campus were “very demoralizing.” “My creativity and passion have been shadowed and washed away by the wretched physical environment in the school. Sometimes, it feels like we’re thrown at some old building and no one really cares about us. I think if it gets fixed up, this school has the potential to be a cozy, artistic and historically significant campus.”

Wongel Abebe
Bethlehem Nigussie

Makida Asrat and Amen Ayele are law students who worried about the safety and harmony on campus. “There are several cases of sexual harassment on campus. We report about them but nothing seems to be done,” they said. Bethlehem Nigussie, a freshman studying political science and international relations, was worried about the “ethnic division” she experienced among students on campus. “It is even sometimes evident in the way everyone sits in class. It is very different from high school, and I am growing and maturing as a result of it.”

Wongel Abebe
Makida Asrat and Amen Ayele

Rediet Kefyalew is a fifth-year law student at the university’s main campus. The bureaucracy to get things done is discouraging, she said. “One time, we needed a permit from the school to host an event, and we were in the process of getting a letter approved when the secretary told me they had lost it. I brought a similar copy of it so it could get signed. I was told that I had to wait until the first letter was found.” A university lecturer stepped in to take care of the matter.

Wongel Abebe
Rediet Kefyalew

But students like Addismiraph Abebe, a first-year computer science student, is tired of complaining and is taking action. Abebe didn’t like that students tore the announcements posted on the university notice boards. “So I started a website called AAU Push that would serve as an online information disseminating tool by teachers and the administration of the school.”

Wongel Abebe
Addismiraph Abebe

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