My Education Story

Education Changes Everything: My Story Tesfaye Kifle, Deputy Head of School, The Haile-Manas Academy. An Ethiopian educator with over two decades of teaching, administrative and teacher capacity building, recalls his first experience of school and how he became the only one of 13 siblings to leave the family farm.

I grew up in the province of Arsi, in the countryside southeast of Addis Ababa.  Arsi is known as the home of Ethiopia’s famous Olympic runners: Haile Gebre Selassie, Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, Genzebe Dibaba.  All of these athletes other than Haile are actually from my hometown of Bekoji where I attended both middle and high school.  I am the 7th of 13 siblings and I grew up on a farm, 20kms from Bekoji, where I was a shepherd who did not have shoes before the age of 13.   In addition to my mother tongue, Amharic, I grew up speaking Afan Oromo which is the second most widely spoken language in Ethiopia after Amharic.  

Access to education was not easy during my childhood as there was only one primary school within 15kms radius of my village.  Three of my elder brothers attended this school while my immediate older brother and I looked after the cattle and sheep to make this possible for them.  

During the summer of 1980 the Derg, the then socialist government, declared that all farmers should attend non-formal school between 6am and 8:30am as part of the Derg’s literacy campaign.  That, in my opinion, was one of a very limited number of good things that regime did for Ethiopia.  My father had to attend this program and he posted the 200 plus characters of the Amharic alphabet on our living room wall.  As he studied the alphabet and recited out loud, I was listening, unnoticed. Every time he left the room, I tried to write my name using his pencil on a piece of cardboard.  I soon taught myself all the characters and could write my name and numbers up to 100.

One morning I secretly followed my father to school. The classroom was full of adults wearing white cotton gabis against the morning cold and they laughed to see an 8 year-old among them.  The teacher did not know what to do for me because he was certain I would be far behind the adults.  He asked me if I recognized any Amharic characters and I showed him that I knew the entire alphabet.  He then asked me to write my name.  Finally, he gave me a stick and told me to teach the farmers and left for another room full of waiting farmers.  So, on my very first day of school, I became a teacher.

After that, my father decided to send me to formal school instead of my older brother.  One still had to win a lottery to get a spot, which I did not.  Fortunately, the farmers’ teacher convinced the school to offer an entrance exam and to allow anyone who scored 90% or more to start from grade 2.  I scored 100% in both Amharic and math, and that is how I started school.

I enjoyed school and believed it would give me more opportunities than farming.  However, my siblings all dropped out, one by one, and became farmers, which made my father angry.  One day, he informed me that he would no longer buy me school supplies or clothing.  He declared that I was going to become a farmer anyway so he didn’t want to waste any more money on my education.  My father told me this while looking at my 10th grade report card, which showed that I was 2nd in my class.

I wanted to prove my father wrong.  I wanted to show him that I could survive without his support.  So I started a small business that required me to walk 40kms twice a week during school vacations.  I farmed a very small plot of land to make a little more money. I’ve supported myself financially since grade 11.  I am the only member of my family to go to college and I will always be grateful to my late father who unintentionally made me find my own strength and independence.

My experience has taught me that education changes everything and I am proud to be working on a project that will provide the highest level of educational excellence to bright and hard-working Ethiopian students both on our campus and throughout the country.

Tesfaye Kifle