How to retain knowledge in school?

Sometimes it’s as simple as ensuring there’s something to write on

By Amanda Westfall
Students at Bira Primary School in Amhara Region, Ethiopia
03 November 2018

On 12 April 2018, In rural northwestern Ethiopia, Muluye Tigabu, 15, explains how vital the simple material of paper is to her education. However, when the cost of a few notebooks equals that of a monthly wage, many families cannot afford to buy them. And without paper to write on, Muluye’s ability to remember what she learned is limited. UNICEF demonstrates how to invest in the private sector for cost-effective, timely distribution of paper notebooks – via camel, donkey, motorbike, whatever it takes - to ensure children have the ability to write. 

In the rural areas of Amhara Region, the cost of one notebook is approximately one or two U.S. dollars. In many countries, families wouldn’t think twice at this price and easily purchase multiple notebooks for their children.  But for Muluye Tigabu, this is equal to the salary she earns per month to work four hours each day (while attending school another four hours). 

Paper is just too expensive for poor families in Ethiopia. The invention that brought humanity to retain knowledge, learn from mistakes, and become great civilizations – this simple material is too expense for many Ethiopians. In poor communities, children and adults alike can be seen writing in miniscule sizes on every corner of the pages until the white of the paper is almost nonexistent, and if paper is not available, notes can be found on hands, arms, legs, wherever the ink can be absorbed.

Muluye is in Grade 8 and wants to be an agriculture expert one day but knows that she needs to study very hard to reach her goal. But with nine subjects and only a few notebooks, paper space is limited to write down her notes.

Like most girls in rural Ethiopia, Muluye is expected to do household chores - like make injera (local Ethiopian bread), fetch water, and collect firewood - for her family and for neighboring families who pay her a small monthly wage. Young girls are tired after long days of work and school, and in many cases, like for Muluye, their schools don’t have a water source so class time is spent with a constant feeling of thirst. Under these conditions, retaining knowledge that was learned at school is quite difficult, especially when the writing space in notebooks is limited.

In many cases, the local education office helps provide notebooks for students. However, in hard-to-reach areas, and with limited funding and high transportation costs, it is difficult for all schools to be reached, especially when many schools have no vehicle access. As a result, the quality of education decreases because many children don’t have a way of writing down the knowledge they learn.

UNICEF demonstrates efficient delivery of exercise books

UNICEF invested in a demonstration process to show the Government how to efficiently and effectively work with the private sector to deliver much needed notebooks to poverty-stricken children.

UNICEF worked through the private sector company, Atlantic Freight Local Inland Transport Association, who proved to be a high quality partner from start to finish, transporting the notebooks from the capital to the region to woredas and finally to each school, and in many cases sub-contracting local transport providers who used donkeys and camels to finish the last leg of the journey. UNICEF and the local education offices worked with the schools to create awareness in the communities about the new books, while the schools organized the unloading, storing, and delivery to students.

With UNICEF’s support in supply management, data collection, working with vendors, and overseeing the delivery procedure with the company and schools, a systematic process was built for the Government to manage school material provision and delivery going forward.

The full demonstration included 448,430 notebooks delivered to 89,690 children (4-5 books per child) from 178 hard-to-reach schools. Many locations were in challenging environments, near river basins or high in the mountains and inaccessible for vehicles, where only way of reaching the schools was via pack animals like donkeys, camels, and mules.

What's more is that the new notebooks included hand washing and safe-sanitary messages - given that the areas were previously affected by acute watery diarrhoea outbreaks - to prevent water-borne diseases in the future.

Habtu Gebeye, the school director at Bira Primary School (where Muluye attends), explains how the new notebooks help improve the quality of education, “Because of poverty, many children have one book for five subjects. With one book they have to put all of the teachers’ comments and notes into this small book...The books are exhausted in just a few days … and when they have nothing to write on, children start dropping out of school. But because of this distribution, each child can now get four new books. Most children now have one book per subject. This has a great impact on the quality of learning.”


The value of paper

Muluye Tigabu poses with her new exercise books
UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Westfall
Muluye Tigabu poses with her new exercise books

Now, more children are coming to school. As the local priest and PTSA member, Kes Asefa Fula explains, “these exercise books can support girls in severe poverty. When they learn about the new arrival of books, they are inspired to come to school.”

If local governments improve their capacity to deliver to schools, then children will have the necessary materials needed to learn. They will have the simple material of paper to retain knowledge. The learning process will improve for children, like Muluye, so they can become contributing members to society one day, whether as teachers, doctors, nurses, businesspeople, or even agricultural experts.

Paper is a small piece to the puzzle to improving the quality of education, but an extremely important part. As history demonstrates, the value of paper is crucial for children, schools, societies, and nations.
UNICEF continues to support the government - and when necessary, will demonstrate logistical procedures and how to work with the local private sector - so that they can have the capacity to ensure their children have the tools to lead their nation one day.