A New Preschool in Ethiopia

In Soda, Ethiopia, 118 preschoolers cram onto rough benches in a single, dark room. There are no learning materials and the teachers haven’t been formally trained. This is the site of Holt’s brand-new preschool program — which will soon transform into a bright and happy place where children receive the early education foundation they need to thrive.  

Salat wasn’t able to go to preschool. Now in primary school, she’s way behind her peers.

Salat’s big dark eyes glaze over as she stands at the front of the classroom. She watches her classmates do basic addition on the blackboard. She holds the piece of chalk in her hand… frozen.

She’s only in her first year of primary school. But here she stands, uncertain and embarrassed. She’s already behind in school. But it’s not her fault.

Preschool education is required in Ethiopia. In fact, every primary school is supposed to have a preschool classroom where children come to learn the foundational skills to help them succeed once they go to primary school — learning letters and numbers, how to pay attention in a classroom, and more. But some schools have more resources than others. And here in Soda, resources are severely lacking.

No child should have to feel like Salat does up at the blackboard. But it’s reality for hundreds of children in this remote town.

Somewhere Not on a Map…

Soda is a town of just over 8,000 people in southern Ethiopia, and the site of one of Holt’s newest programs. Poverty rates are high here, there isn’t great access to clean water and entire generations of adults are illiterate and didn’t complete their education — especially women. Despite this need, Holt is the only charity organization that works in the entire town. This is partly because of how remote it is.

“You can’t find it on a map,” is one of the first ways our Holt Ethiopia team described Soda.

To get to Soda, you travel for hours on a bumpy, dusty pothole-strewn road. It’s more out of the way than anywhere else Holt works in Ethiopia. But once you get there, you find a vibrant and welcoming community.

To get to Soda, you travel for hours on a bumpy, dusty pothole-strewn road. It’s more out of the way than anywhere else Holt works in Ethiopia. But once you get there, you find a vibrant and welcoming community.

Holt first began working in Soda two years ago in partnership with Rotary International, focusing primarily on the high school students. The goal was specifically to make high school a safe place for teenage girls, since so many of them were dropping out. This project is successful and still underway. And this next year, the focus is expanding to include the youngest kids, too.  

A child stands in front of the current preschool building in Soda, Ethiopia.

There is actually already a preschool in town, but it’s way too small for the number of children who are there. But even for the children who go, it’s not a place that they can learn…

No Room at School

The preschool building in Soda has walls made of crumbling dry mud. A cracked half-blackboard leans against one of the walls, and there are no doors. It’s dark – the only light source is from the sun that beams through small shafts dug through the walls. Children cram onto rough makeshift wooden benches. There are zero learning supplies, and the teachers have received no formal training.  

Demekech is one of the teachers here. She cares deeply for her preschool students, and does her very best — although with very little training or resources.

Demekech (left) and Tagesch (right) both teach preschool in Soda. They do their best, but say they’ve received zero training.

“We just do as we like,” Demekech says, smiling but looking upset. “We do not use lesson planning and we do not even know how to do it. We have no guides like other teachers, and we simply repeat the same things several times.”

So even when the children come to the preschool, they don’t learn. Many of them drop out — instead following their parents to work, or even staying home unattended. When they go to primary school years later, they’re already behind. So they drop out again. Their education ends before it even begins…

Demekech remembers that more than 170 children came to preschool at the beginning of last school year, but by October only a few were coming on-and-off.

“The majority of the children returned to their home and dropped out from the center,” she says.

Salat never even had the opportunity to come in the first place.

The Chance for Early Education

When Salat was 3, 4 then 5, there was no room for her to attend preschool. Not only was the school overcrowded, but it was a long walk from her home— much too far for her to travel at such a young age. It wasn’t until she was 9 years old that her parents felt she was ready for primary school. But at this point, she was already so behind her peers.

But Salat isn’t the only one.  

Genet’s older children didn’t have the chance to attend preschool. But she hopes her 4-year-old will get to go next year.

Genet is a 27-year-old mother of seven children in Soda. Her three oldest children attend primary school, but like Salat, they never had the chance for early preschool education.

“Our children directly go to school as they turn 7 or 8, and I do not remember if there had been such opportunities for younger children before,” Genet says. But she understands the importance of education — mostly because she didn’t get to complete her own.

Genet studied up to grade 7, but she wants more for her children. While she regrets that her older children didn’t get to go to preschool, she hopes her 4-year-old will be able to attend next year.

And thanks to parents like herself, dedicated preschool teachers, and generous Holt donors and partners across the world, there is hope.

Hope for Preschoolers in Soda

Around the world, Holt implements early childhood care and development (ECCD) programs in impoverished communities. And in fall 2022, this early education program is coming to Soda.

“As our planned ECCD intervention,” says Malia Robello, program manager for Ethiopia, “we would equip the school with separate classrooms for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds, provide age-appropriate learning materials, and train the teachers in teaching methodologies for those specific age groups.”

“As our planned ECCD intervention, we would equip the school with separate classrooms for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds, provide age-appropriate learning materials, and train the teachers in teaching methodologies for those specific age groups.”

Malia Robello, Ethiopia program manager

Holt plans to renovate the existing preschool, providing bright learning materials and child-sized chairs and tables. Teachers like Demekech will go through trainings, so they have the tools they need to put together engaging and age-appropriate curriculums for their students. Holt will work with the school and community to begin providing a nutritious lunch or snack whenever possible, so children have the energy and nutrients they need to learn and grow.

Every child in Soda deserves the opportunity to go to preschool, to have a solid foundation in education.

Every child in Soda deserves the opportunity to go to preschool, to have a solid foundation in education. The older children in this community — like Salat and Genet’s older children — are doing their best without this early resource. Now that they’re in primary school they have the support of their teacher who is dedicated to helping them catch up. But it will be difficult.

Now, life will be completely different for preschoolers in Soda, Ethiopia.

A girl solves math problems on a chalk board at an early childhood development center in Ethiopia.

Holt Ethiopia, Holt donors and Rotary International are investing in a generation of children in Soda who will walk up to the blackboard with confidence. Who can hold the piece of chalk in their hand, and be excited to try their best at the front of the classroom. These children will have a greater likelihood of staying in school, graduating, and rising above poverty someday.

Preschool can make a life-changing difference.

A teacher and students in a classroom at Wallana ECCD center in Ethiopia.

Send a Child in Ethiopia to Preschool

Preschoolers in Soda, Ethiopia need a proper school building, a new chalkboard, paper and pencils and trained early education teachers. Will you help? Just $50 helps one child.

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