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43 255 ways to transformational change at Jimma University The Sustained Dialogue Club of Jimma University reaches a milestone

Jimma University, 1 May 2015.
Jimma University, 1 May 2015.

Understanding the value in numbers isn’t as easy as 123. For numbers we can’t imagine, yet need to manage, we estimate or round off.

About 40 000 soccer fans watched the game live. 

Roughly 45 000 hours of tape were recorded in the final season.  

So when I ask Ewnetu Hailu, Director of Student Affairs, about the Jimma University student population I expect to hear an estimate.

“43 255,” he says.

He sees every student walking into his office not as a number or part of a number that needs to be managed but as a person. The students affectionately call him Gashe which means “uncle” in Amharic.

I

Jimma University is a dominant force in Jimma. The main campus sits on the edge of a slope and around it constantly abuzz with busy coffee shops, three-wheeled taxis called bajaj, horse-drawn carriages, and within a 1.5 meter radius you can meet your need for kitfo and carved wood furniture. Jimma may be the birthplace of coffee but Jimma University gives it life.

Between your lush, green surroundings and the berbere-coloured soil you could easily forget that you are on a university campus. You could also forget that Jimma University isn’t always as harmonious as it looks.

“Every year there was something,” says Rediat, an alumnus of Jimma University now working in Addis Ababa.

“Something” a term used by students and staff alike at Jimma University, is the preferred euphemism for violent conflict.

In a 2014 Peace and Development Center (PDC) study, 51.3% of students at Jimma University said they experienced violent conflict at their university at least once a year.

The first year of university is filled with firsts: maintaining your cool on an intimidating campus, deadlines and an equally pressing social life. For freshmen students in Ethiopia, the diversity of their country is no longer in the abstract but within close proximity for the first time. While campuses offer the space for cultural awareness among students, they also serve as the grounds where ethnic stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings are projected and sometimes violently expressed.

“Part of being in a university is about sharing of ideas but also resources,” says Dr. Taye Tolemariam,Vice-President of Jimma University.

The lack of resources (perceived or real) and their unequal distribution (perceived or real) partially explains the conflict.

Through time; however, issues related to regional disparities; ethnic and religious diversities; lack of knowledge and awareness about other ethnic and religious groups and their differences; ethnic and religious intolerance among students; lack of clear information or misunderstanding on some current issues like new policies or strategies as well as misinformation/miscommunication or rumors from some groups in the university or from other universities or from parties outside of the universities; and the use of ethnicised derogatory words by some students and misunderstanding among students were considered to be causes for violent conflicts among university students. 

In such a tense environment differences of opinion or ideas can inflame larger ethnic and religious tensions. For this reason the Sustained Dialogue project was started in Jimma University in March 2014 by the Peace and Development Center and LPI. SD is a participatory method for creating safe spaces to address pressing issues through dialogue. The goal of the dialogue process is to transform strained relationships between people or groups by bringing them together repeatedly over a set period of time.

The SD Club at Jimma University is its own separate entity, with its own annual budget. The club is made up of 60 moderators and 250 students. They are made up of groups of 25 based on their ethnic, religious, linguistic and socio-cultural diversity. They get together every 2 weeks and discuss their cultures, perceptions, understanding and misunderstanding. And equally meaningful, they also “just hang out” says Environmental Studies student Gelaneh Hesse.

II

“Transformational change is rarely loud, “ said Hannah Tsadik at PDC’s 25 year anniversary celebration held earlier this year. But today it is.  On the 1st of May the day begins with 400 of Jimma’s 43 255 gathering to celebrate 365 days of the Sustained Dialogue Club.

The day is filled with music, poetry, drama (the staged kind) and laughter.

The crowd grows. About 300.

All great places and societies are a melting pot. Drawing from near and far, a mix of culture, history and intellect. In coming together they become sharper, cosmopolitan and interesting. All great places are also the sum of their individual parts. There is real value in both, the parts and the whole. There is value in managing about 40 000 students and seeing 43 255 students.

Members of the club are now offering coffee and kolo to their fellow students. The crowd grows. Maybe 200.

And as Yonas, a 2nd year Psychology student, said

“I don’t lose my identity in recognizing yours. By recognizing yours I also find my own.”

The music is turned up. Another 150.