The revolution has let me go to school," Yubnish, a former prostitute, said simply when asked what she thought of Ethiopia's Marxist government.
Yubnish still lives in a dank, one-room shack and does not care about her country's shift from feudal capitalism to socialism, but she proudly exhibited the Amharic-language primers that she can now read and told of her hopes to become a secretary.
"Before I could not read or write," she said. "I was like a baby. The revolution is good because I go to school."
Yubnish, 34, now attending fourth grade and becoming literate in English as well as Amharic, is one of 5.5 million Ethiopians who have become literate since the 1974 revolution deposing emperor Haile Selassie. It is a social transformation almost unfathomable to the Western mind.
Even the severest critics of socialist Ethiopia readily acknowledge that the government has made vast strides in social reform, especially in education, health and land distribution, in one of the world's poorest countries.
The literacy rate has gone from 7 percent to more than 35 percent; about 50 percent of children of primary-school age are now in classes as opposed to 18 percent in 1974; overall school enrollment has increased by 250 percent to more than 2.5 million. The education budget has more than tripled to $165 million.
In the health field, the percentage of Ethiopians with access to health services has increased from 15 to 43 percent of the estimated 32 million population, meaning that an additional 10 million people now have a chance to get medical care. The budget for health services has increased to $53 million from $22 million.
Land has been nationalized, and peasants no longer have to provide half or more of their crop to the landlord for rent. In the urban areas access to better housing has been enhanced by provision of free land and improved financing.
These radical changes have also brought some problems, however.
Standards of education have dropped because of the vast influx of students. Some classes have 80 to 90 students, and many schools are on triple shifts.
Ethiopia has a life expectancy of 40 years, still the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank. Many Ethiopians still live so far from health services that it takes two to three days walking to get help.
Land reform in some cases has led to a decrease in marketed per capita food production.
Ethiopian officials are willing to admit these shortcomings.
During a tour of Asmara, officials showed a wealthy district, aptly called Alfa Romeo, which has a kindergarten where children are issued free uniforms and towels, a well-stocked shop and a community center under construction.
Even though the tour was behind schedule, the officials then insisted on showing another district, called Brotherhood, a slum within sight of a magnificent Ethiopian Orthodox church. The estimated 3,000 people in the area live in hovels, the stench of urine is everywhere and Mezgebe Desta, the district leader, estimated that about 20 percent of the adults were fully employed.
The display of poverty, admittedly, is all blamed on the evils of the deposed U.S.-supported government.
"Under Haile Selassie, there was an educational obelisk--small at the bottom and small at the top, as opposed to the normal educational pyramid," said Geoffrey Last, an adviser under both governments.
"The emperor wanted an educated elite dependent on him for running the country, but he did not want to educate the masses."
Discontent with educational policy played a significant role in the revolution.
Last told of a proposal he made years ago for a 5 percent tax on all Addis Ababa landholdings to finance a major educational expansion. The then-education minister, a wealthy landowner, "Looked at me and asked, 'Are you trying to ruin me?' " Last said.
Last gave examples of schools being seized for offices by rural governors and cited one case where prisoners were housed on the school compound.
Today, however, the drive for education is manifest.
"The literacy campaign was like taking a cork out of a bottle. Everybody came; we couldn't turn them away," Last said.
When the program started in June 1979, 6 million people enrolled. Only 1.3 million had been expected.
Obviously, in such a situation results were less than ideal--only one quarter passed. Since then, results have been improved with the use of remedial and follow-up courses.
Literacy classes are now taught in 10 languages with plans to add five more this year. There are about 100 languages in Ethiopia, but most are not written. In the past, classes were only given in Amharic.
Gudeta Mamo, a senior official in the literacy campaign, said more than 4 million Ethiopians have become literate as part of the campaign in the last three years. In comparison, only about 40,000 obtained literacy under a program the old government started in 1968.
American tourists who recently visited ancient monolithic rock churches in Lalibella in central Ethiopia got a taste of the quest for education. The town, always a gathering place for beggars, still has many child beggars but now the children ask for books, writing materials or pens and are willing to trade souvenirs for them, according to the tourists.
The government fudges some in its statistics since it sets the literacy level at the equivalent of a second-grade education. The normal standard applied by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a fourth-grade education, but UNESCO was so impressed with the program that it gave Ethiopia a special award last year.
In a society where education had such a low priority, there has been some resistance, and the government has apparently used pressure in some cases, particularly with old people.
"People are morally obliged to take part," Gudetta said, but he noted that the mandatory 10-to-60 age bracket for the program has been changed to 8 to 49. He also noted that education is mandatory in many countries, including the United States.
Officials acknowledge, however, that the quest for education also brings problems in that Ethiopia cannot afford to educate all its people, at least not beyond primary school.
At present, half the primary-school age children are not attending classes. If they did it could cause an agricultural crisis since they provide the bulk of the farm work in this labor-intensive society.
Goshu said emphasis is being shifted to more practical and technical education to make the schools more relevant to the local communities, especially rural areas. About 800 rural primary schools have been built since the revolution to reverse a situation where 90 percent of the educational facilities were in the urban areas, although only 10 percent of the population lived there.
The millions of newly literate now can find their bus without asking the number, dial a telephone or understand a receipt--things people in educated societies take for granted.
Yubnish, the reformed prostitute seeking to be a secretary, described the change in her life in simple terms.
"Before, people told me things, but I could not remember," she said. "Now, I hear things, I write them down and I remember."