Brother Louis Ruch of the New York District of the Christian Brothers instructs an Ethiopian postulant at St. Joseph’s School in Addis Ababa in 1965. (photo: CNEWA files)
Today, as with these youngsters years ago, Ethiopians have a great thirst for knowledge. (photo: CNEWA files)
They seem endless, the daily reports of starvation or the prospect of it in Ethiopia. Regularly, we are treated to the news of rebels struggling against the central government in Tigre and Eritrea, the very provinces where the famine rages. But war and famine have not always been the hallmarks of this ancient land, once known as Abyssinia. And Ethiopias contacts with the outside world have certainly been more involved with development than with emergency relief.
In 1900, a more peaceful time, the Brothers of the Christian Schools traveled by rail from the port of Djbouti on the Gulf of Aden to Addis Ababa in the central highlands. At that time, Djbouti was located in what was called French Somalia on the Horn of Africa as it juts into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The brothers came to the interior to found schools in Addis, the capital of modern Ethiopia, as well as in the city of Dire Dawa. In the period before World War II, Italian brothers from the same congregation established schools in the northern cities of Asmara and Kerin. By the late 1950s the world was changing rapidly in Africa, and the French and Italian brothers asked their confreres from the United States to take over their foundations in Ethiopia. English was fast becoming the predominant second language of the region.
Beginning in 1958, brothers from the New York and Long Island/New England Districts of the Christian Brothers traveled to Ethiopia to assume the responsibilities of operating the schools. The work has prospered, with schools established in Nazareth, Meki, Harrar, Dekem Hare, Schinara and Sawla, and there are plans for more as native Ethiopians join the ranks of the brothers. Today there arc 35 native Ethiopian brothers, two novices and some 55 aspirants.
The progress of the work was, however, not without its pains. St. Josephs school in Kerin has been held successively by the rebels and the government due to its strategic location. Used as a munitions warehouse, it was regularly hit by shells and rockets. The brothers can tell stories of basement living as battles raged. Today, what remains of St. Josephs has been confiscated by the Marxist regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.
During the revolution against the late emperor, Haile Selassie, brothers at St. Josephs High School in Addis Ababa found themselves between the rebel camp and the imperial palace. The brothers recall shells whizzing through the buildings as they huddled under stairwells or within interior closets. In 1981, Brother Gregory Flynn, now working with Catholic Relief Services in Addis, was captured along with 30 religious and volunteers by the Tigre Peoples Liberation Organization. Following a couple of months of captivity, the group was freed after having been brought to villages by the rebels to demonstrate how the government was using food as a weapon against the people. The released captives were expected to tell the world of the conditions of starvation, which peaked in 1985. Drought combined with civil war finally came to the worlds attention.
In the north, the region of famine, the brothers continued to operate their schools and to share in relief efforts. It was not unusual for the brothers to be stopped by government soldiers while traveling in contested regions with food or medical supplies. Often there would be a former student of the brothers among the soldiers, and he would let them pass. At another checkpoint the brothers might be stopped by rebels, and it was just as likely they would encounter another former student, who again would plead for their safe passage.
Brothers Yemanu Gehar and Amine Kidane worked for Catholic Near East Welfare Association in the north helping build roads into the villages so that relief convoy trucks could bring in food. Such a desperate need never existed before, and the same was true of roads able to accomodate trucks. With funds from the Associations donors, the people were taught by the brothers to build wells and catch basins with locally available materials, and to terrace the denuded land in order to channel the precious rains into reservoirs and prevent further soil erosion.
Brother David Detje, an American representative of the brothers superior general, recalls a poignant encounter with the generous people of Ethiopia. He and Brother Yemanu, traveling in the north, stopped to deliver medical supplies at a hut, a convent of three sisters, in the drought-stricken north. The sisters offered the brothers supper. Brother Yemanu pulled Brother David aside and told him to eat just a little and leave the rest, for this was the sisters supper.
You must eat and accept hospitality, Brother Yemanu said. It is our way, but you must understand.
Ethiopians tend to be laid back and are in general docile, eager and capable students. In the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, many first-born male children join monastic communities for varying periods, some for life. The majority of Ethiopians are Christians and follow the teachings of the Coptic Church, the origins of which date back to Apostolic times. Separated from the Western Church since the fifth century, some of its followers have returned to union with Rome and, with the agreement of the Holy Father, are re-establishing the rituals of the ancient Geez language for worship. Ethiopian Catholics together with Latin Rite Catholics constitute only one or two percent of the countrys population. Islam is the second largest religion with some 30 percent of the population. Evangelical Christians constitute a small minority. Animist religions indigenous to lowland regions round out the religious statistics.
Though a small percentage of the population, the Catholic Church exercises tremendous influence through its educational system, social services and medical care programs. The Christian Brothers, after 90 years of involvement in Ethiopia, are central to the work of education, staffing not only their own schools, but also teaching in the seminaries for diocesan and religious clergy as well as conducting retreats for religious and the laity. They also teach at the state universities in Addis Ababa and Asmara. Numerous teacher training and catechetical programs in which they teach put the brothers in frequent contact with the women religious of Ethiopia.
Today, Brother Vincent Pelletier serves as Catholic Near Easts projects coordinator throughout Ethiopia, gauging humanitarian and pastoral needs. In all of Ethiopia, the Associations sponsors assist 3,697 needy children; some thousands more are still in need of sponsors. Many of these children are under the care of the brothers, whose work on their behalf is a labor of danger, while at the same time a testimony to the goodness and value of a people who have suffered and continue to suffer greatly.
In the village of Sawla, three brothers only recently moved into a stone house. For years they lived in a hut, beginning their work with the youngsters at 5 a.m. and working with shifts of students during the day. In the evening, they prepare lessons by candlelight until 10 p.m., for there is no electricity available. When time comes for tuition collections, food, chickens, goats and the like are provided by parents. In a country where the annual average per capita income is estimated to be about $121, barter is a significant form of trade.
In this milieu of hardship the struggling Church is growing. The toehold of 1900 has now become a foothold as seminaries and houses of religious formation literally bulge with eager young men and women seeking to follow in the footsteps of Christ, developing their own religious dedication and reaching out to serve the needs of those who are poor and who suffer. The Christian Brothers are their teachers.
Surely this is a good seed which has fallen on ground more fertile than it might appear. Indeed, it has become a part of Ethiopia itself.
Brother Austin David Carroll, a Christian Brother, is special assistant to the secretary general of the Association.