Students stay cool in the shade in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Abune Tesfaselassie Medhin serves as bishop for the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
School feeding programs have proven a highly effective means of supporting communities. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Youth pray at Holy Savior Cathedral in Adigrat. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Ethiopia’s drought has ended, but many ecological challenges remain. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Sister Azalech Habte of the of Daughters of St. Anne administers a health clinic in Idaga Hamus. (photo: CNEWA)
Students mass outside a remotely located Catholic school in Tigray. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Youth from 14 parishes receive lunch at a summer program in Alitena. (photo: CNEWA)
Father Woldeselassie, a Catholic priest, dines with the community at a wedding ceremony in Tigray, Ethiopia. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Greetings of peace and gratitude from the Eparchy of Adigrat.
Our eparchy, which has 35 parishes and 3 missions, is vast in geographical size — more than 50,000 square miles bordering Eritrea and Sudan, covering the whole region of Tigray and part of Afar. The majority of the region’s population is Orthodox Christian, while we Catholics are a minority. However, the Catholic Church’s presence is notable for the pastoral, social and development ministries it renders, as well as its ecumenical and interreligious witness. With a pioneering focus on modern education, the church renders good quality education through its 52 institutions, from kindergartens to accredited colleges, serving more than 15,000 students every year of all ethnic groups and religious denominations without discrimination.
Economically speaking, this is a poor part of Ethiopia. Still worse are the villages in Tigray’s Eastern Zone, where we have erected many parishes and rural schools. These villages are remote, poor and dry.
The economy of the local communities is based on agriculture. Although the community is hard working, these areas experience recurrent droughts that lower productivity to a level that hardly sustains them for months, let alone for a year. The people live on a combination of their meager output, cereal assistance from the government and some “cash for work” income-generating developmental activities financed by non-governmental organizations.
Educational and health services are poor, although the present government is working hard to reach out to those living in the remotest areas. Infrastructural development is part of the growth plan for the country, but implementation is still limited. Hence there are no adequate employment opportunities, yet.
This situation creates a tendency among youth to migrate, further complicating their lot with the challenges of unregistered migration.
Many parishes and schools along the frontier with Eritrea were hard hit during the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war in 1998. The loss of life, property, homes and livestock only worsened their living conditions. Efforts to rebuild the affected areas have been challenging.
Last year, sub-Saharan Africa was hit with an unexpected El Niño-induced drought — the worst in 50 years — which exacerbated the economics of the already-poor communities in many parts of the country. This affected the lives of communities and livestock, pastoral activities and education. Parish priests had to buy their provisions from distant markets and the transport to the market and back to their home parishes was and remains very challenging.
Students were particularly vulnerable during this time, especially those who walk long distances through mountains and valleys to travel between home and school. The recurrent drought affects our eparchy almost on a regular basis, and for this reason we have well-organized school feeding programs for needy children — essential to help them to stay in school under such circumstances.
Otherwise, they become exhausted, risking their very health.
Last summer, which is the rainy season here in Ethiopia, we had a good amount of rain. Thanks God, the harvest was relatively good. And now the spirit of the local communities is improving.
We still face various challenges, however, largely due to the continuous presence of the military in border villages since the war. This has had significant social repercussions, contributing to questions of personal morality within local communities in general and the young in particular. Growing rates of H.I.V./AIDS, teenage pregnancy and abortion have become serious problems.
Both governmental and non-governmental organizations have intervened to begin addressing these problems. Among them, the Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat (A.D.C.S.) has undertaken various proactive pastoral and socio-developmental activities.
Other serious challenges here are human trafficking and illegal migration, both of which impact the young. They make the reckless decision to migrate to Europe or the Middle East, and risk dying in the desert, drowning in the seas or being kidnapped by human traffickers for ransom or organ harvesting.
Thus we try to prioritize youth catechesis and family evangelization through the A.D.C.S. We have appointed a coordinator who works with youth of the eparchy, university students and young workers. In this way, we can organize catechism, conferences and retreats, choir programs, sports and recreation, festivals, concerts, classes and numerous other constructive, community- and identity-building activities.
On the first Sunday after Christmas, our annual “Family Day,” we have in every parish a program focusing on the life of the families. We celebrate the Divine Liturgy, hold discussion groups, share problems, perform skits and plays, create posters and other crafts and honor those families celebrating milestones — for example, those celebrating their 25th or 50th jubilee of married life.
Other pastoral and social challenges remain. Urbanization and modernization and the growth of digital media have brought a strong global secular influence. An education gap grows between generations. Poor infrastructure and transportation widen the cultural and socioeconomic fissures between urban and remote areas. Tight budgets limit the formation of parish priests and the ability to address local priorities. Parishes lack resources for decent gathering places — such as community centers in many remote parishes — or even enough copies of the Bible.
We strive to improve all of these situations, resources permitting. And we give thanks to God, as we appreciate deeply the support of the worldwide church.
Editors’ note: Abune Tesfaselassie Medhin serves as bishop for the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, a region that regularly struggles with issues of drought and malnutrition.