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Catholic Schools in Ethiopia

Catholic Schools in Ethiopia provide a glimmer of hope for the nation’s poor.

Some 60 million people live in Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations in the world. It is a land of high, rugged mountains, lowland deserts, fertile land and abundant lakes and rivers. Its mountainous terrain prevents the construction of roads and infrastructure that could network the country and promote economic development. And the lowlands are arid and uninviting, occupied by nomadic peoples following their flocks of sheep, goats and camels in search of water and grass.

Is there a way out? How do the peoples of this land escape the oppressive burden of poverty? Over the years millions of dollars have been spent and experts from around the world have met, studied and met some more to find the answers to these questions. To date, they have not found them. Some have dared to voice the unpopular opinion: Education solves the problems of poor countries like Ethiopia. This opinion, however, is routinely dismissed. Why such a reaction? Education is a long-term investment, usually requiring a minimum of 12 years. Yet we live in a world of instant gratification and quick results; Ethiopia’s well-intentioned benefactors want immediate results, not long-term investments. The true solution, however, to end Ethiopia’s impoverishment remains the education of its people.

The Catholic Church of Ethiopia heavily invests in education. In a country of less than 500,000 Catholics, there are 80,120 children studying in 252 Catholic schools scattered throughout the country. In a land where women’s rights are misunderstood and almost unknown, 40 percent of the students in its Catholic schools are female. And the numbers are growing: In the Prefecture of Meki there are 16,000 Catholics. This tiny Prefecture is only 15 years old, yet there are already 25 elementary schools with 4,065 students.

Why, you might ask, is the Catholic Church of Ethiopia investing so heavily in education? Perhaps the correct answer is simply the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The missionary bishops saw the importance of education in this land and invited religious congregations that specialized in education to travel to Ethiopia. The congregations opened schools and recruited vocations to their congregations. Today, Ethiopian bishops continue to expand the Catholic school network and are able to do this with native Ethiopian priests and religious sisters and brothers.

Indeed, the Catholic Church of Ethiopia has many schools, but what about their quality? The following story illustrates.

“Brother, what am I going to do with this boy?”

I heard these words of despair in 1991 while serving as headmaster of St. Joseph School in Ethiopia capital city of Addis Ababa. The words were spoken after a young professional man learned that his five-year-old son had not been admitted into the school kindergarten class. The father and I knew there was no other decent school for the boy.

Another father, an alumnus of a Catholic school, slumped in front of me.

“What can I offer my son if I cannot give him a decent education?” he asked. “If I cannot give him the education that I was fortunate enough to receive?”

I recently encountered this problem while visiting a former student whose wife had just given birth to their first child. Daniel was so proud. As we chatted, he said, “Brother, I have to do something about getting him registered for school.”

“Daniel, the boy only a few days old!”

“I know, Brother,” he answered, “but you know the situation. Where am I going to send him to school?”

In Ethiopia, the finishing of the 12th grade is marked by a national exam that also serves as the admissions test for the Addis Ababa University. More than 150,000 students take the exam, but only 10,000 are admitted to some level of post-high school education. It is not unusual for one of the nine provinces or administrative regions of the country to have less than a handful of students pass the exam. In contrast, last year 115 students from St. Joseph took the exam and 114 were admitted to full degree programs at the university. This figure is higher than the number of students from most provinces who pass the examination.

St. Joseph School may be the exception by way of outstanding results; in general, however, a Catholic education in Ethiopia means excellence, a chance to move on, a chance to rise out of poverty and build a life for oneself.

Amanuel Beyene Sisay father died when he was 12 years old. Because of mental health problems, his mother was unable to care for him. The Capuchin Sisters learned of Amanuel situation and took him into their care. Through generous sponsors in CNEWA Needy Child Program and the loving care of the sisters, Amanuel not only finished high school but achieved a level of “Very Great Distinction” with a 4.0 grade point average. He also qualified for a coveted position with the university science faculty. Amanuel faces a bright and promising future.

Ethiopia Catholic childcare facilities, which include schools, are not limited to St. Joseph School or the caring Capuchin Sisters; Catholic schools and orphanages are also scattered throughout the rural areas of the country.

One young girl, whom I will call Helen, was several days old and very sick when she was left at the gate of the orphanage of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Heart of Jesus. The nuns took her to the hospital, where she tested positive for HIV. Fortunately, like so many infants, she tested negative after some time had passed; for this one can truly say “there but for the grace of God.” And had it not been for the loving care of the Franciscan Sisters, Helen would have never had a chance.

Her story does not end there. If Helen is not adopted, which often happens with children at this orphanage, she will still attend a very good Catholic school. She may even qualify for the university and have a chance to build a life for herself.

Mesfin is another success story. He was born in the agricultural region of Woilata. Woilata is densely overpopulated. Though the people are hardworking, they are very poor. Mesfin was fortunate enough to attend the Catholic Mission school in Woilata.

In the eighth grade Mesfin heard the stirring of a religious and priestly vocation. He talked to his parish priest. The following year, he entered the Capuchin Fathers minor seminary in Nazareth and attended secondary school. Sponsored by generous CNEWA benefactors, Mesfin completed his seminary training and was later ordained a priest. Today he works in a rural Catholic parish, similar to the one from which he came.

Because Ethiopia is such a poor country, the Ministry of Education is strapped for financial resources. As a result, most children attend public school, which operates on a shift system.

The first shift usually begins at 8:00 A.M. and ends at noon. The second begins at 12:30 and ends at 4:30 in the afternoon. At 6:30 P.M. the adult night school begins.

There are more limitations in Ethiopia public schools. School libraries and science laboratories have few books and little or no equipment or resources. In addition, class sizes may reach 55 to 85 students for one teacher.

How do teachers teach under such conditions? Usually the teacher writes notes on a small blackboard and the students copy them into their notebooks. At home the students read and memorize what they have written that day. Because of the large number of students, only one exam is usually given each semester. It is possible for a student to spend 12 years in school and never write a complete sentence.

Ethiopia Catholic schools, however, are better off than the country overpopulated but underdeveloped public schools. Generally, the Catholic schools do not have shift systems and students are in class for most of the day. Sometimes Catholic schools produce their own textbooks; they also have functioning libraries and fairly well-equipped laboratories. Many of them also have organized extracurricular activities, such as swimming, hiking, arts and crafts and athletic teams. Six of the Catholic secondary schools have computer facilities for their students.

The Catholic Church of Ethiopia has limited resources, yet it invests much of its annual budget in education with the realization that an investment in the country education is an investment in its future.

These schools produce young men and women who have become the country leaders, teachers, nurses, doctors and businesspeople. Thanks to the tireless dedication of educators in this nation network of Catholic schools, Ethiopia may yet realize its potential.

Brother Vincent is CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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