Abba Berhanu Woemago chats with a student outside the Abba Pascal Catholic Girls’ School in Soddo. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Kidist Kassahun studies in her room, near her prayer corner. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Students complete classwork at Abba Pascal Catholic Girls’ School. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Students take notes at Our Lady’s Catholic School in Dubbo. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
The Rev. Abraham Waza wears a broad and satisfied smile, his eyes wrinkling behind his black glasses. “Look at them,” he says with a deep voice, pointing at his students. “It’s rainy, it’s muddy, it’s dusty, and in spite of that, the children are here.
“In the other schools, they wouldn’t come after heavy rainfall,” he adds.
Abba (Amharic for “father”) Abraham, 42, administers Our Lady’s Catholic School in Dubbo, in the Wolayta region of southern Ethiopia — about 150 miles away from the capital, Addis Ababa. In the large compound, dozens of children in uniform rush to class, bypassing puddles of muddy water. Some laugh, others shout, grabbing each other’s shoulders to keep pace.
Painted on the walls around them are figures such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as inspiring quotes that underline the importance of education.
According to the priest, students rarely miss class. He attributes this to the school’s positive methods.
“We motivate them, we give them affection, care and discipline.” Such are the values he has been trying to instill for the past four years.
Catholics represent less than 1 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 105 million people. And while a tiny minority in Ethiopia — 43 percent of the population is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, 32 percent Muslim and 19 percent Protestant — the Catholic school system is extensive and successful. The Catholic Church, Abba Abraham says proudly, administers some 405 schools throughout the country. And these have built their reputation on the quality of their education.
“Here, you don’t waste time like in public schools, where there is only a part-time education; here, the pupils study full time.”
Our Lady’s Catholic School is run by the Capuchins and was founded at the end of the 1930’s by a French missionary named Pascal De Luchon.
“It was the first school in the surroundings,” Abba Abraham says. Since then, many of the school’s students have gone on to play key roles within the country — among them, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Presently, around 1,500 children are studying here from primary to preparatory school.
“I would sell my clothes to send my children to this school,” says Tilahun Honja, 42. The father of five serves as a catechist, teaching religion in churches and in the surrounding villages. Apart from his religious work, he makes his living selling flour and teff — a tiny grain used to make injera, traditional Ethiopian flatbread.
Depending on the grade, parents pay school fees ranging from 140 to 210 birrs (about $6 to $9) per month — a lot for a father earning far less than a thousand birrs monthly. Public schools are free. Yet, “public schools don’t have the same quality,” asserts Markos Mathewos. The 20-year-old student with curly hair and prayer beads around his neck is at the top of his class. “Here, there is more competition,” he says, adding that the school’s 45 teachers are also held to a high standard.
“Before, I was not as clever as I am now,” he says with a shy smile.
Markos expresses sadness that his siblings cannot join him, due to the costs. He tries to make them proud with his excellent grades, which have partly paid his way in the form of merit scholarships.
Yet even if the school is expensive compared to its public counterparts, Mr. Honja wants all his children to study there.
“I want one of my children to become a doctor,” he says, with bright eyes and a gap-toothed grin. Our Lady’s Catholic School, he says, puts this dream within reach.
In Ethiopia, Catholic schools try their best to help needy communities. Tesfalem Wolde, a 27-year-old English teacher, says he appreciates “the charity of the Catholics, not only here but all around the world.”
As a Protestant, he holds the priests in high esteem. “They help the poor people everywhere, they give pure water for the elders, they give medical assistance.”
Education, he says, is no exception. “Many teachers working at governmental schools are sending their children to Our Lady’s Catholic School.”
It sometimes happens that the poorest students cannot continue to cover tuition. Priests from Catholic schools often visit homes to check if a student’s family is in need. When a lack of resources threatens a student’s enrollment, they try to help. Many Catholic schools also count on support from church organizations abroad — such as CNEWA — which help defray costs and cover shortfalls.
Tesfatsion Entro, 19, has received support in this way. The tall and slim student says he says he has “no words” to describe the school.
“I come from a very poor family,” he explains. Above all, he cherishes having “access to books,” he says, going to the library every day. Mr. Entro’s love of science has propelled him toward the study of engineering, and he expresses the desire to be “an inventor.”
“We don’t have any [material] benefit,” says Abba Abraham of operating the school. “Our profit is when the boys and girls have good results, when they join the university.”
Other private schools, on the other hand, tend to be profit-driven organizations, says the Rev. Berhanu Woemago, 41.
“School should not be for the rich but for all,” the priest says. “Catholic schools allow for the personal development of the child, who is at the center.”
After studying canon law in Italy, Abba Behanu became the director of the Abba Pascal Catholic Girls School in Soddo, about 20 miles from Dubbo. In this town of some 86,000 inhabitants, hotels and roads have sprouted up everywhere, creating the illusion that prosperity has supplanted poverty.
However, the priest says, many households remain in need. The Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region of Ethiopia is known to be one of the emigration centers of the country, from which many leave to seek a better life in South Africa. But in the Catholic school he directs, Abba Berhanu works to foster ambitions and hopes that can take root right in their homeland.
Abba Pascal Catholic Girls’ School was built with the aim of forming skilled and empowered women. Abba Berhanu is proud to tell the story of three girls from a poor family who all studied at Abba Pascal: The eldest earned a scholarship to continue her education in Canada, while the twins now both pursue degrees in medicine.
“In Ethiopia, our mothers often don’t have the same rights as our fathers,” says Bethlehem Mekete, a 17-year-old student with long braids and a blue uniform. “In public schools, it’s the same — boys have superiority. But here, we are free to learn, to play, to ask.”
In this school for girls, Catholics amount to only 3 to 4 percent of students, Abba Berhanu explains. Most students are Orthodox, Muslim or Protestant. The priest emphasizes the school’s equal treatment of students from all religious backgrounds. “When they come, they don’t know whether it’s a Catholic school or not, but they know there is fair treatment.”
“We are a family here; there is no conflict,” says Yordanos Isayas, 15. A short girl with kinky hair, she was recently elected as the prime minister of the school’s Youth Parliament. She adds that all students are taught discipline and self-confidence, as well as how to help the needy, whatever their background.
Catholic schools in Ethiopia face unique constraints. They may not display a crucifix or teach the catechism as they do elsewhere. Religious education cannot be overt, as the government forbids it.
The priests take this in stride, confident that Catholic values can nevertheless be instilled through education. Teachers constantly exhort students to be conscious of their behavior, whether in the classroom or at home, among their parents, relatives and friends.
“We’re working day and night … trying to teach the students values based on what Jesus taught the apostles,” Abba Berhanu says. “He’s our model of teaching hard work, personal responsibility, respect, connectedness to nature, etc.”
“We sort of teach indirectly the Ten Commandments,” he adds.
The priest attributes the government’s prohibition of teaching religious morality to the attitudes and methods found in certain religious schools.
“They become exclusive instead of being inclusive,” he explains.
This inclusiveness is one of the reasons why 59-year-old Kassahun Tegegne decided to send his daughter to Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School in Gondar, in northern Ethiopia.
The capital of the Ethiopian Empire from the 17th to the 19th century, the city includes architectural and religious treasures that bring thousands of tourists every year. At the break of dawn, one can see dozens of women in white veils walking silently to the Orthodox churches to pray.
At Debre Selam Mariam School, most of the children are Orthodox. Mr. Tegegne’s daughter, Kidist Kassahun, is no exception. Sitting in his modest house, with numerous pictures of family members and icons of Jesus hanging on walls made of grass and mud, Mr. Tegegne reflects on what is most important for his daughter. The teachers at his daughter’s Catholic school, he says, help their students to respect others, to be ethical and faithful to God.
How successful are they?
In her bedroom, she has converted one of the corners into a small shrine sectioned off with a flowered curtain. And there, every morning, she prays.
“To thank God every morning,” says the pretty 17-year-old, who keeps her black hair in a neat bun, “to be optimistic, to give thanks for one more day alive, to be happy, to work hard.”
“People don’t especially take us as a Catholic [institution], but as a school — as an institution that offers a good education,” says Abba Tesfaye Petros, 39, the administrator of Debre Selam Mariam Catholic School.
He adds that he appreciates all the encouragement he receives from the parents. Even last year, when a protest movement shook Ethiopia, they told him they felt their children were safe in school.
The priest works to provide support to the children with the greatest needs, although it can be challenging to reach them. In Gondar and its outskirts, he has often visited homes to offer assistance to students and families. Currently, he arranges for help for some 200 students unable to pay their school fees.
Although the school can sidestep certain financial constraints, space constraints prove less tractable.
“If you accept all the people who want to come, you will more than double the number of students,” he explains. “Some classrooms are already packed.”
Other Catholic schools likewise struggle with their limits. In Dubbo, for instance, Our Lady’s Catholic School is currently in a scramble to acquire enough money to pay all its teachers’ salaries this summer.
And yet, if they had more funds, Abba Abraham says, they could do more outreach to those who drop out and flee to the city. Such young pupils, he says, end up “cleaning shoes, working as day laborers and sometimes becoming street children.”
In Soddo, Abba Berhanu struggles with the question of whether to raise tuition to make ends meet, recognizing that this could place more strain on parents.
Although he faces an unpleasant dilemma, he remains optimistic.
“Despite all the difficulties,” he says, “we have a strong hope that we can reach out to all the brothers and sisters in need, and offer them the chance to go to school and explore their potential.”
Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa. There, she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other places.