When he was 5 years old, Berhanu Kebede was enchanted by the large playground close to his house. So he made his way through the trees and played basketball with the children of the Kidane Mehret Catholic School. It was said to be a very good school, but his family was extremely poor and could not afford the tuition.
The school compound is lush with trees and plants, located next to the only Catholic church in the city of Dessie, some 250 miles north of the capital, Addis Ababa. From kindergarten onward, its students receive an education centered on high-quality academic instruction, moral development and discipline. In Ethiopia, government schools usually do not provide pre-primary education, and Berhanu had not yet reached the age to attend first grade.
So he spent his days around the church and the sports field.
His fate changed when an Ursuline sister working for the kindergarten noticed him. The school offered him free enrollment, with expenses covered by the parish.
Today, Berhanu is 26 years old and teaching at a private medical college while completing his master’s degree in microbiology. He says his scholarship throughout his school career prevented him from dropping out.
“As my parents couldn’t cover school tuition fees, I would probably have worked at least half time, which would have weakened my academic opportunities. I think without the Catholic community, I wouldn’t be here today.”
It has been six years since Berhanu left Kidane Mehret School, but the memories of his time there remain poignant.
Dressed in his white teacher’s shirt, he recalls the hours spent in the library or playing soccer. Today, he is proud to provide financial support to his mother, father and brother. After he completes his master’s degree, he says he wants to support his people and his country in combating antibiotic-resistant infections.
“Most of our patients can’t kill [diseases] because of their resistance to the drugs,” he explains.
“Drug resistance tests are not performed in our health facilities because of availability issues and the lack of qualified experts to set up, administer and read the tests. So I want to conduct research to help others.”
Success stories such as Berhanu’s are common at Dessie’s Catholic school, run by Capuchin friars since 1931.
In Ethiopia, most children attend public schools, where the education is free except for uniforms and school materials. Because of the large number of students and lack of facilities, classes are given during half-day shifts, and dropout rates are high — especially after the mandatory grades one through eight. Many students have to work after school or help their parents on their farms; some succumb to addictions, such as smoking or chewing khat, an amphetamine-like leaf widespread in the country.
Frehiwot Megersa is an elementary school supervisor in Dessie, a city of some 600,000 people. The energetic woman goes from school to school to monitor teaching and evaluate the overall quality of education provided. Over the years, she has witnessed how children, mainly girls, drop out at a young age.
“Sometimes female students stop attending school to marry early and have a family,” she explains, “but now society is changing its attitude.” Now, she says, more and more girls are continuing with their studies — especially in urban areas. At Kidane Mehret School, girls now represent the majority of enrolled students. And they have grand ambitions: Most want to become doctors, pilots, engineers.
The Rev. Matthewos Philipos, a Capuchin priest born in southern Ethiopia, has been running the Catholic school for almost two years. He also celebrates the Divine Liturgy every morning in the parish church. Sitting behind his large desk in his brown habit and beige baseball cap, he reports with pride that academic performance is improving among the girls.
He says the young women are also feeling increasingly comfortable discussing their health issues — a societal taboo and a common reason for absenteeism among girls throughout the country.
At the time of its construction, Kidane Mehret School had been built on the outskirts of Dessie, in an area with many low-income families who had been struggling with famine and drought over the years. As the city expanded, the school also grew. Now families from all over town, including some middle- and upper-class families, send their children here.
Religious identity does not play a role in the admission process, which is based solely on an entrance examination. About half the children enrolled are Muslim and half are Orthodox Christian, a rough representation of Ethiopia’s demographics. Catholics constitute a small minority — less than 1 percent of the country.
As the day begins, students dressed in sky blue or green uniforms disembark from school buses and minivans amid the joyful morning bustle. Gradually, they form orderly rows in the middle of the schoolyard, bordered on one side by a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and by an ancient acacia tree on the other.
At precisely 8:30, the children start singing the Ethiopian national anthem in unison. a timeless protective wall that long shielded the area from invaders.
After the song, hundreds of children disperse quietly to their respective classrooms. A total of 1,070 students attend the school, divided into 29 classrooms. With more than 60 children per classroom, overcrowding has become a major challenge.
When Fasil Eshetu began working at Kidane Mehret School 24 years ago, there were only 180 students.
“The main problem is the shortage of classrooms,” explains the father of two.
Mr. Eshetu began his service as a security guard, and has moved up to being the school’s finance administrator.
“The government standard is 42 children per classroom,” he says, adding that the school lacks funds to build new facilities.
“Yesterday I had to refuse two girls who were begging me to attend our school,” Father Matthewos says with regret.
Wooden benches built for two now have to be shared by three students. For lower grades, this is not a big problem, but high school students are cramped.
And yet the number of students wishing to enroll is growing every year. This is mainly due to the school’s results — last year, 100 percent of 12th grade students were admitted to university.
The school offers teachers better pay than government schools — attracting a high-quality faculty and incentivizing its performance. Teachers have to take an entrance examination and undergo a three-month trial before being hired. Such strict policies are also popular with parents; students are not allowed to leave the compound during school hours, and are required to take a moral education class.
To sustain a model of full-day classes and higher-level teaching, the school requires a monthly fee of 75 birr (less than $3), as well as an additional 320 birr (about $10) for the very popular Saturday tutorial classes.
But most families in Dessie cannot afford this fee, as many children coming from very low socioeconomic backgrounds. Poverty is exacerbated by recurring drought and farmers’ dependence on rain-fed agriculture. Corruption is also a threat to the town’s development.
“Everything is becoming very expensive,” reports Tsegay Berhanu, the school’s unit leader. “For example, ten years ago the value of teff [the grain used to make Ethiopian bread], was less than 1,000 birr [about $30]. Do you know how much is it now? 3,400 birr [more than $100]. But salaries are not increasing, so people are suffering,” he adds.
Malnourished children are still a common sight in Dessie’s streets, and families struggle to purchase adequate clothing, let alone school supplies.
To provide opportunities to disadvantaged students, the school, supported by the local Catholic church, the Eparchy of Bahir-Dar, offers free education, uniforms and school material to 271 students.
“The church considers education for children as a way out of poverty — not only financial poverty, but also poverty of knowledge,” says Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia. As with similar Catholic schools throughout Ethiopia, he adds, Kidane Mehret is not a school for the wealthy.
Tersit Berhanu smiles timidly as she sits down beside her father, Berhanu, in their living room. The family of six shares a one-bedroom house with a small garden.
Berhanu lost his sight and is unable to work to support his family. “I am a beggar,” he says bluntly, with a voice full of regret. Every morning, he makes his way to the main bus station to ask for help to feed his children.
Tersit’s mother, Mekeya, never finished her education and is grateful for the opportunity given to her daughter. She struggles to find daily labor to earn an income.
“I am very happy for her. I didn’t get such a chance,” she says. “If she manages her life, I will be very proud of her.”
Tersit hopes to work as an accountant in a bank. The 17-year-old currently attends the ninth grade, and has to pass a regional examination next year to enter preparatory class for university.
“It’s nice to be together as a large group,” she says when asked about the high number of students who qualify for the examination from Kidane Mehret. “But sometimes I am not able to achieve the results I want,” she adds. “The teacher doesn’t have time to correct the work of those who finish the exercises last. So I have to be fast.”
To complete her homework, she takes an old, small table into the living room — the only place in the house with chairs and sufficient lighting. The rest of the time, the table has to stay outside because of limited space.
Berhanu admires his daughter’s resilience despite the challenges she is facing.
“It is difficult for me to provide food for the family. But Tersit never refuses what we give her for lunch, even if it is just some bread. She never complains.”
Youth such as Tersit typically do not have a computer at home. But Ethiopia’s education and administration are accelerating digitalization; many students first use a keyboard in the school’s technology room. Kidane Mehret is one of the only elementary schools in Dessie to offer computer classes. Here again, the school falls victim to its own success: Around seven students share one computer as they learn to type and compose spreadsheets.
This will be important for their life after school — especially in university, where research papers and other assignments will be completed on computers. This year, for the first time, the entrance examination to university will be taken digitally.
But even the facility’s high school lacks computers.
“Now is the time of technology,” says vice principal Shiferaw Mohammed. “Students have to know how to use the technology. According to the standards, there should be one computer per student.”
Despite these shortcomings, students are not dropping out. And every year, a greater number passes the university entrance examination.
Former students at Kidane Mehret School have become health workers, or even renowned scientists, such as Israel Abebe, who helped launch Ethiopia’s first satellite into space last year. Another former student, Azarias Reda, is the chief data officer of the U.S. Republican Party.
But others still struggle. Youth unemployment rates in Ethiopia are surging by the year. Thousands of young engineers are without a job.
“Most students are living in their family home after completing their education,” says Tsegay Berhanu. “Most students, even if they complete a degree in engineering, are here [just] roaming in the town. We are very much afraid of this.”
The students, he adds, are not unaware of the challenges facing even those who succeed in their education. “Our students are afraid,” he says. Yet, Mr. Berhanu has hope.
“You cannot stop learning because there is no job. You must learn to live in this global world,” he says.
“There might be a time of change, where educated students will get a job. So we will teach them, and students will learn.”
Maria Gerth-Niculescu is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She has worked for France 24 and Deutsche Welle.
Ethiopia: The CNEWA Connection
Catholics constitute a small minority in Ethiopia. Yet the Catholic contribution to education is enormous, especially for the rural poor. Once denied a complete education, Catholic school graduates are attending colleges and universities and upon graduation are actively engaged in building a modern nation in commercial, private and public sectors.
CNEWA supports many of the Catholic schools in this diverse country, including Kidane Mehret School in Dessie. To learn how you can be a part of this great work of the church, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).