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Making the Grade in Ethiopia

The Catholic Church’s outsized influence on education

On an early morning in Irob, a remote region in the northern Ethiopian state of Tigray, 10-year-old Merhawi Kahsay readied himself for school. Outside his simple stone home, a frost covered the ground – not uncommon in an area that lies 9,000 feet above sea level. Rising from his straw mattress on the dirt floor, Merhawi ate a piece of stale barley bread and a cup of water. He is small for his age but tough, with rough, dry skin. And his toothy grin is disarming.

Merhawi’s parents died several years ago, and his grandmother looks after him, making sure he goes to school. Merhawi is an enthusiastic student, who does not mind the 90-minute trek to St. Jacob School in Adaga, a cluster of six stone-walled and tin-roofed rooms nestled in the bottom of a valley.

Serving 300 students, the school is run by the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat. The school is poor, unable to offer water or food to the children. And though everyone here speaks Irob, the local tongue, the main language of instruction is Tigrinya, the regional language. The students also study Amharic, the national language of this diverse country of 73 million people, as well as English, geography, math, ethics and social science. They also study aesthetics, a mix of art, sports and music, though the school only has some pencils for drawing, a soccer ball, simple drums and an Ethiopian string instrument.

Despite crowded classrooms of 50 to 60 students, the children comport themselves well. “We have no discipline problems,” said Aster Kidane, 25, a first-grade teacher. “The children are glad to come to school. They believe that with education they will have a chance to get ahead, perhaps find jobs in the cities to escape the poverty of rural Irob.

“A few hopefully will make it.”

Among the poorest countries in the world, Ethiopia has made significant strides in the education of its children, particularly in the last 14 years.

In 1985, only 2.4 million children attended primary school. According to the latest United Nations survey, conducted in 2002, 7.6 million children went to school. (About 44 percent of Ethiopians are under the age of 15.) The government has built thousands of new schools, particularly in rural districts.

But where there are no government-run schools, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, which numbers just 500,000 people, has set up its own, making it the second largest system in the country.

According to the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, the church administers 311 programs, ranging from kindergartens to primary and secondary schools, employs 2,186 teachers and serves 83,686 students – most of whom live in villages scattered throughout this landlocked country a little more than twice the size of France.

Many schools are located in Tigray and several date to the activities of an Italian Vincentian priest, Justin de Jacobis, who in the mid-19th century worked among various ethnic groups in the Ethiopian highlands, particularly in the areas that now make up the Eparchy of Adigrat, founding parishes and schools.

For more than 40 years, CNEWA has provided tens of thousands of children with food, shelter, clothes and schooling. Until recently, this support was earmarked for each individual child, whether enrolled in a Catholic school or living in an orphanage administered by a religious community, said CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia, De La Salle Christian Brother Vincent Pelletier. Now, in addition to providing these essentials, the agency has begun to support the needs of the institutions as well.

“This includes salaries, administrative costs and the repair and improvement of school facilities,” said Brother Vincent. “We have also learned that the schools’ administrators and teachers were not sufficiently trained,” he added, “so we are developing teacher training workshops.” To that end, CNEWA has recruited Felleke Shibikom, a veteran administrator of Ethiopia’s Catholic schools with more than 35 years of experience.

“Over time,” Brother Vincent said, “we expect this program will raise the level of administration and teaching in the 38 schools supported by CNEWA.” This includes Merhawi Kahsay’s school in Adaga.

Though Ethiopia’s Catholic schools receive some outside support, they must also charge a fee, which increases depending on the pupil’s grade. In Adaga, the family of a first grader is expected to pay the equivalent of $1 a year. But tuition for a student at Tsinseta Secondary School in the town of Adigrat is closer to $100 a year, a considerable sum in a country where, according to the United Nations, 23 percent of the population earns less than $1 a day and the annual per capita income is $800.

“These fees do not come anywhere close to covering the cost of running the school,” said Mr. Shibikom. “In the rural areas, the annual school fees do not even cover the operating expenses of the school for one month.”

“Giving children a basic education is a great challenge in a rural nation like Ethiopia,” said Abune Abraham Desta, the Catholic Bishop of the Latin Apostolic Vicariate of Meki, located 75 miles south of Addis Ababa. “Coverage is poor and many children don’t have a chance to go to school. The Catholic Church in Ethiopia makes education a priority for all people, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation.

“We are very much on the scene and appreciated by both local and national governments,” the bishop continued. “We might be a little drop in the educational ocean, but we are a very important drop.”

Until the beginning of the 20th century, schooling in Ethiopia (with few exceptions) was the exclusive province of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; public schools did not exist in the feudal Ethiopian empire. After the introduction of Christianity in the fourth century, the monastic clergy taught generations of priests, monks and scribes as well as a select group of the laity, typically from the aristocracy. And as Islam consolidated its gains along Ethiopia’s Red Sea coast (modern Eritrea) in the ninth century, Muslim scribes developed a similar form of education.

The impact of Christian monastic education in Ethiopia should not be underestimated, said David Bridges, chairman of the Von Hügel Institute, a Catholic research facility at St. Edmund’s College at the University of Cambridge. “There is a rich historic tradition of education associated with Christianity that goes back almost as long as the church itself,” he said. “At the village level, wandering priests bring teaching to scattered rural communities, usually in return for subsistence food and shelter. At the higher levels people study for 30 to 40 years to take the full curriculum of the church, with its different branches for music, literature, philosophy, theology and specialized forms of poetry.”

Mr. Bridges lamented the fact that this tradition tends to be overlooked by international consultants in education.

Ethiopia’s first public school opened in the capital of Addis Ababa in 1907; a year later a second opened in Harrar. These were minuscule efforts. By 1935, only 8,000 children were enrolled in some 20 public schools throughout the country. By 1952, there were 60,000 students in some 400 state-run primary and 11 secondary schools, with an additional 52,000 in 310 missionary and private schools. Despite these increases, Ethiopia trailed other African countries in education.

The educational system “failed to satisfy the aspirations of the majority of the people and to prepare, in any adequate way, those passing through its ranks,” said Teshome Wagaw, a former professor at Haile Selassie University.

In 1974, when a military junta overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, the educational system – like nearly everything else in the country – changed. On one hand, the rule of the new government, the “Derg,” was a time of terror and turmoil. But, as with most socialist revolutions, various reforms – in land ownership, health and education – were enacted to benefit a heretofore neglected people. According to the Derg, literacy rates jumped from 10 to 60 percent. (The United Nations, however, suggests lower literacy rates today: about 49 percent for men and 34 percent for women.) And primary school enrollment doubled.

In general, though, the Derg experiment is considered a failure, a social and economic disaster. But when a rebel group seized power in 1991, it remained committed to educational improvements.

“They are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, but it is always going to be a very tough journey,” Mr. Bridges said. “School enrollment has raced ahead, often way ahead of construction of school buildings. There is a constant problem in finding properly trained teachers, those able to teach what they are assigned to teach. Often there are shortages of secondary-school teachers, so they assign those from the middle schools. Or middle-school teachers are assigned from primary schools.”

Today, there are more than 13,500 public elementary schools and 550 public secondary schools. At higher levels, the public educational opportunities are slimmer. There are eight public universities, serving 30,000 students, though another 13 are being built. There are also 30 private colleges, five of which are Catholic, which offer specialized vocational training.

The core curriculum for Ethiopia’s public and private schools is the same, though Catholic schools offer ethics. However, public high schools alone offer a new program called School Net, sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, which beams, via satellite, programs to computers and plasma television screens. Already, over 160 schools receive eight hours of video lessons per day, lessons in all subjects, given in English and based on a similar program in South Africa. The program is part of the government’s ambitious and expensive effort to transform one of the continent’s least internet-friendly countries – less than 0.1 percent of the population utilizes the internet, compared to 7.3 percent in South Africa.

“It is expensive, but ignorance is more expensive,” said Education Minister Genet Zwedie.

The government’s high-tech educational efforts have their critics. Often, the students’ English is insufficient to understand fully the video lessons, said CNEWA’s Felleke Shibikom. Many of the lessons are interrupted to go over the same material in the local language.

“You see their attraction especially in subjects like science, where it is difficult to provide the usual kind of equipment for a secondary science classroom,” Mr. Bridges said. But he added that School Net was a “shortcut” and no substitute for a well-executed traditional education.

In the Tigrayan village of Sebia, two primary schools, one Catholic and one public, lie within a half-mile of each other. The small dusty town is plagued by water shortages, which affect both schools. Meseret Hagus, 26, teaches Amharic and civics to fifth and sixth graders at the Catholic school. Educated in a Catholic school, Ms. Hagus prefers to work for the church, though her salary is about 10 percent lower than what her colleagues earn at the public school.

Ms. Hagus is a single woman who lives far from home in a small, one-room house where she cooks her meals over a small kerosene burner. Her parents live in Adigrat, about two hours away by bus. The main difference between her school and the public one, she said, is that her students receive moral instruction based on the teachings of the Gospel.

The two schools in Sebia coordinate their programs, said Isgina Sibhat, principal of the public school. They jointly prepare, for example, curriculums and exams. The only significant difference he identified was that the public school operated several shifts during the course of the day, while the Catholic school offered only one.

Mr. Sibhat, a product of Ethiopia’s Catholic schools, said he would rather send his children to the Catholic school. “Discipline and the follow-up of the children’s progress are better. And moral education is good for them, too.”

Based in Wales, photojournalist Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to ONE.

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