Cistercian minor seminarians on their way to prayer at the monastery in Mendida. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The Cistercian Monastery Technical School at Mendida in the Northern Shoa region. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Two Cistercian Monks at the monastery in Mendida last spring. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Ethiopia is becoming more and more isolated because of its civil war, which does not seem to abate despite the prospect of another serious famine. Concern has been growing over the reluctance of the government to allow relief agencies to distribute food to the four to five million people facing starvation in the northern areas of the country, areas largely controlled by rebel forces. For all their need, many of those people may have to rely on themselves.
The small town of Mendida in Ethiopias Northern Shoa region also fell a little farther off the map last summer. It lost its status as a civil administration center when a national assessment did away with existing districts and had localities absorbed by larger provinces. As part of the new province of Abichou and Tera, Mendida did not qualify as a provincial town, and the new administrative center was moved a distant 75 kilometers south on the road to Addis Ababa.
The change in status created some inconveniences, such as decreased access to government vehicles, but it more importantly raised security concerns. Mendida finds itself more isolated as anti-government rebels make further inroads into Northern Shoa and Northern and Southern Wollo.
Mendida does claim, however, the only technical training center in all 16 provinces of Northern Shoa. It is also the only Catholic technical school in the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa, which includes 10 civil administrative regions, and it is successfully turning out sorely needed skilled workers. More than anything, Ethiopia needs to be able to help itself.
Founded by Cistercian monks in 1974, the school has recently reopened, partially with the help of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, after a period of administrative difficulties. Since it was first registered with the Ministry of Education in 1982, it has conferred diplomas on 334 students, including 57 young women.
The Cistercian Monastery Technical School, as it is called, seeks to help young men and women acquire skills in house building, sanitation, water supply and reforestation. Needs are great in each field. It is estimated that as many as 50 percent of town dwellers live in slums and informal settlements without sanitation. A government rural health survey conducted several years ago in Northern Shoa found that only 1.8 percent of residents interviewed had access to latrines.
Health care workers can inoculate against epidemics and provide curative aid to the very sick, but without decent housing, good sanitation and clean water not to mention adequate food supplies even minimal levels of good health cannot be reached.
Reforestation is a critical need. At the beginning of this century, 40 percent of theland in Ethiopia was covered with forests, which now comprise only four percent. That represents not only a diminishing of the peoples prime source of cooking and heating fuel, but portends severe consequences for wildlife and for the land. Without foliage to hold vital soil deposits in place, the fertility of the land is severely reduced this in a country in which most of the population is engaged in agriculture. Rain is a rare commodity, but when it falls upon bare earth it can damage as much as it replenishes.
Although the Marxist government discourages religious influences, especially from foreigners (the monks at Mendida are native; only one or two percent of Ethiopias population is Catholic), the socialist government of Ethiopia tolerates the technical school at Mendida. The Cistercians found that commitment to education, particularly to technical education, is one of the best means for co-existence in Ethiopia. Just as in the days of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the leaders of todays government are among the first to have their children enrolled in Christian schools for both the quality of education and for the value systems they instill in children.
Also to their credit, says Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M., former Associate Secretary General, Overseas, of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, The Cistercians roll with the punches.
Theyre pretty smooth, theyve been doing it so long, she said, recalling her visit to Mendida and other parts of Ethiopia in May 1989. When you cant hang crucifixes on the wall they instead paint one on the window that can be washed off.
Students attend the technical training center for three years in building technology, general mechanics or electricity. The curriculum also includes mathematics, general science, two languages and political education. In 1987, the school ranked second among 42 comparable schools in Shoa Region and sixth among 200 in the country.
Upon completion of course work, the pertinent department of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs finds and assigns the graduates jobs. The Cistercian director of the school, Father Abraham Woldegaber, reports that 90 percent of the graduates are in good jobs or are continuing their education.
The Cistercians also view their work as ecumenical in that it is indiscriminate of religious views. Of the schools certificate and diploma holders, 86 percent have been Ethiopian Orthodox and the remainder Catholic.
The training center itself benefits Shoa. From October 1985 to September 1986 eight technicians paid by the Cistercian school surveyed sites for 1,434 rural houses throughout 35 villages, and 192 families were placed in finished houses. The school cooperated with the setting up of 80 rural dining rooms and 154 cow sheds. It only ended the work when money ran out.
The Cistercian Technical School also labored with thousands of peasants transplanting 1,348,224 tree saplings, developing 40,658 hectares.
Education is the only way of winning back the country, Sister Christian said. If we could only get books to them, that would be a real help to what theyre doing.
Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East magazine and the publications coordinator of the Association.