ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Never too Late to Dream

The church brings education to the remote corners of Ethiopia

At 25, Lemi Meta is the oldest of Grabafila elementary school’s 170 students. At well over 6 feet tall, Mr. Meta dwarfs his classmates, some of whom are as young as 7. And yet, Mr. Meta does not feel uncomfortable in this setting – a Catholic school not far from the southern Ethiopian town of Meki.

“I had a dream about going to school but I never had the chance,” Mr. Meta said. “I live in a remote area where there is no school. In my village only three people out of 600 have ever been to school.”

Each day, Mr. Meta walks two and a half hours each way to attend class and, despite his advanced age, he talks about becoming a doctor.

The Grabafila elementary school is one of two area Catholic schools supported by CNEWA (the agency also provides support to many of its students, who are enrolled in the agency’s needy child sponsorship program). The school consists of four classrooms and a single office for the staff. It lacks electricity, running water, computers and a library. Cows and goats wander nearby. Primitive by Western standards, the school nonetheless fulfills a need not yet addressed by the government.

“Ethiopia is a rural society, where 80 percent of the population depends on subsistence agriculture,” said Abune (Bishop) Abraham Desta of Meki. “Droughts, famine and war have devastated this country. Only recently have we seen the government, and some religious organizations, build schools.”

Though Ethiopia’s Catholics number only 500,000 (the total population is 70 million), the Catholic Church has built more than 230 schools and vocational centers throughout the country. “Education is the church’s priority in Ethiopia,” asserted Abune Abraham.

Until the early 20th century, education in Ethiopia was limited to religious instruction by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – historically the country’s principal faith community – and a few European (primarily Italian) missionary and Islamic schools.

The government opened its first public school in Addis Ababa in 1907, recognizing that its religious institutions were ill-equipped to teach its citizens to deal with diplomacy, commerce and industry. It was not until the 1950’s that the number of students in Ethiopia’s public schools surpassed the number of students in religious schools, with roughly 60,000 in each.

However, from the outset both religious and public education was hampered by a shortage of teachers and books, problems that persist to this day. Until 1974, when the government significantly expanded public education, the literacy rate was under 10 percent. Today, it is about 43 percent. But despite these advances, the Ethiopian educational system still lags behind the rest of the continent and is significantly below Western standards.

Besides impoverishment, Ethiopia faces other problems in educating its citizens. More than 80 languages are spoken in the country. Grabafila, for instance, draws its students from the Oromo ethnic group. Instruction is given in the group’s language, Oromia. Most of the students do not understand the national language, Amharic, which they will learn when they reach fifth grade. The majority of the 140 students are Orthodox, while the remaining 30 are Catholics. The government provides books to Grabafila and other Catholic schools with the expectation they will follow the national curriculum.

The De La Salle Christian Brothers run a secondary school in Meki, a bustling provincial town some 75 miles south of the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa. Out of last year’s graduating class of 76 students, 54 went on to college. Unlike the Grabafila elementary school, Meki Catholic School uses Amharic as the language of instruction. It sports playgrounds, computers and a library. Still, financial resources are scarce. The school lacks enough textbooks, said the headmaster, Brother Betre Fisseha. And the school was forced to close its dormitory for boys, who once came from the rural areas surrounding Meki. But its greatest challenge is competing for the country’s best teachers, Brother Betre said.

“We take a lot of time screening and evaluating our prospective teachers,” Brother Betre added. “But the sad reality is that we can only afford to take on teachers with less than five years of experience; after five years they qualify for much higher salaries. The school offers housing and other perks to compensate for its salary limitations.”

There are many more boys than girls attending school in Ethiopia. Ethiopian educators attribute this to the conservative nature of their society, where women generally have few opportunities outside their traditional roles as wives and mothers. They are often married off at an early age.

Today, the educational emphases in Catholic and public schools are diverging. In select schools, particularly in Addis Ababa, the government is introducing state-of-the-art technology, while most rural public schools lack the most basic supplies.

“State education is getting involved with satellite networks and plasma televisions, but so far the Catholic schools have not gone in this direction,” said Demissie Aregay, head of Ethiopia’s largest Catholic school, St. Joseph’s, which is also located in Addis Ababa.

“We already have good teachers, we do not need to beam them in,” Mr. Aregay said. “Nor do we know how this technology will pan out. First, we want to see how beneficial it is before embarking on such a costly program.”

The rise of public education in Ethiopia has not made Catholic schools any less important, said CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia, De La Salle Brother Vincent Pelletier, who has worked in the country since 1968. “There is still very much a role for the Catholic Church to play here,” he said. “The government has not been able to achieve universal education, and we coordinate with them to reach rural areas where no public education is available.”

Moreover, since government involvement in education is relatively new, Catholic schools “unofficially set a standard for the quality of teaching,” Brother Vincent said.

Brother Vincent’s confidence in the country’s Catholic schools is echoed by students. “I was in a government school before I started here at the Meki school in seventh grade,” said 17-year-old Mered. “But I find the teachers and facilities much better.”

Mered, whose favorite subjects are English, mathematics and biology, hopes to study medicine and work abroad. To realize his goals, he will have to excel in his classes and qualify for a university education. It is a testament to the quality of education offered in Catholic schools that Mered not only has such dreams, but that he may one day attain them.

Sean Sprague traveled throughout Ethiopia last November on assignment for ONE.

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