Argaw Fantu poses with his wife, Meseret, his daughter, Betselot, and his son, Robel. (photo: courtey of Argaw Fantu)
Last year, we reported on the remarkable success of Catholic schools in Ethiopia (Making the Grade, November). We were interested in hearing more from the perspective of a teacher and so Deacon Greg Kandra reached out to Argaw Fantu, a 52-year-old instructor who lives in Addis Ababa and has three decades of experience in the Ethiopian Catholic school system. Shortly after this interview, he was appointed CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia.
Argaw Fantu, a married father of two children, has a deep appreciation for what Catholic education means to the people of Ethiopia, where Catholics are a tiny minority, but where Catholic schools are among the most cherished and successful in the country. CNEWA, Mr. Fantu said, has been an invaluable help.
“CNEWA has been able to support schools, upgrading school facilities in some areas where the Catholic schools are in high demand,” he wrote to us.
“CNEWA’s support has significantly changed the lives of many young children who do not have opportunities or access to this kind of education.”
Through a series of emails, he elaborated on his background, his experience, and his hope for schools in his homeland.
ONE: What inspired you to become a teacher?
Argaw Fantu: In the early 1970’s I joined a Catholic primary school newly established in my village in the southern rural part of Ethiopia. I had been attracted by the diligent and expressive teachers, mainly nuns. Their encouragement changed the course of my life. I wanted so much to be like one of those teachers who captured the students’ imagination. As a result, on completing my secondary education I joined the Social Science faculty of the Addis Ababa University and studied geography.
ONE: What grade did you teach? How large were you classes?
Argaw Fantu: After graduation, I was assigned to a government secondary school located in rural western parts of Ethiopia.
I started teaching there in September of 1986. For four and a half years I taught geography and English for grades 9 to 12. There were 70 students in each class.
In 1991, I was asked by the bishop of my former eparchy, the Vicariate of Awassa, to start running a new Catholic secondary school together with the Comboni Missionary Sisters. I worked as a teacher and served as deputy headmaster for almost 19 years.
The school is located in a fast-growing city — Awassa — and is called St. Daniel Comboni Catholic Secondary and Preparatory School. The class size ranges 45 to 50 students each.
ONE: How important is Catholic education to the people of Ethiopia?
Argaw Fantu: Catholic education is so significant! Some of the preparatory schools have grades from primary to secondary level. Almost all of them are highly reputable schools, known for academic excellence and strong values.
Roughly estimating, from these preparatory schools about 2,500 students annually join universities to follow their professional studies. All of them successfully complete their studies and are able to competitively join the work force. For example: last August, 35 medical doctors graduated from Addis Ababa University, and they were all former students of Lideta Catholic Cathedral School in Addis Ababa. It just indicates how Catholic schools in Ethiopia are important for people and for our country.
In spite of the fact that the Catholic faithful are the minority here, Catholic schools make up the second largest educational system, after the public system. There are challenges, of course. Most schools are located in rural areas where resources are very meager. But thanks to the wide range of support provided by different church-based institutions — such as the missionary institutes and CNEWA — these schools are making a difference in the lives of many young Ethiopians.
ONE: What has been your most memorable experience as a teacher?
Argaw Fantu: The greatest satisfaction is to see my students become successful in their studies and succeeding in the world. For me, to be a teacher is not only about imparting academic knowledge to students; it’s also about seeing those students become more competent and efficient in their duties and responsibilities — to see them grow as individuals.
ONE: What is your hope for Ethiopia’s future, and how do you think education can contribute to that?
Argaw Fantu: The future of Ethiopia depends, among other things, on a coherent education system that can lift up the country from poverty. This can happen when teachers become more skilled and committed and love the teaching profession so much that students look up to them as role models.
Teachers need a lot of support. I’d like to be able to give that by sharing my experience with teachers in different Catholic schools across the country, and also by sharing my satisfaction in teaching, maybe by organizing and conducting training workshops for teachers.
ONE: What role does your faith play in your work as a teacher?
Argaw Fantu: Faith is nothing but responding to the invitation of the Lord Jesus. It is relating what one believes to how one does things. In my experience, to be a teacher is to be called to “go out and teach people to make them ‘good’ disciples” — disciples of reason, wisdom and knowledge. In other words, teaching is a transformation: from ignorance to knowledge. As many educators agree, and I, too, discovered through faith, Jesus Christ is the greatest teacher of all ages and the eternal founder and head of the church. He is a teacher by nature, vocation and action. If this is so then it is my faith that truly shaped me to be who I am today as a teacher.
Greg Kandra is CNEWA’ multimedia editor and serves as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.