Making the Grade in Ethiopia

In the Spring 2020 edition of ONE, Maria Gerth-Niculescu wrote of how men and women religious are having a powerful impact on young students in Ethiopia. She offers some additional reflections below.

The city of Dessie welcomes you with scenic mountains and a blazing sun. It’s a fast-growing city, but where most neighborhoods still feel like a small friendly town. The Catholic school is located on a quiet cobble-stone street, behind a big brown gate.

Abba Matthewos greeted us with a friendly smile. From the very first minutes, it was clear: this is a busy man. Running a church as well as a school of more than a thousand students is no light task, and Abba Matthewos takes it very seriously. Every morning, he celebrates Mass in the round Kidane Mehret church, after which he manages the school, solving problems and holding meetings in his large office.

As he introduced us to the school staff and children, I felt that this compound is a happy place. The classrooms are overcrowded, and there’s no place to eat lunch, but here the children have adapted. One girl even told me that she likes being with so many friends in one classroom, despite the adverse effects this has on her progress. Teachers I spoke with are less nuanced; they stress the difficulty of teaching 60 students at once. But for now, funding is insufficient to build more facilities.

The schoolyard is surrounded by a multitude of trees, and the classroom buildings are nicely painted in blue, beige and yellow. In the morning sun, this scenery — combined with hundreds of kids in blue and green uniforms arriving in a joyful chatter — is something beautiful to witness. Then there is the morning routine of singing the Ethiopian national anthem: a spectacle of discipline and unity.

We spent several hours in the school, visiting classrooms and observing teachers while trying not to distract the students — a difficult task, as they seemed to love having visitors around.

Visiting the homes of students was another experience. We focused on students who are sponsored by the Catholic Association, and it became clear what a help attending this school would be for their future. With very little income, some parents could never have  afforded this level of education for their daughters and sons. The school has a 100 percent admission rate to university, a number almost double the public school rate. This opportunity to climb the social ladder is something extraordinary, and it seems those families benefitting from the program are well aware of this. “I would have never gotten this chance with sponsorship,” said the mother of one high school girl.

From first grade onwards, students at Kidane Mehret have ambitious plans for the future. “Doctor,” “engineer” and “pilot” were the words that burst out when we asked girls and boys what they want to become. It makes one want to hope for them, and for the future of a country still plagued by poverty and unemployment. The school staff is well aware of the challenges ahead, and have expressed their worries, mentioning that some former students are still unable to find jobs. But they pray for the economy and overall political situation to deliver a brighter future. They remain endlessly optimistic.  

“You must learn to live in this world,” one teacher told me. “So we will keep teaching, as students will keep learning.”

Read more about teaching Lessons in Success in the Spring edition of ONE.

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