Foundation of Education in Ethiopia

I always viewed education to be of Western origin until my father took me on a trip to visit my uncle, who is a teacher in one of the highly respected monasteries in the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church-Debre Libanos. Before that I never thought of my uncle as a teacher, but as a priest since he dresses like one.

Upon my arrival to the school near the beautiful church and monastery of Debre Libanos, I was surprised to find out that my uncle has many students, in the compound where he teaches the higher courses of Gold and Wax.  Situated at the center of the crowded village, the school does not have any resemblance with what we normally call a school by any   standard. My uncle lives in the bigger house in the school compound and all the students have their own small cottages surrounding the big room that they use as a class room. When they are not in their class, the students usually hang around the school, reading in group or humming the rhythm that they learn in the musical part of their studies. I have found the students different from myself as a student, in the way they bestow respect to their teacher whom they call ‘Meri Geta’, a title for higher teachers.

World education has evolved through different phases and has its own distinctive features in different part of the world. In Ethiopia, one of the noteworthy places in the world where ancient civilization thrived, education found it roots in the church based traditional education system. This church schooling that can be found in most of the churches and monasteries in present Ethiopia, takes its root back to the time when monasticism began.

Ethiopia embraced Christianity in the fourth Century AD during the Axumite kingdom. In the 5th century, monasteries were also introduced to the Ethiopian Orthodox church by nine monks, who came from Syria.

These monks, it is believed, also initiated the translation of the bible into Ge’ez- one of the ancient languages in Ethiopia, which to date is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox church as a liturgical language. These monasteries also began the first form of schools in Ethiopia. Even though the main objective of these educational centers were to spread Christianity, their contribution to the development of the Ge’ez language and its descendent Amharic, which has its own written alphabets and rich literature, is vital.

This traditional church based school’s expansion boosted between 1200 and 1500 AD and has had its own   curriculum with different stages.  The first stage namely ‘Nebab Bet’ -the reading school- is where one can learn how to read and write the Ethiopic alphabets, which has 231 letters. This stage of school still exists in most churches and monasteries, where people can send their children between the ages of 5 and 7 in preparation for modern elementary school. Most of the methods of this teaching is based on recitation, memorization and singing. The reading school also includes reading the Psalm of David, which will follow after the students are familiar with the letters. Girls are restricted from learning beyond this stage, for they can neither become priests nor deacons.

Those who decide to become priests or deacons pass to the mass school –Qedasse bet- where they learn the rituals of performing mass. .To read the scriptures with better understanding and to learn the hymns and poems, the student must pass to the higher school of the church. At this point, the student leaves his parent’s place and travels from one church to another monastery to learn the best. At this point, the responsibility of feeding the students falls upon the villagers. The students called ‘yekolo temari’ by the villagers go to the villagers to collect food, which they will share with each other. As a culture, villagers don’t refuse to give food to a ‘temari’.

Upon completion of this stage, they can be ‘Debteras’, who are especially good at writing rituals. The course in the higher school includes learning how to compose music and improvise gold and wax, which is called ‘Qene’. It is a special kind of pun that they compose to say something undersurface. After, according to their specialization, the students will qualify to become music or Qene teachers.

The next stage is the literature school, where they learn different interpretation of the church books. Upon graduation, they can work as administrators within the church.

Beside the great contribution the church education has on the spread of Christianity and language development, it also sets a strong foundation for the country’s literature, art and music development. It has initiated the creation of the system of writing that has developed from Sabean scripts into Ethiopic alphabets. Amharic literature takes its roots from the church  literature that has ignited since the Axumite period.

Most of the renowned contemporary writers of the country, like the late Dr. Haddis Alemayehu, Megestu Lemma, Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin are the outcomes of these traditional church schools. Art and music are also highly influenced by these schools whose presence is clearly exhibited in the uniqueness of the church paintings and traditional music, which is finding its way in influencing modern artists as well. The numbers of musicians, who refer the church school as their vocal basis, are far from few. However, this foundation of education in the country does not have much influence on the development of modern education, except the reading school that accepts kids before they begin modern elementary school. With the introduction of modern education during the regime of the late Emperor Menilik’s II, the hands of the church in education were removed with time leading to the total    secularization of education. This left the traditional education limited to its church contribution.

These days, students who attend the church school go to the modern school simultaneously. The church currently owns the theological college, which accepts students in pursuit of further education in theology. On the other hand, many churches have started opening modern elementary and high schools that provide secular education with some touch of Christianity in order to keep the students in line with their beliefs.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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