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Never too Late to Dream

Once a primary educator in Ethiopia, the Catholic Church continues to play a vital role

by Sean Sprague

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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.

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Tags: Ethiopia Education Ethiopian Catholic Church