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Head of the Class

In Ethiopia, Catholic schools set the standard

text by Emeline Wuilbercq with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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The Rev. Abraham Waza wears a broad and satisfied smile, his eyes wrinkling behind his black glasses. “Look at them,” he says with a deep voice, pointing at his students. “It’s rainy, it’s muddy, it’s dusty, and in spite of that, the children are here.

“In the other schools, they wouldn’t come after heavy rainfall,” he adds.

Abba (Amharic for “father”) Abraham, 42, administers Our Lady’s Catholic School in Dubbo, in the Wolayta region of southern Ethiopia — about 150 miles away from the capital, Addis Ababa. In the large compound, dozens of children in uniform rush to class, bypassing puddles of muddy water. Some laugh, others shout, grabbing each other’s shoulders to keep pace.

Painted on the walls around them are figures such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as inspiring quotes that underline the importance of education.

According to the priest, students rarely miss class. He attributes this to the school’s positive methods.

“We motivate them, we give them affection, care and discipline.” Such are the values he has been trying to instill for the past four years.

Catholics represent less than 1 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 105 million people. And while a tiny minority in Ethiopia — 43 percent of the population is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, 32 percent Muslim and 19 percent Protestant — the Catholic school system is extensive and successful. The Catholic Church, Abba Abraham says proudly, administers some 405 schools throughout the country. And these have built their reputation on the quality of their education.

“Here, you don’t waste time like in public schools, where there is only a part-time education; here, the pupils study full time.”

Our Lady’s Catholic School is run by the Capuchins and was founded at the end of the 1930’s by a French missionary named Pascal De Luchon.

“It was the first school in the surroundings,” Abba Abraham says. Since then, many of the school’s students have gone on to play key roles within the country — among them, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Presently, around 1,500 children are studying here from primary to preparatory school.

“I would sell my clothes to send my children to this school,” says Tilahun Honja, 42. The father of five serves as a catechist, teaching religion in churches and in the surrounding villages. Apart from his religious work, he makes his living selling flour and teff — a tiny grain used to make injera, traditional Ethiopian flatbread.

Depending on the grade, parents pay school fees ranging from 140 to 210 birrs (about $6 to $9) per month — a lot for a father earning far less than a thousand birrs monthly. Public schools are free. Yet, “public schools don’t have the same quality,” asserts Markos Mathewos. The 20-year-old student with curly hair and prayer beads around his neck is at the top of his class. “Here, there is more competition,” he says, adding that the school’s 45 teachers are also held to a high standard.

“Before, I was not as clever as I am now,” he says with a shy smile.

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