Catholic Schools in Ethiopia

Providing a brighter future for Ethiopia’s impoverished youth.

text by Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C.
photographs by Asrat Habte Mariam

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Some 60 million people live in Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations in the world. It is a land of high, rugged mountains, lowland deserts, fertile land and abundant lakes and rivers. Its mountainous terrain prevents the construction of roads and infrastructure that could network the country and promote economic development. And the lowlands are arid and uninviting, occupied by nomadic peoples following their flocks of sheep, goats and camels in search of water and grass.

Is there a way out? How do the peoples of this land escape the oppressive burden of poverty? Over the years millions of dollars have been spent and experts from around the world have met, studied and met some more to find the answers to these questions. To date, they have not found them. Some have dared to voice the unpopular opinion: Education solves the problems of poor countries like Ethiopia. This opinion, however, is routinely dismissed. Why such a reaction? Education is a long-term investment, usually requiring a minimum of 12 years. Yet we live in a world of instant gratification and quick results; Ethiopia’s well-intentioned benefactors want immediate results, not long-term investments. The true solution, however, to end Ethiopia’s impoverishment remains the education of its people.

The Catholic Church of Ethiopia heavily invests in education. In a country of less than 500,000 Catholics, there are 80,120 children studying in 252 Catholic schools scattered throughout the country. In a land where women’s rights are misunderstood and almost unknown, 40 percent of the students in its Catholic schools are female. And the numbers are growing: In the Prefecture of Meki there are 16,000 Catholics. This tiny Prefecture is only 15 years old, yet there are already 25 elementary schools with 4,065 students.

Why, you might ask, is the Catholic Church of Ethiopia investing so heavily in education? Perhaps the correct answer is simply the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The missionary bishops saw the importance of education in this land and invited religious congregations that specialized in education to travel to Ethiopia. The congregations opened schools and recruited vocations to their congregations. Today, Ethiopian bishops continue to expand the Catholic school network and are able to do this with native Ethiopian priests and religious sisters and brothers.

Indeed, the Catholic Church of Ethiopia has many schools, but what about their quality? The following story illustrates.

“Brother, what am I going to do with this boy?”

I heard these words of despair in 1991 while serving as headmaster of St. Joseph School in Ethiopia capital city of Addis Ababa. The words were spoken after a young professional man learned that his five-year-old son had not been admitted into the school kindergarten class. The father and I knew there was no other decent school for the boy.

Another father, an alumnus of a Catholic school, slumped in front of me.

“What can I offer my son if I cannot give him a decent education?” he asked. “If I cannot give him the education that I was fortunate enough to receive?”

I recently encountered this problem while visiting a former student whose wife had just given birth to their first child. Daniel was so proud. As we chatted, he said, “Brother, I have to do something about getting him registered for school.”

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Tags: Ethiopia Children Education Poor/Poverty Catholic Schools