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Making the Grade in Ethiopia

Though Catholics are a tiny minority in Ethiopia, Catholic-run schools are making a difference

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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On an early morning in Irob, a remote region in the northern Ethiopian state of Tigray, 10-year-old Merhawi Kahsay readied himself for school. Outside his simple stone home, a frost covered the ground – not uncommon in an area that lies 9,000 feet above sea level. Rising from his straw mattress on the dirt floor, Merhawi ate a piece of stale barley bread and a cup of water. He is small for his age but tough, with rough, dry skin. And his toothy grin is disarming.

Merhawi’s parents died several years ago, and his grandmother looks after him, making sure he goes to school. Merhawi is an enthusiastic student, who does not mind the 90-minute trek to St. Jacob School in Adaga, a cluster of six stone-walled and tin-roofed rooms nestled in the bottom of a valley.

Serving 300 students, the school is run by the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat. The school is poor, unable to offer water or food to the children. And though everyone here speaks Irob, the local tongue, the main language of instruction is Tigrinya, the regional language. The students also study Amharic, the national language of this diverse country of 73 million people, as well as English, geography, math, ethics and social science. They also study aesthetics, a mix of art, sports and music, though the school only has some pencils for drawing, a soccer ball, simple drums and an Ethiopian string instrument.

Despite crowded classrooms of 50 to 60 students, the children comport themselves well. “We have no discipline problems,” said Aster Kidane, 25, a first-grade teacher. “The children are glad to come to school. They believe that with education they will have a chance to get ahead, perhaps find jobs in the cities to escape the poverty of rural Irob.

“A few hopefully will make it.”

Among the poorest countries in the world, Ethiopia has made significant strides in the education of its children, particularly in the last 14 years.

In 1985, only 2.4 million children attended primary school. According to the latest United Nations survey, conducted in 2002, 7.6 million children went to school. (About 44 percent of Ethiopians are under the age of 15.) The government has built thousands of new schools, particularly in rural districts.

But where there are no government-run schools, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, which numbers just 500,000 people, has set up its own, making it the second largest system in the country.

According to the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, the church administers 311 programs, ranging from kindergartens to primary and secondary schools, employs 2,186 teachers and serves 83,686 students – most of whom live in villages scattered throughout this landlocked country a little more than twice the size of France.

Many schools are located in Tigray and several date to the activities of an Italian Vincentian priest, Justin de Jacobis, who in the mid-19th century worked among various ethnic groups in the Ethiopian highlands, particularly in the areas that now make up the Eparchy of Adigrat, founding parishes and schools.

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