Articles in this series:
Bibles and Literacy in the 1930s
The British and Foreign Bible Society
During the pre-war years under review, the British and Foreign Bible Society was also active. It opened a new Addis Ababa headquarters on 13 May 1926, on which occasion the Regent, Ras Tafari Makonnen, emphasised the importance of the Society’s work. He recalled that in former times the Bible was only available in Ethiopia in Ge‘ez, and was hence “not found in the hands of those who knew only Amharic.” Moreover, being available only in manuscript form, and not printed, it was “extremely expensive”, resulting in spiritual leaders often encountering “much difficulty” in obtaining the Old and New Testament complete.
The availability of printed Bibles at low prices, he declared, had given Ethiopians more than “mere ability to read. They are always glad,” he explained, “to hear the Word of God , and rejoiced even to read it in Ge‘ez, a language they do not understand. So it is apparent how much greater is their joy to read it in the language they do understand, namely Amharic. Since such has been the case with the Christians of earlier days and with the teachers of recent days in their work, so doubtless the Gallas who have come to Christ, have found the light of knowledge by reading the Bible printed in their language”.
Bible Society statistics indicate that 141,313 Bibles, Testaments, or Portions of the Bible were printed between 1915 and 1935. They appeared in no less than nine languages, namely Ge‘ez, Amharic, Ge‘ez and Amharic combined, Tigrinya, Tigre, Sidamo, Gofa, Gudella, Gallinya, and Kunama.
The number of Biblical texts printed in these two decades was almost half as much again as those produced in the previous eight and a half decades.
Out of a total of 141,313 texts printed between 1915 and 1935, no fewer than 99,537 were in Amharic, 27,144 in Ge‘ez and Amharic combined; 7,812 in Ge‘ez, 7,500 in Tigre, 3,000 in Tigrinya, 3,000 in Gallinya, 1,070 in Kunama, and 750 each in Sidamo, Gofa, and Gudella. Such figures indicate the diffusion of literacy, as well as that of the Christian faith.
Bible Society figures indicate that, between 1915 and 1930, some 71,683 texts were distributed through its branches in Addis Ababa and Asmara, while others entered the country through other, less important, channels.
A further 59,509 texts were distributed in the last pre-war years, 1930-1935. Of these, 57,257 texts were diffused by way of Addis Ababa and 2,252 by way of Asmara. Distribution from Addis Ababa comprised 2,913 Bibles, 4,127 Testaments and 50,217 portions.
In the quarter of a century or so preceding the Italian war the Bible Society had thus printed, and distributed, almost a quarter of a million texts in Ethiopian languages.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Education established a National Library in the 1930’s, which was open to the general public. According to the memory of one person connected with it, who was interviewed thirty years later, it had “over 1,000 books”.
A French bookshop was founded in 1930. Run by a French couple, Monsieur and Madame R. E. Goyon, it reportedly had more than 1,000 books, and subscribed to the principal French, English and Italian newspapers.
Christine Sandford: “Unprecedented Advances in Literacy”
The Nineteen Twenties, and especially the early Nineteen Thirties, in Ethiopia appear to have witnessed unprecedented advances in literacy, as well as in education. Mrs. Christine Sandford, an old-time English resident of this period, claimed to have discerned a steady rise in literacy. “It was quite remarkable to a resident of many years’ standing,” she notes, “that whereas in 1920 the boy on his household staff who could read and write was a notable exception”, in 1935 “among the same class there were few young men and boys who had not mastered the elementary processes of reading and writing the Amharic script”.
This above statement seems to be confirmed by a British Board of Trade Report, for 1932, which made the significant comment that the level of Ethiopian education, though “not high”, was nevertheless “higher than usual” in countries in a similar stage of economic development. The Swedish missionary Eriksson, who was somewhat of a Puritan, writing in the same year, agreed that “the number of people able to read is definitely increasing,” but expressed the fear that youngsters going to school “often acquire a love of town life; very few find their way back to their villages.” He added that “the country people reproach the missions” (whose work we have examined in some detail in previous articles) “for drawing children away from their homes and villages”.
The educational position on the eve of the Italian Fascist invasion of 1935-6 was further documented by the Greek author Adrien Zervos, a useful compiler of facts. He states that Ethiopian Government at that time employed some thirty foreign teachers, and that there were fourteen schools in the capital, with a total enrollment of about 4,200. He adds that there were about four times as many boys at school as girls.
Another, and useful, observer of this time, the Hungarian journalist Ladislas Farago, recalled that the three most important Ethiopian schools of this time – the Menelik, the Tafari Makonnen and the Menen – had a joint enrollment of some four hundred students. His comment was that this seemed “little enough”, but was “at least a beginning”.
Emperor Haile Sellassie, according to Farago, had expressed the hope of having “at least thirty” similar schools in ten years’ time.