Articles in this series:
Education and Literacy in Old-Time Ethiopia: Christian, Muslim, and Falasha
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the period under discussion in this series of articles, a small number of Ethiopian ecclesiastics visited Jerusalem, where there was an Ethiopian Convent. It seldom housed less than a score of Ethiopians, and sometimes at least twice as many. Most of the inmates knew only their own languages, but the Rev. William Jowett, an English traveller of the 1820’s describes a young Ethiopian who had been taken from Ethiopia to Egypt as a slave, and had subsequently studied in Milan. He therefore spoke Italian, as well as Arabic, and was known as Moose el Habesh, i.e. Moses the Abyssinian. A century later the renowned scholar A. Z. Aescoly, writing of the 92 Ethiopians them at Jerusalem, observed: “the members of the colony are natives of almost all the provinces of the vast Ethiopian Empire. Even Kaffa scarcely Christianised is represented. Only Harar is missing…”
A handful of Ethiopian church scholars in this period also went abroad in other ways. One of the most interesting, of these early expatriates was Abi Ruch, a monk and scholar who accompanied the Scottish traveller James Bruce to Alexandria, and subsequently translated the New Testament into Amharic for the British and Foreign Bible Society.
How Many Church Scholars Were There?
There is no means of establishing the number of Church schools, or the number of students in their care, in former times. Such fragmentary evidence as is available suggests, however, that they were not inconsiderable.
Church studies, though of immense cultural importance, were followed by only a small minority of the population. The Swiss Protestant missionary Samuel Gobat claimed, in the 1830s, that “very few” people in northern Ethiopia ever learnt to write. He adds: “Upon the whole, I should think that, in the country where Amharic is spoken, about one-fifth of the male population can read a little, and in Tigre about one-twelfth.” Tigrinya, it should be borne in mind, was not at this time a written language, so that literacy in Tigre presupposed a knowledge of either Ge’ez or Amharic.
The illiteracy of the mass of the population, a decade or so later, is underlined in the memoirs of the subsequent British resident Mansfield Parkyns. Asking the question: “who can read?” in Tigre, he replied, “some, but not all of the priests, the scribes, and a very few men of the highest rank.”
A more critical view of the literacy situation was afforded by the British traveller Henry Salt. Writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he observed that at Degsa, on the northern edge of the Ethiopian plateau, above the Red Sea port of Massawa, he met “only a few persons” who could read the Bible. He adds that “not one in twenty could write the characters they read”.
Such literacy, it should be emphasised, was not particularly low by the standards of the day. The visiting Belgian consul Edouard Blondeel for example observed, in the early nineteenth century, that the percentage of the population able to read and write in Christian Ethiopia was about the same as in the Western Europe of the time.
The disturbed conditions of the mid-nineteenth century seem to have resulted in a significant retrogression in education and literacy in certain areas. This at least was the opinion of the British Consul, Walter Plowden, who in a report for 9 July 1854, observed that “the number of persons that can read is diminishing daily.”
The Swiss missionary Theophilus Waldmeier, discussing the situation in Begemder a decade or so later, observed that in general “people do not know how to read or write, this is an art known only to the priest or debterra.”
Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Reports
Some additional information on traditional Ethiopian church education may be gleaned from other foreign travel and other accounts. The official history of the British expedition of 1867-8 against Emperor Tewodros, or Theodore, II thus reports that the expeditionary force found five or six Church schools in operation at Adwa. The account states that the pupils included some blind boys, who, we, may assume, found scholarship easier than farming, but provides no other educational information. Mention of church education at Adwa was, however, later made by the early twentieth century German traveller Felix Rosen. He indicates that the city was an important centre of education, to which many parents sent their children, to be taught by the priests.
The late nineteenth century German traveller Gerhard Rohfs, who visited Aksum and Gondar, two of the country’s greatest centres of learning, recalls that during times of disturbance parents often left their children in the former city, which, because of its religious importance, was never attacked. He was more impressed, however, by the education given at Gondar. He says that most of the city’s priests were well educated, and that over the years they had taught the sons of many laymen, particularly among the nobility.
Lesser known church schools were found throughout the Christian provinces. Mention of a church school at Fendja, near Asoso, is thus made by the late nineteenth century German traveller Theodor Heughlin. Another large school, according to Abba Jerome, operated in the early Menilek period at Dessie where the renowned church scholar Abba Akalawold had no less than 1,000 students.
Emperor Theodros, though partially church-educated, was, according to his Protestant missionary aide Martin Flad, unable to write. The monarch was therefore obliged to make use of scribes, it being however his practice on occasion to dictate two or three letters at a time to different writers.
The Dervish Attack on Gondar
A subsequent decline in education undoubtedly occurred in Gondar, when the city was attacked by the Dervishes. Rosen states that this assault resulted in the closing of the principal school, at which theology, law, music, dancing, painting, calligraphy and history had earlier been taught.
Many Falashas, or Beta Esra’el, in the mid-nineteenth century attended Christian church schools, as Martin Flad records. There were, however, also specifically Falasha schools, as mentioned by the Protestant missionary Henry Stern.
TravellingLiving among the isolated Falasha communities in the Gondar area, the latter observer reported that at two villages, which he terms Antonius and Atshergee, there was, however, no one who could read or write, and that at a third, Gorgora Eila, there was no one who could read fluently. He states moreover that during the whole of his tour of Falasha-land he found only one Falasha woman who was literate.
The Falashas were, however, were by no means completely without education, as is evident from the fact that Stern met one debtera, who ran a school with no less than ninety-four children. Falasha girls, however, received no education according to Flad, who records the following conversation:
Flad: “Have you any schools?”
A Falasha: “Yes, but only for boys”.
Flad: “Why not for girls too?”
The Falasha: “Because it is not becoming (to instruct females.)”
The exclusion of women, as we have seen, applied equally, to Christian church schools.
Deterioration in Falasha education is suggested by the subsequent traveller Jacques Faitlovich, who reported in 1910 that the Dervish invasion of 1888, together with the subsequent great Famine and other difficulties, had virtually “devastated” all the community’s old-time schools. The result was that -the majority of the new generation is reared without any instruction at all, not even the most elementary, and they can scarcely understand the prayers which they recite.”
The educational position in the Muslim walled city of Harar seems to have been particularly good. The Egyptian observer, Mohammed Moktar, who visited the city in the second part of the century, found education “very well developed”. He states that the children of the city learnt to read and write in small schools during the day, while many of the adults studied Muslim law with Kadis, or religious leaders, in the evening.
The Somali and Afar Lowlands
The extent of literacy among the Somali and Afar nomads of the lowlands was noticed in the early nineteenth century by the British ship’s captain Charles Johnston. He states that “great numbers” of Somalis and Dankalis, most of whom had never resided in towns, were nevertheless able to read and write Arabic, and that several of them had inscribed their names in his note-books. Half a century or so later the Italian traveller, Luigi Robecchi-Bricchetti, recorded the existence of a number of traditional schools in various parts of Somaliland. At Alula, for example, there were two schools, one with 50 boys and a dozen girls; the other with about half as many students. The principal object of such schooling was to enable people to read the Koran. Schooling, he says, was free, but many students would bring their teacher foodstuffs, such as rice, and dates; and on completing their studies their parents would probably give him some Maria Theresa dollars, or else some produce of the country.
It is interesting to note that besides their smattering of Arabic the Somalis of the desert also had a system of simple signs for conveying messages to each other in the sand: for example, a circle to indicate that a person was near, or an oblique line to signify that he had passed and would return.
(Somali, it should be emphasised, was traditionally not a written language, though Shek Awes, who died in 1909, tried to popularize its expression in Arabic script. Several decades later Osman Yusef of Mijertain invented a “Somali alphabet” which had vowels, and was influenced by both Arabic and Latin letters, but was not however adopted.