Articles in this series:
02. Educational Advances in Menilek’s Day
Menilek, as we saw last week, was fully alive to the need for modern education in Ethiopia. He had, however, to overcome strong opposition on the part of the Orthodox Church, which saw such education (perhaps rightly!) as a challenge to traditional Ethiopian religious values.
The astute, and innovating, monarch resolved the issue with the help of Abuna Matwos, the Head of the Ethiopian Church. The prelate, like all such religious leaders of the past, was of course an Egyptian Copt, with his own point of view, and agenda. It was agreed between the monarch and the Abun that modern Ethiopian education should be entrusted to Egyptian Copts: it was agreed that they could be counted upon to introduce modern methods of schooling, while at the same time instilling the Orthodox Christian faith among Ethiopian students.
Professor Hanna Saleb
On the basis of this agreement, education in Ethiopia was entrusted to Professor Hanna Saleb, an Egyptian Coptic educationalist. He was accompanied by a number of his compatriots, and co-religionaries. They were brought into Ethiopia to teach various subjects, at first at primary and later at secondary level. These included English and Arabic, as well as humanities and science. The main language of instruction was, however, French, which was envisaged as the principal foreign language of Ethiopia, as it was of Egypt.
Schools run by Coptic teachers, were duly established, in 1908, in Addis Ababa, as well as Ankobar, Dessie, and Harar.
Ethiopia’s First Modern School
Ethiopia’s first modern school, the Ecole Imperiale Menelik, was opened by the Emperor in October 1908, shortly after the abatement of that year’s rains. This Coptic-run school offered instruction to about a hundred boys from the country’s “best families”. Teaching included French, English, Italian and Amharic, as well as mathematics and science, physical training and sports. Board and tuition were both entirely free.
The first big event at the school took place, on 16 July 1911, when prizes were awarded, after a public examination. The first prize, of 100 Maria Theresa thalers and a gold watch, was given to Abbaba, the son of Fitawrari Yebsa. Other prizes consisted of 50, 20, and 10 thalers .
The importance of the school, and of its Coptic teachers, was noted at the time by a British observer, J.I. Craig. He exclaimed: “It is perhaps not too much to say that the future of the country lies in the hands of these young Egyptians, and according as their instruction is sound or the reverse, will education prove a blessing or otherwise in Abyssinia”.
It was recorded, in 1924, that no fewer than three thousand students had passed through the school. Many on graduating found employment as interpreters, accountants and secretaries, and also as teachers.
Professor Hanna Saleb, the school’s headmaster, was appointed Ethiopia’s first Director of Education, in 1909.
Missionary and Other Foreign Education
Though the foundation of the Menelik School marked a major “turning point” in Ethiopian education history, it had been preceded, a year earlier, by the setting up, by the French community, of an Addis Ababa school for Ethiopians. This institution was, however, but a small affair, run in a small hut by French Brothers of St. Gabriel. A similar school was established at the same time in Dire Dawa. Both schools were taken over by the Alliance Francaise, in 1910.
The Ecole Francaise in Addis Ababa, which was run by Brothers of St Gabriel, was formally opened on 24 November 1912. It was operated by a local committee, composed of Ethiopians, Armenians, Greeks and Lebanese, as well as Frenchmen, and was presided over by an official of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway company. Subjects taught included reading, writing, arithmetic, and French, as well as hygiene, geography, science and morals, with one hour a day devoted to Amharic. In addition to Ethiopians there were a number of French, Armenian and |Greek students.
The school had an enrolment of about 150 students. About a hundred of them were boarders. It was reported that by 1924 some 1,400 students had graduated. Many of them found employment in Government service, or as interpreters.
“Honoured in All Civilised Countries”
The excitement with which one Ethiopian greeted the opening of the first French-run school can be seen from an anonymous essay of this time. Its author, apparently greeting the advent of the Alliance Francaise school, observes that such “important works” were honoured in “all civilised countries”, and continues:
“The construction of schools is more important than anything else. Learning means the beginning of civilisation, wealth, honour, purity, and good character. If we examine the history of the past we will see that a learned man is more honoured than an unlettered one. Our evidence for this is the Holy Bible. It enumerates for us Moses and Solomon. If we say, ‘Let us count the learned of modern times’ we will need several months and years to arrive at their number. If we travel round and look at large cities we find that people have erected imperishable statues to savants, so that, the statues being a testimony for them to all mankind, such savants may be eternally blessed.
“Let us regard the kings of Europe. Behold, they spend every year many million dollars to fill the whole world with knowledge and science. As proof of this, behold! The French Government, being imbued with love for the youth of Ethiopia, constructed this school so that our nation may make progress in knowledge. In this work all the honoured diplomatic corps have assisted, and many merchants, thinking that it would be useful to them, have also helped. It is indeed a useful work.
Sirs, I beg you to aid in their work those people, who, after much thought, have begun to construct this school, so that many schools may be built in this country, and learning everywhere increase. With the exception of learning, everything, when it becomes abundant, becomes cheap, but learning increases in value.
Do you think that it is ignorance which has constructed, for man’s advantage, cannon, aeroplanes, telegraphs, railways, submarines, and which has extracted from organic and inorganic substances the different kinds of medicines that there are in the world? Or is it ignorance which has extracted from the bowels of the earth all those things that are useful to mankind! No!
“Now, why should we be the last of all to introduce knowledge in our midst?. What is it that prevents us from sending our children to school? If we send them, and this school is insufficient for them, let us continue to open schools, many of them. so that after a short time we may see youths who cause their fathers to be praised on account of their children’s knowledge. So that the father may boast saying: ‘I have sown one fertile seed and gathered a thousand-fold’. ”
“May God Lengthen the Days of Those Who”
“And now that learning may last for ever and science reign! Let us say, ‘May God lengthen the days of those who assist learning!’”
The Coming of the Printing Press
Another important development, around the turn of the century was the coming to Addis Ababa of the printing press. The first such machine, for printing in Amharic letters, is reported to have been brought, around 1897, by “an enterprising French merchant”, but was not used for several years.
The First Amharic Newspaper
The first Amharic newspaper was a handwritten weekly sheet, produced shortly before 1900, by an Eritrean savant, Blatta Gabra Egziabher. This publication is reported to have had a circulation of fifty copies. Its editor was renowned as a keen Ethiopian patriot, but one willing to trounce important men of state by saying witty things at their expense.
A keen advocate of Ethiopian unity, as well as of modernisation, which he saw, like Menilek, as the means of preserving the country’s independence, he was also a poet. One of his pieces of verse, emphasising the need for Ethiopian unity, declared:
Mr. Unity having reigned, if he rule over us,
No enemy will hurt us; envious persons will be few.
Do not joke about this matter,
Lest we become other people’s plaything, and plunder.
Be vigilent; do not be weak!
Teach knowledge; let counsellors multiply!
Do not treat this, my advice, as a joke!
Another patriotic poem, on a similar theme, declared:
Being united, let us reflect.
Lest we become, like the sheep, the wolf’s prey.
Before the invader comes, on a swift horse,
Let us remain strong, so that we may be wise
I pray to you, my country, and my mother.
Let jealousy vanish; let not Satan enter.
Lest the foreigner scratch you.
Yet another patriotic verse called on the people of Shawa, Harar, Kafa, Konta, Gojjam, Bagemder, Tegray, Wallo, Yajju, Wag, Awsa, and “the whole of Abyssinia” to listen to his advice, and declared:
Let us learn from the Europeans; let us become strong
So that the enemy may not vanquish us, on the first encounter.
Let us examine our history; let us read the newspaper.
Let us learn languages; let us look at maps.
This is what opens people’s eyes.
Darkness has gone; dawn has come.
It is a disgrace to sleep by day.
The theme of modernisation, for the sake of strength, likewise found expression in another poem, which declared, in the words of the Psalms, that counsel was beautiful for those who accepted it, and concluded:
He who accepts it, fears no one.
He will become like Japan, strong in everything.