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Articles in this series:
001. Missionary Education and Literacy in the Nineteenth Century
Missionary education in Ethiopia developed rapidly throughout the nineteenth century. One of the first missionary schools of the period was founded in Shawa, in the 1830s, by the London-based German Protestant missionaries Isenberg and Krapf. The language of instruction was Amharic. A generation later three other Protestant missionaries, Flad, Brandais and Staiger, operated small schools in and around Bagemder. One such place of study was at Emperor Tewodros’s capital, Maqdala. Such schools had an average enrolment of perhaps thirty to fifty students. All, or almost all, of them were, at first, boys. Schooling for girls developed somewhat later.
The Swedish missionary organisation Evangeliska-Fosterlands Stifelsen, which had been established in Stockholm in 1856, also set up a mission station at the Red Sea port of Massawa in 1866. The missionaries soon afterwards established a small school at the nearby village of Monkullu, and did some teaching further west, among the non-Christian Kunama people towards the Sudan frontier. (In most of the rest of the country it was a case of European Christians teaching, and trying to convert, Ethiopian Christians!)
Later in the century the Swedes founded a school in the north of the region, at Zazega, in Eritrea, but subsequently transferred the establishment, in 1897, to Asmara, the then capital of the Italian colony. The school had four classes, as well as a handicraft annexe, for instruction in typography, bookbinding and carpentry. A school for girls, also run by the |Swedes, was likewise set up at Monkullu, but was moved to the Eritrean village of Belessa in 1890. This school taught Tigrinya reading and writing, and a little Italian, as well as housework, needlework, spinning and weaving. A second girls’ school was set up further south, in Adi Ugri. Two further schools, one for boys and another for girls, were founded to the west, in the country of the Muslim Mensa people, in 1889 and 1903 respectively. These institutions gave formal education – in Tigrinya (or Tigre in some areas), Amharic, Italian and Ge’ez, in the mornings, and instruction in manual work, in the evenings.
The above schools had a total enrolment, by around 1905, of about a hundred students.
One of the best known missionary students of this period was Tamrat Emmanuel, a young Falasha, or Beta Esra’el pupil, who subsequently entered Ethiopian Government service, and immediately prior to the Italian Fascist invasion ran a school in Addis Ababa for members of his community.
Roman Catholic Education
One of the principal centres of Roman Catholic missionary education was at Keren, where a seminary was established in 1872. By 1880 this institution had an enrolment of thirty-five to forty boys. There was, by that time, also a day school at Keren, attended by fifty to sixty boys and girls, and an orphanage with thirty to thirty-five inmates.
A Contemporary Report
Educational progress at Keren was later described by a British traveller, F.L.James, who reported, in 1883, that there were seven Lazarist Fathers and nine Sisters of Charity. He adds:
“They clothe, feed and educate 80 boys, all of whom live in the establishment. We were conducted over the dormitories which were very airy and scrupulously clean; each child had an angareb [i.e. bed] with the bed-clothes belonging to it neatly folded up and placed at the foot. We were shown one large room, in which was a printing press, where religious books were printed in the Amharic language”. By then some 500 day children were at school, many of them learning sewing.
“The most disheartening part of the mission”, James concludes. “was, as the Fathers and Sisters confessed to us, the difficulty of finding situations for their proteges after they had reared and educated them.
Outcast from their own people and unable to find emplyment among theMussulman authorities [i.e. Egyptians] they are thrown on their own resources, which proves more fatal to the women than the men”.
Other Lazarist Education
The Lazarists at this time also ran a school at Akrur in Akale Guzay, where some twenty boys were taught to read and write, in both Tigrinya and Amharic. The brightest students were sent thence to the Keren seminary. Small schools were also set up by the Lazarists at Massawa, Halay and Harar. Some of the students at the first of these establishments included freed Oromo slaves.
Missionary education in Harar, at the end of the century, was in the hands of five Sisters.
War with the Dervishes.
The last decades of the century witnessed several important developments, which had their bearing on education. Fighting with the Dervishes obliged the Sisters of Charity temporally to withdraw from Keren, in 1885.
The subsequent establishment of the Italian colony of Eritrea in 1890 led, before long, to the exclusion of the Lazarists, who, as Frenchmen, were considered inimical to Italian colonial ambitions. This was clearly stated by the Italian Prime Minister Crispi, who wrote to Baratieri, the Italian governor of the colony, in 1894, saying:
“Of the work of the French Lazarists, I confess to you frankly, I have no confidence. It is obvious that the Lazarists cannot be eliminated by the stroke of the pen; it is an elimination which must be carried out slowly and with prudence”.
The desired missionary change was duly accepted by the Pope, who, in September 1895, formally consigned Eritrea to the Capuchins. The latter, as Italians, fitted better into the Italian colonial schema.
In the following year, 1896, the Italian colonial government in Eritrea officially banished both the Lazarist Fathers and the Sisters of Charity.
Other Lazarist Education
Lazarist schooling nevertheless continued in the rest of Ethiopia. A Lazarist school for boys was thus founded at Alitena as early as 1847, and another, for girls, was later set up, in the same place, in 1898. A second Lazarist boys’ school was also established at Gula. By the turn of the century the Alitena boy’s school had an enrolment of about fifty students. They were taught Amharic, Ge’ez and French, as well as singing, elementary science, and music. Pupils were said to come from “all parts” of Ethiopia.
Literacy in Ethiopia, throughout the nineteenth century, was far from extensive, and was indeed generally not considered important.
Letter-writing was for example widely looked down, as a degrading, or indeed considered by chiefs and soldiers as a shameful occupation.
This attitude is seen for example in a popular contemporary Amharic proverb, which declared:
“The worst of animals is a scorpion; the worst of men is a scholar” Or again: “Intelligence is better than study”.
Most Ethiopian noblemen of this period are said the have been largely, if not fully, illiterate, and employed Church-educated youths, or others, to carry out their correspondence.
A British visitor to Ethiopia at the turn of the century, Major Austin, reported, in 1900:
“One could not help being struck with the comparatively few officers of rank we met who were capable of either reading or writing in their own language. This work was always done by special clerks who were retained for this work alone, and had necessarily to be the confidants of their masters!”.
Four years later another British observer, the linguist Armbruster made the following comment, after a visit to Gojjam:
“I have met with a great many individuals who could read and write Amharic after a fashion, but with comparatively few who could read it fluently, and only three or four who could write it without continually making gross mistakes in spelling. (Armbruster, I may add, was a great dictionary-maker, whose original manuscript is deposited in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. His Amharic dictionaries are so large, that some wits call him not Armbruster, but Armbuster!) A third British visitor, A.E. Pease, reported shortly afterwards that many Rases at that time could neither read nor write.
The German envoy Felix Rosen, on the other hand, took the entirely contrary view that most of the aristocracy was literate.
What Dr Merab Thought
So much for “off-the-cuff” opinions of contemporary European observers, on whom we have so often to relay. But what was the view of the Georgian physician and Addis Ababa pharmacy-owner Dr P. Merab, who remains one of the most acute foreign observers of early twentieth century Ethiopia?
He declares that there was perhaps 90% illiteracy in the Ethiopian empire as a whole. The situation was at its best, he thought, in the central provinces. Literacy there was running at around ten per cent, but was at its worse in the south and west, where he believed illiteracy was around 99% (Yes, dear reader, the estimates don’t add up – but I am only citing what he wrote!). The above quotation was also implicitly rejected by the Swiss traveller, and later Fascist, Montandon, who claimed, at about the same time, that many Oromos in the Jimma area were able to read the Holy Qoran, in Arabic.
As for Emperor Menilek’s government, Merab, who knew most of the Council of Ministers personally, declared that only half could read and write with ease, that three could do neither, and that two others knew no more than to sign their names – though this was not necessary as officials invariably used seals instead of signatures.
Among Ethiopian women, apart from the princesses, those who could read and write, in 1913, could, he believed, be counted on one’s fingers – and accounted for only one in a thousand.