Lecture at the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAC. University of London), on March 15th 2005
Traditional Education in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, today and tomorrow
by Christine Chaillot, Founder and Secretary
In my book published in 2002 on The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Tradition, A Brief Introduction to Its Life and Spirituality, I dedicated one chapter to ‘Traditional and Theological Teaching’ because this is at the heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church tradition. Tonight I decided to concentrate on the subject of ‘Traditional Teaching’ because this issue raises many questions not only for today but especially for the future. We have to try to answer these questions in order to keep this teaching alive for the coming generations.
In traditional teaching, there are several steps.
First of all, the pupils must learn how to read in the house of reading (called nebab bet), first by repeating the alphabet. Ge’ez is the ancient and traditional Church and Christian language, still used in the Liturgy and comparable to Slavonic for the Russians or Latin for the Catholics. Its alphabet has 26 letters which combined with the seven vowels constitute 182 signs ; the modern language, Amharic, has 33 letters and 231 signs. The traditional Ge’ez alphabet is called fidel. The first reading is done from the First Epistle of Saint John and the Psalms. The pupils also learn how to write.
In traditional teaching, the four main disciplines are the following ones : zema, qedasse, aqwaqwam and qene.
The liturgical music (zema) is taught in the so-called Church singing ‘house’ or Church music ‘house’ or school (zema bet), with four disciplines : the teaching of hymns of the liturgical year (called degwa ), as well as other hymns sung at the end of the liturgy (zemmare) and hymns specifically sung at funerals and for the memory of the dead on special days (mawasit) ; the study of the liturgy (qedasse) and also the aqwaqwam.
To be trained as a deacon or as a priest, one has to study the liturgy (qedasse), the anaphoras (or main parts of the liturgy), the prayers of the Hours (se’atat), the prayers of the sacraments and other prayers in the ‘house of the liturgy’ (called qedasse bet).
In the Church music school, the debteras, or choir men, study not only how to sing during the religious ceremonies but also how to move in kind of ‘liturgical dances’ (the aqwaqwam) and how and when to use their musical instruments (sistra, sticks and drums). Literally aqwaqwam means ‘how to stand’ or ‘the way of standing’. The debtera leaders (called memher) have an important rôle during the Liturgy. The word memher has variable meanings, one of them being a respectful title for a teacher.
Another traditional study is that of creating poetry in the Ge’ez language called qene. In order to create qene, one must not only study Ge’ez language very deeply in order to have a rich vocabulary and good grammar, but one must also study the many complicated rules of the art of making a qene ; there are about nine basic types of qene, with different numbers of verses and other structural regulations.The most important thing is to find words and ideas which can create a double meaning to the poem, with a literal meaning as well as another deeper and more spiritual meaning. These two levels of meaning are called ‘wax and gold’ : ‘wax’ being the ‘literal’ meaning and ’gold’ the ‘hidden’ meaning. During a church festival, a memher or a debtera will compose in church a qene which he will murmur, line by line, into the ear of a singer (debtera) who will repeat the poem and sing it accordingly. The Church qene is inspired mostly from the Bible, the lives of the saints or from a Church festival event (like Easter or any other). So one must have active imagination and great intellectual ability to be able to compose a qene. Thus it is good to be also trained in the following school, the school of books (mashaf bet) which isthe highest level of studies of the Ethiopian Church tradition. In that school are made analysis and commentaries of the books of the Old and of the New Testament, as well as of the writings of the Church Fathers (which are also commentaries of the Bible) ; commentaries are also given of the monastic and ascetic books.
One who masters these four disciplines is called ‘four-eyed’ (arat ayna) which means that one can master four of the most important traditional subjects.
The canon laws found in the book The Law of the Kings (Fetha Negest) are also studied, as well as other books.
In general, a student studies all the main general subjects and he specializes in one. He may go to different places and study with different teachers, if possible with the most famous ones. Certain schools are famous for teaching a specific subject, for example Gondar for the commentaries of the Bible and aqwaqwam ; and Bethlehem in Gayent for liturgical music (degwa).
These courses can begin at a young age. The minimum time to master one subject is three years. But to be really qualified, one has to study for fifteen years or more. Memher Abba Gebre Selassie is now ‘a four-eyed’ teacher in Saint Paul Theological School in Addis Ababa. In 2002, he was eighty nine, and he said to me that he had studied for fifty years, that is about half of his life !
When the students finish a specific course in a place, they will pass an examination for each discipline and receive a certificate. The student can then become a teacher himself in a chosen church or monastery.
The teaching is based on oral methods and memorization, with repetition and learning by heart. The teaching is transmitted orally from generation to generation.
The lessons are given in Amharic and, for specific courses, in Ge’ez which is (as I said before) the scholarly language. Ge’ez was used in a spoken way until the beginning of the 19th century, then replaced gradually by Amharic the present predominant language of Ethiopia.
I give more details on the traditional teaching in my book (in chapter 6).
What is the life of the traditional pupils like?
The daily timetable of a traditional student is more or less similar for all the branches. The following was explained to me by Marigeta Za’alalem who is a traditional teacher of Church music (degwa) who also teaches the Bible and the Psalms in the parish Church of Saint Yared in Addis Ababa. On ordinary days (that is not on Sundays or on festival days), the students first recite the morning prayers. Then each one will join his teacher and group. During the lessons, each student has his turn for singing or reciting, while the other students listen to him, and the teacher corrects him. This lasts all morning. In the afternoon, all the students train by singing or reciting alone or in little groups. There are also times for the students to ask questions to the teacher. After the vesperal prayer, the students are free and can go back to their hut or room (and you still can hear them repeating), but qene lessons are also taught in the evening.
For degwa, the student brings the degwa book which he has, traditionally, copied himself by hand, often on parchment. He must prepare himself the animal skin, usually from goat skin, but it can be from other animals. The whole work takes about two years. One can say that this practice has nearly disappeared today.
The Church scholars carry the traditional knowledge. Among the teachers, many belong to the clergy and are monks ; but you also find lay men.
In historical times, the teachers could be paid in different ways. In the 17th century, a certain Zara Yaqob copied a Psalter for a rich man and was paid by receiving clothes. Doing the same for the son, he received one cow and two goats. He also wrote letters and copied books for other people who gave him clothes, salt, cereals and other similar things. He also taught the Psalms to young boys and got board and food for it. He also wrote :
« With the money I was earning by my copying, I managed to get cows, goats and material. I built a little house near my master… I was copying and teaching my master’s children and those of the neighborhood. My master used to give me every month a pot of tayf (cereal) to pay my teaching to the children…My master’s two sons learned how to read the Psalms… One (son) learned as well writting and literature and the interpretation of the holy books, he was very close to me; he knew all my science and my secrets, I did not hide anything to him ».
It is also written that that son studied with Zara Yaqob for fifty nine years....
We might have stopped here our analysis of traditional education. But today reality may include some other aspects which raise some questions for the future of the traditional teaching in Ethiopia, even though there are still thousands of traditional students in many monasteries and schools all around Ethiopia. In the large monasteries and in the large parishes (debr), the number of teachers and of lessons is of course larger, and the level of traditional teaching is higher than in small monasteries and parishes.
One present problem is that the great scholars are less and less numerous : most of the famous traditional teachers are getting old or are dying : with them passes their knowledge which is known orally and is not written. For example, in 2002, there were only a couple of ‘four-eyed’ teachers left in Ethiopia.
Another difficulty is that the life of traditional students is hard and demanding for contemporary boys. For example, they leave their family ; the traditional students beg for their food among families of the neighbourhood ; and they live in little groups in huts traditionally built or made by themselves out of branches, although they can also live, nowadays, in little modern houses made of concrete.
Let us listen to the reflections of two German scholars, Friedrich Heyer and Fred Göricke who produced together a book (published in 1976) on the sociology of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church just before the 1974 Revolution :
« The tamari (or begging students) today meet with difficulties in attempting to continue their previous custom of running away from their parental home without bidding their parents good-by, sacred run-aways. Ten years old, seized by a divine call, who stride through thousands of miles until they find a teacher close to whom they build themselves a small strawhut and then subsist perhaps fifteen years from begging in neighbouring villages. In the changing society of Ethiopia, scholarly begging is no longer possible . ».
To that I would comment that the political turn in 1974 from a monarchic system to communism has affected the traditional Church life at all levels. How to ask people who were traditionally feeding the boys to give food in times of war, and also of drought and famine, when they did not have (and still, at times, don’t often have) enough for themselves ?
Joachim Persoon has visited Ethiopia since the mid 1980ies. In Novembre 2003, he defended a thesis here in SOAS entitled ‘Monks and Cadres in the Land of Prester John : An Interdisciplinary Study of Modern Ethiopian Monasticism and Its Encounter with Communism’. He has visited about one hundred monasteries and there many of the traditional schools. He told me the following comments.
« Since the 1974 Revolution, secular education was increased ; and begging (which was done by traditional students) was discouraged as being contrary to communist ideology. During the Revolution, there was also civil war in the north of the country with need of conscripts who were often taken from among the traditional students : in a few cases the abbots of the monasteries were able to bring them back. Economical factors come also into account : before the Revolution, the traditional schools were sponsored by the monasteries and the large parishes (debr) who paid for the upkeep of the teachers (monks, debteras and memhers) in kind (food, products); but, since the Revolution, the monasteries lost, in most cases, the majority of their land and other property, after confiscation in 1975.
In the monasteries and in some important churches (debr), sponsorship used to be also given by the emperor and nobility who used to patronize outstanding traditional teachers and to give prizes to the students (with money, new clothing, and even land for the teachers), in order to encourage them. They received social status due to the prestige of their association by being invited and honoured at Church festivals in large churches and monasteries, as well as on some civil occasions. After the Revolution, all this disappeared.
Until now there is a problem concerning the wage system of traditional teachers. Since the Derg communist period, responsibility was gradually taken over by parish councils, but it was not always properly regulated. Traditional teachers receive salaries from the Church, but it is low, even more so in the countryside. This new system usually works better in urban than in rural areas, as the old income system based on land income works better in the countryside.This created imbalance between wages in the countryside and in towns : the least qualified deacon in the urban parish is now earning more than priests and traditional teachers in rural churches. This led to discouragement and a certain shift of some traditional teachers to the towns, including some well-known teachers. At the same time, this allowed some of them to begin traditional teaching in some urban parishes.
Today traditional teachers are showed less respect and have less social status than during the imperial period. There is some shift from traditional cultural activities (like traditional Church poetry, qene) to more utilitarian activites, for example preaching or being Sunday school leader, which offer them better career prospect, including money».
These problems should not in any case devaluate, I think, the high values of traditional teaching as well as the positive sides of the ascetic life of the traditional students. As some traditional teachers explained to me, the sense of sharing and mutual support is developped at different levels : people see as a blessing giving food to the students ; the students must share the received food, specially with the sick or handicapped students ; the elder students teach and help the youger ones, etc. Begging and other hardships are seen as strengthening the students spiritually.
Traditional teachers, who are strong Christian believers, underline that traditional teaching is important because it is strongly connected to the Bible and it speaks about the mystery of God, and through it Christian moral and spiritual teaching are given. As for qene, Adnasu Djambare indicates that it develops the conscience and renews the spirit.
But the food and financial questions are not the only problems.
The main question remains : how long will it take for a reverse of traditional education ? Which Ethiopian Orthodox boy will still study the Ge’ez language and have an interest in traditional teaching within ten or twenty years ?
In 2002, there was a report on the French television showing life in the famous Monastery of Debre Damo in Tigray. An interview was made with a young traditional student who was claiming that he was studying in the monastery in order just to please his family, but that he was hoping to leave the monastery as quickly as possible. His interest for his Church tradition was dead. Unfortunately, today this is a reality to be faced, even though some young boys who follow modern education in state schools now follow at the same time traditional education in church schools.
For the future, Joachim Persoon thinks that :
« In order to keep traditional education alive, there is a need for integration between traditional and modern teaching : rather than to consider them as contradictory, it should be seen as complementary. This was the position of the late Archbishop of Shoa, Gorgorios (d. 1990). And this is experienced in a place like the Orthodox College of the Holy Trinity in Addis Ababa. In order to find this balance, the Church youth should be encouraged to have more interest and respect for the different areas of the traditional knowledge, by inviting traditional teachers to come and teach them ».
Joachim Persoon also said :
« There is also a very big gap between traditional graduates’ education and the needs to be filled at Ethiopian university level. There should be programmes to assist traditional students to get western academic education and to get academic qualifications to complement their traditional knowledge. At Saint Paul’s School in Kolfe (a suburb of Addis Ababa), they somehow try to do it, but with orientation towards Church service rather than academic criteria ».
The teaching of Ge’ez in Ethiopia at the university level is a preocupation of Dr Richard Pankhurst (who was teaching there for many years). When he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Addis Ababa University, on 24 July 2004, in his acceptance speech he said in part:
" I often talked with my life-time friend Mengistu Lemma (a well-known professor of Ge’ez in Addis Ababa University who passed away, and a scholar of traditional education) about the need to accord a greater place in the University to Ge’ez, a language which played so important a part in the history of this part of the ancient world ".
So, what about the teaching of Ge’ez and Christian Ethiopian studies (literature, history, art) in Addis Ababa University ?
At the time of the Derg revolution, many of the intellectual people left Ethiopia. Among them were people who had at the same time a knowledge of the traditional teaching (including Ge’ez) and who had acquired university diploma abroad, like Dr Getatchew Haile . The famous historian (and retired professor of history in Addis Ababa University), Dr Tadesse Tamrat, now lives in the US.
Today, some courses of Ge’ez are given in Addis Ababa University, at a rather middle level, by men who have not been fully educated either according to the traditional education, nor to western university level.
In the Orthodox Holy Trinity College of Theology in Addis Ababa, some students know about traditional teaching as they have been trained in traditional schools before entering the college, but it is today unfortunately only a minority.
Before the Revolution, since 1962, the College (open in 1944, closed during the Marxist regime from 1974 to 1994), used to be a unit of the Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa. This is another point which may give a solution : make the Theological College affiliated again with the University, so that the theological students may share the traditional education provided in the Theological College with the university students ; at the same time the level of studies of the College could become higher and allow the theological students to prepare a doctorate (note : which became possible in autumn 2005 in the College), without having the (bad) excuse of going abroad (with the risk of not coming back).
As for studies of Ge’ez by Ethiopian students outside Ethiopia : some Ethiopian students who have studied in the Holy Trinity College in Addis Ababa and who have followed the system of traditional education, went to study abroad. But none until now has fulfilled proper Ethiopian or Ge’ez studies in a western university at the doctorate level. None was able to receive a scholarship in a university with appropriate Ge’ez studies, for example in Paris, in Naples or in Germany .
So, wherever they went, they followed courses in other subjects and, even though some wished to concentrate on the study of Ge’ez, they have not found it possible to concentrate on what is urgent and essential : to perpetuate, at the highest possible level, the study of the Ge’ez manuscripts, with the necessary western methodological approach.
I have met in Paris some Ethiopian students following university courses (in the Centre de Recherches Africaines (CRA), under Bertrand Hirsch,) but they had no traditional background.
As for the teaching of the Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgy, today there is no professor in the western world, not even in the highly specialized Istituto Orientale in Rome. This terrible gap shows that even non Ethiopian scholars don’t show any interest for that important branch of Ethiopian traditional studies, the Liturgy.
Traditional teaching does not only include the Ge’ez language and the other traditional subjects described before, but it should also include studies in archaeology, art and history of art. We should not forget that, traditionally, monks were also trained to be artisan painters and metal and wood workers, as well as other people including priests and debteras who could have similar works in the monasteries or outside.
At present, in the Art School in Addis Ababa, only a couple of people seem to show an interest in that direction. There are some art studies in Addis Ababa University, but there are many more in universities abroad (including in SOAS).
Another sour question (which I already mentioned) is to know not only how many of the Ethiopian students abroad will actually manage to finish their higher studies abroad, but also how many will come back home ?
So the question is : is it worth sending promising students abroad with the statistical results that very few come back ? What other options are there? So, why not organize for the future the best possible level of Ge’ez studies in Addis Ababa University ?
First, to have a very good and large library with all recent and specialized publications : this is the project begun by Dr Pankhurst and others in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa University. We don’t know how many years it will take before this new library will be built and organized. Other necessary learning aids such as videos and internet access should also be available.
Secondly, to ask professors and scholars in Ethiopian studies visiting Ethiopia to come and teach for some weeks in Addis Ababa University, which would allow not only a few privileged students, but many, to listen to lectures of high standard .
Finally, there should be an investigation not only into the number or proportion of students having an interest in Ge’ez and traditional studies, but also into how many students now understand the urge of saving what can be saved of traditional teaching.
Then, again, how to save traditional teaching in Ethiopia today ? From the grass root level ?
Dr Pankhurst also wrote to me :
« I think what we want is to make Ge'ez an optional subject for all students in Universities, Colleges, and where possible in secondary schools. This would have the spin-off effect of creating a demand for Ge'ez teachers, and thus find employment for people with a knowledge, Ge’ez. »
When I happened to meet the Minister of Education in Addis Ababa, Mrs Gennet Zawde, in January 2003, I asked her if, in order to save the Ge’ez language, there was any possibility to teach it in the future in public schools. She answered that the Vice-Minister had just asked her the same question. But to several people, this project seems unlikely in a country where many other (ethnic) groups are also working for having their own languages taught in public schools, specially since the promulgation of the new Constitution in 1994 (article 27) on the freedom and equality of religions in Ethiopia.
In some schools under the Orthodox Church, as in the School of Medhane Alem in Sidist Kilo which is considered one of the best in Addis Ababa, there is teaching of Ge’ez, but I was told that the students don’t seem to show a real interest.
One of the places in Ethiopia where I have met young people with a real dedication for keeping the Ethiopian Orthodox Church tradition alive is the Youth Association called Mehebere Kidusan. Founded in 1992, it is linked to the Sunday School department of the Patriarchate. Its members have finished university studies and they are dedicated Ethiopian Orthodox Christians . I feel they can give some concrete answers to our question as they help financially and in other ways the monasteries and traditional schools, their teachers and students around Ethiopia and they are in contact with church scholars in parishes and monasteries. Some members study Ge’ez and Amharic literature, history and art. They have issued some publications.
Since 2001, in the Holy Trinity Theological College (already mentioned), some evening extension theological courses have been organised and, for the first time, young ladies have been accepted . Most of these people are working during the day and they are very dedicated to their theological studies, including some traditional subjects such as Ge’ez. One may hope to see some scholars coming out of this group.
Outside Ethiopia, some people are helping for traditional education.
One association, the Tabor Society, founded in 1975 by Professor Heyer (then professor in Heidelberg University in Germany), is very active in supporting some traditional schools in Ethiopia (teachers and students), and providing some new buildings (class rooms and dormitories) : one is in the town of Gondar and the others are in the region of South Gondar (Bethlehem and Zur Amba near Debre Tabor, Mahedere Maryam, and Mekane Yiyasus in Este). Its history and activities are summarized in their yearly Bulletin called Kirche und Schule in Äthiopien (Churches and School in Ethiopia) as well as on their web site (www.tabor-society.de).
In January 2003, I visited Zur Amba and Bethlehem, two of the schools which have been helped by Heyer’s group ; and I was told that, in addition to what the students receive from Heyer’s organisation, they also receive today an extra (very small) subsidy from the bishopric.
The chairman of the Tabor Society, Pastor Beinke, who had several stays in these schools in Ethiopia, told me (in Mannheim in Septembre 2004) :
« If the traditional schools don’t get help, they will loose their studies, which means that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church will loose its memory ; in other words, if tradition dies out, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church will loose its identity. The Church must be modernized by Ethiopians. There should be a combination of traditional and modern education. At the moment, many have no books nor material teaching. The teachers should be better educated. According to me, the main mistake is the repetition system, as one should not only know but should also reflect and understand what is repeated, then you can use it properly. For example, about the interpretations of the Bible, how to interpretate it in the context of modern world ? »
Until now little literature has been written on traditional teaching. Roger Cowley has written down some Ethiopian commentaries of the Bible. Richard Pankhurst has published some articles on traditional education in The Ethiopian Herald in Addis Ababa.
Some articles were written by Dr Verena Böll - for example in a recent catalogue produced in 2001 by Annegret Marx, (both active members of the Tabor Society), entitled ‘Catalogue of the Ethiopian Department’, Katalog der Äthiopienabteilung . In the section ‘Weitergabe der Tradition’ (‘Transmission of the Tradition’), there is a reference (written with the help of Verena Böll) to the ‘Kirchenschule’ or ‘traditional schools’ (p. 45-52), with some pictures .
More should be written down on the subject.
In conclusion, I shall quote what Ephraim Isaac (who obtained a doctorate in Church History in Harvard University and was a professor in Addis Ababa University), wrote in 1971, because he summarizes what we discussed and he puts an emphasis on the importance of education, knowledge as well as the zeal for learning :
« The basis of Ethiopian religion and culture has been and remains Church education. Its past contribution to the cultural and intellectual development of Ethiopia is immense. Presently the debteras and those church-educated men who have at some time received some modern education are making slow but long-range contributions to modern indigenous literature. In the future, the study of literature in qene, and especially the important but little known Ge’ez, will unquestionably have to find its way into the curriculum of the higher studies of the University. At the same time, Church education will need to change its emphasis on both structure and methodology. »
He also said that efforts have been made to educate the clergy and laity, and that it is essential that Ethiopian children get a good background of their cultural heritage… and that the Church will continue to be an integral part of public life.
« Often foreigners err in thinking that Ethiopian religion and daily life are autonomous… In Ethiopia, as perhaps among African and Semitic people in general, religion is not a system for the soul, but a way of life. Hence, every aspect of Ethiopian social existence is part of religion…The Church can lead in social change and modernisation. But, in order to do so, education is necesary ».
Then he also said :
« If young educated Ethiopians are to be successful leaders of their country, they must concern themselves finding ways and means of integrating Ethiopian human-oriented culture and Western object-oriented culture ».
And : « Whatever will happen in the future development of Ethiopia will depend on education… But the key to the Church’s ability to do so is a new zeal for learning. With proper training, the Ethiopian Church can set a new example of responsibility. The remedy for the spiritual as well as the material ailments of man is knowledge-relevant knowledge ».
I wish that many Ethiopians and others will meditate and be enlightened by these comments.
As the teacher in Saint Yared Church, Marigeta Za’alalem, told me, if young boys receive traditional teaching in traditional schools, they will be able to save this extraordinary tradition of the Ethiopian Church.
We must all think how to save traditional teaching, specially by finding ways of making this interest grow among many, especially among the youngsters in Ethiopia.
This traditional teaching of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not only a local patrimony. The year 2002 was the United Nations Year for Cultural Heritage. It is important to underline that for UNESCO it is not only the tangible patrimony which has to be saved (by restoring ancient monuments, churches, objects, etc), but also the intangible patrimony. Traditional education in Ethiopia is considered as intangible patrimony (as I explained in my speech in a conference in UNESCO on the 29th of October 2002) : thus it must be saved not only for Ethiopia, but also for the world patrimony.
In SOAS (University of London) there are more courses on history, language and linguistic and art/archaeology of Ethiopia than on Ge’ez and traditional education ; no course or proper thesis have been dedicated on traditional education (except Joachim Persoon in a section of his thesis (chapter 3, ‘Monks and the local Christian community’) mentions monasteries in eastern Gojjam which were and still are important centres of traditional education (Mertula Maryam, Debre Work and Dima Giorgis).
Even though Professor Fattovich of Naples told me that he has done so before and it came out to be useless : then one should analyse why it was useless (maybe his specific teaching of archaeology did not interest the students/or his way of teaching was of too high level /or the students should be prepared and motivated ?