Western Education in Ethiopia

There has been a question posed as to whether Ethiopian education was influenced by the Western world in the first and second quarter of the 1900s since Ethiopia was not ever formally colonized by any nation. As well, there is a question of what impact, if there was one, did influences of the Western world have on education in Ethiopia and Ethiopians. It has been argued that there was a considerable influence and impact of Western education and ideology during that period because ‘Westernized’ intellectual reformists appeared in the corridors of the political structure of Ethiopia and others argue that there was no influence or impact since this was not wanted by Ethiopians due to its deeply rooted cultural, religious and ideological beliefs and the lack of desire on the part of Ethiopians to trade these with the cultural, religious and ideological beliefs of the Europeans.

Don't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay on
Cultural Foundation of Education in Ethiopia
Just from $13/Page
Order Essay

Cultural Foundation of Education in Ethiopia

The work of Haileselassie (nd) entitled: “The Cultural Foundation of Education in Ethiopia” states that education in Ethiopia prior to the start of the 20th century “…rooted itself in monasteries, abbeys and mosques. The objective was basically religious although some scribes that functioned as secretaries of the aristocracy were also the graduates of those schools. Curriculum was basically static and “there was a belief that studies that were true and valuable in the past were true and are valuable forever. Contents ranged from reading, writing or calligraphy (Kum Tshfet), liturgy (Kidasis), church music (Zema), poetry (Kine), commentaries (Mesahft) and some calendar calculations and astrology (Bahrehasab, Abushakir). The duration ranged up to over 20 years, depending on the learning pace of each student. Every student was treated according to his learning capacity. ” (Haileselassie, nd)

Haileselassie states that students of the traditional Ethiopian schools “used to travel far form their villages, usually to other regions, so that they could be free form parental pressure of temptation to discontinue education in order to help in the farming activities of their families. Hence, although the households located around the school were socially obliged to support the subsistence of the students, one can say that they were practically on their own and sort of self-supporting. Despite the fact that there was no fee to pay, the students were supposed to render labor service to their teacher in the form of fetching firewood, water and the like. If the schools were within full-fledged monasteries, the students were also supposed to work even in activities like flour grinding, bread-baking, agricultural work, etc. For the community on whom their subsistence also depended.” (Haileselassie, nd)

It is stated that from this report that it is clear that “neither the central government nor the local authority was involved in the curriculum, financing and administration. They were basically non-government schools. Thus, though generally similar, every school had established its own curriculum and also its own area of excellence which spontaneously served as points of reference and standard, however, curriculum through the country was more characterized by uniformity and convergence rather than divergence.” (Haileselassie, nd)

Prior to the start of the 20th century, when modern schooling in Ethiopia began the “Ethiopian church had almost a monopoly over education in Ethiopia. There was strong opposition to the establishment and running of secular type of schools. After all, these schools did not evolve from the traditional schools of the church or the mosque. Rather the schools were alien — the curriculum, the teaching staff and books, and even the media of instruction were foreign to the Ethiopian situation.” (Haileselassie, nd)

It is reported that the first government school in Ethiopia “used Egyptian Copts as the first teachers in order to appease the ecclesiastical status quo with the logic that their faith being same will not disregard the doctrine of the Ethiopian church. Moreover, the monarch emphasized that the school will mainly be involved in the teaching of foreign languages like English, French, Arabic etc. Which for two decades dominated the curriculum content that made it look like a specialized school of languages.” (Haileselassie, nd)

Haileselassie states that in order to determine “…whether the traditional school that thrived in Ethiopia has fairly contributed and served as a good basis for the modern secular system of schooling…” (nd) that the following points regarding the influence of traditional schools are taken under consideration:

(1) the traditional system of education was by objective and by content almost totally religious. And as a result, in the past traditional system of education there was what was known as moral education in the schools which almost amounted to an Orthodox Christian religious education and which affected the non-secularity of the schools up to the mid-seventies.

(2) the Ethiopian secular culture and spoken languages were not given appropriate emphasis and level of importance in the curriculum of the traditional schools. This was the case in the “modern” system of education also up to the beginning of the 90’s when the Education and Training Policy was issued in 1994.

(3) Knowledge was considered sacrosanct and unchanging and thus to be learned as it is. This wrong concept of epistemology affects the pedagogy which emphasized rote learning and memorization which was the main methodology in the church school also. This problem crept into the modern system of education to have developed into prevalent and lingering constraint of the service.

(4) Emphasis on knowledge and disregard of practical skills related to production and livelihood in the current methodology followed by many teachers can trace its genesis to the traditional schools. Even the skill of writing was discouraged by same traditional schools resulting up to expulsion of some students who secretly tried to practice (Habtemarim:36).

(5) the authoritarian role of the teacher in our schools now and his/her expectation of submissive behavior of the students is no different from the traditional schools where the teacher was Yenieta (my master).

(6) Some other minor issues like the blind to be mainly engaged in teaching, which again is the influence of the church education which mainly used the oral means of teaching are not unimportant to consider. (Haileselassie, nd)

Haileselassie states that while the traditional education left Ethiopia with “rich literary heritage like the alphabet itself and a lot of useful documentation and relics, it has not proved to be a good foundation and point of departure for the so-called modern system of schooling which started in 1908. This important missing link could be attributed to the attitudes and readiness of both the old and the new which were aloof of each other and as a result were both losers.” (nd)

Haileselassie reports that the military and monarchy periods both had educational systems that “suffered dependence on outside curriculum which did not correspond to the local peculiarities. However although alien curriculum, scholarship and communication of the western culture has been in contact with the Ethiopian culture for a century as Amare (1998) rightly pointed out “the Ethiopian culture remained Ethiopian and the western is western.” Two important facts can be pointed out here. Firstly the Ethiopian culture remained Ethiopian more by the fact that schooling and modernization (modern communication etc.) remained scanty to influence it rather than by the promotive role of the system of education. Secondly even the extent of the cultural role played by the schooling system in Ethiopia was to undermine many Ethiopian cultures and impose cultural values of only one dominating national culture upon the other nations and nationalities in the country.” (nd)

The work of Tessema (2007) entitled; “Clinging to the Managerial Approach in Implementing Teacher Education Reform Tasks in Ethiopia” states “Since formal education took a modern Western style schooling structure at about 1908 in Ethiopia (Tekeste, 1990; Marew, et al., 2000), state actors have self-adjusted in various historical moments to make formal education as appealing as possible so that they would win the hearts and minds of those target groups intended to please. In other words, in various times in history of formal education in Ethiopia, large scale reforming activities have been undertaken to change and modernize formal education. The reform movements might be better presented in terms of the distinctive political and historical contexts they occurred.” (Tessema, 2007)

II. African Education and Western-Generated Ideas, Models and Research Paradigms

The work of Nyamnjoh (2004) entitled: “A Relevant Education for African Development — Some Epistemological Considerations” states that development for Africa “is a theme fraught with a multiplicity of Western-generated ideas, models and research paradigms, all with the purported goal of ‘alleviating poverty’. This discourse is carried on mainly by economists and other social scientists who limit the question of development to the problematic of achieving economic growth within the context of neo-liberal economic principles.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004)

Additionally stated by Nyamnjoh is that the Western “…epistemological export, translated into educational systems and curricula takes the form of science as ideology and hegemony. Under it, education in Africa and/or for Africans is like a pilgrimage to the Kilimanjaro of Western intellectual ideals, but also the tortuous route to Calvary for alternative ways of life.” (Bitek, 1989, Ngugi wa Thiongo, 1986, Mazrui, 1986, 2001, Mamdani, 1990, 1993, Copans, 1990, Rwomire, 1992, and van Rinsum, 2001; as cited in: Nyamnjoh, 2004)

According to Nyamnjoh (2004) “…the elite have ‘often in unabashed imitativeness’ and with little attempt at domestication, sought to reproduce, even without finances to sustain, the Oxfords, Cambridges, Harvards, Stanfords and Sorbonnes of England, the U.S.A. And France.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004) Education in Africa is stated to have been and “mostly remains a journey fuelled by an exogenously induced and internalized sense of inadequacy in Africans, and endowed with the mission of devaluation or annihilation of African creativity, agency and value systems.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004)

It is related by Nyamnjoh (2004) that the process of cultural uprooting of Africans “has been achieved often through literally uprooting children of the well-off from their communities and nurturing them in boarding schools” and as stated in the work of Mamdani (1990) ‘almost like potted plants in green houses.” Nyamnjoh states that if ancestors are “supposed to lay the path for posterity, inviting Africans to forget their ancestors was an invitation for them to be born again and socialized afresh, in the image of the West, using Western-type academic institutional and rituals of ancestral worship.” (2004)

III. Conceptual View

Nyamnjoh states that there are two primary means of journeying to the West from Africa “One can undertake the journey physically or one can do psychologically with facilitation from education and the media. Either way, one still succeeds in imbibing Western influences.” (2004) the result of the quest in Africa for “Western academic symbols of credentialism — sometimes termed diplomania…” has resulted in African being “still very much dependent on ill-adapted curricula, sources and types of knowledge that alienate and enslave…” (Nyamnjoh, 2004)

IV. Reasons Western Epistemological Import Survived in African Continent Cited

The Western epistemological import is stated in the work of Nyamnjoh (2004) to have survived “in the continent more because it suits the purposes of the agents of Westernization than because of its relevance to understanding African situations.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004) it is related that those who run educational programs and do so in alliance with Western models which have simultaneously adopted are “seldom tolerant of challenge, stimulation, provocation and competing perspectives at any level.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004) These individuals “protect their intellectual spots jealously, and are ready to deflate all ‘saboteurs’ and subversives’.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004)

Their desire is that these programs continue indefinitely and without any disruption however, there is stated to be a responsibility belonging to the African universities as well as to “academics and researchers” in challenging these assumptions which are not supported in evidence but which instead are on the basis of “vested interest and hidden agendas.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004) These “agents of cultural devaluation” are the selfsame individuals that scholars in Africa “rely on…to fund and disseminate their research.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004) This is explained in the work of Susan George who states that it does not matter what or indeed “how many ‘mistakes’ mainstream researchers or theorists make or how insensitive the predicament of ordinary people they are for ‘protected and nurtured by those whose political objectives they support, package and condone, they have a license to go on making them, whatever the consequences.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004

This is accomplished through funding of and creation of university institutions which enables those who are “the powerful…to perpetuate their ideologies by ensuring that only people with the ‘correct ideas are recruited and/or retained to work there.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004) Stated as a good starting point for universities and scholars are “global conversations and cooperation” in what is a “long journey of equalization and recognition for marginalized epistemologies and dimensions of scientific enquiry.” (Nyamnjoh, 2004)

The work of Dom Colin entitled: “The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Its Monastic Tradition” states of Ethiopia that it has “the only ancient written culture in sub-Saharan Africa. Church schools are still active…” (nd) the educational system is described by Dom to be “highly complex” while clergy in Ethiopia “…may seem often poorly or even shabbily dressed and may seem to be lacking in the most elementary principles of modern western education especially the sciences but that is not to say that they are uneducated. Many have spent years in disciplined study and are immensely erudite in a tradition completely foreign to western models. The educational system is also largely based on a tradition of oral culture. In contrast to a system that promotes individual creativity and independence of mind Ethiopian Orthodox education comes from a traditional society where the purpose is to fully integrate pupils into society.” (Colin, nd) Also stated by Colin is that existing were “…long periods especially of Christological controversy before the Twahido doctrine emerged as normative in the 19th century.” (nd)

Summary and Discussion

Education has historically and traditionally and particularly in the case of colonialism and modernization to have served as a tool for implementation of agendas, political aspirations and an overall type of societal control in terms of the modus operandi of a specific ruling and powerful mindset of scholars and academics and those who support the role that they play in this system. The educational system in Africa has effectively been impacted by the political agendas and aspirations of those in the position to control the school of thought and this has mirrored itself in the development of Africa in an inherent and integral manner.

While never colonized, Ethiopia appears to be colonized in many aspects. Ethiopian curriculum is stated to have been historically static and founded on the belief that what was important to learn in the past will forever be in the future important to learn. Education in Ethiopia in the start of the 20th century has been related in this study to have sprung from monasteries, abbeys and mosques with a primarily religious base.

This work has also related the fact that the local authority and central government were clearly not involved in curricular matters or in finance or administration and each school had its own curriculum but instead of divergence was characterized by “uniformity and convergence.” (Haileselassie, nd) as well this work has noted that in the beginning of the 20th century in Ethiopia the church had a monopoly control over education with strong opposition to secular schools and the curriculum was stated to be “alien” as well as were the teaching staff and books and as well the media of instruction was also alien. (Haileselassie, nd)

It is clear that Ethiopia has fallen under several influences along the way however, it is up to the reader to disseminate the information related in this study and draw their own conclusion as to the influence that Western education and principles has had upon the educational system of Ethiopia.


Haileselassie Teklehaimanot Haileselassie, Ph.D. (nd) Ethiopia Center for Educational Information. http://chora.virtualave.net/culturalfoundation.htm

Tessema, Kedir Assefa (2007) Clinging to the Managerial Approach in Implementing Teacher Education ‘Reform’ Tasks in Ethiopia. International Journal of Progressive Education, Vol. 3 No. 3, 2007.

Mamdani, M. (1990) the Intelligentsia, the State and Social Movements: Some Reflections on Experiences in Africa. Kampala, Centre for Basic Research.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1997) Detailed: A Writer’s Prison Diary in R.R. Grinker and C.B. Steiner eds., Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation. Oxford Blackwell Publishers.

Mazrui, a. (1986) 1986, 2001, Mamdani, 1990, 1993, Copans, 1990, Rwomire, 1992, and van Rinsum, 2001

Mazrui, a. (2001) the African Renaissance: A Triple Legacy of Skills, Values and Gender in: S.C. Saxena, ed., African Beyond 2000. Delhi, Kalinga Publications.

Mazrui, a. (1986) the Africans: A Tripe Heritage, London: BBC Publications.

Copans, J. (1990) La Longue Marche de la Modernite Africaine: Saviors, Intellectuals, Democratie, Paris, Karthala.

Rwomire, a. (1992) Education and Development: African Perspectives’, Prospects, Vol. XXII, No. 2.

Van Rinsum (2001) Slaves of Definition: IN question of the Unbeliever and the Ignoramus, Maastricht, Shaker Publishing BV.

Nyamnjoh, Francis B. (2004) a Relevant Education for African Development — Some Epistemological Consideration. Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa 2004. Africa Development, Vol. XXIX No. 1, 2004.

Colin, Dom (nd) the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Its Monastic Tradition Ampleforth Abbey (Bamber Bridge) Online available at: http://www.benedictines.org.uk/theology/2005/battell.pdf