Education in Traditional Schools of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church


Construction of National Identity among Children in Traditional Schools of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

By Taglo Kassa

Taglo Kassa is a PhD candidate at Addis Abeba University, School of Psychology where he is specialized in Applied Social Psychology. Having studied Social Psychology, History, and Hospitality management, Taglo Kassa has an interdisciplinary background. He has been a researcher at Catering and Tourism Training Institute; a research and training officer at Bureau of labour and social affairs; and an instructor at Addis Ababa and Unity universities. His PhD research primarily explores how children in traditional church schools reconstruct narratives of national identity and what it means to be Ethiopianness from the children’s point of view. This report reflects his ongoing study.


Introduction: background and objectives of the Study

This research primarily explores how children in traditional church schools reconstruct narratives of national identity and what it means to be Ethiopian from the children’s point of view. The question of national identity has become a growing concern in the present-day Ethiopia. For the past three decades or so, a large segment of the population has been wrestling with a tension between ethnic autonomy and national cohesion (Bahru, 2002; Gebrewold, 2009). Recent trends in ethnic and religion-based conflicts coupled with disputes in regional boundaries have challenged Ethiopian people’s deep-rooted tradition of tolerance, hospitality, and generosity. Specifically, with regard to Ethiopian schoolchildren and youth, Habtamu (2016) revealed that low accommodation of differences (ethnic, linguistic, religious, etc.) increase to the extent that ethnocentrism, violence, and disrespectfulness is becoming a social norm. Sense of national identity and the ties that bind people as a nation is deteriorating, while blindly favoring one’s own ethnic members over others is becoming customary (Gebrewold, 2009). Findings show that irrational hatred and fear of outgroups among primary school children (Ambissa, 2010) and ethnic-based conflicts among University students (Tilahun, 2007) are increasing in alarming rate. Recently, the government also admitted deterioration of national identity and has been calling for standing together as a nation (Abiy, 2018).

One way or the other, the aforementioned problems have connection with what schools have or haven’t been doing with regard to national identity. In the pre-1991 Ethiopia, instilling national pride into children was one of the central functions of education (Siraw, 2016). Nonetheless, in the era of post 1991 Ethiopia, formal education system plays a nation-destroying role through fostering ethnocentric attitudes, which could be detrimental to the vision of creating a strong multination state (Dawit & Haftu, 2012; Siraw, 2016). Owing to this drawback, instead of the formal education, it was religion and family that played a key role in the development of Ethiopianness (Siraw, 2016). Religion has a long history in Ethiopia and it is embedded in how the country has sustained itself centuries. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in particular, “embraces culture, politics, flag, identity and nationalism” (Jeffrey, 2019, p. 2). Furthermore, the “formal”/secular education was introduced to Ethiopia only a century ago. It is the EOC that maintained an indigenous education system in the country since the fourth century AD (Yirga, 2017). The EOC schools have long been connected with instilling values of patriotism, loyalty, and national identity. Despite these facts and its topical relevance, to my little search there is virtually no scholarly work that interrogate how the children traditional schools of the EOC construct national identity. This study thus, bridges the gap in literature by exploring how the EOC education system deploy national identity. The study also investigates how the children in EOC school (also known as Yekolo Temari1) conceptualize, learn as members of social groups, identify with, challenge, and reconstruct national identity.



Given that one of the major aims of this study is to explore children’s active negotiation and reconstruction of meanings within a broader socio-cultural context, I employed an ethnographic participatory research method. I conducted the field work at Washera, which is situated in the North Western Ethiopia (about 515 kms away from Addis Ababa). I chose Washera due to its historical and cultural significance as one of the leading centers of excellences and preserved a long-rooted tradition of the EOC education system to this day (Aklilu, 2017).

Access to the field requires me to establish relationship and negotiation with relevant local people. As such, prior to the fieldwork, I secured access through “gatekeepers”, actors who are in charge of key sources, paths to the field, and have potential of granting study-permission to be conducted in a particular way (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2019; Homan, 2001).

The data collection procedure involved a combination of field observations, individual interviews, focus group discussion, and photo elicitation methods. I did the fieldwork during the festive and fasting seasons, which have particular impact on the daily life of Yekolo Temari. During the festive seasons most of the children travel from one place to the other in search of their daily food, whereas they stay in their vicinities and concentrate solely on their lesson during the fasting or lent seasons.   I utilized purposeful sampling technique to choose study participants who provide me with as rich data as possible. Hence, the sample includes children (from each level of education), members of the local community, head teachers, church leaders, and representatives from associations, which work on issues related to children in the traditional church schools.


Study context

The notion of national identity in this study is situated in and bounded by the context of the EOC school. The EOC education system is referred as “one of the oldest continuous systems of learning in the world” (Pankhurst, 1990). The country preserved its traditional way of learning to this day through education system of the church. According to Teshome (1990) and Chaillot (2009), for centuries the EOC system of education has been the part and parcel of the spiritual, cultural, artistic, literary life and ethos of Ethiopians. The teacher-student relationship lies at the heart of the education system. Yekolo Temari carefully chooses the school, mainly on the basis of the head teacher’s reputation. The head teacher (aka Yeneta) acts as a father to Yekolo Temari. He cares for the students, meets and counsel them outside class hours, assesses their progress, shape them by being a role model, and inculcate values that stay with them in the rest of their lives (Binns, 2005; Girma, 1967). This personal form of learning procedure is guided by a clearly defined educational structure, which involves different schools; such as: Nibab bet (entails reading and writing), Zema bet (hymnody, music, drum, sistrum, and choreography), Qenie bet (history, grammar, philosophy, poetry and composition), Metshaf bet (theological interpretation and law), Bahre hasab (astronomy and church calendar), medicine and minor surgery, and Tegbare id (writing, painting, and crafts). Each school again have different subdivisions (Elleni, 1992; Gupta, 1994; Haile Gebriel, 2007; Mersha, 2011). As well to in-school learning the children acquire out-of-church learning, which takes place at such events as births, weddings, funerals, and other celebrations and festivities (Elleni, 1992).

As Eleni (1992) describes it, learning begins early in life and continues to old age.  On this basis, elderlies and children from early ages can attend the same level of education. However, this can be guided by gibre gebnet (virtues). Inter alia, the highly regarded virtues include: Obedience, tihitina (humbleness), Feriha Egziabher (God fearing), spirituality, bravery, and stamina to complete difficult tasks (Binns, 2005; Girma, 1967). Generally, the EOC teaching is grounded on the biblical verse ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs, 9:10, King James Version). To graduate from any of the aforementioned schools in addition to the rigid academic requirements, the students are also continuously assessed for qualities like honesty and personal integrity (Girma, 1967).

Fig. 1. Yekolo Temari, two students in front of their house, Qenie School at Washera, Amhara region.

The children in the EOC school are predominantly teenager boys from rural families. Their composition involves students with different kinds of disabilities, who are given little or no opportunity to work on the farm (Binns, 2005). The children attend schools leaving their parents and traveling to distant places in search of a renowned teacher who is willing to instruct them for free. While some of Yekolo Temari return home at least once a year, others do not see their parents for ages (Binns, 2005; Elleni, 1992; Haile Gebriel, 2007). The kind of life that they lead at schools is destitute in many respects. The children live in a grass roofed small hut – about five feet in diameter, unfurnished, and each inhabited by four to five students (fig. 1). Whereas the children cook near their huts, they need to go to the river to wash clothes (Binns, 2005). As they learn by day and night the children sleep for less than four hours each night. For part of the day, they study their lesson. For much of the remaining time, they stroll door to door in order to beg for their daily food and give manual labor to their teacher, contrasting the dominant model of childhood as idyllic, work-free and playful phase of the life course (Ashenafi, 2012; Binns, 2005; Chaillot, 2009; Mersha, 2011; Setargew, 2004).

Findings and discussion

The EOC schools practically teach moral virtues, which involve important aspects of Ethiopian identities like hospitality, courtesy, reverence for elders, bravery, and patriotism to the extent of sacrificing oneself to their country.

Apart from conveying religious instruction, the EOC curriculum entertains such secular components as the norms of social behavior, mode of life, and history of Ethiopia. In this regard, the schools have a remarkable contribution of enabling the students to “absorb the culture and to be absorbed into it” (Binns, 2005, p. 111). The EOC education system also encourages bravery, hardihood, and stamina to complete difficult tasks. This equips the students with “the religious value which emphasizes humility, deep spirituality and politeness, and that of the warrior which emphasizes gallantry and hardihood.” A graduate of the traditional EOC school is thus, able to exhibit both bravery and courtesy, depending on circumstances (Girma, 1967, p. 7). According to Maimire (2010), this reveals the civilizing or humanizing potential of the education system.

Except sharing little common ground with other parts of the Christian world, the traditional education system of the EOC is distinctive to Ethiopia (Binns, 2013). Adopting both the Judeo-Christian and an indigenous African tradition, the education system fosters the Ethiopian essence (Teshome, 1990). Quite a number of scholars (e.g., Ephrem, 1971; Girma, 1967; Messay, 2006, 2010) echoed the Ethiocentric orientation of the EOC traditional school’s curriculum. The lessons are arranged in a changing manner with the major seasons and festivals, witnessing integration of the education to the cultural and natural features of the country. For Messay (2010) and Yared, et al. (2020), the application of native languages, curriculum, local nomenclature, and an extensive use of textbooks authored by local scholars corroborate the fact that “the subject of study is Ethiopia”, its nature, culture, and history. This can be backed by spiritual energy to defend foreign aggressors and create solidarity within the nation (Teshome, 1990). In so doing, as Messay (2010), explicated the “church education transcended political rivalries to concentrate on what was permanently Ethiopian, and so was agent of unity and national cohesion” (p. 28).

The EOC school system promotes national consciousness while consolidating the social, political, and cultural life of the society. Above all, the education imparts the notion that perceives Ethiopia as “a sacred country” and makes it part of the living tradition of the people. Likewise, scholars of the church inculcate national consciousness among children using metaphors and proverbs. As well to in-school learning the children acquire out-of-church learning, which takes place at such events as births, weddings, funerals, and other celebrations and festivities. By integrating the children into their community and the established order, the school system plays a prominent role in the students’ national identity (re)construction (Elleni, 1992; Maemire, 2010). This may indicate the role the traditional EOC education played in the development of a national culture. As Ephrem pinpointed, “the Ethiopian church school served as the main instrument for the development and propagation of a national culture, and for the creation of a national literature” (1971: 10).

In general, the education rose out of the needs, traditions, and history of the society. It doesn’t present ideas, which contradict to the cultural values   considered to be essential by the local community (Bridges et al., 2004; Elleni,1992; Girma, 1967; Teshome, 1990). However, this doesn’t mean all contents of the EOC education have exclusively local origins or of national, for it also incorporates history and culture of diversified peoples in the world (Messay, 2006, 2010). Scholars of the church translated various books from Arabic, Greek, and Syriac sources. However, as Adamu and Belaynesh (1997) and Sumner (1985) elucidated, the intellectual legacy in the church reveals adaptation to fit the local reality instead of merely copying from those international sources. Hence, further investigation has to be done to extract important aspects of the EOC traditional schools and to look for ways of nurturing them. Thereby, the nation in general and the mainstream education system of the country in particular will benefit from it.



1 The traditional education in EOC is locally termed as Yeqes, Yeabinet, or Yebetekhnet temehert. Whereas Yeneta refers the head teacher, Yekolo-temari (literally, a student living on roasted grain) is used to represent a student in the traditional schools of EOC (Ashenafi, 2012; Haile Gabriel, 2019).



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