The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 15th March 2005

Traditional Education in the Ethiopian Church

Given by - Christine Chaillot

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Christine Chaillot is the author of The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Tradition - a Brief Introduction to its Life and Spirituality (Inter-Orthodox Dialogue, Paris 2002). I asked Christine to inscribe my copy of her book. She wrote my name and hers and then the words: "in order to love Ethiopia more and more".

Christine Chaillot loves Ethiopia. She loves its Church culture to distraction. She loves it so much that she worries for it. It's not 'today' that worries her so much, but 'tomorrow' and 'tomorrow's' ability, or rather its inability, to fend off the cancerous intrusion of secularism.

The bedrock of Ethiopian Church culture is, for Dr. Chaillot, traditional Church education - the title of the evening's talk.

Dr Chaillot began by outlining Church education of 'yesterday' and 'today'. This education takes place in parish churches and monasteries. It is independent of secular schools. Education is based on learning through repetition. Boys, and girls, begin by loudly repeating again and again the a-bu-gi-da, the alphabet of the ge'ez (and Amharic) languages. The children thus learn ge'ez reading and writing in the 'House of Reading' (nebab bet).

Everything is done to an order based on tradition. The children will first learn to read the first chapter of the First Epistle of John; then the Gospel of Saint John; and eventually the Psalms. With the enormous emphasis on repetition, those that don't get to read or write ge'ez will still imbibe the Scriptures - they will be chanting and absorbing them by heart.

Higher Church education is organised into three main schools. First, liturgical music (zema). There are four aspects to zema: chant (degwa); communal and funeral hymns (zemmare and mawasit); singing and movement (aquaquam); and liturgical studies (keddase).

The second school is the school of poetry (qene). Qene verse has two levels of meaning: the direct meaning, sem, meaning 'wax'; and the hidden meaning, worq, meaning 'gold'. Qene is a very Ethiopian tradition. The Times crosswords and qene go together - you're either good at them or you're not! Diana Spencer (see the review of The Woman from Tedbab) spent six months at qene school learning ge'ez. It took her six months to come up with one single qene that pleased her tutor!

The third school is open only to those who have mastered qene. This is the school of interpretation (tergum). Interpretation is divided into: Old Testament, New Testament, Patrology (study of Saints) and Monasticism. These studies include Theology, Church history and Canon law.

A very few are held to have mastered all areas of religious knowledge. Those few are known as 'four eyes'. At the end of 2002, Dr Chaillot said, there were only a couple of 'four eye' teachers in the whole of the Ethiopian Church!

Christine Chaillot is particularly concerned with the decline in the teaching of ge'ez. She quoted a Dutch student of the Ethiopian Church, Joachim Persoon, who had visited many Ethiopian monasteries only to note the sad decline in numbers. Since 1974, secular education had increased and traditional ecclesiastical begging was much reduced. The Ethiopian clergy, Dr. Chaillot maintained, was held in less respect now than ever before.

Dr. Chaillot told us that provision for increased teaching of ge'ez was also a principal concern of Prof. Richard Pankhurst at Addis Ababa University.

However all is not lost. Far from it, it seems.

The audience was graced by the presence of Lika (scholar) Teguan Tekle Mariam, Qesis (priest) Haile Giorgis and Lika Ma'imran (Reverend Professor) Abebau Yigzau. The Reverend Professor addressed the meeting. He took the view that church education is still going strong in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural setting. There are, he claimed, more students, more schools than ever before. Moreover, they enjoy better conditions than ever, financially supported at last by Parish Councils. “Our system of education is excellent”, he said “we don't confuse chemistry with geography. When you study zema, you study zema. Our students know the 150 Psalms of David by heart”.

This is welcome news.

We shall see how 'tomorrow' turns out. The 'tomorrows' of other Eastern Orthodox Communities, Dr. Chaillot assured us, have turned out well: “the Armenians and the Syrian Orthodox have kept their language alive. Syriac is still spoken”. Ge'ez is a liturgical language, 'alive' only in its use in qene; but we must all hope, along with Dr. Chaillot, that it continues to thrive.

Christine Chaillot's book is a 'must'. Its bibliography is the most comprehensive I have ever seen covering: history, travellers to Ethiopia, Eritrea, church administration, language and literature and many more themes -many with hundreds of entries.

Truly, our Society is so fortunate to enjoy the time and attention of such an expert. We thank Christine Chaillot very much indeed.

First Published in News File Summer 2005

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