Modern Education Development, Challenges and Current State in Eritrea (1839 to 2016)


Pt. 3a Revival of Education during the British administration (1941-1951)

Abdulkadir Kebire believed that only through education  and unity can a people control their own destiny.
Compiled and researched by Resoum Kidane

After about sixty years' occupation the Italians left Eritrea without a single Eritrean graduate or skilled person in any sort of trade, within sixty years there were only few elementary schools and trained teachers were non-existent nor were there suitable textbooks available.

During the Italian colonialism in Eritrea the educational programme for the natives was poor and limited to the lower grades. This was became more worse after 1920 when Italian government order no Eritrean was allowed to be promoted beyond 5th elemenery class, and after 1936 they were forbidden to rise beyond the 3rd grade [Taye, 1990, page 43).

After the Fascist introduced the Apartheid rule and restricted the education for the indigenous people from extending beyond  grade four, there was no opportunity for young Eritreans to pursue their education to higher levels.  The only choice they had was either to conscript into the colonial army or work in domestic service, road constructions, street, agricultural sector , translation etc.

 During the Italian colonization period many young Eritreans were conscripted into the colonial army. According Woldeleul Kelati Dirar( 2012) between 1890-1941, “there were 135, 000 conscripted Eritrean(ascari) who was in Italian service. Many of them were killed in the battlefield in Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia. Example 2, 000 ascar were killed in the Adaw battle in 1896”, in addition between 3,500 and 4,500 ascar were killed during thesecond phase of invasion of Ethiopiaand another 10, 000 Eritrean troops were killed during the resist to the British army 1941.

Percentage of the colonial army out of the total male lobor force
Year Size of army Total population Actively productive men Percentage in army
1912 5,990 333, 000 82,000 7.3
1925 9,080 <80,000 120,000 7.5
1935 60,200 600,000 150,000 40.3
Sorce Tekeste Negash, Italian Colonialism in Eritrea (1987) page .51

Taye (1990) adds that the objectives of the Italian colonial education policy were based on colonial requirements and policy which put more emphasis on indoctrination and subordination. Regarding this Singor Andrea Festa, then, director of education in Eritrea states as follows:

"By the end of his fourth year, the Eritrean student should be able to speak our language moderately well; he should know the four arithmetical operations within normal limits; he should be a convinced propagandist of the principles of hygence; and in history he should know only the names of those who have made Italy great...

Generally speaking during the Italian colonialism in Eritrea the educational programme for the natives was poor and limited to the lower grades. This was became more worse after 1920 when Italian government order no Eritrean was allowed to be promoted beyond 5th elemtary class, and after 1936 they were forbidden to rise beyound the 3rd grade [ibid).

Following the defeat of the Italian colonialism the segregation and restriction of education beyond the 4th grade came to end; in its early years the British care-taker administration acknowledged that education was one of the greatest needs of the Eritrean people. 

When the British Military Administration was installed in 1941, the authorities saw the need for an educational process that would also force the Eritreans into a money economy and help breakdown tribal solidarity. According Berhane Teklehaimanot, The British care-taker administration educational goal in Eritrea was to train interpreters, clerks, and paraprofessionals who would act as vanguards in the "civilizing mission."(Gottesmam, Les 1998, p78)

The other motivation for this was to develop an Eritrean educated class that would be Pro-British to act as a counter-weight to the population in Eritrea who were thought by the British to be possible fascist sympathesers. The other motive was that the British needed workers for the ports, the military base and development and maintenance of infrastructure.

As H. B. Allen documented:

Possibly the British were at first unaware of the fact that there were no native schools to maintain in Eritrea-a country which had been administrated for five decades by a European power might expected to have an Educational system [Taye, 1990, page 44].

Before Eritrea was occupied by the British force there had only been twenty-four primary schools, and the standard of teaching been had low. The only schools which aspired to more normal standards were those provided by the Swedish Evangelical Mission. They were closed by the order of the Italian Government in 1932[Trevaskis, 1960, page 32,]

Travaskis add that Italian neglect of education in Eritrea left the British with huge task.created the number of elementary schools and raised the standard of education to the middle school level, and to train teachers as there were no native trained teachers, and no suitable school textbook. Each problem was tackled and in time a modest educational edifice was erected.  At first a few schools were opened with the help of a small number of trained teachers recruit from the Sudan and from a few Eritreans with higher education; later, other schools were opened as pupil teachers became available.

The British Administration found itself faced with the task of establishing an effective educational programme that had not existed before. There were no suitable textbooks, or trained teachers, the financial resources available were limited. Taye, 1990, page 44)

On 1 August, 1942 the department of education was established, and Kynaston Snell, a British Captain, was assigned as Education Officer, based on the Half-yearly report, iv, July to December, 1942 the total number of schools, pupil and teachers were 19, 1530 and 38 respectively (Longrigg, 1942) By the end of the year, the Department of Education came up with nineteen “potential" teachers One of the candidates was Mr Isaac Teweldemedhin who had attended the Swedish Mission School (SEM) in Gheleb and Asmara.

Isaac Teweldemedhin

source http://www.sennay.net/history

In 1913, Isaac continued his higher education at the American University in Beirut, and studied for two years at the American University in Beirut and later in Florence, Italy, after that he taught for a number of years until the Italian closed the Mission was closed in 1932. At this time, Isaac moved to a small town called Merara and to earn his living he bought a piece of land and became an entrepreneur. This was during World War II.

After the World War II when Major Kinneston Snell  heard  about Isaac’s competency as one of the foremost educated Eritrean,  he went to Merara to meet and ask Isaac’s assistance to reorganize the educational system in Eritrea. Isaac then returned to Asmara and while teaching, and writing issues related to pedagogy in the Tigrigna (Eritrean) language he also played a major role in recruiting and training elementary school teachers in Eritrea with heart and soul(Ghebreab,Sennay  At the beginning of British rule, there were no Eritrean teachers but, in 1942, nineteen were recruited

አብ ዚ ስእሊ ዚ እቶም ብመዸመሪያ እዋን እምነ መሰረት ትምህርቲ ንምንባር ተመሪጾም እተዋፈሩ 19 መማህራን ይራአዩ /source emnetu.com/Biographyof Memhir Yishak

 After a system of teacher training had been introduced in 1943, a steady flow of trained teachers was fed out to school, Arabic textbook were obtained from Egypt and the Sudan, and later others Tigrinya were prepared and printed by Administration [Trevaskis 1960, page 31]

Gottesmam, Les (1998, page 78) describes Mr Isaac Teweldemedhin as follow: he was an able man, and with good will and initiative for the promotion of education in Eritrea. In January of 1943 was appointed as native assistant to the British education officer. Under the new education system many new schools were established and a system of teacher training was opened in the same year to train elementary school teachers.

In 1944, Mr Isaac Teweldemedhin was one of the team who set up a symposium with the purpose of discussing the standardization of the writing and pronunciation of Tigrigna letters and words. During that year he also published the first book of arithmetic in Tigrigna, when he became the first Eritrean innovator in the field of abbreviations, equivalents of weights, measures and also the standardization of punctuation marks in Tigrigna. Isaac initiated and promoted the first Girls’ school in Asmara in 1944, Eritrea as well as in some other villages. (ibid)

In the early 1940s the Assistant Director Mr Isaac Tewlde Medhin was occupied in writing text-books as well as inspecting the schools and holding evening classes for the teachers. During this period the budget for education only 7, 000 pounds per annum was provided for the education of European and Eritrean children. A warehouse was being converted into girls' school. With this exception the Director was obliged to tell the people that the Administration could not afford to build any new school, but if the people would raise the means to build a school with living accommodation would endeavour to supply a teacher. Eventually the people of 23 poor villages succeeded in providing school building at their own expense (Pankurst, 1953, page 98)

The significance of this that the British were not prepared to spend their own money but left it largely to the improvershed Eritrean population. Growth of light industries and communication infrastructure continued after the defeat of the Italians in 1941. This was due to Eritrea strategic importance in military operations in the region for both America and Britain . This development ceased after WW II and a number of factories were closed down.  Although the British administration in Eritrea removed and sold an estimated £86 million worth of industrial plant & equipment, including port facilities, the expenditure on native education by the British government was less as compared to the expenditure on Italian education. Although, there is no statistical information available on the ten-year period of British Adminstration, the scanty information we have is show on table.

Expenditue on Italian education
Expenditure on Eritrean education (Sterling)
1943-44 11, 648 2, 081
1944-45 25, 809 16, 511
1945-46 28,041 22, 282

Source K. K. N Trevaski, Eritrea: A colony transition p.40 cited by [Taye 47]

1946 the number of Italian population in Eritrea was 38, 000 and the Eritrean population was 870, 000 dispite this the British British Adminstration spent 28, 041 and 22, 282 on Italian education and Eritrean education respectively.[source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Eritreans

Most of the educational finance for the native schools was covered by local contribution of the Eritrean people. This was due to the positive start of opening of new schools which aroused enthusiasm among a large number of Eritreans; it was compensation to the Italian neglect native education for fifty years [Taye, 1990, page 48]

Taye in his book also mentions the devotion of the Eritrean people to education:

The British Director of Education, Mr. Kynaston Snell, endeavoured with the modest means placed at his disposal to reverse the Italian imperial policy of debarring Eritrea from Education and to commence by establishing elementary schools on a sound basis. He lacked the financial resources to erect them but the people were eager for their children to be educated so he promised to supply a teacher for any village whose inhabitants built a school and a house for the teacher. At the same time he advertised for young Eritreans who would be willing to teach. There was a great response from the villagers; many schools and teachers’ houses were built. By 1947, no fewer than 59 villages had erected their own schools. Poor people sent a pig, a sheep or a cow to the market in order to provide a share in the cost of hiring builders whohad adequate tools, experienced quarrymen and masons to quarry the good, grey stone of the mountains". (Taye, 1991, page 59)

The villagers not only funded the building of new schools but also paid the salaries of the teachers. This was achieved through the formation of school committees. The school committees were also responsible for the routine monitoring of the schools and for the accommodation of the teachers. Additionally there was also a commitment from individual citizens to the expansion of education in the 1940s... Each native school had its School Committee of local Chiefs and notable, whilst the growing public interest was shown by considerable expenditure of local funds on the erection of schools Allen (1953), stated that “19 schools which had been established in the first month of 1943 then by December the number of schools had grown 28 with 50 instructors, and the enrollment of pupils were considerably increased (Allen, 1953;Teshome, 1974, p 48.).” .” . For example Dr. Beyne Kidane who was one of the first generation of students that attended the primary school of Adi Keih which was opened the initial years of the British Military Administration.[ source Ismail Ali Ahmad 04/2013].

The curriculum introduced in 1943 covered agriculture, woodworking, clay-modeling, carpet-making, shoe-making, reading, writing, and hygiene for boys, and reading, writing, hygiene, weaving, sewing, basket work, and domestic science for girls. Textbooks in Tigrinya were locally printed, books in Arabic and English were provided, and entrance to the middle schools required students to be able to read and write English.

By 1944 there was also a girls' school in Asmara, and in other places where girls attend with the boys, and in 1946 a teacher training college was established. In October 1946 a teacher training college was established at Asmara with an initial enrollment of fifteen student teachers. The admission to the training college was the completion of at least the second year of middle school and a pass in the entrance examination.[Taye, 1990 page 58]

According to Trevaskis Tigrinya and Arabic became the media of instruction in Eritrea elementary schools, Isaac Tweldemedhin and other Eritreans took initiative of producing textbook written in Tigrinya, because there were none written in this language, Arabic textbooks for Eritrean elementary schools were obtained from Egypt and Sudan Charl Wolhuter

Trevaskis, 1960, page 34]adds that Educational development aroused an unexpected enthusiasm amongst a large number of Eritreans. Not only were parents ready to make substantial sacrifice to send their children to school but, in the towns, the young and even the middle-aged clamoured to be given the opportunities denied them during the Italian regime.  To meet this adult demand English Institutes were established, first in Asmara, and then in other towns. English was taught by the British officers and English speaking Eritreans and Italians; lessons were given in typing and shorthand; discussions, lectures, concerts, gramophone recitals, and film shows were arranged; and with the help of the British Council, a useful library and a supply of English periodicals were made available.. The Ministry of Information also provided various educational and cultural facilities for Eritreans and published weekly  newspapers in Tigrinya and Arabic.

After the British and Allied Forces defeated the Italian forces, students like Bereket was sent to attend school at the newly reopened Swedish Missionary School, known as Geza Kenisha. Dr Bereket describes the Geza Kenisha as follow:

Dr Bereket describes the Geza Kenisha as follow:

The director of the school was none other than Woldeab Woldemariam. With Woldeab and Mesfin Gebrehiwet( his deputy) at the helm, the Geza Kenisha School had the reputation as the best school at the time. Prominent people, irrespective of the denomiation to which they adhered, sent their children to the school. I was placed in the Second Grade, even though I was old enough to be a Fifth Grade. But in those days, classes had a mixed age group; there were three or four boys who were older than me in that class. My second Grade teacher was Seare Kahsai who was fair but a strict disciplinarian.Seare taught us Tigrigna, Bible studies and aritmetic. My other teachers and subjects they taught us in Grade two were : Abraha Gebreselassie(English); Aba Woldeab (Amharic); Tsegai Iassu( Geography) Teccletsion Debas (History). And the school director, Woldeab Woldemariam, would occasionally come in and quiz us i English and geography because he wanted to find out if he ( Tsegai) was doing his job properly........... Dr Bereket adds that I was promoted to Grade Four but it was to last only a few months until Left for Ethiopia in Februrary 1945 [Bereket 2007 pages 33-35)

Before the opening of the middle schools, students after completing their elementary education to be a teacher or had to move to Ethiopia for the middle and secondary schooling. Such was the case for  Dr Bereket Habte Sellase,

During the British Administration, the level rose to Middle School in many places, in 1946 middle school were opened which provided more access for students to continue their education beyond their elementary education in Eritrea. Mr Isaac Tewlde Medhin was also one of the active members in the establishment of Middle School in Asmara.

The table below shows some of the first group of candidates who passed the entrance examination for the middle school. (Taye, 1991:page 50).

Table 1 : The First  Group of Middle School  Candidates

Place of School

Name of  Some of the Student


  1. Girma Berhe
  2. Re-esom Ghebremariam


     1.Wold Tseyone Kelati

     2.Alganesh Kshisai


     Amanuel Ade-michael


     Abubeker Haji


     Kinfe Ghebreil Gabir


    Okuba Ghebriel Desta


     Berhe Mengistu


     Semainesh Abrha

The source of this information is the Eritrea Weekly News, Thursday 8th August 1946 .

Abdulkader Kebire who believed that only by education and unity can a people be masters of their own destiny also funded for the establishment of a technical school in Mai Dshto in Akria, Asmara (Gabeel Team, 2005). Sheikh Abdulkader Kebire(1902 - 1949 ) who became a controversy by calling for the education of women, something was a taboo in those days. Sheikh Ibrahim Mukhtar also initiated and encouraged the establishment of schools. During his time, wealthy businessmen under his direction established many schools. He established the largest Islamic library in the country, donating more than 3,000 books from his own personal collection [source]

By 1947 there were 59 primary schools in Eritrea with 4,906 students and 151 staff. In 1949, there were 5 middle schools with 504 students. The first 7 Eritrean students were sent to Khartoum for secondary educationCharl Wolhuter

The following is from a 1947 news report on the first group of students who took an exam that year for admission to St. George Middle School, the first middle school established for Eritreans (Eritrean Weekly News, 24 July 1947, p. 1).




Adi Tekelezan




Keren [i]

Adi Wegri

Adi Khwala




Keren [ii]


Ali Gidir



















Source Raji, Ahmed - Aug 24, 2009  

Boys Scouts 1940s

(emailed to meskerem by the son of the boy scout, Tesfai Ghebremichael wedi police, on the left with black shoe)

Muchael Abatregh wrote in his facebbok, the First 16 Eritreans who completed 12th Grade through Night School during British Administration in Eritrea in 1950 ! All of these students finished only 4th Grade during Italian Colonial period and continued their education after 1941 by the British Military Administration blessings ! Among them l remember , Dr Yohanes Berhane standing on the Left , Dr Kiros Woldeluul next to him ! Kegnazmatch Ghebremedin Tesema M A from Oxford and First Eritrean Auditor General And later Minister Of Finance in Ethiopia ! My father completed only 12 Grade couldn’t continue abroad because Of The position he had on the Eritrean Police Forces contract !
እዚአቶም እቶም 16 ናይ መጀመርያ ኤሪትራዊያን ብምሸታዊ 12 ክፍሊ ዝውድኡ ብዘበን እንግሊዝ አብ ቅዱስ በርናርዶስ ዘስታዊ ( ስታዊያን ) :: ካብዚ አቶም ዶክቶር ዮውሃንስ ብርሃነ : ዶክቶር ኪሮስ ወልደልኡል : ቀኛዝማች ገብረመድኅን ተሰማ : አቦይ ካፒታኖ ገብረእግዚኣብሔር ተውልደ ( አባጥረግ

courtesy Michael Abatregh

  By 1950,fifty-three men and seven women were in training to be teachers. During that period there were also 85 primary schools with total enrollment of 913, with 210 staff and 7 middle schools with 82 students. English had become the medium of school instruction (Trevenski, 1960

Taye(1990) in his book wrote the following words to describe the contribution of the British care-taker administration in introducing modern education and building schools between 1942 and 1952

Mikael Hasama Raka(1984) (1984) in his book also mentioned that proper education was started by the British administration which increased the number of urban schools and widely extended education in rural areas, elevating the classes to middleschool level. Evening schools were opened in Asmara, where young as well as adult people could attend classes and improve their knowledge.

The British Administration laid down the general policies for the system, structure, administration and management of the native schools, that had never existed before. The British Educational System of Eritrea could be cited as a good example of how much can be accomplished effectively with little resource and in a short space of time by involving the masses. It also shows the importance of starting at the level of the people and of using the materials that are available locally. It was really an indigenous educational system in which the population as a whole took part and benefitted.

The late 19th century should be noted as a period of transformation in education from the traditional religious education into the modern educational system which contributed considerably to the fast growth of the intermediate intelligentsia. This took place in less than two decades after the defeat of Italian colonialism in 1941. The number of schools and grade levels jumbed enormously. The enrolment of elementary school students, for instance, grew from 2, 405 in 1941 to 9, 131 in 1950, while middle schools, with an enrollement capacity of 900 students were also establisged. Further, an opportunity was opened up to Eritrean Moslems for higher education in Sudan and Egypt [ Redie p140-141]

To conclude between 1942 and 1952 the British care-taker administration played a significant role in the revival of modern education and building schools As a result of this effort the students numbers increased from 2,045 to 13,240, and the number of schools was expanded from 28 to 97 between 1943 and 1951 (Taye, 1991).Taye adds that the British Educational System of Eritrea could be cited as a good example of how much can be accomplished effectively with little resource and in a short space time by involving the masses, in short, the British educational system in Eritrea had enhanced the dignity of labour, the educational awareness and the political consciousness of the people which contributed to the 30 years struggle for independence.

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