Eritrean Press

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T'm'h'r'ti (education)

01 Apr 2017 - During the Eritreans war of independence, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) established healthcare and education programs and facilities in the regions under its control. Education was seen by EPLF leaders as integral to the national liberation struggle. An early EPLF slogan was "Illiteracy is our main enemy."

EPLF-sponsored education was marked by the integration of theory and practice. In the 1970s, efforts focused on the combatants themselves with all new recruits—men and women (women made up a third of the fighters) with less than seven years of schooling required to complete their education in the EPLF, attending classes for up to six hours a day. Many rural villagers and farmers encountered education for the first time in the front.

In the mid-1970s liberated areas began to expand. In essaying the beginnings of a national school system, the EPLF began the Zero School, a boarding school for orphans, refugees, children of fighters, and those who had run away to join the front but were too young to fight. The Zero School, started with about 150 students and a handful of teachers, was designed as a teaching laboratory and workshop for the expanding education system. The Zero School eventually offered five years of elementary education and two years of middle school, adding grades as students continued. By 1983, the school had more than 3,000 students.

In addition to the Zero School, the EPLF maintained regular schools in liberated, predominantly rural areas. At many sites, students sat on stones in the shade of trees. Schools had to be camouflaged against air attack, and students had to be prepared to take cover.
In 1983, a national adult literacy campaign was begun with the dispatch of 451 teenage Zero School students to serve as teachers behind enemy lines. The literacy campaign reached 56,000 adults, 60 percent of them women. The campaigners taught reading, writing, numeration, hygiene, sanitation, and health, and participated in agriculture in the rural communities.

Drought and Ethiopian military offensives after 1985 disrupted the literacy campaign, and the EPLF abandoned the campaign form altogether when it began its own offensives in 1988, continuing adult education only for civilian health, agricultural, and political workers brought in groups to protected areas for one to two months at a time.

By 1990, with the war intensifying to its climax, adult education was available only to combatants. Nevertheless, in the vast areas of liberated countryside, education continued. In 1990, a year before liberation, there were 165 schools administered by the EPLF, with 1,782 teachers serving about 27,000 students.


The historical and political necessity of Eritrean self-reliance forced Eritreans to plan and test—while fighting for—the kind of society they wanted, with education a vital factor in the liberation movement's success and a key element in the Eritrean model of development.

The Italians ruled Eritrea until their defeat in Africa by the British in 1941. Education in Italian Eritrea prior to fascism was in the hands of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Swedish missionaries had established the first school, in Massawa, in the 1860s, and by the 1920s had schools in eight centers, serving 1,100 students. An early center of Roman Catholic missionary education was the highland city of Keren, where a seminary, day school, and orphanage served a few hundred children. In 1909, the first colonial educational policy was declared, based on separate schools for Italians and Eritreans. Schooling was compulsory for Italians to age 16; the curriculum of Italy was used. Education for Eritreans, however, limited to the Italian language and basic skills, was designed to produce menials for the Italians.

Eritrea had passed from British control to the federal arrangement with better educational facilities than Ethiopia, but Ethiopia's imperial government soon began to undermine Eritrean education, along with other institutions. In 1956, Eritrean languages were banned and replaced by Amharic, an Ethiopian language virtually unknown in Eritrea. Ethiopian teachers brought in to teach Amharic were paid 30 percent more than their Eritrean counterparts. The first of many student strikes occurred in 1957 at the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Asmara, the first school at which Amharic was made compulsory; in response, 300 students were jailed for a month.

Following annexation in 1962, all education decisions were made in Addis Ababa. The policies of "Ethiopianization" and "Amharization" intensified and became factors that awakened Eritreans' national consciousness and united diverse ethnic groups against the imperial regime.

In 1962 the Santa Familia University, founded in Asmara by the Comboni Sisters in 1958, obtained recognition from the Ethiopian government, changing its name to the University of Asmara. But Eritrean students resented entrance policies they viewed as favoring Ethiopians.

Ethiopia's monarchy was replaced by a military dictatorship, called the Dergue (committee) in 1974. Under Haile Mengistu Mariam, the Dergue pressed for a military victory over the Eritrean independence movement. Ethiopian forces steadily lost ground. By 1977 the EPLF was poised to drive the Ethiopians out of Eritrea. That year, however, a massive airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia enabled the Ethiopian Army to regain the initiative and forced the EPLF, largely intact, to retreat to the mountainous north of the country.

Educated Eritreans were a particular target of Dergue harassment and violence. Thousands were detained and many killed. Amharic remained compulsory, and the number of Ethiopian teachers increased—up to 2,000 by 1980. The Dergue had declared Ethiopia a Marxist state, and all teachers were required to attend weekly classes in Marxism-Leninism, where their allegiance to the official doctrine was scrutinized. Eritrean teachers were further demoralized by the lack of professional development afforded them. In this climate, school officials feared widespread desertion of students to the guerrillas, and teachers were susceptible to accusations of political deviance; both factors led to a precipitous drop in educational quality and standards. In 1990, the Dergue disbanded the University of Asmara, taking its staff and movable property to Ethiopia.

Between 1978 and 1986, the Dergue launched eight major offensives against the EPLF; all failed. In 1988, the EPLF captured Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in north-eastern Eritrea. At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union withdrew support, the Ethiopian Army's morale plummeted, and the EPLF began to advance on remaining Ethiopian positions. Meanwhile, other dissident movements supported by Eritreans were making headway throughout Ethiopia. In May 1991, the EPLF entered Asmara without firing a shot. Simultaneously, Mengistu fled before the advance of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which formed a new government in Ethiopia. 
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