Education in Eritrea: Some salient issues ( Part I ) Print E-mail
By Alem G. - Feb 16, 2007   

INTRODUCTION: The government is trying to re-engineer education, to create, a society, more to its liking. Which in many ways means, going back, to the "meda" years. While change is much needed, the kind of change, the government is advocating is, more of the same old and tired kind, with no input, from the stake holders, i.e. the parents, the students and the teachers.

For the first time, a seminar in education is underway, in the port city of Massawa. The participants are, some selected teachers (we don't know, how the selection was done, or how broadly representative, it is). However, it is a good beginning and the government should be commended, for its effort, if not for the outcome. The presence of PIA and most of his ministers and generals, is a welcome change. It is good to see, all those in power, away from Sawa and the other military installations.

EDUCATION IN ERITREA: The history of Education, in Eritrea, is closely tied to the history of the country. When the country bled, the students and the teachers, were among the first, to pay the price. In 1991, when the country was liberated, the whole educational infrastructure was left in ruins. Even the few functioning schools were short of teachers, administrators and books. The country has to start from scratch to build the educational infrastructure.

As such, credit goes to the current government, for trying to revive the educational system. It also has to be commended, for building new schools and for its effort, to reach areas, that were either conveniently forgotten or long ignored. I am speaking about the many remote rural areas, as well as, most of the low lands of the country. Those areas, had stayed out of the radar of the educational system and the government's efforts to bring the spot light, to those areas, is highly appreciated. It is a good beginning, and we should all commend the government, for a job well done.

However, building schools is not an end, by itself. It is only a first step and a small step, at that. We have to have, properly trained teachers, fully equipped classrooms and the participation of the parents, community and the government. Above all, old teaching methods and curriculum's, have to be revisited and reexamined. We should weed out, old habits that has become part of the educational system. It is no longer acceptable, for a teacher, to sit in front of the class and force the students to memorize, what is being said and regurgitate it, at the end of the year. Teaching should be a three way street - between the teacher and the student, the student and the teacher and the student and student.The students should be challenged and prepared mentally and physically.

Another area that needs addressing is, corporal punishment. Having lived in the west, I was really taken aback, to witness, the mighty KURMAJ still reigns supreme. Believe me, it brought memories of old days, for, I had been on the receiving end of that Kurmaj or Betri. Like most of my generation, I am a product of the old Yaredian psychology, which advocated for corporal punishment - Betre YxeneA' haile mengist.

There is a lot to be said, about a timely spanking, when it is administered with love. For, it could mean the difference, between pursuing your education, albeit, with a sore behind and ending later, in jail. I am not advocating for a corporal punishment. Far from it. In fact, in many countries it is illegal, as it should well be. I believe, in the long term, it is much more better and easier to persuade and convince, rather than to dictate your will. Physical abuse and mental torture of any kind, are things of the past and should be buried for good. They belong in museums and reference books, as a footnote to history.

Here are some issues that may affect the future of Education in Eritrea.

THE BORDER ISSUE: Peace is a prerequisite for any development. We need peace; peace, that does not compromise the territorial integrity of the nation. As I have repeatedly argued, the whole issue of Badime is becoming dangerous, by the day. And unless, the problem is resolved peacefully, it may get out of hand and may quickly deteriorate, into an open warfare and the outcome may not be to our liking. To put it bluntly, our options are limited and so are our decisions. We have to be careful not be victims of the Amharic proverb of "YeQTun awerd bla, ybbtwan Talech".

For the past eight years, the government has been asking for sacrifice and more sacrifice, while failing to do what governments do, i.e. to find an alternative solution, to the "no war, no peace" situation, that is sapping the energy of the people and the country.

I am not advocating for war. War is not an alternative. However, the current stalemate of, "no peace, no war" is not an alternative either; nor is, the current diplomatic stalemate. My stand on this matter is clear. The government should resolve this issue, once and for all, and if that requires sitting with the Ethiopian prime minister, then be it.

It is beyond the means of Eritrea, to fight for the respect of, the rule of law and the respect to international treaties and agreements. We should leave that to historians and posterity, to decipher the meaning of "Final and Binding". Let the conscience of the world live with the belief, might is right, population size matters and diplomatic skills could be used, to bury the truth and respect of the law.

REACHING TO THE DIASPORA: The diaspora Eritreans are untapped wealth. Once the government mends its ways, there are a number of well qualified Eritreans, who could make a difference, in the overall development strategy of the education system of the country. In fact, most Eritreans feel, it is their sacred duty to make a difference, in the life of their younger brothers and sisters, back home.

But so far, the government is refusing to mend its ways. As far as, the government is concerned, the participation of the diaspora Eritreans, is limited to, fund raising and the occasional get together and the mandatory guayla. Even worse, Eritrean intellectuals are judged, not by their academic credentials and knowhow, but by how amenable they are, to the views and ways of the PFDJ.

I believe, the diaspora Eritreans should be reached and encouraged, to participate in the development scheme of their home towns, villages and their alumni. This should be, strictly, people to people, with the government playing the role of a facilitator. If members of the diaspora, who hailed from the town of Ghinda want to build a clinic, in Ghinda, more power to them. And if former students, from San Giorgio secondary school, want to help in the reconstruction of their alumni, that should be encouraged and commended. This will relieve the government, from trying to allocate its limited resources, among competing regions and concentrate its efforts to areas that are really undeserved.

Some may argue, this will ignite regionalism and an unholy competition among villages, towns and regions. I beg to differ. By nature, Eritreans are not regionalists or haters. They never had the luxury to hate or discriminate. They had always been on the receiving end, of discrimination and hate, from successive colonizers. Beyond that, life for most Eritreans is a perpetual struggle to live. Most live and die, without leaving their village of birth. The few times, they leave their vicinity is due to some emergency. What I am saying is, they don't have the time nor the means to be regionalists or haters. And if we are convinced, we have a problem, it is time to face it headlong and stop pretending, as if it does not exist. We should exorcise ourselves of our demons, specially, those of us who live in the diaspora.

Regionalism, as we see it today, is something that we inherited from our "meda" days and the misguided policies of the current government. While, I believe, it is the governments prerogative to divide or subdivide regions, towns and villages. It has to be done with care. Most importantly, the government should inform the people, of the benefits of erasing and creating new regions and ask for their input and support. Otherwise, it may have, the unintended consequence of diving people, among ethnic and regional lines.

TECHNOLOGY AND LEARNING: In the past few years, the progress in the field of technology had been breathtaking. We have now entered, the age of technology, with changes measured, in days and weeks and not in years. The brave world of micro chips and processors is revolutionizing the way we interact, learn and live. Technology has infiltrated, every aspect of our life and education is not the exception.

Even though, the setting of the class room has not changed, since the days of recorded history. The means and method of instruction have changed, greatly. The classroom of today, fully equipped with computers, Internet and other teaching aids, is markedly different, from the class room of yesterday. Gone are the days, when a teacher has to struggle to explain, the meaning of volcanoes and the anatomy of the human being. A simple click of the mouse or a multi media simulation, will expose the students to a real life experience.

In the case of Eritrea, technology can be used to reach remote areas and to expand the non formal education in the country. EriTv, for example, is becoming a fixture in many homes, but it is not being used to improve the lively hood of the people. Instead, time and money is being wasted to support various Ethiopian opposition groups. I say, these resources should be redirected, to educate and improve the lively hood of the Eritrean people. How about giving weekly lessons in nutrition, health science, even lessons in languages, like English, Arabic and Tigrigna?

The delivery medium is also changing. It is not necessary, anymore, to sit in a classroom. We now live in a world, in which, one can attain a fully accredited degree, without stepping in the classroom. Even though, the idea of distance education or correspondence schools is not new. It has been there, since the days of the old philosophers and religious leaders. (the letters and sermons, of many of the religious leaders, to their disciples or the newly converted) is a precursor, to what is now known, as correspondence or distance education. Technology is making it easier and cheaper to take classes thousands of miles away.

And here is a challenge to Eritreans who are in the computer science field. How about starting an Eritrean version of the open source, operating system, Linux. We can even include a Tigrigna word processor and distribute it, for free, to all computer users. I even have a name for the project. How about EriLinuX. Any takers?

SOCIAL ISSUES: The Eritrean society is a very conservative one, with the citizens adhering to their respective faiths and try to live by it. In the old Eritrea, I know, divorce was rare, having children out of wedlock was unthinkable and romance before marriage was a no, no. In the Eritrea I grew, teachers were next to God and were always right. No student on his right mind, will contradict a teacher and live to tell about it. If the teacher did not kill you, your parents will definitely do.

These days, things have changed greatly. Eritrea is feeling the pains of nationhood. The society, as well as, the educational system is facing a huge slew of social problems. The number of students dropping out of school is increasing at an alarming rate. The Scrooge of AIDS is on the rise and pregnancy and out of wedlock births and the phenomenon of single motherhood is increasing.

While all the above mentioned phenomenon, are new and can be effectively controlled; the endless quarantining of the young, in the numerous government schemes, is not helping. We now have the government, taking the youth, to complete their high school in Sawa. We have the Warsay/Ykealo project in full swing and then we have the conscripts on the trenches. All deadly combinations.

The result is, the loosening of parental control and the resultant temptation, that comes, with the congregation of so many adult boys and girls in close proximity.The implication of all these social experimentations will not be known until later years. But it can't be any good. For those, who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the demographic implication of this experimentation is heart breaking. For many young woman, with the biological clock ticking, the probability of having a child and having a family is becoming dimmer, by the day. Even, for most adult men, in a country with a life expectancy of fifty years or less, spending ten years of ones most productive years, in trenches is, difficult to overcome.

Something has to give up. The border issue has to be resolved, those in the army has to be demobilized and the Warsay/Ykealo project has to come to an end. The whole idea of taking students to complete their secondary school education, away from their parents has to be changed. Any military service, should come only after the completion of the secondary school.

THE EDUCATIONAL POLICY: Like many things in life, we should not try to fix something, unless it is broken. And if it is broken and in need of fixing, it is always good, not to try to reinvent the wheel. Eritrea does not have to start a new educational policy from scratch. It can easily pick and choose, from a number of excellent educational system and make some improvements and modifications, to make it relevant, to the needs of the people and country.

For example, if Eritrea was to adopt the Educational policy of India, the only areas that may need some serious modification are the curriculum in the fields of history, geography and other social sciences, as they have to reflect, Eritrean values and history. The curriculum for subjects in math and science, as well as, the administration, evaluation and teaching methodology could be left intact or modified slightly.

We have also to introduce parental participation in the school system. This of course is a new phenomenon, and may need some getting used to. In my days, the participation of the parents was non existent. It is not part of our culture. It was unthinkable, for an Eritrean parent, to contradict the authority or the teaching methods of a teacher. It was also, beyond the knowhow of many parents, to understand the issues involved.

But times are changing and the educational level of the parents is also changing. In fact, it has reached a level, whereby, parents can participate and contribute in the overall pedagogical development of their children. Education is becoming, more and more, a collaborative effort between the students, the parents and the school system. "It takes a village, to raise a child"

CONCLUSION: Education is the foundation of democracy, economic growth and social harmony. We need, a well educated population, to improve the standard of living of the citizenry. As it has been repeatedly demonstrated, by countries like, Japan and India; it is not the natural resource of a country that determines the overall development; rather, it is how well the citizens of the country are educated and prepared to compete in today's global economy.

We are not Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. And with that realization, the country has to find a better and alternate means of improving, the wellbeing of its citizenry. One proved method is, to follow the example of countries like, Japan and India, with proved formula for success and that is - EDUCATION.

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Last Updated ( Feb 16, 2007 )
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