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Chemistry International
Vol. 23, No. 4
July 2001

the book shelf
Chemistry in . . .

Chemical Education in Eritrea

Peter G. Mahaffy and Berhane Girmay

Roots of Eritrean Science Education
Present State of Eritrean Chemical Education
Eritrean Chemical Society


Novel marine natural products are being found in pristine reefs along 1 100 km of Red Sea Coast in the Horn of Africa. Traditional healers talk of herbs and plants they have used for generations for medicinal purposes. In Eritrea, one of the world’s newest countries, chemists and educators are probing structures, learning from oral history, and equipping young people to understand and shape the opportunities presented by new and existing chemical processes. Eritrean chemical education is coming into its own in the new millennium, mirroring the emergence of the fledgling nation from European colonialism and Ethiopian annexation to independence in 1993. Thirty years of war with neighboring Ethiopia before independence, and a renewed conflict in the past two years, have left urgent infrastructure and development needs. Providing highly qualified human resources to address those needs and create new opportunities is high on the national agenda.

For science education, this situation requires a concerted effort to enhance the quality of teaching and research, and to ensure that students are equipped to produce knowledge-intensive goods and services to meet immediate local needs, and to set attainable long-term goals. Chemistry plays a central role in many of those basic human needs. Clean air, water, health care, food supply, environment, agricultural products and practices, pharmaceutical compounds, ceramics, and building materials all have a critical chemical dimension, and all require secondary school, technical school, public health, and university graduates with sound backgrounds in basic chemistry and creative problem-solving abilities.

A snapshot of Eritrean chemical education activities at the turn of the millennium reveals the following:

  • Secondary school teachers draft papers on how to improve methodology in teaching chemistry and attend workshops on how to introduce practical work and molecular models into the classroom.
  • A curriculum development team prepares secondary school chemistry textbooks that weave discussions of the chemical principles used by local industries such as the Massawa Salt Processing Plant, Eritrean Cement Factory, Denden Glassworks, Gejeret Silicate and Carton Factory, and the Eritrea Match and Candle Factory into grades 10 and 11 chemistry textbooks.
  • An ambitious, interdisciplinary team, led by University of Asmara chemists, collects and identifies Eritrean medicinal plants, to learn which parts of the plants are used by traditional healers, and for what diseases. They then isolate and characterize the active components, with the assistance of selective bioassays. The team includes experts in chemistry, microbiology, botany, and pharmacology, and has received some support from UNESCO. This research effort is linked with the chemical education of university undergraduates. Several undergraduate chemistry and biology students have made significant contributions to the project through senior-year research projects.
Some members of the Eritrean Medicinal Plants Team. From left: Dr. Wezenet Tewodros (Microbiology), Dr. Azieb Ogbaghebriel (Pharmacology), Dr. Gehebrehiwet Medhanie (Botany), and Team Leader, Dr. Berhane Girmay (Chemistry).
  • The Eritrean Chemical Society, comprising about 160 members from industry, government, and education, meets regularly for professional development, research conferences, to popularize chemistry in schools, and to promote chemistry education and research.
  • Partners from the Ministry of Education, University of Asmara, and local schools wrestle with assessment issues - they seek ways to address low passing rates for secondary school certificate examinations and high dropout rates among first-year university science students.
  • External partners, such as the Italian and Swedish governments, contribute meaningfully to science and technical education with infrastructure and exchange programs.
A medicinal plants team has recently characterized the properties of Eritrean pumpkin (cucurbita pepo L) seed and the fatty acid composition of the seed oil. Y. M. H. Younis, et al. Phytochemistry, 54, 71-75 (2000).


Roots of Eritrean Science Education

The earliest forms of traditional education were informal, with the family being the earliest agent of socialization. In addition to learning tasks of cooking, brewing, and working the land, children were taught the art of telling folk stories and proverbs. Present knowledge about Eritrean medicinal plants attests to the value and strength of that oral tradition. The church and mosque planted the seeds of formal education in Eritrea, where goals to train priests for the church and read the Koran and memorize the Surah were met in part through instruction in reading and writing Geez (church) and Arabic (mosque). The study of plants and herbs may have been a part of the early curriculum. Inks were compounded from herbs and charcoal, and "shebti" (phytolacca dodecandra) was regularly used for washing long before the introduction of commercial soaps. Swedish Evangelical and Catholic missions fertilized those early seeds by introducing practical subjects in the languages of Tigre, Tigrinya, Kunama, and Arabic.

Formal science education emerged from the flux of five administrative periods in Eritrean history. Figure 1 shows the growth of schools, teachers, and students for those five periods.

Under Italian Colonialization (1890-1941), the curriculum was expanded to include history, geography, language, hygiene, arts, and crafts. One purpose of education was "to indoctrinate Eritreans with a devotion for Italy and a respect for Italian culture and civilization". Schools were to assist Eritreans to become "worthy elements of the native troops, interpreters, clerks, telephone operators, and typists". The Eritrean child was to be a "conscious propagandist of Italian civilization and so proselytize his parents". Languages of instruction were Italian and the dominant languages of Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic.

Despite the legacy of indoctrination, solid educational programs in this period prepared the way for formal instruction in chemistry and other sciences. Schools were constructed, primary education was offered, basic equipment and chemical reagents were obtained, and important industries producing soap and beer were founded. The period leading up to and during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia saw rapid expansion in education, and the incorporation of Tigray into Eritrea led to the opening of new schools in that region.

The British Military Administration (1941-1952) took over responsibility for schools after the British invasion and defeat of Italian East Africa. Tigray province went back to Ethiopian administration, along with the new Tigray schools. The main goals of the British educational structure were to force Eritreans into a wage economy and to break up tribal solidarity. Instruction was initially in the dominant Eritrean language - Tigrinya for Christians and Arabic for Muslims. The first ministry of education was created in 1942, the first teacher training in college in 1946, and teachers were recruited from graduates of the former Italian school. Elementary and middle school students studied mathematics and science.

The Eritrean "kellau" plant. Extracts from the bark of the root show promising antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Under the period of Federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia (1952-1962), the first secondary schools were opened, and education was given increased priority, with distinctive influences of the Ethiopian government being evident. Secondary students now studied chemistry, as well as anatomy, biology, and physiology. The Barka Secondary School in Asmara still uses facilities, equipment, the chemistry laboratory, and even some reagents first supplied by the Camboni Fathers. The University of Asmara was officially established on 20 December 1958 by the Missionary Congregation Pie Madri della Nigrizia of Verona, Italy. Courses were in Italian, to prepare students for the final year of study in an Italian University to earn the "Laurea".

After Eritrean "Annexation" to Ethiopia in 1962, Amharic became the language of instruction in Eritrean schools, replacing Tigrinya and Arabic. The number of primary and secondary schools increased to over 200, and secondary schools were opened in every district capital. Despite the rapid growth in schools, accessibility to education was limited. In 1988, only 20% of the school-age population of Ethiopia, which included Eritrea at the time, were in school. Following Independence in 1991, the emerging nation of Eritrea gave high priority to education, so that by 1998, more than 375 000 students, or 40% of the school-age population, were enrolled in 726 schools.


This article was contributed by Dr. Peter G. Mahaffy (Department of Chemistry, The King’s University College, 9125 50 th Street, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6B 2H3; E-mail: [email protected]), Canadian National Representative to IUPAC’s Committee on Teaching of Chemistry (CTC), and Dr. Berhane Girmay (Department of Chemistry, University of Asmara, P.O. Box 1220, Asmara, Eritrea; E-mail: [email protected]), Chair of the Eritrean Chemical Society.


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