Vol. 23, No. 4
the book shelf
in . . .
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 worlds 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
- 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
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 Kings University
College, 9125 50 th Street, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6B 2H3; E-mail:
[email protected]), Canadian
National Representative to IUPACs 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.