Many faiths under one roof in Eritrean church kindergartens
Lutheran communion support is important and much needed
(LWI) – They are sitting in a circle on the floor, eagerly listening to teacher Almaz Tesfaldet reading out from a booklet of Bible stories for children. Aged between four and six years, the group of 30 girls and boys are from different religious backgrounds. Most are Orthodox, the rest come from Lutheran, Catholic or Muslim families.
This is an afternoon kindergarten of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (ELCE) in the capital Asmara. “We want the children to learn about God and the love for children,” explains ELCE General Secretary Mr Temesghen Berhane Zecharias.
Around half of Eritrea’s population of 5 million people is Orthodox; 47 percent are Muslims and the remaining three percent belong to Lutheran or Roman Catholic churches. These are the four officially recognized religious groups in the country that also has other faith communities.
Although the Lutheran church is small, it has a long tradition in Eritrea, where it was established in 1866. Its diaconal services include early childhood schools, “which are an integral part of our community development work,” says ELCE President Rev. Simon Ghebrekristos.
Between 300 and 400 children are enrolled in the seven classes at the Asmara kindergarten, all taught by seven female teachers. Three other ELCE pre-schools cater to families in remote villages in the northern, western and southern parts of the country.
“I like to take care of the children,” says 35 year-old Tesfaldet. The class includes her four-year-old daughter Luz.
LWF supporting kindergartens since 2011
The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has been supporting the kindergartens since 2011. The 2016 – 2018 project phase includes a total contribution of EUR 30,000. Previous LWF assistance went to renovating two school buildings at the smaller Edaga Hamuse congregation near the main Lutheran church in central Asmara.
This support from the Lutheran communion to Lutherans in Eritrea is important and very much needed. In this way, we do not feel forgotten.
The church’s goal is to address the needs of parents who cannot afford the high fees in private institutions. ELCE kindergartens charge the equivalent of EUR 7.20 (85 Eritrean nakfa) per child per term in Asmara, and EUR 2.20 (26 nakfa) in the villages. Altogether, the schools have nearly 600 children, with an equal ratio of boys to girls.
The East African country still suffers from the impact of its 30-year-war of independence with Ethiopia, which ended in 1991. In addition, sanctions imposed by the United Nations since 2009 exacerbate the situation for most Eritreans, who live off small-scale farming.
Running the kindergartens is not an easy task for the church, Zecharias notes. The toilets were recently renovated to include a sewage pipe around the premises. “This is a big step forward,” but there is more to do in the next phase, as there is no piped water supply. “We want to install plastic tanks to provide water for the toilets,” he adds.
Traditional music and games
The rooms in the current premises are nicely decorated and well equipped with all kinds of learning materials and toys. In one corner children are setting up a ‘pharmacy’; opposite, coffee is brewing on a ‘stove’. The children are free to choose a recreation activity when they are not learning basics, such as the alphabet or other skills which are taught in the working language Tigrinya.
The teachers develop a weekly curriculum according to plans outlined by the education authorities. One such requirement is that children learn how to play traditional music instruments like the Eritrean drum and guitar.
A Sunday school in Mendefera
Outside the capital, most of the basic infrastructure and facilities are either run down or non-existent. In the small town of Mendefera, some 50 kilometers east of Asmara, the Lutheran Sunday school is one of the most well-known facilities. Up to 180 children from all religions attend the school every Sunday morning.
“We are proud that so many children come. But there is a big demand for a kindergarten in the town and the surrounding villages,” adds Rev. Zienawi Medhanie, head of the ELCE Mendefera congregation. While the church can use the classrooms of the former Lutheran school in the town, setting up a kindergarten would require additional funds, he says.
The Lutheran communion support to ELCE includes partnership with Germany’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Württemberg. In 2012 its youth groups raised funds to build a hall for Mendefera parish. During a visit in March 2016, a delegation from the church handed over two extra brass instruments to the Eritrean youth choir. The trombone choir of the Asmara congregation also uses musical instruments provided by the Württemberg youth.
“This support from the Lutheran communion to Lutherans in Eritrea is important and very much needed. In this way, we do not feel forgotten,” Zecharias concludes.
ELCE joined the LWF in 1963 through its two predecessor Lutheran bodies. The Eritrean church is organized into 46 congregations and 18 preaching centers, which are served by 43 ordained pastors and eight theologically trained evangelists. An additional team of 40 lay preachers and Bible teachers, including 17 women, support the church’s work, mainly in the rural congregations.
Teacher Almaz Tesfaldet (left) and Rev. Simon Ghebrekristos, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, go over the curriculum for an afternoon lesson at the church-run Asmara kindergarten.
Kindergarten teacher Almaz Tesfaldet watches as four-year-old Hiyab Tesfamariam shows the other children how to read the calendar.
Teacher Almaz Tesfaldet explains to the children about traditional Eritrean musical instruments like the guitar, of which the girl at the back shows a sketch.
The preschoolers are free to choose a play-time activity at the Lutheran church-run kindergarten. Five-year-old Luz gets ready to serve her guests some coffee.
Five-year-olds Menony Fishum (right) and Merina Maekele play with medical kits at the kindergarten’s ‘pharmacy’ corner.
A group of children say grace before their break-time snack in the yard of the Asmara Lutheran church kindergarten.
An afternoon break at the Asmara church-run pre-school. Each one brings a snack from home.
A contribution by Stuttgart (Germany)-based journalist Rainer Lang, from a recent visit to Eritrea. Photos: LWF/Rainer Lang