Scholar Fridays is a new weekly series on Bearings Online where we interview 2017-18 Resident Scholars. This week, Susan Sink interviewed short-term Resident Scholar Mersha Mengistie, a professor from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia who spent September – October, 2017 at the Collegeville Institute. His project title was A Lexicography of the ‘Abǝnnät Tǝmhǝrt: The Oldest Ecclesiastical System of Learning in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project.
My project aims at investigating the curriculum, content, school system, and history of the ʾabǝnnät tǝmhǝrt. As possibly the only educational institution in Ethiopia until the introduction of modern secular education at the end of the last century, ‘abǝnnät tǝmhǝrt constitutes one of the oldest continuous systems of learning in the world. This school system provides all levels of education from elementary to higher education in a wide variety of fields, including reading and writing, theology, poetry and music, art and history, law and traditional medicine.
My research is based on identifying theories of curriculum and learning in the ‘abǝnnät tǝmhǝrt that may be used in Ethiopia’s modern educational system, discourse, and policies. I’m trying to bring together the ancient and the contemporary. I’m also preparing a glossary of technical terms which are important for understanding the ʾabǝnnät tǝmhǝr tradition. To achieve these broad objectives, my project will execute an in-depth exploration of the traditional school system and practice, identify assets in the tradition that can be introduced in the arena of the country’s modern education system and policy, and publish the findings in a reputable journal.
What inspired you to study the ʾabǝnnät tǝmhǝrt educational system?
First, I went through the ʾabǝnnät tǝmhǝrt system before I became a student in Ethiopia’s modern educational system (in which a European orientation dominates). I know the ins and outs of the tradition, although not as well as my elders, and I believe it can contribute to the good of my nation. Second, while working as a professor at Addis Ababa University, the oldest and biggest in the nation, I have observed that the quality of education can be improved in the university and the nation at large. This view is accepted by my government and faculty members are always encouraged to come up with new solutions and proposals. Therefore, with a solid belief that the ʾabǝnnät has a lot to contribute for the betterment of the country’s education system., I hope a monograph that highlights the best practices of teaching in the ʾabǝnnät will be helpful.
How did you find out about the Collegeville Institute and why did you want to come here to work?
I found out about the Collegeville Institute through the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML). My professional training is in the study of archival materials documented in the Ge’ez language. HMML is one of the best places, if not the only place, in the world where one can find thousands of manuscripts written in Ge’ez and other Semitic languages, documented in microfilms and photographs. I applied for a one-month research stay at HMML back in 2009 while I was working on my doctoral studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. HMML was generous enough to provide Heckman Stipends, which brought me to Collegeville for the first time. After that, I was lucky enough to know about the Collegeville Institute and its friendly staff.
Did you have any surprising conversations with other scholars while you were here?
Yes! My visits always give me the chance to know more scholars and their cultures. Apart from enjoying the environment full of spirit and Christian fellowship, my work benefits from having dialogues with professors, monks, and students.
The dialogue I had with Father Kilian in 2012, for example, gave me a new research line on the Virgin Mary which I look forward to pursuing in the near future. I was happy to have visited once again with Father Kilian, who is 96 years old now, while in residence at the Collegeville Institute this year. I was delighted and felt blessed to shake his hand, hear his voice, and receive his recent book of poems. I always find lessons in my discussions with Don [Ottenhoff]. What surprised me in one of our conversations was the practical advice he gave me planning my sabbatical. Don generously provided me with a short but well-crafted text of his on how one should plan a sabbatical. It was very helpful as I look forward to having my first sabbatical leave next year.
What is your vision for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in ten years?
My vision for my Church in ten years is to see her teaching, which is rooted in the Bible, flourish all over the world; to see the life and heritage cumulated in her being promoted by both the ecclesiastical administration and the children of God joining hands to work together vigorously; and finally to see her play an active role in ecumenical works to unite the “Body” of Jesus Christ.
What is a book or film you would recommend for those of us who would like to get a better understanding of the Church in Ethiopia?
I recommend reading The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahido Church by Ephrem Isaac.