Montessori in Ethiopia

“But what no one understands is that not sacrifice, but satisfaction, is in question; not renunciation, but a new life in which the values are different, where real life values, hitherto unknown, have come to exist.” (Montessori, M., 1988)

Ethiopians are a proud, beautiful and fun-loving people! They walk tall, exhibiting a great aura of dignity. They are proud of their country and will tell you immediately that they are one of the few countries in Africa that was never colonised. Ethiopia is in the part of the world where humankind began and in Addis Ababa, the central museum shows “Lucy”, one of the oldest (3.2 million years) human remains ever discovered.

Ethiopia was part of the great civilisation of Babylon. There are 9 regions and two chartered cities in a land-locked country as large as France and Spain combined. There are over 80 different ethnic groups in a population of 107 million people. It is a big, complex country.

Religion plays an important role – Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Muslim, several Protestant Christian groups plus a few others – and prayer is an essential part of most people’s lives. In fact, it can be difficult to sleep from 4.30 in the morning with the different religions making very loud calls to prayer! Our driver, who is Protestant, told us he gets up on Sunday at 4, goes to church with his family and then returns to bed! Family and children are important to the Ethiopians. Children were part of everyday events wherever we went. They want the best for their children.

The government has put in place plans for a good educational system. Not all the plans work well yet but they know where they want to go! They are seriously under-resourced and they welcome help from others, in particular NGO’s (non-governmental organisations). That is how we ended up bringing Montessori to Ethiopia!

Waterpark Montessori International was approached by Ingrid Stange, chairman of our own Norsk Montessori Forbund (NMF) about a project being run by another Norwegian organisation she is involved with – Partnership for Change (

PfC has several projects in Ethiopia, helping women to become independent. They discovered two problems.

  1. Women who had been supported by PfC to get university degrees (some in Oslo) had later dropped out of the workplace because they were unable to access good quality childcare.
  2. PfC also worked with single mothers who were often destitute and needed help with their babies. They would have liked to help these women to get back to work but again the problem of childcare was the issue.

PfC decided to get involved in childcare. The Ethiopian government has a system in place for children from 4 years upwards, however there is no available childcare for children from birth to 4 years. PfC organised a group of eight graduates from differing educational backgrounds in social care, psychology, early education and so on. This group will eventually write a curriculum for Early Childhood Care and Education 0-4 years. The government has agreed to examine this and will probably accept it as the national curriculum. But that will be at the end of the project!

In the meantime, this group of eight will study Montessori, train 60 assistants and run four pilot kindergartens. Then they will be ready to write the curriculum.

Clare and Brid in Ethiopia

And so, we, arrived in this big complex charming country for a week-long course in May! It was an important event and we were joined in Addis Ababa, for the opening, by members of Partnership for Change, Anne-Karin Nygård​,​​ CEO, Birikit Terefe, the local organiser and a project monitor, Arni Hole.

We had the task of educating eight brave and bright people in the Montessori method of education for children up to 4 years. They could have chosen any system of Early Childhood Care and Education, but fortunately, Ingrid Stange had suggested Montessori as one of the best methods. The team read up on Montessori and decided it would really suit their purpose and their culture.

We do not have the time or opportunity to conduct a full Montessori teacher training programme. Brid Walls, our Infant Toddler specialist, is the main trainer for this group. Together, we designed a special programme including full study of Montessori theory (delivered online March – October 2018), an overview of practical Montessori activities for 0-4 years (delivered in short workshops with Brid in May and September 2018), study about how to adapt Montessori principles when caring for young children – for example health, nutrition, sleeping, toileting, clothing (delivered online November 2018 – May 2019) and a practical study about preparing environments (delivered in the environments in short workshops with Brid in Sept 2018, Jan and May 2019). We based our design on the Infant Toddler curriculum and put in some activities for Practical Life and Sensorial from our 3-6 years programme. The programme is shorter than our standard teacher-training programme, but it includes all the essential elements.

So far, they love it. These eight people – Natan, Berhane, Demeke, Merga (the men) and Mekdes, Abeba, Mihret, Metasebia (the women) – are enthusiastic and hard working.

They meet regularly to discuss coursework and to plan their project. They know they are doing something important for their country. Their main concern was how could they adapt Montessori to fit with their own culture. They have a vision and want Ethiopian Montessori, not Italian, Norwegian or Irish Montessori! Rapidly they discovered that Montessori is truly international, it adapts to all cultures. We emphasise the Montessori principles and show them how to adapt them. They discovered that they can adapt most of the infant/toddler materials to suit their own culture. And, of course, they also discovered that young children are very similar all over the world!

Another concern they had was how to “teach” language. They had read many early childhood books about the use of language with children 0-4 years. In the Infant Toddler programme, we were able to show how to include language as a part of all activities and explain how it lays the basis of the child’s sense of self. The team really liked how we used respectful communication regardless of the child’s age or understanding. They even grasped how the order in a language is important for infants and toddlers! They now feel empowered. Brid and I are reminded that using Montessori’s principles when educating adults is essential. We show how, then we stand back and observe, helping them only when they cannot manage alone or within their team. One of the team made an important statement which is particularly relevant to Montessori in action and to training programmes in a new country. He had realised that Montessori was not an invention, but it was a discovery of human nature. He went on to explain that in his home he observed his mother allowing a child to pour water even when the basin was full – “because he needed to do it!” This is a core principle in Montessori, especially with toddlers, allowing a child to fulfil a need regardless of how pointless (and messy!) it seems to us. We discovered that this attitude is still a part of the Ethiopian culture, at least in some parts where they have not got too busy.

That is why this team has taken to Montessori. It fits to their culture. They believe it will empower them first, giving them the freedom to write the curriculum in a language that is understood by others in education in Ethiopia. Later it will empower the children in the kindergartens. Their big challenge is going to be finding a way to hold onto the core principles and core activities when they train the 60 assistants, or when they write and implement a new curriculum. Our big challenge is in helping them to identify which are the core principles and which are the core activities that they must hold onto dearly!

We are part of a much bigger movement worldwide. The Millennium Goals agreed internationally in 2000 have been updated to seventeen SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals) at a United Nations conference in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. They came into effect in January 2016 and all nations, that are partaking, aim to reach certain goals by 2030. The goals range from climate change to education. NMF already promotes this through Montessori 2030. This project in Ethiopia touches particularly on three of those SDG’s.

● 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all – including the following targets: o By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education o By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States.

● 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – including the following target: o By 2030, ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

● 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

We want to examine the project in the light of these goals. We look at what our team is doing and the role of Partnership for Change, as well as the role of Waterpark Montessori International in supporting them. We are supporting SDG 4 in that this project aims to provide quality childcare that includes education for young children at the most receptive time of their lives. We support the education of 60 assistants who will partake in lifelong learning as they learn to be assistants in Montessori environments. We are supporting SDG 5 in helping women to keep their independence and get back in the workplace. And we love that we have four men and four women on our team – a good balance as they reach out to make changes in society. Everything about the project supports SDG 8 as it will create employment and support economic growth, allowing both parents to work by providing quality education and childcare.

In a discussion about International Children’s Rights, members of the team explained that Africa had also developed The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child more than 20 years ago. Africa has serious issues to deal with as they struggle with poverty, sometimes starvation, apartheid, female genital mutilation, children born with AIDS and a shortage of basic human needs such as clean water.

By Clare Healy Walls & Brid Walls Waterpark Montessori International

Reference: Montessori, M. The Absorbent Mind, Kalakshetra Publications, Madras, 1988