Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
19.The Coming of the Radio, and Developments in the Field of Currency, Education, and Public Health
We saw last week that the 1920s and 1930 witnessed many innovations. For others, now please read on:
The foundations of radio telegraphy, in Ethiopia, were laidin the early 1930’s. Though some of the foreign legations had earlier imported radio equipment for their own use, the Ethiopian Government did not enter the field until after Emperor Haile Sellassie’s coronation in 1930. Orders were given soon afterwards for the establishment of a temporary station, which went into operation in 1933. A contract for a larger and more powerful station had meanwhile been granted in 1931 to the Italian company Ansaldo, with the result that the Emperor was able to address his first message to the world on January 31, 1935.
In the field of currency and banking efforts were made to overcome traditional conservatism, which, as we have seen in previous articles, was particularly strong in that sector. The people of the countryside, who still relied primarily on “primitive money” and Maria Theresa dollars, continued toregard modern currency with suspicion. For this reason the authorities issued coins bearing the effigy of Menilek longafter his death. Observers of this period nevertheless tell a story reminiscent of earlier times. According to the British traveller Rey and other observers of the 1920’s the country people habitually subjected these coins, especially those of small value – the different mintings of which varied slightly in design, to the closest scrutiny. The effigy of the Lion of Judah was what received the greatest attention. “I have seen them examine the lion’s tait very carefully,” writes Rey, “and then bring back the coin to me and ask for another saying it is not good”. Ethiopian bank notes, as we have seen, were likewise then scarcely accepted. The British journalist EvelynWaugh noted, in 1930 that they were “quite worthless”, except in the capital, and at places along the railway line.
Undeterred by the difficulties inherent in the situation, the Emperor nationalised the old Bank of Abyssinia, a private, foreign-owned institution, and replaced it by a national bank, the Bank of Ethiopia, in 1931. Shortly afterwards an entirely new issue of paper money and coins was introduced in 1932 and 1933, at last bringing to an end the coins of Menilek
The new innovations were only a little more popular than those of Menilek. John H. Shaw, sometime Ethiopian Consul in the United States, noted that the paper money was mainly used by the merchants rather than by the public at large, while the Hungarian journalist Farago confirms that notes circulated only in Addis Ababa, Harar and Gondar. Bergsma, an American missionary, on the other hand, expressed the view that the distrust of paper money was slowly on the decline, while a British woman resident in Addis Ababa, Fan C. Dunckley, saw a significant replacement of dollars by notes. “Gone are the days”, she exclaimed, “when one met a string of Gurages on the Bank road, each carrying a bag containing a thousand dollars”.
Haile Sellassie’s Coins
Haile Sellassie’s coins, however, made only slow progress. Farago, reporting on the eve of the Italian fascist invasion, records that outside the towns they were “valueless.” This is confirmed by Steer, who observed that the Maria Theresa remained “the rock bottom of the currency.” The general Ethiopian attitude to money, it may be added, was for many years to come deeply conservative. A British economist, A. D. Bethell, speaking after the ltalian occupation of 1935-1941 during which the Italians had endeavoured to force the Ethiopian peasant to abandon his preference of the old coin, declared : “thousands of Italian finance guards and the harshest repressive measures failed to cure him.”
An important innovation of this period was the enacting of decrees, in 1924 and 1931, providing for the gradual eradication of slavery. This reform, as might be expected, provoked strong opposition. An Ethiopian chief at this time was quoted as declaring, “We will die rather than give up our slaves “. Even the latter themselves were reputed to be most reluctant to enter the state of freedom with all its risks, and according to the Georgian pharmacist, Dr Merab, would willingly have fought to preserve so firmly established an institution as slavery.
Important strides were also taken in the nineteen twenties and early thirties in the sphere of education and public health. A new Government school, named Tafari Makonnen after the Regent, was opened on April 27, 1925, despite the opposition of traditionalists, who, according to Rey, had delayed the project for two years. In his opening speech the Regent emphasised the need to look to the future not to the past, declaring : “It is not what she was that can profit Ethiopia, but what she may become.” Too true, no doubt, but antiquities still need looking after!
Several other schools were founded in the next few years, including the Empress Menen School for Girls, established in 1931. Education for girls was itself a major innovation: only a few years earlier Merab had observed that very few even among the rich families were willing to employ a priest to educate their daughters – the only way at that time of giving them education. Popular opinion held that an educated woman would not look after the house, while the prejudiced declared that the husband of a wife who could read would never live long as his spouse would resort to magic to kill him.
Literacy and Education Abroad
Observers of this period claim that a substantial increase in literacy occurred. A Swedish missionary Eriksson reported in 1932 that “the number of people able to read is definitely increasing,” while Christine Sandford some years later observed, “It was quite remarkable to a resident of many years’ standing that whereas in 1920 the boy on the household staff who could read and write was a notable exception, in 1935 among the same society there were few young men and boys who had not mastered the elementary processes of reading and writing. ”
The Regent meanwhile was sending some of the most promising students abroad for further education. Though Empress Zawditu, and some of the more conservative elements, are said to have been critical of this policy, and expressed the fear that the young men would never return, nearly two hundred students in one way or another left Ethiopia in the twenties and thirties. They studied a wide range of modern academic disciplines, including law, economics and politics, medicine and veterinary science, engineering and aviation, painting and literature, military science, pedagogy and journalism. As they returned from their studies, and were drafted into Government service, a small, but vitally important, cadre of modern educated officials was created, which, in Steer’s view, constituted the Emperor’s ” main weapon of reform.” The existence of this educated class brought the Ethiopian society into closer contact with the developments of the twentieth century, on the one hand, and reduced the country’s dependence on foreigners on the other. This facilitated the process of modernisation, which for the time being at least necessitated even greater utilisation of trained aliens.
“Our Country Will Be Finished”
The attitude of the foreign educated Ethiopians of this period was one of intense patriotism, coupled with a desire to modernise their country. This may be illustrated by the following verses translated from an Amharic pamphlet of the period:
If the Lord helps me, and gives me strength,
I wish to learn for the good of my country.
We will study diligently and learn much,
So that the foreigners will not come to rule us
If we think and study with attention,
We will learn to do what others do.
We must study as much as we can,
Because, if we do not study, our country will be finished, we will lose it.
A basically similar point of view was expressed by Lij Yilma Deressa, Legation Secretary at the Foreign Office in Addis Ababa at the time of the Italian invasion, who said to the journalist Farago, “We young Ethiopians are in duty bound to our country, we are the bridge that the Emperor has thrown across to European culture . . . This growing generation will complete the civilisation of our country.”
Symbolic of the new attitude was the formation of Jeunesse d’Ethiopie, a patriotic society of the young educated Ethiopians.
A New Printing Press
Other landmarks of this period in the cultural field included the establishment, in 1923, of the Regent’s Berhana Salam printing press, the founding of the newspaper of the same name, and the production of what was, to all intents and purposes, the first Amharic textbooks for schools.
Significant developments meanwhile were also taking place in the medical field. The Beth Saida Hospital (later known as the Haile Sellassie Hospital) was founded by the Regent in 1924, and the Empress Zawditu Memorial Hospital, which was entrusted to the Seventh Day Adventists and specialised in maternity, in 1934. Other institutions established in this period included an up-to-date hospital run by the American Presbyterian Mission at Gulele on the outskirts of the City, an Italian Catholic Mission hospital not far away, and a number of hospitals and clinics in the provinces .
Developments are to be chronicled also in the field of government. The process of creating ministries, which had been initiated by Menilek, was continued with the establishment of the Ministry of Commerce in 1922, the Ministry of Education in 1930, and the Ministry of Public Works in 1932. The first Parliament in Ethiopia’s long history was convened in 1931.