Articles in this series:
01. Education Abroad and at Home in Menilek’s Day
The reign of Menilek, and the establishment of Addis Ababa, led to a significant expansion, and in due course modernisation, of Ethiopian education. The reforming monarch, though himself a man of little formal schooling, and no exposure to foreign teaching, was profoundly conscious of the country’s need for a modern type of instruction.
Such education was required, as he saw it, to maintain the country’s historic independence. This need was forcefully expressed by Ashaber Gabra Heywat, a foreign-educated Ethiopian young man of the period, who declared, “We need educated people in order to ensure our peace and to reconstruct our country, and to enable it to exist as a great nation in face of the European Powers”. Then, and for so long before and afterwards, the object was to emulate the European powers technologically, without being conquered, or dismembered, by them – this was no easy task in the age of predatory European colonialism and its aftermath!
Education Abroad: To Switzerland, and Russia!
Menelik’s first important action on the educational front was to send a handful of Ethiopian students abroad for study. As early as 1894, i.e. two years before the Battle of Adwa, he arranged for three young men, Afawarq Gabra Iyasus, Gugsa Dagne, and Kalaw Za-Emmanuel, to go with his Swiss adviser Alfred Ilg, to Switzerland. This latter country was favoured as a far off, and technologically advanced, land without colonial ambitions in Africa – or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world.
The youngsters later made their way to Turin, in Italy, and were there when the outbreak of hostilities between Italy and Ethiopia, which culminated in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, made them reluctant to return home. The two last-mentioned students died young, and have therefore little place in history, but Afawarq, whose writings have been discussed in a previous recent series of articles in Addis Tribune, emerged as an important intellectual, writer, Government official and politician.
Orthodox and Tsarist Russia
Not long after the departure of these three young men for Switzerland, a further six, all from Shawa, were despatched to Russia. That country’s choice was not remarkable, in that it was, like Ethiopia, a largely Christian Orthodox empire, with strong monarchical, i.e. Tsarist, institutions.
One of the best known students of this batch was Takla Haymanot, who studied military science in Russia, specialising in engineering. He was befriended by a number of prominent Russian liberals of the day, including Princess Volkonsy, granddaughter of the famous Decembrist revolutionary of that name. The young Ethiopian attended the Mikailovskaia Artillery School in St Petersburg, and, on graduating, was granted the rank of Colonel in the Russian army. He stayed altogether seventeen years in Russia, but eventually returned to Ethiopia, where he was responsible for development work in the Charchar area. He later held a number of important posts in Ethiopian Government, including that of Minister of Finance. In this capacity he introduced Emperor Haile Sellassie’s first Constitution to the Ethiopian Parliament, and was subsequently Minister to France, and a delegate to the League of Nations, at the time of the Italian Fascist invasion of 1935-6.
A few other students in one way or another left for Europe in Menilek’s time. Prominent among them was Tassama Eshate, who travelled to Germany with a German, Herr Holtz, and studied motor engineering. Tassama later emerged as a notable Ethiopian intellectual, as well as a fine poet and a great wit.
Reference should also be made to a handful of youngsters who were taken to Burma by Hakim Warqnah, alias Dr Martin, Ethiopia’s first medical doctor, whose history has been told in a previous series of Addis Tribune articles.
This period also witnessed the education abroad of the first two Falasha, or Beta Esra’el, students, under international Jewish auspices, spearheaded by Jacques Faitlovitch and the Alliance Israelite Universelle, as well as that of two other Ethiopian youngsters by the British, in the then Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
“Our Young Men Must be Educated”
Menilek’s interest in foreign education was graphically revealed early in the twentieth century, at the time of the coming of the first United States mission to Ethiopia. Its leader, Robert P. Skinner, spoke to the monarch, in 1903, of the possibility of sending young Ethiopians to America to be educated. Menilek is reported to have replied, “Yes, that will come; our young men must be educated”.
He said “men”, you will note, dear reader, but made no reference to the female half of the population – no small omission, you must agree!. If he said “men” thinking primarily in terms of maintaining the country’s age-old independence, one has to ask whether the foreign-educated of this period, who were later to include collaborators, were in fact more patriotic than the uneducated, many of whom were prominent in the struggle for national independence?
The “Young Abyssinia Party”
Many of the foreign-educated of this time were, however, significant as harbingers of reform, and social change. Interesting evidence of this is preserved in the memoirs of Herbert Vivian, a British traveller of the turn of the century. Writing in 1901, as an evident conservative, he tells us that he met, in Harar, “a member of what I may call the young Abyssinia party, a restless individual who had travelled much in Europe and brought back many ideas of what people are pleased to call progress. He told me quite gravely”, Vivian continues, “that he desired to see a Parliament established in Ethiopia”. The Englishman, who was little pleased to encounter such new-fangled ideas in “Darkest Africa”, comments: “all his constructive ideas were equally ridiculous”.
I leave it to readers to guess who was this member of the “young Abyssinia party”!
Ethiopian Scholars Abroad
Several Ethiopian scholars also travelled abroad in this period, to undertake research and/or teaching in foreign centres of learning. Though often forgotten, or undervalued, they played an important role in diffusing knowledge in Europe of their country’s languages, history, and ecclesiastical and other affairs.
Perhaps the best known of these Ethiopian expatriates was Alaqa Kefla Giyorgis, of Ankobar, who went to Rome, where he taught the famous Italian Ethiopisant Ignazio Guidi, author of a renowned Amharic-Italian “Vocabolario”, which was published in Rome, in 1901.
Also of great interest was Fesseha Giyorgis, of Yeha, who made a major contribution to Italian studies of Tigrinya and many Ethiopian religious matters.
No less worthy of mention was Alaqa Tayya, of Gondar, who travelled to Germany, where he rendered valuable service to Enno Littmann and several other German scholars.
These three Ethiopians were by no means lone figures in the European scholarly world, for there were half a dozen or so others. The whole question of the contribution of overseas Ethiopians to “foreign” Ethiopian studies in the nineteenth century (which recalls that of the Ethiopian, Abba Gorgoreyos, to the German, Hiob Ludolf, more than a century earlier) deserves more extensive research than it has thus far received. Surely an entire monograph will before too long be devoted to this important subject!
Education in Early Addis Ababa
Notable educational developments were meanwhile taking place within the country itself, notably at the capiyal, Addis Ababa.
Around the turn of the century Menilek appears to have instituted a school at his palace. The German envoy Felix Rosen learnt, in 1905, that young courtiers, under the supervision of Qanyazmach Yepsa, were instructed in good manners and courteous behaviour, as well as more formal subjects, such as reading and writing, calligraphy, religion, Ethiopian history, law, and Ge’ez.
The growth of Addis Ababa, the country’s first modern capital, also witnessed the emergence, according to the Georgian pharmacist Dr Merab, of perhaps a hundred private schools. The result, he notes, was that elementary education in the town was soon relatively well diffused. Such schools, in which pupils learnt how to read and write, were invariably of the traditional type, and were usually held in the open air, with the children sitting on the ground on a sheepskin, which they brought every day and took away with them every evening.
There were also, according to the same observer, a few private boarding schools for children whose parents wished to be rid of them, or who lived far from the capital.
In both types of school the “astamari”, or teacher, would be surrounded by some thirty students, who learnt to read and write, by singing aloud, thus developing their memories. (Merab is thus suggesting that perhaps three thousand Addis Ababa youngsters were attending schools of this sort). The students’ principal primer was, as in the past, “Dawit”, or the Psalms of David. Groups of four or five pupils would teach each other to spell while looking at a single copy of this revered Biblical, “Old Testament”, text. Instruction was generally free, teachers being sometimes paid by the Government, sometimes by the Church, and sometimes by a rich or pious philanthropist. The teacher, who was usually an old priest, and, according to our Georgian source, sometimes could not read and write, would normally receive six or seven Maria Theresa thalers, or dollars, besides his clothing. Self-respecting parents, who could afford to do so, however, usually employed their own teacher, who would be treated as a member of the family, or household.