Articles in this series:
4. Ethiopian Students Abroad during Tafari Makonnen’s regent
The 1920s, as we saw last week, were a time when increasing numbers of young Ethiopians were despatched for study abroad. This policy was actively promoted by the then ruler, the Regent and Heir to the Throne, Ras Tafari Makonnen. His attitude to this educational enterprise is apparent from a speech which he made, on 17 December 1926, when receiving a batch of twenty-one students prior to their departure.
In this address, which was characteristic of his approach to youth, he spoke to the youngsters almost as a father to his sons, and declared:
“In our country, of which it can be said there are several million inhabitants, we have not, as you know, sufficient schools teaching languages and arts to cater for many children. Nevertheless, in the schools that have been established, there are now more than a thousand students; and if this number is small, it is no matter for surprise, but we hope that, by God’s goodness, the numbers will grow.
“It is some five or six years since we started to send students to Europe, as you are now going thither. We have heard no bad reports against any of the boys who had gone hitherto. You must not forget the saying ‘Unity is strength; disunity is injury’. With the aim of bringing honour and praise upon the name of Ethiopia, pursue your studies with suitable humility and diligence. If, on the contrary, you behave badly, it will certainly not only be yourselves who will be condemned, but you will also bring discredit to your country.
“To Help Your Country”
“We have chosen and despatched you so that you may help your country with the fruits of your education. If you learn well, and your character is good, you will be an honour both to yourselves and to your country; and you will further encourage our hopes.
“You should so behave in the presence of foreigners as to make them express the wish: ‘Since these few boys we have seen are of such high intelligence and good character, we should like many others to come for us to teach them.’ At the same time, however, I must tell you not to forget, while you are in the foreign country whither you are bound, the reading and writing of your own country’s language. To help you in this I am giving you some of the various books which I have had printed, and I recommend you to pay them diligent attention, and profit thereby.
“I further suggest that, since a person’s faults are not known to himself, you should choose three from among you, outstanding in knowledge and personality, who will observe your shortcomings, and advise you about them – this will be a safeguard for you!
“I pray God, on your behalf, that you will return safely to our undying Ethiopia, and that you may help her!
How and Where They Went
Most Ethiopian Government students going abroad in this period went first to Egypt and Lebanon, before transferring to Europe or America.
Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, and Palestine
The group in Egypt at one time numbered about forty students. The largest number were at Lycee Francais at Alexandria, and included many who subsequently went on to France. Among them was a future Ethiopian Prime Minister, Aklilu Haptewold, as well as such well-known figures as Kifle Irgetu, Asheber Gabre Heywot, and Tadesse Zeweldo. Several other students went to Victoria College.
The group in the Sudan was smaller, perhaps around fifteen. They included Aman Andom, a future general, who became Ethiopian Head of State, for a short time after the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.
The group in Lebanon, some thirty strong, were almost all in the American University of Beirut. They included Gabre Mariam Amante and Getahun Tessema, as well as Ingida Yohannes, Makonnen Haile and Makonnen Desta, who later went to the United States.
There were also about half a dozen students in Palestine, several of whom later proceeded to Europe.
The largest number of Ethiopian students abroad, over fifty in number, went to France. This was not surprising in view of the fact that French was then Ethiopia’s principal foreign language. A score of students studied political science, law or economics. They included Aklilu Haptewold, subsequently Ethiopian Prime Minister, Andargachew Masai, and Lorenzo Taezaz. Other students, whom we have been able to identify, studied such subjects as mathematics, civil engineering, radio telegraphy, architecture, and art.
Most of these students were in Paris, but there were others, too, in such places as Mulhouse and Montpellier. Though the majority took academic subjects, over a dozen attended the French military academy of St. Cyr, and at least three specialised in aviation. One of the latter, Tesfaye Mikael, became a fully qualified pilot at Le Bourget.
The students in France founded a society, the “Association Mutuelle de la Jeunesse Ethiopienne,” in 1929.
England and the United States
Ethiopian students in England were less numerous, a little over a dozen. They included two sons of the then Foreign Minister, Blattengeta Heruy, and several children of Haqim Warqnah, a sometime Minister in England; Yilma Deressa, who attended the London School of Economics, and later became an important Minister; Ayanna Berru, who went to the Camborne School of Mines; and two other future Ethiopian Ministers, Amanuel Abraham and Abebbe Retta.
Almost a dozen Ethiopian students likewise went to the United States. They included Makonnen Desta, who took anthropology at Harvard, and later became acting Ethiopian Minister of Education; Makonnen Haile, who studied finance at Cornell, and Ingida Yohannes, veterinary medicine at New York. Three other students, Melaku Beyen, Besha Worrid Hapte Wold and Worku Gobena, went to Muskingum, a missionary college in Ohio, two of them later transferring to Ohio State University.
Melaku Bayen subsequently founded a newspaper, the “Voice of Ethiopia”, in defence of his country’s independence, at the time of the Italian occupation. His slogan was “Better to die a free man than live in slavery!”
Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Belgium
Ethiopian Government students were also found in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, and elsewhere.
Almost forty Ethiopian students, despatched under Roman Catholic auspices, meanwhile attended the Pontificio Collegio Etiopico, in the Vatican, which was established by Pope Benedict XV in 1919. It replaced the old Hospice for Ethiopians, which dated back several centuries. Most of these students had come in six groups, between 1919 and 1932.
A group of 22 Falashas, or Ethiopian Beta Esra’el, students were also sent abroad, in the 1920s and 1930s. They went, under Jewish auspices, to study a wide variety of subjects, in various countries, including Palestine, Egypt, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and England.
Women’s Education Abroad
Women’s education advanced much slower than that of men. Nevertheless, the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Tsehai, was sent to Switzerland. She was tutored by Lola Flad, the granddaughter of the Swiss missionary of that name. During the Italian occupation Tsehai was well known as a nurse in England, and after the liberation set about establishing medical facilities in Ethiopia, but died prematurely. A hospital in her name was later founded in Addis Ababa.
During her Swiss days she was accompanied by Yemiseratch Imru, the daughter of Ras Imru, and Amsale Heruy, daughter of the Blattengeta Heruy. All three women were taught French by Lola Flad, and returned home with her, in 1928.
Shortly after this Kantiba Gabru’s two daughters, Yubdar and Sededu, were sent to St. Chrischona, near Basle. Senedu subsequently went to Lausanne. Imprisoned in Italy during the Italian occupation, she subsequently wrote a play on that event, and later became Director of the Manan School for Girls, and was Ethiopia’s first woman Member of Parliament.
Students sent abroad by the Ethiopian Government in this period included a significant number of youths from Eritrea. The Italian colony was then very poorly supplied with educational facilities, most of which, in view of the Fascist racial laws, were in any case not available to “natives”. Tafari and his Government, following established tradition, on the other hand made no distinction between Eritreans and other Ethiopians.
Eritreans educated abroad at Ethiopian Government expense included Lorenzo Taezaz, of Adi Caieh, Dawit Ogbazgy, of Daro Pawlos in Hamasen, and Saraqa Berhan Gabra Egzi, of Akala Guzay. Another Eritrean, Ato Ambay, who served as Ethiopian Political Director in Harar at the time of the Italian invasion, told the British journalist George Steer that he had left Eritrea “like all who had reached a certain level of education and could not bear a racial tyranny”.
Ethiopia’s student returnees were, for the most part, deeply patriotic. Their attitude may be seen in the words of a student, who, on returning from the United States, wrote in an Amharic poem:
If the Lord helps me and give 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 similar point of view was expressed by the LSE graduate Lej Yilma Deressa, who observed to the Hungarian journalist Ladislas Farago, immediately prior to the Italian war:
“We young Ethiopians are in duty bound to our country. We are the bridge that the Emperor has thrown across to European culture. It goes almost without saying that we are sent to finish our education in Europe or North Africa. Ethiopian students are to be found in all the important universities of the world. The Foreign Minister’s sons studied in Oxford and Cambridge . . . This growing generation will complete the civilisation of our country.”