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Modern education came to Ethiopia – and above all to Addis Ababa and its environs – in a series of waves: with the opening of schools and the coming
of foreign education to being sent to Bombay for modern education, did not attain any magnitude until the late 19th century when it first manifested itself in Addis Ababa.
The first foreign-educated Ethiopians, dear reader, emerged quite independently of the State. Those who became prominent, during the reign of Emperor Tewodros (1855-1868) included Mahedere Qal, who was taken to Paris by a French traveller; and a couple of half-Armenian brothers, Mercha Werke and Beru Werke, who were sent to Bombay for education by their Armenian father.
Protestant missionary interest in Ethiopia led meanwhile to the education in Jerusalem, and at St Chrischona, in Switzerland, in the late 1860s, of close on a dozen Ethiopians. Some of them were Falasha, or Beta Esrael, converts. The best known among them was Mikael Aragawi, a Christian missionary, about whom much has been written.
Another Ethiopian who acquired renown in this period was Hakim Warqnah, aka Dr Charles Martin, who was taken from the battlefield of Maqdala by British officers in 1868 – and in due course became Ethiopia’s first modern trained physician.
A somewhat smaller number of young Ethiopians were later taken abroad during the reign of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889). Some forty were sponsored by the Roman Catholic missionary De Jacobis, and perhaps half as many by a Swedish Evangelical mission, as well as by such varied individuals as the French scholar Joseph Halévy and the Russian adventurer, Nicholas Ashnikov.
Two German Protestant missionaries, C.W. Isenberg and J.L. Krapf, later set up a school for 30 to 40 Ethiopians in Shawa, while their colleague, Martin Flad, subsequently established several schools catering for 30 to 50 students elsewhere in the country. Swedish Lutheran, French Lazarist, and Italian Roman Catholic missionaries were also active teachers in Eritrea, where they catered for several hundred students and converts.
Emperor Menilek (1889-1913) was the first Ethiopian ruler expressly to despatch students for study abroad. He began doing so in 1894, in the decade after the establishment of Addis Ababa, when he sent the first three students to Switzerland. Five more followed shortly afterwards. The most prominent Ethiopian student in the country at that time was the renowned writer Afewerk Gabre Iyasus, who became Ethiopian envoy to Italy, and after the invasion, defected to the Italians.
Another Ethiopian student of note was the no less popular; Tessema Eshete, a musician and satirist who was taken to Germany by the German traveller Herr Holz. Menilek wanted him to be his chauffeur, but he preferred a more independent life.
The idea of sending Ethiopian students for study in the United States was also raised by the American envoy Robert Skinner who visited Addis Ababa in 1903. Menilek sagely replied, “Yes, our young men must be educated”.
To that end Menilek instituted a school for courtiers at his Addis Ababa Palace. Organised by Kagnazmach Ibsa, himself an educated courtier, this school gave instruction to about a hundred youngsters in a wide range of subjects, including reading and writing, Ge’ez, calligraphy, law, and Ethiopian history.
Aware of the potential opposition to his educational plans from the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Menilek took steps to invite teachers from the Coptic community in Egypt to come to Addis Ababa. Led by a Coptic educationist, Professor Hanna Saleb, who was later appointed director of Ethiopian Education, they arrived in Addis Ababa in 1907, and in the following year, founded Ethiopia’s first modern government-run school. Its establishment opened an important new era in the history of Ethiopian education.
This was the École Impériale Menilek, which started with about a hundred pupils, many of whom came from the “best”, and most influential families in the land. The school’s main language of instruction was French, but it also taught Amharic, Italian and Arabic, as well as mathematics and science, physical training and sports. Tuition and lodging were entirely free.
Addis Ababa was also the site of escalating missionary educational activity. In 1907, the town’s French community opened a school which was at first run in a small hut by the Brothers of St. Gabriel, but was later taken over by the Alliance Française , by which time it had about 150 students, all male, of whom 100 were boarders. Instruction was in French, but Amharic was also taught, as well as mathematics, science and geography.
Meanwhile, two Swedish Protestant missionary organisations in the Ethiopian capital were catering for some 170 students, 40 of them boarders, the latter including ten girls. The Seventh Day Adventists ran a smaller school, with 60 pupils, 40 of them boarders.
The next, and last, pre-war phase of Ethiopian history of education is conventionally associated with Ras Tafari Makonnen (the future Emperor Haile Selassie) after whom the principal school was named. Its administrator was for a time the afore-mentioned Hakim Warqnah. Starting with 50 pupils on its opening day, it soon numbered 300. Orientation – unlike that of the Menilek School – was more in English than in French.
This period, prior to the Italian invasion, also witnessed a substantial increase in the number of Ethiopian students sent abroad for education. Accurate statistics haven’t thus far been compiled, but one very rough count on the 1920s and early 1930s tells of over 100 going to France; 50 to the Vatican, at least 30 to Palestine, 15 to the United States and 15 to the United Kingdom; to Switzerland, Germany and Italy altogether perhaps 15.
(To be continued)