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When a certain language is used to narrate our surroundings and experiences, the cultural conotations that exist behind it, the experiences of the natives of that particular language, pervade into the general milieu. Recently, an article vilifying English, painting it as a self-imposed colonizing tool was published in African Arguments, under the misleading title ‘Ethiopia was colonized’. It asserts that, as was the case with colonized African nations, that English affects local narratives in Ethiopia, implying that our nation was colonized, irrelevant of its claims of being the sole un-colonized society on the continent.
In relation to Ethiopian history and its presentation in schools, the author tries to draw parallels with other African countries: My experience no doubt resonates with many people across Africa, where colonialism elevated European languages and history in the education system while devaluing local languages and histories. This statement follows a previous one which lays the blame at the feet of the English language and the educational system that favors it for the incompleteness of Ethiopian history and its narration: I left school feeling I lacked a coherent understanding of my country’s history. Ethiopian history taught in schools is heavily influenced by the fact that an overwhelming portion of it is told from the perspective of the habesha, highlanders with supposed ties to King Solomon. Events, figures, deeds, wars and such follow a single vein of progression. Most of the histories of the ethnicities incorporated into the fold after Menilik’s expansion wars have yet to be interpreted in a meaningful manner. Granted there do exist various texts dealing with the culture and history of other ethnicities but they have yet to be integrated into the general pedagogical structure. Moreover, the fact that Amharic enjoys the label of being the official language makes the expression of these neglected segments more difficult. Therefore, the lack of coherent historical education has more to do with the Amharic cultural hegemony rather than with English and Western influence. The very elites from the Haileselasie Era credited with the institution of Western education were actually responsible for cementing Amharic’s cultural eminence in schools, further reinforcing historical distortion.
In Native Colonialism, the book authored by Woldeyes and referenced by the article’s author, he proposes ‘the education system be reconstituted on the foundations of Ethiopia’s rich legacy of traditional philosophy and wisdom’. He further states ‘before the rise of Western knowledge, political and social status were justified on the basis of traditional beliefs and practices’. This nostalgic view of the nation’s past, commonly echoed by regresionists of all sorts, places undue importance on concepts with little documentation. What exactly are these traditions of philosophy? Where are the tomes containing existential writings? Can we simply rely on oral traditions? How does wisdom translate on the ground? How can we use these abstract concepts to analyze something as concrete as say computer programing? Woldeyes further states, ‘In the Ethiopian Tewahido Church…education was part of an endless journey of knowledge-seeking…grounded in the two core values of wisdom and humility’, a statement which yet again reflects the impractical nature of concepts such as humility, wisdom, and *ahem* endless journeys. Besides the sobering reminder of the church’s involvement in education, these airy concepts offer no tangible methods for dealing with the plethora of knowledge that exists out there.
What we seem to forget is the fact that Ethiopian society is generally not dynamic. One of the hardest crops to cultivate, Teff, a food group which is known for its low calories, a quality ill-fitting a malnourished society such as ours, has been used since time immemorial with little modification. This is a quaint example of the stagnation that defines our country, translating to philosophy, architecture, math and the like. Being forced to adapt shouldn’t be confused with abandonment of established norms, even when those norms tend to be imagined. If our society were left to advance at its own pace, how long do you think it would take our ‘elders’ and ‘religious leaders’, under the watchful gaze of overbearing religious institutions, to deliver the necessary ‘revolution’ required to make sense of the knowledge that exists out there?
Another question we need to ask is how effective has the modern educational system been in dispersing English and Western culture within the society. We tend to overestimate its impacts on the local citizenry. Despite the fact that it happens to be the language of instruction in higher education centers, when was the last time you encountered a civil servant fluent in English? Do you hear the workers carping away in English at your local Kebele? Have you observed heated western topics being debated in English at your local clinic? How many people around you know what a bagel is? Are papers within the Ministry of Health written in English? NO! Despite the emphasis placed on the importance of the language, the penetration of the English has been poor. Many of the employees, with full-fledged degrees, can barely read and write in this language.
Moreover, English offers access to the wider world in ways that Amharic, or any other local language, simply can’t. It is the lingua Franca of academia. It is necessary for quality education overseas. It is required for employment in international companies, which happen to offer high paying jobs in the country. English can also provide an ideal escape from the current, local phenomenon of Amharization of other cultures. I realize this means replacing one unpleasant plate with another but the latter one happens to be foreign, lacking the bitter aftertaste of historical baggage, compare it with trying to substitute Amharic with Oromifa.
However, I would like to stress the need for maintaining local languages. Why wouldn’t it be possible to attain fluency both in your own ethnic language and English? I speak Amharic, Tigrigna, and English fluently. Why shouldn’t the educational system push for the preservation of local norms with the introduction foreign ones? We would be left partaking in a rich stew.
By Agazi Fitsum