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The name of Abraham [Abiy] Ford in his lifetime and death invokes feelings of admiration and respect in the hearts and minds of many people. But personally, Abiy is not just a name in the footnotes of history, but the true spirit of Ethiopian born scholar at home and Diaspora. His legacy will be remembered as a celebration of excellence in service and truth in freedom of choice and speech.
Professor Abraham [Abiy] Ford was born on March 5, 1935 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and died on May 9, 2018. Abiy was an Ethiopian by birth and rich culture. He belongs to distinguished ancestry of Afro-Barbadian and Afro-American heritage. His parents migrated to Ethiopia in response to Marcus Garvey’s call for a return to Africa. Ethiopia as an independent country in Africa has already been known as a haven for freedom of choice and protection from oppression for peoples of diverse cultures and faiths. It was for the same reason that when a small number of Muslims were oppressed in Arabia arrived in Abyssinia [now Ethiopia] fourteen centuries ago. They were exhorted to flee and live in a country that was ruled by a just ruler. Ethiopia since time immemorial has become the magnet of freedom of conscience, human dignity and respect for individual birth rights and identity.
Abiy’s celebration of life reminds us of how free people living together in a haven endowed with coexistence of races and cultures. Abiy is the oldest son of Arnold Josiah Ford, a musician, a theologian, a rabbi, a teacher, a linguist and his wife the “Great Teacher” Minion-Lorraine-Innis, a musician, an educator, a tennis instructor, an Eagle Scout and pioneer of scout head start in Ethiopian schools. Abyi Ford and his brother Yosef Ford earned the coveted first boy scout master and troop leadership badge known for its triple fingers symbolizing “Loving God and Country, Being Altruist, And Obeying the Rule”. A badge of honor I wore as I am also a boy scout to serve and obey the rule to salute him farewell.
Abyi’s mother despite the Italian occupation became one of Ethiopia’s pioneer educators to establish the first modern co-education school named after Princess Zenebe Worq. On the other hand, his father Arnold Ford, was also able to direct the only short-lived school of music and language in Addis Ababa when he died and buried in Ethiopia in 1935. He was a political activist and a composer of the first Universal Ethiopian Anthem that was adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association [UNIA] in 1920.
Abiy followed his parental’ s pioneering trail and first college graduate from the School of Communications of Columbia University in New York. He was also trained and served as a pilot in US Air Force. He flew his personal one engine plane as trainer. As Emeritus Professor of the School of Communications of Howard University, he returned to his beloved birthplace to enrich the national renaissance agenda for higher learning institutions in Ethiopia since 2007.
Abiy’s altruism coupled with creative imagination was driven by the humble idea of helping to establish a school of journalism and thereby creating conditions to nurture a free press in Ethiopia. In as much as his career in fine arts that begun at Howard University, a premier Historically Black Comprehensive University for more than four decades, he managed to contribute to teaching films, radio and television and graduation of first talented intergeneration leaders of African and Ethiopian descents in the United States.
Abiy’ s vision for Ethiopian higher and secondary education was realized when he felt that immersion is the catalyst of active knowledge about fine arts education designed in modules for innovative curriculum to be taught in promising secondary schools and colleges and universities in Ethiopia. The pilot test of was realized during the summer break he volunteered to teach in secondary schools in a collaborative project developed by few faculty from Howard University interdisciplinary working group to develop interdisciplinary curriculum well before his retirement in 2006.
Abiy mentored and encouraged young Ethiopian film makers to seek Fulbright Scholarship, as well as enroll in other academic opportunity available for Africans. In so doing, he consistently yearned to establish ties between Addis Ababa University and international sister institutions.
According to Professor Andreas Eshete, former President of Addis Ababa University: “Abiy was also a force behind an initiative to form a film school. He used his professional talent to engage and challenge his colleagues and peers to join him in his mini projects about the future of Ethiopian film. In so doing, “Abiy was a cherished presence in various musical hands beginning to flourish in Addis.” His musical talent led him to be involved in the Ethiopian Millennium Musical Festivals. In his free time and uncompensated non-university activities, as an accomplished pianist and percussionist, he played at Addis Ababa Jupiter Hotel almost every Thursday. Every time I visit Addis Ababa, I see him there because it is a privilege to listen to his music not only in private homes but also public square concerts in Addis and Washington, D.C.
His lifetime dream after his retirement from Howard, had always been to build an African-American museum at the site of his mother’s lovely, old school. Given his indefatigable altruism and love of his country of birth place many of his colleagues building a museum that would have been a fitting memorial to his remarkable Ethiopian family, as well as his belonging to proud Afro-Caribbean and African-American family who became quintessential patriotic Ethiopians.
The Board of Howard University has affirmed in its resolution to celebrate Abyi’s lifetime accomplishments as an exemplar for his colleagues and peers to do things beyond call of duty in the classroom to capture the existential needs for education that fit his people in the real world. In so doing, “Abiy Ford maintained close professional relationships in both Ethiopia and the United States. As one of the pioneers and faculty member in the Department of Radio, Television and Film in the School of Communications, he also attained the rank of tenured professor, developed courses and programs on Film and Journalism, and published in peer-reviewed journals.”
By all measures of excellence in service and truth, Abiy was also a gifted linguist in Amharic, French, English and Italian which made him a distinguished consultant and delegation leader on behalf of Howard University and Addis Ababa University in Africa, USA, Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada.
Abiy’s work earned him a rare two years of consecutive Fulbright Scholarship that took him to Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and other parts of Africa. After his retirement from Howard University in 2006, Emeritus Professor Abiyi Ford was able to fulfill his lifetime vision as a scholar and educator, par excellence.
The of Board of Trustees of Howard University also shared the feelings of many of us that “ words cannot adequately express their heartfelt sympathy to his daughter Ms. Miniyabi Ford, as Howard Alumna, and her entire family. The Board also articulated the altruism, congenial personality, unpretentiousness and communication skills encompassing world vision of his country Ethiopia and Africa.” It also noted that the former President of Addis Ababa University, Professor Andreas Eshete, lauded Professor Ford for his significant and indispensable contributions for humanity studies.
Professor Andreas Eshete, on this occasion as always, “remembered Abiy as a vivid, living symbol of the enduring bonds binding the lives of Afro-Caribbean, African-Americans and Ethiopians.” By all measures of excellence like Andrea Eshete, everyone who knew Abiy felt he has inculcated in his students, peers, friends and public audience “the missed in the country that he, in a genuine spirit of Pan-Africanism, made his abiding home.”
Many of his colleagues and scholars felt welcome in academia and other social settings where ever he served. They desire to have him as their mentor and center of affection. His wisdom, prudence and depth of scholarship are visible and hard to forget his words, smiles, bushy mustache, modest and unassuming manners in teaching interdisciplinary Ethiopian and African history in one of the oldest Historically Black University celebrating its 150 years of existence. I have shared the limelight to be in his academic circle to learn from his experience when I teach international health and development subjects.
Abiy, a genuine boy scout buddy, throughout his life was there to help junior faculty as newcomers, as well as undergraduate and graduate students to learn and enrich their lives as advocates of Ethiopia and Pan African’ ideas and ideals in Diaspora. He valued openness as a culture to treasure in our service in public diplomacy and dialogue, as well as means of civil discourse to resolve differences are healthy democratic culture that enrich peaceful coexistent life styles. The ongoing debate surrounding Pan African scholars has taken deep-root and life of its own during his lifetime and that of his parents, colleagues and peers in Diaspora, but he cherished his love of Ethiopia as a challenge of lifetime project in pathway of freedom of thought and expression.
Abiy will be remembered by many friends as a gentle debater, critical thinker and challenger who exemplify excellence in service and truth when everything he did is on the balance of his stamina to do many things. He travelled many thousands of miles as itinerary preacher and spokesman. More important he was a loving, caring and compassionate person family man and a friend ready to share his genuine feelings. Those who know him could not hold their feeling and outpouring admiration for his refined culture and urbane humanism. Many tears were shed because of fear of the vacuum created by his departure and loss of his paternal wisdom at all occasions. I witnessed it on May 14, 2018 at the Celebration of Life dedicated to a beloved professor “Abraham Abiy Ford at Howard University, Washington, D.C. USA
In the final analysis, as a brilliant communicator, many of his audience felt they will grow intellectually when he challenged them to debate issues and respect freedom of choice and speech. He approached them believing that constructive engagement and dialogue are the mainstay of one’s universal values, beliefs and acceptance of diversity as one of the strongest legacy to be preserved where people live, work and establish their home. Abiy’s legacy will be remembered, as well as his familiar lineage of the source of rare patriotic breed that lived and buried in the rich earth of Ethiopia. Our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends and especially his daughter Miniyabi and his grandson Fasil who will be the torchbearers and successors of a great heritage and scholarship.
By Ahmed A. Moen, DrPH, MPH, MHA
Howard University, Washington, D.C, USA