addis tribune letter to editor:
Haile-Selassie in a Positive Light
Sir – Ato Tefera’s letter to the esteemed editor last week regarding Emperor Haile-Selassie was interesting in content. But he overlooked one important aspect of the former king’s tenure in power. Perhaps the historical journey of my family may shed some light on Ato Tefera’s oversight.
Frankly, I would not be in the position I am today were it not for the benevolent actions of the Emperor. I am currently thirty-four years old. I was four years of age when the emperor was brutally murdered. Over the years I have come to appreciate the role that the Emperor played in my father’s life, which still echoes in my life today.
My father hailed from a wretchedly poor Sodo Gurage family that was part of a massive exodus in the 1920s into the then thriving new city: Addis Ababa. The city saw its population rise dramatically as folks from all corners of Ethiopia entered it seeking fortune in the newly-emerging centralized market. He was born circa 1930 in what is now the Kuchira area of Merkato. His mother supported the family by working as an injera-baker (injera gagari).
Upon his return from exile in the aftermath of the Italian occupation, despite ardent objections from the ruling class, the Emperor was promoting modern education for Ethiopia’s youth. As part of this promotion, schoolboys would wear tidy uniforms and march through the streets of Addis in military formations, singing school songs and drawing the attention of young minds. One day my father saw one of these splendid marches. He returned to his mother and asked to be enrolled in school. Tired of my father’s persistent nagging, his mother pawned her wedding ring – the only valuable possession of the family – and enrolled him at a local school in Merkato. He eventually went on to attend a school run by a group of Jesuits who were brought into the country by the Emperor to advance higher education. At Teferi Mekonnen, my father excelled in his studies. He was granted financial aid by way of free tuition, room and board – courtesy of the Emperor.
He was then selected to be part of the first class to attend the newly-opened University College upon completion of his studies at Teferi Mekonnen. The campus was located at the old Imperial Palace, which was donated by the Emperor to promote higher education. The government granted my father a scholarship to India after he spent a year at University College. While he was away, Dr. Matt, a Jesuit educator at University College, supported my father’s mother by giving her five birr per month for nine years. My father was given the opportunity to attain a degree in civil engineering. While in India, he was employed for a time by a British consulting firm after graduating from college. He then returned to his homeland (as it was the norm at the time) despite multiple offers to proceed to Europe for “higher grounds.” Love and passion for country was a way of life in those days.
My family’s rise from the ashes of poverty is a testament to the many positive changes that Atse Haile-Selassie brought to the country. I am neither a royalist, nor do I ascribe to any political organization. Moreover, I believe that gone are the days of the royalty in Ethiopia. However, truth to tell, given the centuries-old, deeply-entrenched institutions that the late Emperor inherited from his predecessors (feudalism, slavery, isolationism, and ethnic strife at the highest level), he fought many political battles against the establishment to bring Ethiopia out of the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century. He followed the path of change pioneered by Emperor Menelik. Ato Tefera should keep in mind that Negus Haile Selassie was a product of a feudalistic system. Ethiopia was still recovering from the Age of Princes (Zemene Messafint) when he assumed power. But he was progressive enough to recognize that the country’s future depended on its entire people. My father once told me that classes at Teferi Mekonnen were comprised of Ethiopians from all corners of the country: Tigray, Amhara, Oromo, Gurage, Hadere, Eritrea, and so on and so forth. This should be a reminder that although ethnic and class divisions surely existed at the time, many from the masses took advantage of the progressive actions of the late Emperor. My father was not part of the ruling class by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity to improve himself.
There were many like him, who were from humble beginnings, and who went on to become physicians, engineers, aviators, military officers, lawyers, diplomats, et cetera. They became the backbone of the country’s newly-formed infrastructure - aviation, commerce, education, telecommunication, water and power resources, public health, construction, agriculture, international diplomacy – which were established by the efforts of the Emperor. My father was, indeed, part of the first mass educated generation of Ethiopia. The sons and daughters of these people are today spread throughout the world - the first exiled generation of the country.
Granted that the later days of the Emperor were not telling of his earlier efforts. Nonetheless, one should judge a leader by looking at the overall picture. What was the state of Ethiopia when Negus Haile-Selassie took over the leadership? And where was the country at the time of his demise? I will leave the answer to history and the future generations of Ethiopia. n
Los Angeles, California