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By Mahdi Mohammed
HMSS Student, 1950-56

As it often happen in life, there is occasional derailment of happy memories. High school is a milestone in the growing pains of adult-childhood, filled with experiment relation and sprinkled with a strange mixture of sensual excitement, intellectual and frustration.

I certainly had my full-share of pleasant memories and it could take a few pages to expound. However the following is narrated with the intention of demonstrating that there were occasionally, spoilers of what was otherwise a life of joy and fun, coming from totally unexpected direction. We have come a long way since then; and this writer is confident that will stride forward steadily in the coming days. At this point, it is preferred to continue the narration in the form of third person.

These were the post- Hannolatto days when the city people were quick to blame the authorities for every ill that befell them; and, from the other side, the authorities were even quicker to point fingers at " those people who can't be trusted" for every political setback they suffered at national and regional levels. So, the atmosphere was heavily charged with suspicions and counter suspicions; and trust was a commodity that was very rare.

It so happened that a young boy, who stood at the top in his province in the Elementary School Leaving Exams, was assigned to the Technical School in Addis. He and two other students from other towns in Hararghe refused to eat Muslim food there. The matter was eventually referred to the Ministry of Education where the Director General decreed that one of the three be sent back to Harar Medhane Alem Secondary School. So far, so good; that was what they wanted anyhow. But the unexpected thing was that the official, whose name was Mekonnen Zewde, also decreed that one of the three, this writer, be a day student, the apparent reason for his gross decision being that the boy came from the city, unlike the other two.

At HMSS and in the city nobody could understand this unfair decision against an innocent boy; and the foreign teachers were surprised too. In those days, there were no students organizations or protesters and nobody questioned or challenged this kind of flagrant irregularity. However, a couple of concerned senior students, DURI MOHAMMED (the current Ethiopia ambassader to UN) and BZUNAH H/SELASSIE in particular, tried hard to bring the plight of the boy to get free lunch rather than walk 3 kms to and from his home for lunch under the scorching midday sun. They also drafted a couple of letters, addressed to the Ministry of Education with the boy signature, pleading his case. In no time, it was the end Of the first term; and this boy and one of the other two mentioned earlier were promoted to the next class. Those of the city people who came to know of the incident, found yet another reason to voice out their distrust of the authorities that have now started "oppressing" one of their children. A few others offered financial help to the boy and asked him not to give up.

At the end of second term, the boy stood second in his new class, at that juncture the Director of the school, Dr Ghasswalla, could not help taking notice of the boy. He started getting involved by pleading to the head of the office of education, Ato Mosissa, and his assistant, Assefa Lulsegged, bu writing to them which proved to be futile. Then, at the beginning of the following academic year (1951-52), the Director summoned the student to his office, promised him that he would exert all his effort to help him get admitted in to the boarding school and encouraged him to keep up his grades. The year passed with little event, and the Director kept up his lone campaign. At the end of the year, he once again called the boy to his office, but this time he hinted that he would accept him as a boarding student, no matter what happened.

When students showed up for classes in September 1952, Dr Ghasswalla was there standing at his favourite veranda vantage point, cross armed, surveying the flock of returning and aspiring new students. As good as his word, when he saw the boy he called him up and beaming with characteristic smile, handed him his school uniform and sheets without uttering one word. The boy thanked him and proceeded on with his life.

The above events linger in my memories as if it happened a few months ago. Even when I found out that the Director General who referred to earlier was the overseer of Church interest at the Ministry of Education, I could not accept that a foreigner had more sympathy on a young boy's fate than a supposedly responsible high government official ! Has he had done similar things to others? But then, couldn't he have expelled all three of us with dash of his pen? Is it possible that faith was at the core if his incomprehensible, shortsighted action? Many more unanswered questions? It is true that I never felt bitterly sore or bore deep grudge against the man, but I always wished to know if he ever remembered what he had done and whether he regretted that sorry decision. How would I have felt if he had interrupted my schooling because of that?

On a more positive note, that fact that HMSS was one of the few high schools in the country, and perhaps the only one outside of Addis at that time, greatly contributed toward young people getting introduced the art of coexistence, tolerance among different ethnic groups and eventually a comprehensive o the next students feelings and standing on "hot" issue like politics and religion. The mixing of these groups, holed up inside one compound produced uneasy acquaintance at first, which developed into fast and lasting friendship later. For the first time, we heard of places like Gimbi, Yerga Alem, Shire and boys with funny accents passing for Amharas. A gregarious student from Wellegga, later a commander in the imperial Navy, by the name of Negga Negere, after visiting the exotic Magala in the city for the first time, is said to have asked "Are Ethiopians Aderes ?" apparently wanting to say "Are Adares Ethiopians?"

As a young Harari who felt his people has been singled out for undue oppression by the regime due to their faith, it was totally unexpected for the young boy in our history to learn that some students from Wellega and Tigrai and even some Amharas were voicing out grievances of state oppression, for reasons not related to religion. So, even in oppression, the students had common denominators. How refreshing?

Well then, the Harari boys, too, responded by opening up. Trust flourished to the extent of inviting classmates to wedding ceremonies and to exclusive "chat barcha sessions". This writer couldn't help remembering the kind of hearted, elderly accountant at the Ministry of education who offered to eat "non-Christan" food to prove to us, three, that eating meat of an animal killed by the follower of any religion did not kill. He had urged us not to abandon our education for the sake of food. In hind sight, I think he should have been the Director-General of the Ministry, after all!

Perhaps prejudices that were built up over decades, and still being kept aflame by interest groups, may not disappear overnight, but we have come a long way in the last fifty years since Medhane Alem Secondary School was founded. There is much more ground for improvement, and this writer is confident that we, together, will demolish the remaining obstarcles and build a better tomorrow for our country and our children.

On one of my travels back to Harar, as a working man, I was lucky to run into Dr. Ghasswalla at the Ras Hotel. Over lunch the next day, he reminesced a great deal on a number of students, whose names he couldn't even remember. I reminded him that some students were running straight to the dictionary after they received a rebuke from him. They just wanted to know the meaning of the words he used and cared little about the rebuke itself. When he was told that old man Kassa Endalkachew joined the Health College in Gondar, Dr. Ghasswalla chuckled and remarked "judging from his (Kassa's) illegible hand writing. I would hesitate to submit my body to his operating knife". Then we talked a bit about our former Indian teachers and it was my turn to ask him about them. Surprisingly, he kept track of their wherea bouts. He added that so far he himself had resisted to be transferred to another school or another province. He preferred to leave the country rather than be relocated. He harboured such great love and attachment to this historical city. He cared for his students like a father would for his children.

He was a man who would pay individual attention and cocern, without making it a public affair. Calm, confident and irate- when the situation demanded, he attracted the respect and admiration of his students and of the teachers working for him. He silently worked for the academic achievement of his all-Indian-teacher school, when all other high schools in Addis were linked to Europe or America. And he was proud of his school. We specially talked about Cherian (Biology) the young teacher he liked. In a table-tennis game, he used to give Cherian a few advance points and beat him in front of on-looking students laughing. Mr. Cherian took the defeat as a personal insult. But the 'insult" was repeated every week or so, and Dr. Ghasswalla boyishly enjoyed to see Cherian fume with range!

I wish to close this short note with a short but a heart-felt tribute to our School Director, Dr. Ghasswalla.

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