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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