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Reminiscences of my High School Days
By Fikre Workneh
MD, Psychiatrist
HMSS Student,1952-56

How I managed to enter Harar Medhane Alem Secondary School in the first place is still a mystry to me. The secret probably lies in being at the right time and at the right place. In the 5th and 6th grades H.S.I Elementary School in Harar, I was only the 2nd from the last in class. The last position was jealously guarded by a friend of mine who, as a result, didn't make it to the high school. When this, the first high school opened up in Harar, it offered unlimited opportunities. When this first term results of the 8th grade were out, however, the absence of my friend was quite conspicuous. I am thankful to a number of people, including some of my classmates who encouraged me to study and witnessed the change in me. I sometimes shudder with fear at the mere thought of my likely fate had I been in elementary school a few decades latter! We were clearly a very lucky group.

Harar Medhane Alem Secondary was a boarding school. The total number of students for the first few year was just around one hundred. It had three sections: the regular academic section of 5 years, the teacher training and later the commercial section, both programmes of two years. The facilities were upto date. Class rooms were fitted with imported individual seats and each student had a locker with a combination key lock. The mattresses and bed sheets were also imported. There were two large dormitories - affectionately called Qosta and Queen Mary- named after their sizes. Each used to accommodate forty to fifty students and were located on the top floor of the main building.

At first, the teacher were from Canada and USA with strong religious flavor and affiliated to the Sudan Interior Mission. Dr Wilson, the Director of the school, always had a smile on his face and treated us like his children, spanking us when we went late to class. Other teachers that I now recall were Miss Alberta, our Geography teacher who knew well her subject matter. Miss Lucy tought us Mathematics and focused in basics. For example, arithmetic was reduced to a multiplication drill, So was algebra. Mr Donald who also thought mathematics was a capable teacher but rather stingy with grades. He used to fail most of the students and was fond of saying afterwards " cheer up, the worst yet to come! ". I found that statement very useful later on life. Mr Jones, also a Geography teacher, was recruited from the Canadian Air Force. He used to keep us abrest of world events. He was an avid radio listener. He drove the school pickup as if he was air-borne. Dr Wilson and the other make teachers used to Alemaya and Kombolcha on Saturday to pick up fruits and vegetables for the school kitchen; and Dire Dawa for other shopping. It was a special treat to get a ride to one of those places.

I was in 10th grade when the Indian teachers took over from the American following students disturbance against the latter. The Indian teachers were selected mainly from Addis Ababa and the Harar area. Among them I recall Mr. Bala Subermariam a superb teacher of science and mathematics. He had an air of superiority, mixing very little with the other teachers. He was proud to show off that his neatly tailored khaki suites were all from Madras. He epitomized the pride of India. Mr Philips or "Mathematics" had unlimited reserve of patience and geared his teaching to the weakest students in the class. Our biology and chemistry teacher, Mr, Crib used to come to class with meticulously prepared notes and laboratory demonstration. Mr. Cherian "Geography",was a kind-hearted teacher who thought us geography and I believe also history. Students were fond of repeating his class statements such as the " climate is there, the soil is there, the crops are there, the mineral is there and everything is there". There was also Mr. Cheriam "biology" who, however, did not teach in our class.

Our Amharic teacher Ato Tekele Mariam Fantaye was a gentleman who was brought up in the old tradition of Ethiopian Orthodox church. One day I had a small misunderstanding with him which could have led into minor "war", in the corridor outside the class, but for the intervention of the other students. Imagine that!! In the end, no one was hurt. Ato T/Mariam, I am told, later wrote a book of an Amharic grammar which was a standard textbook for the whole country. I must admit that I never got high grades in Amharic. In fact I had a hard time grasping its grammar. On the other hand, my Adare classmate, Adus Abubaker, used to score high in Amharic in our class.

Of course, we used to hear a lot about some other teachers in the lower classes too. There was, for example, Mr Chabulla who used to teach English in the lower class. Students were fond of repeating his dramatic jesters and high sounding phrases.

The team leader of the Indian teacher and the Headmaster of HMSS was the impeccable Dr. Ghassawala, a rather short, wiry person with a large head, bald in the middle and large protruding eyes. He was, I believe in his forties at the time. There were a number of rumors circulating about him. Their source and authenticity were uncertain. These were that Dr. Ghaswala came from a rich Indian family of Persian orgin; that he got Ph.D. in physics in one of the big and famous Universities in Great Britain; and that he was a follower of Zoroastrianism. He was a confirmed bachelor.

Dr. Ghasswala was always impeccably dressed and used to enjoy a good perfume. When he did his night rounds in the dormitories to check if all students were in their beds, the perfume used to linger on for sometimes afterwards. Dr Ghasswala used to enjoy watching the students from the large balcony in front of his office. With his arms folded, he used to stand for long periods simply observing the students play or wash their hands and feet in preparation for dinner and later for sleep. After sunset, you could tell his presence from the glow of his cigarette. He was quick to show anger at appropriate times but also equally quick to forget about it. When he laughed it was loud and genuine, often covering the lower part of his face with his hands.

As a teacher, Dr Ghasswala was second to none. He thought the senior class English and Physics. His classes were never dull and handouts were available. Incidentally, the typing and duplication of the handouts were done by Girma Tadege and myself. Secretaries were never included in the budget in those days. Consequently, we had full access to his office where they typewriter and the duplicating machine were kept. It was a pleasure to listen to him in class or when he gave a speech to students at special occasions. His choice and flow of words and mastery of the English language was a delight to the ears. In short he was a gifted orator and had that captivating vice to go with it.

He trust of people had no limits. When a students asked for a book or note book he was simply given the key to the store to choose and pick. Sometimes the students was told to get the key from the pocket of his jacket hanging in his office. Often it was full of money. He was equally generous with his own money. To all 12th grade students due to sit for school Leaving Examination he used buy Easter Book fountain pens, each worth seven to ten birr in those days- not a small sum of money when one consider the size of the class. When he came to Addis Abeba , which was often, some of us used to get extra books on literature at his own expense.

I remember Dr.Ghasswala trying to drive a car. He was given a small Fiat - Topolinio - a highly treasured item in those days. Driving a car did not come easy to him. Though he was able to master the basic, he drove the car a few times only, relying more on the driver. The whole exercise, however, did not last long. He went back to what he enjoyed most, walking!

Dr. Ghasswala used to walk at the brisk pace. As soon as his heel touched the ground he bounced back like a ball and what you saw was a man standing on his toes. When he walked he seldom turned right or left; nor looked back. Dr. Ghasswala was in the habit of getting his tea at the Ras Hotel, a short walking distance from the school. He was very punctual about it. Leaving from and returning to the school at fixed times of the day. Some of us would sneak out of the school and follow him at a safe distance; walk around for sometimes and return a few minutes before him. It was against the rules to go out of school except on the prescribed weekends.

My high school days were filled happy memories. I remember the times when Girma and I used to spend hours studying perched on one of the branchers of the big fig tree on the right side of the main entrance. We were preparing mainly for the School Leaving Certificate. We used to play tennis with a rectangular wooden board. It was fun. I recall the big earthquake that took place at night with mixture of fear and amusement. That night all of us run out to the open space in panic. Some were stark naked and others had only their blanket around them. Pajama were not fashion yet. You could hear the rumbling sound of the earth beneath you as the earthquake wave came toward you at a fast speed. It produced eery feelings in all of us. The rumbling lasted a couple of days. Girma and I tried to imitate the earthquake by jumping repeatedly in one of the empty classrooms the effect was dramatic. The students, as usual, ran out of their classes in panic.

Friday night was movie time. The films used ti be rather repetitive; but they were fun just the same. They were mainly on university life, nature and religious themes. Most night after the lights were out , Amare Worku would give his "Talk Show from Abebe Sefer, Garamuleta". In a loud voice that filled the large dormitory, he would narrate, in his own dramatic way, events of the day in the school. It was always hilarious. Of course, that was normally done after the night supervisor had left. One night, all of us were caught off guard. When Dr. Willson put on the light, lots of students were not in thier beds but laughing and talking in small groups. He asked all the students to get out of bed and run around the big building three tiems. I simply covered myself with my blanket and remained in bed withour being descovered.

Dr. Ghasswala established the ping-pong room, not far from his office, and was the patron of the game. He encouraged us to play and enjoyed playing it, too. He was infact, very good at it. he would often bet with a student before the game and gave out a ball or a botebook if he lost the game.

Girma and I built a pin-whole camera. One day with every body watching we chose a prominent spot to take a picture of the shool buildings. The result, however, was less thatn expected. You could deemly see the battries. It was functional and we were very proud to show it to others. The senior class had thir dormitories moved to the small building housing the offices. There, we used to listen to Sudanese music on Fridays from Radio omdurman, courtesy of Ato Seifu Feleke. I thoroughly enjoyed my high school days. It was one of the happies perod of my life.

Dr. Ghasswala was once heard saying that his religion is to do good. No one could fault him on that. The staff of the school and above all, Dr. Ghasswala, made our stay at Harar M.S.S happy and unforgetable. Dr. Ghasswala loved his students by whom he was loved and much admired. He was an unforgetable person.

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