The Rationale Behind Teaching & Studying Ethiopian History

September 21, 2018 Africa , Interviews , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER

Beth Moon photo

 

By

Alem Hailu G/Kristos

 

 

History helps us understand people and societies, it contributes to moral understanding and provides identity; studying history is essential for good citizenship and history is useful in the world of work. Some argue that history has been justified for reasons that Africans no longer accept – history that was thought as if it was the narrative of its colonizers and rulers but not of its people.

 

Civic education, learning about and appreciating one’s rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities as a citizen and the immediate rules, laws and governance structures within which one exercises citizenship is the first and fundamental step in citizenship. Nevertheless, we have narratives that our children must learn.

 

Three thousand years ago, Axum was the seat of the earliest Ethiopian kingdom and one of the holiest grounds and traded with the world from the ports of Adulis and subsequently Massawa were the gateway of the Ethiopian Empire. One of the earliest holy mosques in the world is the holy Islamic faith centre, Negash built before many Muslim nations had a mosque. The Ottomans who attempted to colonise Ethiopia were defeated buy Emperor Yohannes and Ras Alula. Ethiopian forces defeated the Italian army at Mequelle on 21 Jan 1986 and at Adwa on first of March 1896.

 

Adwa has become a quintessential emblem and a pedestal for Pan-Africanism – an important political form of a religious Pan-Africanist worldview appeared in the form of Ethiopianism. Ethiopia still stands as one of the un-colonised nation in Africa.

 

Pertaining to the aforementioned summarized issue I had a moment of togetherness with Costantinos Berhutesfa Costantinos, PhD Chief Scout, Ethiopian scout Association &President, Lem Ethiopia. He is author of the book ‘Unleashing African Resilience‘ pertaining to the Rationale behind Teaching & Studying Ethiopian History. Below are some extracts from the interview:

 

 

What is the significance of giving Ethiopian History courses?

 

I am not a historian, but as a citizen, I have had the chance to learn and read Ethiopia historical narratives in school and during my professional life. The current deluge of historical novels and books also serves an opportunity to read more. First, let me summarise the highlights of the culmination of our three thousand year historical narratives teaching in a few paragraphs. This will help why Ethiopian children of all nations and nationalities who need to appreciate and be proud of our historical narratives that every adult of my age has learned in school.

 

Three thousand years ago, Axum was the seat of the earliest Ethiopian kingdom and one of the holiest grounds and traded with the world from the ports of Adulis and subsequently Massawa were the gateway of the Ethiopian Empire. One of the earliest holy mosques in the world is the holy Islamic faith centre, Negash built before many Muslim nations had a mosque. The Ottomans attempt to colonise Ethiopia were defeated buy Emperor Yohannes and Ras Alula. Ethiopian forces defeated the Italian army at Mequelle on 21 Jan 1986 and at Adwa on first of March 1896.

 

 

What is the imperative to teach our children Ethiopian History?

 

Peter N. Stearns of the American Historical Association, in his article why study history, undergirds the fact that history helps us understand people and societies, the importance of history in our own lives, history contributes to moral understanding, history provides identity, studying history is essential for good citizenship and history is useful in the world of work. Some argue that history has been justified for reasons that Africans no longer accept – history that was thought as if it were the narrative of its colonisers and rulers but not of its people. Nevertheless, we have narratives that our children must learn.

 

More than any other nation, Axum became the Seat of the earliest Ethiopian kingdom and one of the holiest grounds, the Church of St. Mary of Zion. The Holy Mosque of Negash built before many Muslim nations had one and the earliest monasteries established by the “Nine Saints” who spread the gospel are found in Ethiopia. The Ottomans attempt to colonise Ethiopia were defeated by Emperor Yohannes and Ras Alula in Gundet and Gurae. As the area through which all trade and communi­cations passed to and from the ports of Adulis and subsequently Massawa were the gateway of the Ethiopian Empire.

 

During 1890s, the relation be­tween Ethiopia under Emperor Men­elique and Italy rapidly deteriorated because of the Treaty of Wuchalle. Ulti­mately, an advance party of Ras Alula, Ras Mekonnen, Ras Mikael and Ras Wolle and a number of commanders was dis­patched to join Ras. On 7 Dec 1895, Ethiopia gained her first victory at Amba Alage, and forces successively defeated the invading army at Mequelle on 21 Jan 1986 and at Adwa on 1st of March, 1896.

 

Adwa has become a quintessential emblem and a pedestal for Pan-Africanism – an important political form of a religious Pan-Africanist worldview appeared in the form of Ethiopianism. Ethiopia’s African diasporic religious symbolism grew in the 1800s among blacks in the US and the Caribbean, through a reading of Psalm 68:31, Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth its hands unto God, as a prophesy that God would redeem Africa and free the enslaved.

 

Our quintessential narratives are priceless and hence, every child must learn this.

 

 

Is the stoppage of the course ascribable to the current political chaos – a generation that does not have an inkling about its roots and bickers over ethnic lines?

 

Historical narratives of this great nation such as that of Axum, Adwa, Gonder, Harar, Lalibella, etc., written well, serve as our as our practicum that generate information of our past and teach us where we came from and as our most dynamic evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out who we are. Ethiopians have common folklore, legends and battle narratives through which they have invested in their culture with meaning and value.

 

The bygones causes the contemporaneous, and so the forthcoming. Historical narratives teach us real resolve on our current level of comprehension, narratives that unpack how our ancestors kept the nation in one piece, thrived despite external and internal wars, and inform us of how these ancestors lived in various epochs of Ethiopian history.

 

It is a grave error of not schooling our children with these facts in mind.

 

 

Every country put its history as a common/core course (such a case is there in America, China or Russia), assessing past trends (during your generation and EPRDF’s Era) how do you analyse the polarity between our common history and revolutionary ideology?

 

In identifying the three thousand year historic national tradition as an obstacle for revolutionary democracy, the regime equates the problems posed within the provisos of the social democracy doctrine. Committed by its nature of its political struggle to such standards and ideals, it portrayed the three millennia old narrative as an inherent impediment to pluralism. In place of people established through collective memory and effective history, it desired a nation constructed through concepts and formulae of revolutionary democracy. The issues of political transition it articulates in this context can therefore be seen in part as whatever it states within its ideological problematic, whether its formulation of the issues have anything to do or not with the democratic transition.

 

Indeed, it may be little more than a setting for experimenting with the themes of inter alia, abolition of class oppression and ethnic precincts created against conventional norms of regional administration. Collective memories must then give way to ideology as a basis of national sentiments and instincts and be replaced by revolutionary argument and justification. Following the lead of the radical student inspired movements of the seventies; its rationality rejected tradition in favour of forms of contemporary nationalism based on themes of self-determination and state capitalism.

 

I have been on record undergirding the fact that this claim of reductionism in approach to historical narratives along with the naïvely rationalist criticism that goes with it is predicated on the polarity it draws between historically sedimented values, sentiments and symbols, on the one hand. On the other hand contemporary ideas of self-determination based on a dualism of effective history and radical ideology. This polarisation is indefensible in its assumption that the two forms of national experience are mutually exclusive; hence, the arguments it is based on, becomes untenable. Political issues of self-determination inevitably raise problems, which cannot be neatly enslaved within either any one of these ethnic groups or contemporary ideology. While they constitute more or less distinct cultural arena, one cannot conclude they can be seen in isolation from or in opposition to issues of historic tradition.

 

They constitute broader national elements, intersections, consequences and forms of national experience that are not necessarily incompatible and need not be in conflict. Rather, they are mutually paired. They need not be defined in terms of individual schemes or aggregate of them, but addressed within board-based multi-ethnic process. The commitment to progressive ideas of pluralism and ethnic quality does not compel the use of ethnocentric nationalism in a way that devalues and negates national traditions. The commitment to pluralism does not necessarily entail a rejection of our ancestral heritage. If historic nationalism cannot be said to have a core tradition shared by all ethnic groups, neither, can it be characterised as entirely lacking in elements that cut across and connect diverse communities.

 

The polarity between historical and ideological basis of our unity can serve a useful critical purpose of evaluating the values and assumptions of citizens against the categories and models of liberationist nationalism. It can help to emphasise the point that its collective memory and experience as a nation should not constitute a drag. Nonetheless, this is not possible so long as the trendiness construes, as it does, the relation between historical and ideological bases in simple opposition terms and attempts to limit historic perception entirely to the present. The problem with the exposé of the tradition as a problem for democratic change, then, is that certain processes, implicitly or explicitly, prevent that tradition from entering into meaningful dialogue with extant politics. The former is excluded from the latter or figure-in only in the overly politicised usage of despotic chauvinism, merely as a target of deconstruction.

 

Oppression of nationalities has been made the defining characteristic, the sum-total of national tradition, but Ethiopians have folklore, legends and battle narratives through which they have invested in their culture with meaning and value. These have been subjected to materialist criticism from the perspective of scientific standards of historical truth as if they were simply epistemological categories and concurrently dismissed as lacking footing in historical facts.

 

Belatedly, the historical-ideological polarity has placed a heavy emphasis on ethnic diversities rather than commonalities. This over-emphasis really, is the other side of the equally over-politicised identification in the phrase of the student movement, a prison of nations, hence, the demand the nation to be born again, and born different through self-determination. It would be a faux pas, however, to suggest that this demand, along with the highly negative and overly politicised view of the historical process of state formation on which it is based, constitutes the spontaneous response of communities to their incorporation into the polity. It is not necessarily democratic or popular. No one entire ethnic community in Ethiopia has ever been locked in combat with another or with the state in an all-out struggle for ethnic cleansing or liberation. To mention a few narratives.

 

 

EPRDF had tried to replace it with civic courses. How do you see this? Do Civic courses help in better fighting out corruption? Must the two courses be given parallel?

 

Beyond platitudes and good intentions, many civil institutions cannot participate in dialogue with states because they lack the personnel with requisite skills and facilities such as research centres and Think Tanks, to inform their arguments or present credible data to support their assertions. Far more critical in determining both the level and quality of dialogue between states and civil society is the political and economic context in which states find themselves. The context for dialogue, co-operation and interface between states and people’s and community-based organisations has so far been determined largely by the rules and wishes of the state and the international donor community. African states enjoy limited sovereignty.

 

Participation in citizenship is the basis of all other forms of participation in development. Divorced from participation in citizenship, the concept of popular participation in development becomes a mere administrative strategy – a callous manipulation of the innocent and ignorant even if the result might be a “successful project” – but the end can never morally justify the means. Sadly, much of the current jargon about popular participation is based on the administrative desire for project success and effectiveness. Hence, the need for civic education.

 

True, the evidence for this assertion is the virtual absence of civic education training as a key component of many development programmes and projects. It is the fundamental argument that civic education, learning about and appreciating one’s rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities as a citizen and the immediate rules, laws and governance structures within which one exercises citizenship is the first and fundamental step in citizenship. Without it, Ethiopia will make no significant headway either with new strategies for development or with its tentative lurch towards democratic governance. Democracy could easily degenerate into anarchy if popular participation in citizenship is not viewed as a critical factor in development and democratic governance without popular participation in citizenship.

 

Nonetheless, one must question the content of the civic education curriculum if they at all address the above assertions and see if the two courses can be given in parallel.

 

Recent allegations of daylight robbery of state funds, embezzlement, loan fraud and graft in government institutions have brought the issue of corruption to a new level of alarm. While some economists argue that sleaze fuels the markets of major economies such as the developmental states of the tiger economies; corruption, in all its manifestation, remains a major obstacle to efforts to install and consolidate a developmental system. The organisational imperative of the bureaucratic machine is to command and control, preoccupied with its own survival and enrichment, as the state is the main channel for securing privileged position in society. Corruption cannot be seen in isolation, as its effects permeate societies, and in turn, societal attitudes can either encourage or discourage corruption.

 

While the prime role of the state in advancing the economy, reducing state involvement in the economy, streamlining the discretionary decision-making authority of its officials, eliminate monopolies and economic distortions that facilitate them and improve accountability. Leadership, political will and public support are essential to the success of stemming any threats of corruption, and that the causes and not just the consequences of these threats have to be addressed. Upholding the rule of law is important to guarantee protection of human rights, ensure judicial predictability.

 

Creating a merit based and metric civil service is a basic requirement for limiting any threats of corruption and rebuilding public confidence. A culture of professionalism needs to be created and thus, incentives as well as sanctions have to be employed.

 

Watchdogs are significant components of this strategy can help increase integrity and transparency. Active involvement of civil society is a sine qua non as corruption thrives on secrecy, which countered by an investigative free press that counteracts public perceptions that corruptions inevitable and important people are immune from investigative journalism. Experience has shown that preventing and combating corruption requires a consistent, coherent, broad-based approach and a long-term perspective, as there are collateral damages of counter corruption measures that can stumble on legal protection of constitutionally defined rights.

 

 

What should the trend be down the road here in Ethiopia?

 

To conclude, historical narratives provide a terrain for moral contemplation, reflecting on the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows our children to test their own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but also in real, historical circumstances can provide inspiration. Historical narratives also helps provide identity, and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. History provides evidence about how our ancestors and the founding fathers built this great nation, how the conventions they created were formed and about how they have changed while retaining structure.

 

The fact that the entire Ethiopian people of all nations and nationalities fought against external invaders are great historical narratives that are vital for good citizenship today. The fact that 1974 popular uprising against the regime was not attended by any opposition even from the nobility of the time is evidence of the unity of Ethiopians across religion and ethnicity. The fact that Ethiopians rose ensemble against the Dergue was not because of its ethnicity, but of its megalomaniac character, killing millions in famine and terrors.

 

If this is not a justification to teach history of a nation built on blood and sweat, a clinic of human experience and of informed citizenship, to our children, then what is?

 

 

 

 

Alem Hailu G/Kristos

A published poet, novelist, editor, translator of masterpieces, literary critic, playwright and journalist from Ethiopia. M.A holder in literature, Addis Ababa University.

Looking for a traditional publisher of a collection of poems. My novel: ‘Hope from the debris of hopelessness’.

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