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Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Native Colonialism: Education and the Economy of Violence Against Traditions in Ethiopia

Aethiopica 20 (2017)
International Journal of Ethiopian and
Eritrean Studies
HEWAN SEMON MARYE, Universität Hamburg
YIRGA GELAW WOLDEYES, Native Colonialism: Education and the Econ-
omy of Violence Against Traditions in Ethiopia
Aethiopica 20 (2017), 323–327
ISSN: 14301938
Edited in the AsienAfrikaInstitut
Hiob Ludolf Zentrum für Äthiopistik
der Universität Hamburg
Abteilung für Afrikanistik und Äthiopistik
by Alessandro Bausi
in cooperation with
Bairu Tafla, Ulrich Braukämper, Ludwig Gerhardt,
Hilke MeyerBahlburg and Siegbert Uhlig
Aethiopica 20 (2017)
schehen unentdeckt beobachteten. Auf ihre Berichte vertrauend, schätzt Ian
Campbell, dass allein in Laga Wälde 1.200 bis 1.600 Mönche, Priester, und
Pilger erschossen wurdenfast ausnahmslos Männer. Eine der wichtigsten
Entdeckungen des Buches besteht darin, dass auf einer zweiten Exekutions-
stätte, einem Tal namens Ǝngečča, am 26. Mai noch einmal 500 bis 600 im
Kloster Däbrä Libanos gefangen gesetzte Menschen erschossen und in ei-
nem Massengrab verscharrt wurden. Zuvor waren sie nach Däbrä Bǝrhan
verschleppt worden. Wiederum erfolgte der Massenmord nicht unbeobach-
tet. Campbells Recherchen kommen zum Schluss, dass in einem der
scheusslichsten Gräueltaten, welche die Italiener im besetzten Äthiopien
verübten, vier Mal mehr Menschen den Tod fanden, als bisher in der For-
schung bekannt war. Das ist ein Aufsehen erregender Befund, der viele wei-
tere Fragen aufwirft, unter anderem die, weshalb die italienischen Haupt-
verantwortlichen für dieses Verbrechen nach 1945 nie juristisch von der
internationalen Gemeinschaft zur Rechenschaft gezogen wurden.
Aram Mattioli, Universität Luzern
YIRGA GELAW WOLDEYES, Native Colonialism: Education and the
Economy of Violence Against Traditions in Ethiopia (Trenton, NJ:
The Red Sea Press, 2017). 236 pp., index. Price: $29.95. ISBN:
9781569025093 (HB), 9781569025109 (pb).
Yirga Gelaw’s Native Colonialism: Education and the Economy of Violence
Against Traditions in Ethiopia is an academic breakthrough in the area of
modern education in Ethiopia, and successfully highlights what went wrong
in education in twentiethcentury Ethiopia. Native Colonialism argues that,
even though Ethiopians were never subjected to the direct rule of European
colonialism, they later developed a debilitating coloniallike consciousness
that entrenched itself in the school curricula. This, he argues, has resulted in
the active destruction and humiliation of tradition. The central argument is
that, through their awareness of the power the West wielded, Ethiopian
elites in the twentieth century created a system of epistemological violence
which considered traditional forms of knowledge production to be back-
ward and irrelevant as compared to Western education.
The book is organized into six principal chapters, with a Preface by
Ephraim Isaac; the arguments presented in the book are developed chrono-
logically and thematically. Yirga’s first three chapters lay the foundation for
the thesis as he navigates from defining key terms of the book to introduc-
ing the reader to the traditional thought and epistemology of Ethiopia. Fol-
Aethiopica 20 (2017)
lowing this, the book progresses chronologically, addressing the topic of
when and how violence against traditions began, and how it continued to
develop up to the presentday. Further, Yirga’s thesis is consolidated by a
historical analysis of the development of ‘modern’ education in Ethiopia in
the last century. Beginning with aylä Śǝllase’s reign, Yirga sets out a path
of exploration of Ethiopia’s education system and the violence used against
traditional systems of education. Detailed examination of this violence is
presented in Chapter 5. In a critical analysis, Yirga presents the educational
system of contemporary Ethiopia in conversation with the epistemological
tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. By arguing that ‘centeredness’
and ‘rootedness’ are crucial for any individual to start contributing to and
engaging in the betterment of their society, Yirga shows the dilemma and
crisis of the modern Ethiopian educational system (p. 190).
Yirga’s book is particularly striking for the breadth of its literature. He
weaves an interesting narration of epistemic violence, by relating Ethiopia’s
history in a manner similar to that of Valentin Y. Mudimbe (1994),1 Achille
Mbembe (2001),2 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1982),3 among others, all of whom
are scholars whose works on postcolonial and colonial Africa have thus far
excluded Ethiopia. For a country that prides itself in never having been
colonized, Yirga confronts the ‘educated’ class of Ethiopia and the genera-
tion that toppled aylä Śǝllase’s monarchy with an evaluation of their suc-
cessive policies on education. He writes,
Western knowledge serves as a dominant epistemic location for Ethi-
opian elites to present their ideas as universal, neutral and objective
truths, simultaneously ignoring the fact that western knowledge is it-
self local (not universal) and promoting Western epistemology as the
only basis of knowledge. (p. 13)
The links between education and development, traditional education and
modernity are comprehensively disentangled in this book, in which Yirga is
clearly of the same mind as other notable scholars like Tekeste Negash and
Mulugeta Wodajo,4 who have argued previously that the alienation of tradi-
1 V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of
Knowledge (Bloomington–Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, London: James
Currey, 1988).
2 A. Mbembe, On the postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
3 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Devil on the Cross (Johannesburg: Heinemann Publishers, 1982).
4 Tekeste Negash, The Crisis of Ethiopian Education: Implications for NationBuilding,
Uppsala Reports on Education, 29 (Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1990); Mulugeta
Aethiopica 20 (2017)
tional education can only be detrimental to the sociopolitical development
of Ethiopia. Yirga writes, ‘people should not be disconnected from their
traditional experiences because their experiences embody the most im-
portant resources for their education. Only in this way, education becomes
an internally driven and dynamic cultural experience’ (p. 93). More im-
portantly, his reference to globally acclaimed writers on colonialism gives
him a broader perspective than those works that cut Ethiopia off from the
African continent, and generally from other parts of the world. One key
example is his use of Edward Said’s Orientalism to demonstrate how native
Ethiopians have fostered a concept of their own country similar to the Eu-
ropean concept of the Orient analysed by Said.
The book is the product of extensive research from within both
traditional and modern educational institutions in Ethiopia. Yirga’s own
experiences as a student both in Lalibäla and the monastery of Daga
Ǝsṭifanos, his ‘teaching career as a law lecturer’ (p. 6) in Addis Abäba, as
well as his Masters and PhD courses at Curtin University on the ‘relevance
and significance of education in Ethiopia’ (p. 6) show the connections
between his philosophy and the book’s thesis. Moreover, his sources
include firsthand personal interviews and research he conducted in both
traditional educational institutes and in universities and high schools in
Addis Abäba and Lalibäla. Further, his thesis is placed comfortably within
research drawn from international and local scholars as well as from facts
taken from World Bank reports and from the Ethiopian government’s
statutory policies regarding education. His narrative is strongly and
consistently backed by historians such as Bahru Zewde, while, at the same
time, he challenges the narratives of these very scholars. Yirga’s book is
exceptional in that it posits a challenge to historians of twentiethcentury
Ethiopia who viewed the elite as positive creators of change.5
Another strength is that Yirga avoids the trap of romanticizing tradition.
From the beginning, he clearly highlights the fact that he does not fall into
the school of thought which preaches globalization as the force that is ho-
mogenizing all societies or traditions as victims of this process (p. 16). His
point is that, ideally, a mix of Western and Ethiopian traditional education
is necessary in contemporary Ethiopia. He avoids bifurcated concepts and
Wodajo, ‘Postwar Reform in Ethiopian Education’, Comparative Education Review,
2/3 (1959), 2430.
5 Cf. Bahru Zewde, Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the
Early Twentieth Century (Oxford: James Currey, 2002).
Aethiopica 20 (2017)
follows a conciliatory approach throughout the book to concepts usually
considered to be at opposite ends of the continuum.
However, Yirga fails to recognize the book by Liqä Sǝlṭanat Hab-
täMaryam Wärqnäh called Ṭǝntawi yäʾItyoya tǝmhǝrt (no date but, based
on a note on the inner cover, the text was published around 1970 CE),6 a
wellknown work on traditional Ethiopian education. In Yirga’s book,
Chapter 3 bases its description of Ethiopian traditional schools by focusing
on the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥǝdo Church, based on Ephraim Isaac
(1971),7 Getnet Tamene (1998),8 and Yirga’s own experience. On the whole,
Yirga’s book lacks secondary sources from Ethiopian Orthodox
Churcheducated scholars and Liqä Sǝlṭanat HabtäMaryam’s book would
have deserved some attention, as it represents the concerns of a traditionally
educated man and church scholar about the future of traditional education
during Emperor aylä Śǝllase’s time, when the Church had lost its monop-
oly over education in Ethiopia. Moreover, recognition of the book would
have given readers solid evidence of the fact that there were church scholars
who were actively discussing the educational system. Yirga argues that co-
lonialism is a system that is constantly in struggle with those it wants to
dominate, and that a coloniallike system was developed within Ethiopia
through education. Liqä Sǝlṭanat HabtäMaryam’s book describes precisely
this struggle between the elite of the new schools and those of the tradition-
al schools. Yirga’s book seems to present church scholars as being passive in
relation to the development of modern education, while Liqä Sǝlṭanat Hab-
täMaryam’s work shows their attempts to maintain, document, and trans-
fer the traditional school system to future generations.
In conclusion, I highly recommend the book to any reader interested in
understanding contemporary Ethiopia and particularly to those involved in
drafting, editing, and contributing to the educational policies of the coun-
try. Yirga’s book serves as a key ‘call for a corrective approach’ (p. 203), and
is aimed directly at policy makers such as the Ministry of Education and at
all those interested in the future of Ethiopia. It recommends a shift in educa-
tional policies towards a focus on traditions by constantly highlighting the
idea that traditional education systems and indigenous knowledge sites
6 HabtäMaryam Wärqnäh, ጥንታዊ የኢትዮጵያ ትምህርት (Ṭǝntawi yäʾItyoya tǝmhǝrt)
(Addis Abäba: Bǝrhanǝnna Sälam mattämiya bet, n.d.).
7 Ephraim Isaac, ‘Social Structure of the Ethiopian Church’, Ethiopia Observer, 14/4
(1971), 240–288.
8 Getnet Tamene, ‘Features of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Clergy’, Asian
and African Studies, 7/1 (1998), 87104.
Aethiopica 20 (2017)
should have a leading role in Ethiopian education. Yirga challenges the way
in which historians, such as Bahru Zewde, have depicted the educated elite
of twentiethcentury Ethiopia, by presenting them for what they are
agents of colonialism, demonstrating culpable indifference to the im-
portance of traditions they consistently disregarded in favour of Western
education. Finally, Yirga leaves the reader to ponder the possibility of de-
veloping a curriculum that integrates both traditional and modern educa-
tion. The author stresses the need for compromise and for a reconciliation
of traditional and modern education, as well as the importance of indigeniz-
ing education so that local people are able to create knowledge about them-
selves, from what they observe and see around them. The goal then, accord-
ing to Yirga, is to develop an epistemology with Ethiopia rather than the
West, as the centre of education.
Hewan Semon Marye, Universität Hamburg
ULRICH BRAUKÄMPER, Afrika 1914–1918. Antikolonialer Widerstand
jenseits der Weltkriegsfronten, Studien zur Kulturkunde, 130 (Berlin:
Reimer, 2015). 212 pp., 10 tables. Price: €39.00. ISBN: 9783496
The hundredth anniversary of the First World War (henceforth WWI) has
generated great scholarly interest in the conflict. Many new research projects
on the Great War have been conducted, documentaries have been made, and
exhibitions aimed at a broader audience have been organized. In comparison
to the previous more scientific productions, many of the new research projects
about WWI also broaden the geographical perspective. In the last years, in
accordance with leading trends in transnational and global history, the re-
search on this war, which has traditionally been seen as a crucial moment in
European history (the Urkatastrophe), has paid growing attention to the anal-
ysis of warlike events in nonEuropean regions. Thus, the African continent
too has been integral to these investigations, not only because of its colonial
ties with European countries, but also for its political and economical connec-
tions with other continents. However, despite the importance of including
Africa in the studies on WWI, the topics of the new research have largely been
limited to European agencies, and mainly related to the colonial territories.
For this reason, the book reviewed here is particularly original: it investigates
WWI in Africa, but from the specific perspective of a local phenomenon,
namely anticolonial resistance during the World War. In particular, it under-
lines the crisis of colonial rule as seen by the African population, and their
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