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December 10, 2017

“Google! What the heck is that?” - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post no – 36

 Terms like ‘The only constant in this world is change’ and “where are we?” “Oh at the beginning” “Where is the beginning?” “At the start” might be very good opening statements in India but would fox and bemuse Ethiopians who would take things literally.

Idioms like “steps to be undertaken to solve the problem, Paradigm shift, trying to pound square pegs in round holes’” would confuse them. I learnt to use simple language and be as graphical and pictorial as possible. I would give them both Indian and Ethiopian examples which were highly appreciated.

Whatever I said, I would write the same on the board. Most of the class rooms had two boards and I would totally fill up the entire two boards and would not erase them. This was an advice from an Ethiopian colleague. The matter on the board would be copied by many other students including many who were not even remotely connected with management education. That was the hunger for information and knowledge that the Ethiopian students had in 2002.

Back then, Google was still a new medium and not many students have heard the word!  I am told by Dr. Elefachew Mossisa that I took the entire class of B.A in Accounting to the computer laboratory and told them in a stern voice to open the internet browser and type in the word ‘Google’. He told me in an awestruck voice that it was his first experience with Google and it is still etched in his memory. I had unwittingly introduced the magical world of Google to an entire batch of accounting students!

My very neat, crisp and clear handwriting was highly appreciated. Indian teachers were very much liked by the Ethiopian students as most of them had no accent at all and were easily understandable. But the same can’t be said about the accent of the Ethiopian students. Their English was very difficult to understand and they would pronounce ‘Fifteen’ as ‘fifty’. This led to lots of confusion.

Once I grandly announced “you will have an exam tomorrow at 8.00 a.m”. There were groans and slightly loud ‘Ahs’ but I thought that they got the message. The next day I gulped my breakfast, rushed to the department, got my exam papers and went to the exam hall. There was NOBODY there, except a very forlorn looking puppy, which was horrified as I ushered it away from the class room.

I waited for half an hour and went to Ms. Addis Gedefaw in a huff. I was irritated. I reported the exam boycott to Addis. Addis was frankly exasperated and said, “Anil, get used to our timings, you said 8.00 a.m and the students have understood it as 8.00 a.m, Ethiopian Time” (which is 2 p.m. according to European Time). I was flabbergasted.

Dr. Neelima Ramakuru from the Physics department had sent an e-mail to her husband. Sending an E-mail was a minor coup in BDU at that time. E-Mails would take upto to 10-15 minutes to get transmitted. As she was heaving a sign of relief, her husband shot a reply “What are you doing in the university at mid night (1200 p.m.)” Dr. Neelima was totally nonplussed. Then it struck her. Her husband would have got an e-mail with the time stamp as 1200 hours and immediately assumed that it was 1200 in the night. Actually it was only 6 p.m. in the evening and there was light everywhere, including the University.

Working hours at Bahirdar University were a breeze. Most Indians would be allotted a load of two subjects per semester and they would be given subjects which could not be taught by the local Ethiopian teachers. Once a class was taken the faculty was free to go. So it was up to the faculty to stay in the campus or go home. As Indians had been accustomed to staying on the campus for eight hours most of them preferred to stay in the campus and work on the internet that was maddeningly slow! 

“Are you not coming to the class?” - Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post No – 35

 Ethiopian Graduate students come to the university from a very vigorous schooling system. Government Universities in Ethiopia can be compared with the Indian IITs and IIMs. The students come from all over Ethiopia and are allotted seats in different universities based on their merit score.

All the expenses are taken care by the university. Typically students come to BDU (Bahirdar University) on their own but from that point onward all their expenses including tuition fees, food, and accommodation are taken care by the university.

By the time I returned back to India, the federal Government came out with an innovative scheme where all the expenses were initially paid for by the government. But the students had to sign a document promising that they would serve the government or would work in the country for a period of four years. If any of the students break the bond they would have to repay all the expenses incurred along with interest.

Students would come to the class with a single note book. Most Ethiopian students in my time would have very small and compact hand writing. I was initially puzzled but quickly understood the logic. They were conserving space! Many of my students could write one entire day’s class notes in a single page. So one note book of 200 pages would be enough to write notes for three subjects. So with two, 200 page note books they would manage to write down all the notes for the whole semester.

Most boys would wear jeans and T-shirts and on it would wear an unbuttoned shirt. The open shirt would double as a coat. Some would wear a stylish coat. Most girls would wear a western dress or a long coat.

Ethiopian students have some of the most startlingly big eyes in the world. And to go with those big eyes they had the most solemn expressions on their faces. They would simply stare, not smile, not acknowledge me and remain expression less. It was annoying and yes, it was very puzzling. The facts about Ethiopians in the book that my Brother-in-law, Sai Matam had gifted came flashing into my mind.

Ethiopians endured a very brutal Derg regime that suppressed all type of dissent. So any expression shown on the face would instantaneously mean punishment or even death during that regime. So an entire generation of Ethiopians had mastered the art of ‘dead pan expression’ on their faces. Once they trusted and liked a person, Ethiopians opened up and their faces would explode into a mosaic of expressions.

They would listen solemnly and when I made eye contact, would give a shy smile and drop their eyes. Most would not ask questions as English was not the medium of instruction till graduation and they would speak English very haltingly. They would get confused between I and you and would inter change the usage. For example one of my students asked me “Mr. Anil (they would address the faculty by name) who teaches your children at home?” I replied “my wife”, “my wife!?” he asked, I got little perturbed but said “not your wife, MY WIFE”. Seeing his puzzled expression, I simply left the issue. Some things are better as they are!

Another student came to the faculty room and enquired “are you not coming to the class?” I was totally foxed. If I said yes, it means that I would not be coming and if I say No, it meant that I would be coming to the class. But I was not very sure if the student actually understood the meaning. Giving up, I simply nodded my head and walked to the class room as quickly as I could. 

If I asked a question for which they have to give an answer in affirmative, the students would emit a soft guttural sound “ah”. Initially I thought that the entire class was grunting. Even after four years I found the Ethiopian way of saying yes, charming, puzzling and yes a little disconcerting!

I remember my first class of “Sales Management”. I wore a very formal dress and a matching tie. I was sure the students were very impressed by my persona. I cleared my voice and said ‘Good morning students” in my best voice “Let us get the ball rolling”.

There was a pin drop silence in the class! I could hear the leaves rustling from outside the classroom. The students initially looked confused but later a knowing smile came on many students’ faces. They started looking around. Then it struck me. ‘Oh my, my”, I said to myself. Not knowing the idiom “let us get the ball rolling” meant ‘let us get started or let’s start’, my Ethiopian students have thought that this strange Indian teacher was a football lover and wanted to have a game of football in the class room itself.

December 06, 2017

Indians, Education and Bahirdar University – Ethiopian Journey - Blog Post No – 34

Indians are among the most ardent travelers in the world. They have traveled to Africa too, but the reception and reputation that the Indians have got for themselves has been a mixed bag. The Indian freedom movement started in South Africa and Indians are admired and Nelson Mandela has been a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violence movement.

Both Great Leaders Dr.Abdul Kalaam and Nelson Mandela

But everything is not honky-donky about Indians in Africa. Most Indians have prospered in Africa and have made a name for themselves as traders and as businessmen. But the Indian way of frugalness and uncanny skill of making money in any situation is not very much liked by the easy going Africans. In some countries Indians were seen as exploitative and not assimilating enough with the local community.

Indians leaving Uganda in 1972
This antipathy and resentment sometimes had taken an ugly turn and Indians have been thrown out quite unceremoniously in Uganda where Idi Amin dumped almost the entire Indian community. Indian businessmen are not very much liked in Kenya and even in Zimbabwe.

But luckily, in Ethiopia most of the Indians came on teaching assignments and Ethiopians proudly say that they have been taught by an Indian some time in their life. The last Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie had been a friend of India and he was the person who encouraged Indians to come and teach in Ethiopia.

Last emperor of Ethoipia Haile Selassie with Mrs.Indira Gandhi
For a long time there were very limited number of government universities in Ethiopia and in early 2000, the Federal government of Ethiopia started many new universities and one of the newly set up university was Bahirdar University. Bahirdar University was not a new university. It was coming together of two institutes POLY (the polytechnic institute that imparted engineering education) and PEDA (the pedagogical academy that taught  Arts, Science and Commerce streams).

The new university was set up in 2001 and we were among the first foreign faculty who were specifically recruited for Bahirdar University.

Ethiopian Students
I belonged to the Faculty of Business and Economics and specifically to the Management department and there was another called the Accounting department.  The Management department’s head was Addis Gedefaw and we had another Ethiopian Teacher, Abraham. We also had a Nigerian teacher by name Ibrahim. The Management department had as many as four Indian teachers; Mansoor Ali Khan, Chidambaram, Dr. T. N. Murthy and myself.

Typical batch of Ethiopian Students 
At that time in 2002 the management department had a couple of diploma programmes, one in Marketing Management and another in Sales Management. The duration of the diploma programme was two years. In 2001 a four year course called ‘B.A in Management’ was introduced. It was quite strange to be asked to teach diploma and degree students as I was already teaching Post graduate students of Management. In India BA is not associated with management and at that time BBA was not in vogue. .  But I cheerfully accepted the challenge.

Ethiopian education system follows the American pattern which is credit based. The entire focus is on picking up credits and the credit weightage. For Example the subject ‘Introduction to Management’ could be a 1 credit, 2 credit, 3 credits or a 4 credit course.

So a one credit course is allotted 10 sessions of one hour each and a four credit course is given 40 hours. And correspondingly a student taking a four credit course in ‘Introduction to Management’ shows more interest in the subject and more respect to the concerned teacher. This was puzzling to the Indian teachers who are used to the system of standardized subjects without any difference in weightage.

The grading is based on the normal curve distribution. Students are given grades according to their position in the normal curve. ‘A’ grade is worth 4 points, ‘B’ grade is worth 3 points, a ‘C’ grade is worth 2 points and a ‘D’ grade is worth  1 point.

To pass and move on to the next semester a student has to have a minimum of 2.0 CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point  Average), which means that a student can actually get a D  (a fail grade) in a subject and still progress. All this was quite new to us but we quickly got into the flow.