The first time Dr Kannan Ambalam laid out a bridge was in December 2013, when he saw an old woman trying to cross a water stream in Chewaka village of Ethiopia’s Oromia state. Ambalam laid out two tree trunks, which helped the woman to finally cross over.
Since then, Ambalam, an Associate Professor at the Department of Public Administration and Development Management at Ethiopia’s Wollega University, has helped built 93 low-cost bridges with the help of a constant stream of his students.
He has also revived 55 water springs, helped bring electricity to a village, constructed a toilet in a school and built two check dams in many remote parts of the east African nation.
Dr Ambalam had just travelled back to Ethiopia from the 17th Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas Convention in India’s Indore when The Quint spoke to him over the phone.
He was one of the 27 recipients of the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the highest honour conferred upon Indians living abroad. He was honoured for his contribution to ‘Community Welfare’ in Ethiopia.
Dr Ambalam’s journey to help Ethiopians started with his idea of giving his postgraduate students an opportunity to move beyond the traditional classroom and apply their theoretical knowledge into practical, first-hand experience.
Ambalam’s service is not the only contribution of Indians in Ethiopia, especially in the education sector. While Dr Ambalam arrived in Ethiopia in 2009, Indian teachers have left an indelible imprint on Ethiopian education since the 1940s.
They are admired and respected for their subject expertise, professionalism, and dedication to work. Generations of Ethiopians have learned from Indian teachers.
“There is actually no one who has not been taught by an Indian teacher, especially my generation. All the physics, chemistry, mathematics and english teachers came from India, both men and women. While I was pursuing my degree in agriculture engineering (1979-81), the department head was also an Indian,” says Daniel Itenfisu, who now works as a consultant in agricultural and environmental risk management in Canada.
The First Generation of Indian Teachers in Ethiopia
Although the teachers from Kerala had started teaching in Ethiopia in the 1940s, the number rose exponentially after Emperor Haile Selassie reached out to India to help Ethiopia expand its education system in 1950s.
He was especially taken by Paul Verghese, an Indian Mathematics teacher who had impressed the emperor with his fluent Amharic - Ethiopia’s national language - during a play in 1947.
During his visit to India in 1956, the emperor even requested the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Orthodox Church to send Paul Verghese back to Ethiopia as his secretary and advisor.
Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, wanted to accelerate the country’s growth and therefore laid great emphasis on education. However, the country suffered from inadequate teaching staff and facilities. Importing foreign teachers to do the job seemed to be an expeditious solution.
The emperor’s effort to seek Indian teachers was part of his policy to westernise education, for which he needed educators with the knowledge of English language.
While teachers from English-speaking West demanded high salaries, the emperor found Indians more affordable. Another factor that contributed to the emperor’s outreach to India was the good diplomatic terms between the two countries – India and Ethiopia established diplomatic relations in 1950.
India’s public education system was recognised as one of the finest among former British colonies. Therefore, the lack of Ethiopian teachers could be redressed by offering extremely attractive salaries and perks like housing and flight tickets to the Indians.
Highly qualified and fluent in English, many of them Orthodox Christians, teachers from Kerala were happy to work for a lower salary as compared to their counterparts from western countries. Indian teachers were therefore invited to manage the ‘Teacher Training Programs’ and teach in government schools, colleges, and universities all over Ethiopia.
Lack of employment opportunities within India and relatively lower salaries prompted a big number of teachers to accept the job opportunity in the East African country.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper about the Ethiopian Curriculum Commission visiting India. I applied for the position, was interviewed, and got selected in December 1981. The Ethiopian Ministry of Education was paying us 650 Birr which was to Rs 2,500 at the time. In India, a schoolteacher’s salary back then was not more than Rs 400,” says Joseph Thomas, the director of elementary division at Greek Community School, Addis Ababa.
Why Indian Teachers Decided to Stay
Most of those who were recruited faced resistance at home as it was fairly uncommon for Indians to travel to Africa for livelihood.
“Nobody supported my decision to come to Ethiopia. My uncle said I will die here,” Kannan Ambalam remembers.
Thomas was 22 years old when he was assigned to teach in Tigray.
“It was struck with war and famine. I once had to walk 12 kilometres from the airport with my suitcases on my head as there were no taxis available. Food was scarce, there was no electricity or clean drinking water. Within a year, I decided to return to India. I wrote to the ministry to facilitate my return, but they transferred me to Addis Ababa”, he recalls.
“I was out of India for the first time at the age of 31 and sent to Dambi, a very remote area. The ministry had promised to send us to a place with all the facilities but that was not the case unfortunately. I instantly regretted my decision to come here,” says Rajendra Singh, the vice principal of the Greek Community School in Addis Ababa.
The challenges were many but with time, the situation improved for the teachers. And with time, Singh fell in love with the people of Dambi.
Sharing an anecdote from early days, he recounts the time when a bus driver rerouted his vehicle, and drove 60 kilometres in opposite direction, with no prospect of picking a passenger.
In another instance that showed the generous and welcoming nature of the people, a man from the village saw Rajendra Singh drinking coke and secretly deposited an advance for anything the teacher needed from that bar for as long as he lived in Dambi.
“People felt grateful that I stayed back despite being the only foreigner there. They referred to me as "Dambi-brahn” or the ‘Light of Dambi,” an emotional Singh recounts.
Six years after Thomas landed a job in Ethiopia, his wife also joined him at the same school.
“After six years, I got married and my wife also found a teaching job here right away. Our three children studied in the same school where we taught so their education was free. Now our children are working in Canada. I came here on a three-year contract and ended up staying for 41 years,” shares Thomas with a smile.
“It’s not easy finding things here. We had to buy clothes and other necessary things for children when we went home every three years. Even now, we have to bring enough Urad dal and grated coconut,” his wife, Mercy Thomas, adds laughingly.
A relatively lower cost of living, no work pressure, cheap domestic help, pleasant weather, and financial stability eased life for teachers, specially in Addis Ababa. Local people were extremely respectful and warm towards the Indian teaching community.
“All Indians were perceived as teachers and referred to as ‘Estemari’ (teacher in Amharic). There used to be long queues to buy groceries sometimes, but not for us. We never had to wait in line; be it hospitals, supermarkets or government offices,” says Muralidharan Nair, who served as the principal of two Indian Schools in Addis Ababa from 1996-2011.
Dereje Yefrashwa, who has worked as a driver for many diplomatic and expat families, remembers that Indian teachers were extremely popular.
“We used to boast about having an Indian teacher to our friends from other grades. Firstly, because they were really good and secondly because they were foreigners,” he says.
Robert Shetkintong, the Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia, says there are currently more than 1200 Indian professors in public universities in Ethiopia.
“Education has been one of the visible components in bilateral relations between Ethiopia and India. Today, we have visible presence of Indian faculty in public universities in Ethiopia,” Shetkintong says.
Indian Schools in Ethiopia
Just like Indian teachers, Indian education was also deemed prestigious. Addis Ababa had two Indian schools following CBSE board - Indian National School founded in 1947 and Indian Community School founded in 1973. The schools were extremely popular with Ethiopians as well as Indians residing in the country.
“These two schools offered high quality education for very low fees. Admission was tough as the seats were limited. Even ministers sent their children to these schools,” Muralidharan remembers.
However, a 2006 directive disallowing schools with foreign curriculum to admit Ethiopian students and some Indians preferring international schools over Indian schools eventually led to the closing of these two schools by 2018.
“It was the end of an era,” says Muralidharan who lived in Ethiopia for 30 years.
A third Indian school, Indian International school which was founded in 2006 continues to function under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, Ethiopia.
Two more policy changes further affected the inflow of Indian teachers. First - the discontinuing of hiring foreign teachers in government schools in 1993; and second - disallowing lecturers from being hired thereby, restricting employment for only associate professors and professors in colleges and universities from 2018.
Implementation of the two amendments witnessed a mass exodus of Indian teachers from all over Ethiopia.
Despite these significant changes, the influence of Indian teachers on the education sector is far from over. While many teachers have left Ethiopia, their impact on the tiny country in the Horn of Africa is everlasting - shaping generations of leaders and educators.
Meanwhile, people like Dr Kannan Ambalam go beyond their call of duty to provide their services without expecting anything in return.
(Mariam Jafri is an independent journalist based in Addis Ababa, and reports on culture and diaspora.)