The Surprising Gift of a Colonial Education - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Surprising Gift of a Colonial Education

The Surprising Gift of a Colonial Education

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

Pupils are pictured at play time at the Dr John Garang International school in Juba, on March 25, 2014. Peace talks between South Sudan's government and rebels resumed in Ethiopia on Tuesday, mediators said, urging both sides to return to a moribund ceasefire agreement. The talks, mediated by regional bloc IGAD, are aimed at ending the three-month-old conflict which has killed thousands and displaced nearly one million people. AFP PHOTO/Ivan LIEMAN (Photo credit should read Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)
SourceIvan Lieman/AFP/Getty


Because the price of a rising global middle class is surprisingly human.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

Gennet Zewide remembers her fifth-grade teacher with a smile: a man with a booming voice and a knack for making the naughtiest students in class pay attention. It was the 1960s in Ethiopia, and her teacher had come a long way to teach there — in fact, from the southern Indian state of Kerala. 

Zewide, now Ethiopia’s ambassador to India, is the longest-serving foreign envoy in New Delhi. She’s one of many people touched by a close relationship between the two countries, solidified through a surprising educational linkage between the South Asian and African nations. Indian teachers like Zewide’s have long been in high demand in Ethiopia; historically, students took them more seriously, and schools paid them handsomely. And Indians, in turn, benefited. Teachers could use the Ethiopia pathway as a way to save money, returning home with a distinct advantage. But today, the teacher-as-migrant path is slowly fading, and with it, the decades-old bond between these countries. 

Zewide, who is also the former federal education minister, estimates that between 1960 and 2012, more than 200,000 Indians taught in her country. Through the 1960s and 1970s, more than 6,000 Indians were teaching in the country at any given time. Some came and left within weeks, while others stayed on for years. By the late 1990s, when India’s economic liberalization led to salaries too low to match teachers’ ambitions, over 10,000 Indian teachers could be found teaching at any time in Ethiopia, Zewide says. That continued through the first decade of this century. “It was a flood,” she says. 

Today, that flood has slowed to a trickle. Only about 300 Indian teachers are currently teaching in Ethiopia, more for the “adventure” of being abroad than as a smart career move, says Raghavendra Singh, a University of Delhi physics teacher. A distant uncle who had taught in Ethiopia in the 1970s suggested a stint there to Singh, a father of two toddlers. He did explore it. But the higher salary at the University of Delhi outweighed the lure of an “experience” in Ethiopia — and he didn’t want to uproot his family.

Students stand in front of a primary school in Arba Minch, Ethiopia.

Source Ton Koene/ZUMApress

The change highlights a growing global divide: As India ascends into the global upper-middle class, its teachers are paid better. And Ethiopia, once able to entice teachers with lucrative offers, can hardly compete. The two countries once stood at far less distant ends of the economic spectrum. But today, Ethiopia is seeking to stay close to a country that has sped ahead, like a little brother tugging on an older sibling’s coattails.

Like several other countries in Africa — including South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania — Ethiopia has been home to people of Indian descent for decades; as early as the 1700s, Goans migrated to the East African nation. And both nations struggled in the age of colonialism. India had to shrug off imperial Britain, while Ethiopia managed to avoid Italian colonization. This created an odd irony. India’s years under British rule left the nation with a high-quality English education system. So when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to expand his country’s educational system in the middle of the 20th century, he couldn’t afford American or European teachers, but the Indians would do.


People like Ramashankar Iyengar were seduced. While teaching at a private school in Mumbai in the early 1970s, Iyengar was earning 500 rupees a month (about $60 at the time) when he headed to Ethiopia. There, he earned the equivalent of $200 a month teaching math for a decade, starting in northern Ethiopia, and saved enough to buy prime land in the southern Indian city of Chennai when he returned. “It was a win-win deal for everyone,” says Iyengar, now 75, in a phone call from Chennai. He lived there straight through the nation’s civil war, which lasted through the 1980s, and even while President Idi Amin in nearby Uganda expelled Indians from that country. “The pay was worth the risk,” reflects Sailesh Gaikwad, who taught English at a college in Awasa, 270 km (167 miles) south of Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is seeking to stay close to a country that has sped ahead, like a little brother tugging on an older sibling’s coattails.

No longer. Today, Ethiopia offers up to $1,500 a month for foreign university professors and between $600 and $800 to schoolteachers, Zewide says. But after India implemented a 70 percent pay hike for its university teachers beginning in 2013, Ethiopia’s wallet could stretch no further. Today on the subcontinent, university professors earn up to 78,000 rupees a month (about $1,300), plus bonuses if they’ve been teaching longer. Primary school teachers now earn up to 39,000 rupees a month (about $650). The changes are part of India’s new attempt to entice young people who would otherwise choose a corporate path to brighten the nation’s educational system.

For Amanuel Yoseph, a teacher in Addis Ababa who once studied under Iyengar, this crisis hits at more than just Ethiopia’s educational system. It was through these teachers that many Ethiopians knew India, he says. “We built a cultural connect, a lifelong friendship and bond,” says Yoseph, who still exchanges New Year’s greeting cards with his former Indian teacher. “It’s a bond I want my children, grandchildren someday, to gain from.”

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