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Works and life of Curtin’s award-winning Ethiopian scholar Yirga Gelaw | Addis Zeybe

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“I was born in Lalibela, an ancient holy town in rural Ethiopia. I was born at a time when the traditional monarchical system was overthrown by military power – the Derg. I was called ‘Yirga’, which means ‘let it be’. My name was a wish for stability, a hope that the world would settle around us. But I never knew stability was needed. The world was beautiful and I was free.”

This is what Yirga Gelaw wrote at the beginning of his book of poetry and reflections on life entitled Born Free, Created Poor. 

Following his recent Curtin Awards for Humanities Excellence and Innovation in Teaching, Addis Zeybe spoke with Yirga about his academic and creative writings.

The award-winning scholar prides himself in the traditions, culture, languages, and identity of his country, Ethiopia, though he has made Perth, Australia, his home now. He’s often seen dressed in traditional Ethiopian costumes distinctly known to his birth area, Lalibela, Wollo. 

His book, Native Colonialism: Education and the Economy of Violence Against Tradition in Ethiopia, published in 2017, talks about instances from Ethiopian contexts on how countries colonize themselves with foreign values, education systems, and languages. 

It was the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that introduced Yirga to formal education as a child. He learned the church’s doctrine and philosophy before he later joined the modern school for fear of not finding a job with just his church education. 

Yirga’s resentment and disillusionment with modern qualification requirements began when he witnessed his father being unable to find a decent job without certificates in the 1970s.    

In “Born Free, Created Poor”, Yirga laments his father facing a new reality as the socialist government fell from power in 1970s Ethiopia. 

“Because he didn’t go to school, all the things my father knew were reduced to nothing. The man who built my family home grew every grain and vegetable, and raised every animal that would grace our plates, he knew nothing in the eyes of this new system. He became a security guard, but his newly discovered ignorance so wounded him that he decided to go to [modern] school.”

Yirga’s father studied until the 9th grade and quit school because of family matters. 

His father’s life was complete before the system changed. He was qualified as a builder, a farmer, and a carpenter. But the work system that was imported from abroad couldn’t acknowledge these qualifications. This is what Yirga has been contending in his research and teachings. 

Yirga believes the imposition of a foreign language in the educational system of a country is “nothing but madness”. He strongly argues against Ethiopia’s educational system which has made English its medium of instruction for decades. In his writings, he remembers his struggle to understand life and the world in another language. 

“Suddenly my friends and I, we who had mastered a language, mastered philosophy [at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church], mastered songs, and games and dances, and mastered the best way to carry water or create fuel from cow dung, were told to stop, go back and start again. 

It doesn’t sit well with Yirga that the knowledge he acquired as a child and young adult was no longer considered useful. The realization that it wouldn’t let him go beyond his village and the remorse it followed still felt in his voice when he said:

“Lalibela had been such a big school to me. But now my time was consumed by being in a small room and a teacher who kept pressing on us to repeat foreign words and concepts that had no reference to the reality in which we lived.”

These experiences in his early days must have awakened Yirga to new realizations and made him naturally inquisitive, a questioner engaged in an untiring, constant search for better ways to provide education to students of different contexts. He has been theorizing such concepts since then in a myriad of ways that are different from conventional approaches. 

“When we teach about human rights, if we just follow the existing laws and philosophies of it, we won’t make any difference. We need to rethink human rights, from the views of the victims. This calls for being critical and appreciative in dialogue,” says Yirga when he talks about the lessons he gives on human rights.   

Yirga teaches courses in the Human Rights faculty at Curtin’s University, using his own theories, just like the award he’s been recently acknowledged for – Critical and Appreciative Dialogue. 

At Curtin’s, students evaluate their instructors through an independent system and Yirga has been the favorite among the evaluators in the past decade, winning awards for different categories four times.    

“In a foreign country, let alone being awarded, sustaining a job by itself is a success,” says Yirga. 

Though Yirga teaches lessons related to human rights, his major interest in research is pedagogy. 

“I am a multidisciplinary researcher,” says Yirga speaking about himself. “Though I teach at the human rights center, I teach against human rights. This may sound confusing. But the way the concept of human rights teachings is created is not invested in compensating and giving justice to those whose human rights are violated.” 

Yirga argues that the system in which people fight for human rights is usually exhibited in just rallies, demonstrations at an individual level, or done in groups. However, no police, judge, or system independently or jointly provides justice to the victims. 

“Human rights organizations are established [in different countries] so that governments can pose as a responsible body, giving the impression of a just system. At the international level, the body that evaluates human rights laws execution is the United Nations organization. It is an organization of governments. Though governments say they give justice to human rights violations, they are the major violators. The other side of it is that powerful governments use human rights questions as a tool to repress those who are powerless.”  

For the above to take effect, he uses pedagogy.

Most of his research focuses on knowledge oppression. But his award came from his teaching endeavors.

“When people are led by a kind of knowledge that does not belong to them, what they do might stand against their own benefits,” argues Yirga. He says education is useless “if what we learn doesn’t correlate with what we know and what interests us, and if we can’t associate it with anything like our lives, habits”.

“People get robbed of their land, wisdom, and identity as a result of imposed knowledge. 

Those of us called academics do not have any knowledge or ideas that can serve the real needs of our people. Our farmers, the rural people of Ethiopia in general, that amount to the majority of our population are not benefiting from the knowledge that is imported and imposed on our educational and other systems.”  

Yirga firmly believes that knowledge cannot be exploited in a way it can really help a society unless it is rooted in the organic life habit, culture, language, identity, and knowledge. 

Yirga’s book, Native Colonialism, elaborates on how foreign language and education systems can contribute to a society’s downfall. 

“Our people are learning a foreign language, a language that they can’t understand fully and put to use as they would a native language. They can’t criticize the governance. They don’t have the vocabulary or the theory for it. So they start questioning their intellect and let the oppressive governance run free.” 

Yirga stresses that institutions are instrumental in native colonialism. His strong belief is that people can produce if they have land, manpower, and water. But the institutions convince them that they need capital and foreign money. So development is defined only by others’ interests.   

“For most of us city dwellers,” says Yirga humorously, “homegrown knowledge is just about traditional medicine. But it’s not. Some 80-90% of the Ethiopian population leads its life with homegrown knowledge. Starting from food production and preparation. But we drop this knowledge when we come to political, economic, and social science studies”

“We, city dwellers, consider ourselves teachers of the rural people. We regard them as people who need to be civilized by us. But they have survived for millennia with their own knowledge, their own way of life. The scholars are alienated. They are like a tree with no roots. Like artificial flowers.”     

Despite the current unrest in Ethiopia, Yirga is still hopeful about the country’s future. 

“We are a people of long-standing history and roots,” he says. “We have our own timeline of historical accounts. We shouldn’t judge our time parallel with the European historical timeline. We shouldn’t judge our standings based on others. But we are finding spaces for other civilizations. And we need to re-think that. We need to reimagine how to rise our own way.”

“When I say rethink, and reimagine, I’m not talking about only the past or the future. I’m talking about the continuity of the past, present, and future. One is tied to the other.” 

Yirga believes the country is being steered all around by the ideology of city dwellers who do not know Ethiopia in all its originality. They are not attached to its mountains, land, valley, rain, animals, folktales, folk songs, traditional practices, and such. “Even the research done in the universities does not take any concept from that original knowledge and way of life. When we go and visit the country, we go wow. We get impressed. But that is actually the majority. That is actually Ethiopia,” he reflects.  

Yirga’s other passions are instilled in the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela that are almost a millennium old. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s world heritage sites registered by UNESCO. Yirga contends the restoration process is not well thought out. Stolen artifacts from Ethiopia and Africa are his other research focus areas. 

Curtin University is where Yirga is currently giving classes for master’s degree and Ph.D. students. He also undertook his master’s and doctoral studies at the institution. “I know the content because I studied there. I prepare new courses, updating them every now and then according to the existing realities of the ever-changing world. The focus is human rights violations, victims, and justice. I also publish. I have published a book on which I base my teaching. Critical appreciative dialogue is my own theory.” 

Yirga regularly comes to Ethiopia. He goes to the countryside, the monasteries from which he draws his research topics.  

Responding to the question of what he thinks when he thinks of Ethiopia’s future he says “I don’t believe the present totally defines the future. We are still very much attached to nature, and we still have that. That makes me hopeful. Ethiopia is for me beyond the measures we have set out for her.”  

Born in Lalibela to a farming family, his first educational endeavor was at a Sunday school. He was a health assistant before he joined law school at Addis Ababa university. He was an active participant at the cultural center of the university. A poet at heart, he was one of the major stage warmers at the cultural center back then, along with renowned poets such as Bewketu Seyoum. 

“Ethiopia went through a re-education process that influenced not only education but government and law, all replaced by cut-and-paste foreign imitations,” says Yirga, citing the Ethiopian legal system as an example. 

“In the Ethiopian legal system, Amharic is the language used in most parts of the country with specific languages applied in areas where Amharic is not spoken.” 

Yirga recounts that this was a dilemma for him when he went to law school where the English language was the medium of instruction. 

“I began to notice how utterly irrelevant my education was to my world. To learn laws and legislations in a language with which I would never practice law; this seemed to be the height of pointlessness.”   

It could be fairly said that Yirga has been questioning the entire system, its role, and its relevance to a country like Ethiopia whose majority cannot apply to their everyday existence. 

Yirga draws an interesting parallelism between the experiences of his father and of himself with just two decades and two continents between them. 

When Yirga left Ethiopia for Australia, he had a university degree in Law and a work experience as an NGO director and assistant judge. But in Australia, he was reduced to nothing and his qualifications didn’t amount to anything. Just like his father, Yirga also became a security guard in Australia. He calls these “Western-defined benchmarks”.

“The traditional teachers and priests are looked upon as custodians of a dying knowledge, good only for tourists,” he says remorsefully disregarding our new culture of leaving everything that is originally Ethiopian only to the tourism sector as if it can’t do any good in our actual lives. 

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