By Teferi N. Tafa.
Visiting Scholar from Ethiopia
I am Teferi N. Tafa, a visiting scholar from Ethiopia. In the fall 2017 semester I co-taught literature EN322, a course titled “Jailed & Executed: Loaded Pens,” with Professor Patricia J. Ferreira. In the spring semester I will teach world literature 202, a course I love to teach and was teaching when I was in Ethiopia at Addis Ababa University and Ambo University. Thanks to Professor Lea Williams who proposed this course.
I was teaching literature in Ethiopia. Since I am not a member of the ruling party, and am a writer who is sometimes critical of the government, I was under constant surveillance. My syllabus was assessed by top officials and university party leaders before being given to students. In Ethiopia, the ruling party had offices in the university and oversaw the teaching and learning process. Since the ruling party was a coalition of four parties, all four parties had their own offices on campus. As a result, there were not enough offices for the professors. For example, in Ambo University, 30 English professors used a big hall as an office. One reason to have all professors in one big room is to check what everybody does and writes. The official reason is “to reduce corruption.” “If you have all professors in one big room, then you significantly reduce corruption,” says the Ethiopian government.
Thus, the party leader will assess your syllabus, assign your students to spy on you, and report all you say and teach to the party leader. Then you may get a promotion or demotion, or you are fired or get arrested. Once I said, “I wish the ruling party would negotiate with the opposition party, and the next day I got warning letter which said, “who are you to give us advice?” To be accepted I had to write a poem praising the ruling party, which was published in the party newspaper. As a result, I wrote what they wanted and got the opportunity to study for my PhD.
However, in 2015 a protest broke out and challenged the government. Ambo, 100 km west of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, was the heart of the protest. I was a professor in Ambo University before I moved to Addis Ababa to pursue my PhD. I knew many young men and women who started the protest. I interviewed them and reported why they protested. After three days the police commissioner and Ethiopian security head gave me call. They told me to come to their office. They interrogated me, and intimidated me by pointing a gun to my head. I had nothing to tell them. Finally, they released me.
Then they arrested my sister and brother who were students at Ambo University. The main reason was that “they reported to me and I reported to Western media and Ethiopian diaspora in USA.” My sister was released after a month and my brother released after four months. My brother was sick for six months, his hands were broken. However, the protest continued.
At this time, I started to look for some way to get out of that country. I was especially urged to get out after there was an attempt to kill me by car accident. I was one of the founders of Oromo Writers Association, Ethiopian Writers Association and PEN, Ethiopian chapter. So I told PEN what happened to me and they referred me to the Institute of International Education-Scholars Rescue Fund and other groups who work with persecuted scholars. While I was corresponding with IIE/SRF I was arrested.
A big rally was called on August 6, and I was the organizer. The main focus was to get attention for our cause because the soul of non-violent resistance is attention from both national and international communities. However, the rally failed and the police responded violently. I was arrested while shooting a photo of police brutally beating young boys just walking on the street. After they checked my phone they discovered that I was one of the organizers. They whipped me and tortured me. After a week I was accused of organizing an “illegal rally”. After spending nearly two months in jail I released on bail.
After I was released I determined to leave Ethiopia by any means. Fortunately, I won a IIE/SRF scholarship through an international competition. To get this scholarship, one had to demonstrate academic success, having internationally recognized scholarly works, and future potential contribution to IIE/SRF, host institute, and humanity in general.
After I got the scholarship, I applied to different institutes. I was supposed to go to Emerson College, in Boston and teach two courses. Two weeks before my flight the police came to my home, searched everything, and arrested me from my book shop. So I lost Emerson because I was in prison. That was the worst time in my life. I was fired from the university 10 months before that, and my book shop was closed. My printing house was not doing well. My family and I started to starve and only few friends were helping us. At the same time, I got good news.
A friend of mine, Steven Thomas, who teaches at Wagner College in New York, was in Ethiopia for a Rockefeller scholarship. He understood my plight and sent my CV and acceptance letter to different universities, as did IIE/SRF. Several universities said I could come in August. My great refuge, Norwich University, told me in November of 2016 that I could come in March.
That is how I came to Norwich. My friend Steven sent my CV and acceptance letter to Kyle Pivetti, Assistant Professor of English in Norwich University. Kyle took my CV to David Westerman, Associate Vice President for Research. David asked Kyle, “Do you know him?” Kyle said “He is a friend of my friend.” “Let him come,” said David. I could not believe I could come here. I was counting the days until I would be sent to prison. My case was still running, but Norwich snatched me from that miserable situation.
I am very happy to be here. My family is also happy. When I came here I thought there would be campus guards or police everywhere. In Ethiopia more than 500 well-trained police live in the campus. To my astonishment, Norwich had neither fence nor campus guards. What a sharp opposition to the Ethiopian University. Here everybody talks politics openly, and no one looks around for fear of being spied upon. This is impossible in Ethiopia. Here you can read as much as you’d like, and get books through the Kreitzberg Library or interlibrary loan. In Ethiopia, someone would look at the book you were reading and report it to the campus party leader. I wish to remain here, become a professor, and belong to Norwich forever.