Armed with Letters: Dr. Ephraim on the Fidel Serawit
by: Editors #6 and #7
Who would get to do the interview? After one of the most heated intra-office battles known to humankind, two of the Seleda editors emerged victorious, and happily set out to a conference (ok, to a conference CALL) for a fine Saturday interview. The object of their enthusiasm? Dr. Ephraim Isaac, scholar extraordinaire, linguist, conductor, historian and history maker, chronicler of society's love-hate relationship with language. And that's just a fraction of what he does.
The interview could have been on any of a myriad topics in which Dr. Ephraim excels, but the Seleda duo chose to focus on his participation in the 1960s phenomenon, the Fidel Serawit. Over the next two hours, we were a rapt, captive audience, making the sharp turns in time and theme with Dr. Ephraim as he regaled us with his stories and reminiscences. We grinned, we nodded (to no one in particular), we mtsed, we gasped in awe when he slipped into Aramaïc at one point, searching among the dozen or more languages he speaks for the right word. We were in heaven.
First, a bit of biographical data on Dr. Ephraim, whom you may have seen in his ever-present and yemiyakora traditional Ethiopian-wear. By the time he was 31, Dr. Ephraim had already mastered seven languages, and was on the last throes of finalizing his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he was a student in philosophy and music. In the 60s and 70s, among his other achievements stands his crucial support and leadership to the Fidel Serawit effort, a national literacy campaign carried out from the late 50s well into the early 70s. By the end of 1964, 181,744 persons had already been registered in literacy classes, and 60,1146 persons had passed examinations and had been awarded certificates. Near the end of its existence, by 1972 the Fidel Serawit had touched the lives of 2.5 million Ethiopians. Literacy centers were set up in as many villages as possible, and volunteers (wo)manned these centers with unflagging enthusiasm. Government at the time gave lip-service to the effort: not throwing up obstacles, but not providing any financial or institutional assistance. The real financial, moral and in-kind support came from students, teachers, workers, soldiers: citizens of all types. Thus, the Fidel Serawit remains one of the most important examples of real community mobilization behind a laudable development effort.
Given the impossible task of describing a 10+ year process to two eager editors on the phone, Dr. Ephraim launched into his story, taking us from 1960 to the present.
Dr. Ephraim on raising money for the effort: The United States assistance program called "Point Four" closed its literacy department at the end of the 1950s, at which point several Ethiopian intellectuals (including Dr. Ephraim) in the US agreed to float the idea of a literacy campaign with the relevant people in Ethiopia, leading to the effort aptly named the Fidel Serawit. Officially, the campaign was led by the National Literacy Campaign Organization of Ethiopia (NLCO), created in 1962 in Addis with offices in Piazza, and it's sister organization, the Committee for Ethiopian Literacy (CEL), established in 1964 in the US as part of the Ethiopian Students Association of North America or ESANA, due in no small part to the persuasive powers of Dr. Ephraim. Over the next 10 or so years, Dr. Ephraim had leadership positions in CEL, for which he spearheading the successful push to establish it as the first non-profit Ethiopian agency with official tax-exempt status in the US, and to which his commitment continued until 1969, as well as in the NLCO in Addis Abeba, with which he continued to work until 1973/74. These institutions and their eager volunteer members had one common goal: to eradicate illiteracy in Ethiopia.
Dr. Ephraim and his collaborators in CEL launched numerous events to support the Fidel Serawit, raising enough funds to send US$5,000 to the NLCO in 1965 as well as 1,000 school books in English; US$10,000 in late 1966; and $15,000 in 1968. Their innovative fund-raisers included an unprecedented $50-a-plate dinner in Boston in Spring 1963; an EB1,000 dinner in Addis in the mid-60s; one student's innovative "cleaning shoes" fund-raiser among the Peace Corps trainees, to name only a few. Members from each of the provinces raised awareness, money and in-kind resources for the campaign, and there was sustained fund-raising at US universities in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Ithaca and Washington, DC. The Ethiopian students in Europe, especially those in the former Soviet Union, made one of the first contributions to the literacy campaign. Ethiopian Airlines and the Ethiopian Tourist Organization were two of the home-based agencies that provided support to CEL. In addition, several prominent Americans became patrons of this effort (including Senator Jacob K. Javitz of NYC Javitz Center fame; Wilma Kerby-Miler, Dean of Radcliffe Graduate School; Henry Sawyer of Henry N. Sawyer Co.; and the combined Charities of Harvard University Students, which provided the single largest donation to CEL at $5,812.50).
Dr. Ephraim on the 1968 civil rights movement and Fidel Serawit: In the late 60s, there was renewed interest in the African continent, heightened by the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the igniting of the civil rights movement, and the increased consciousness of Americans on the relevance of Africa to their own history. Taking this opportunity, Dr. Ephraim and his collaborators in CEL organized a four-day Ethiopian-African Arts Festival in 1968 in Boston that drew widespread attention. Held at the prestigious Prudential Center, this festival introduced Ethiopian traditions, cuisine, and customs to thousands of adults and young students, and raised a net profit of $15,000, all of which was sent to the Fidel Serawit. The civil rights movement in the US and the 1968 protests all over Europe also echoed the growing politicization of the Ethiopian students' organizations, leading to the transformation of the existing North American organization into ESUNA within a few years.
Dr. Ephraim on reform versus revolution: The ESANA/ESUNA differences (specifically with regard to the literacy campaign) rested on a fundamental difference of opinion on what was best: to continue with the literacy campaign within a system that had fundamental flaws, working within the existing constraints (the reformist view)...or to tear the system up by its very roots rather than perpetuate those fundamental flaws (the revolutionary view). (Editors: and the rest, they say, is history.) Particularly relevant to the Fidel Serawit was the continued discussion on whether to use a share of the raised funds for political consciousness-raising, which for some was critical. During his years as head of CEL, Dr. Ephraim believed strongly in using all of the money for the literacy campaign itself, and fought to ensure that this actually happened.
Dr. Ephraim on sharing the glory: In 1970/71 Dr. Ephraim returned to Ethiopia to complete his thesis, and brought along a Combi Volkswagen: a hippie-mobile that functioned at once as a public relations attraction, an awareness creating agitation machine and a mobile library all in one. This allowed him to witness first-hand the impact of the Fidel Serawit around the country. Most modestly, Dr. Ephraim credits his many collaborators (individuals as well as, inter alia, the yeEtyopia Temariwoch Mahber, Alemaya Literacy Campaign, Gonder Birhan Lehulu, Tigray Idget and Wellega Nejo) with the successes of the Fidel Serawit. Most notably, he acknowledges that the funds raised would not have done a fraction of what was eventually accomplished had it not been for the overwhelming enthusiasm and volunteer spirit among people on the ground. He likens the team of people working on the Fidel Serawit to "kibreet", a small and near-insignificant entity able to spark a gigantic bonfire. One of his fondest memories is a Combi moment at one particular Qulibi-Gebriel celebration, where a soldier who had heard about the Fidel Serawit donated half his monthly salary (EB20 out of the total 40) in support of the cause, illustrating perfectly the groundswell of support for this campaign.
Dr. Ephraim on the balance between culture and technology: Dr. Ephraim spoke eloquently on the imbalance between these two complementary, and not competing, elements in our lives. The West has technology and science to offer us, in which they have clearly excelled; we, in turn, can offer the human and humane traditions in which WE excel to the humanity-starved West. Unfortunately, our people (like all others) have been and still are drunk on the shiny marvels of science and technology. As a result, we have allowed ourselves to believe that our traditions, our cultures, are all holding us back, instead of choosing the best among them and harnessing the right technologies to integrate them into our lives. A perfect example: only a miniscule fraction of our educated people have learned Gi'iz, in spite of its richness, not to mention the 500,000 or so texts that exist in that ancient language; yet we all understand why it is important to excel in English.
"Self-knowledge is the beginning of growth, and self-respect is fundamental -- we lost our self-respect in the late 1960s and 70s." Ethiopian history served as an inspiration not just for Ethiopians but for Black populations around the world. Ethiopia stood for independence in the face of colonialism; and yet Ethiopians rejected all of this in the 1970s (some of this comes from the exposure to Western thought and their versions of knowledge and education). Since then, even the West has changed...with the barbarism of Nazi Germany and the inhumane use of science and technology, the West began its own search for spirituality...perhaps Ethiopians, too, will emerge from the current crises with a new search for the right balance. Dr. Ephraim added, "Some think the next century will be a spiritual one. Even if I'm not totally convinced, I think the West has come to realize the need to balance technology and spirituality." Thus far, the education system has not been able to impart to the youth the richness of Ethiopian history and culture. Maybe in our lifetimes...
Dr. Ephraim on the last days of the Fidel Serawit: After the 1974 Revolution, much of the money raised for the literacy campaign was "folded" into the Idget Behibret Zemecha effort. Disaffected with this sudden shift, Dr. Ephraim's involvement ended, and he kept well out of the arena of Ethiopian politics, at least until his 1989 involvement with the Ad Hoc Committee for Peace in Ethiopia...but that's a whole 'nother story.
Final words: The Editors dared to ask: Will we, too, learn from the barbarism of our history, as the West appears to have done, and embrace our rich heritage? Dr. Ephraim was certain: "Ethiopian culture has its own dynamism -- it is a force. Regardless of the destruction of the years since the 1974 revolution, there is still enough of our culture remaining." The revolution was, in the end, unable to completely uproot our culture.
"With the coming of technology, perhaps the West will not seem so perfect any more to our people. An Ethiopian who has seen the Columbine shootings on television will begin to appreciate the pros and cons of Western life."
The two giddy editors, and the whole rest of the Seleda gang, thank Dr. Ephraim for his time and patience. Any mistakes, misrepresentations and misquotes are all our fault (isn't it great that you don't know who we are or where we live?!).