In Memoriam

 An RPCV remembers Richard Pankhurst

by Phillip LeBel (Emdeber 1964-67)

This is an account of my friendship with Richard Pankhurst (1927–2017), a noted historian, and founder and Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, who passed away on February 16, 2017. 

I FIRST CAME TO KNOW Richard Pankhurst while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer history teacher in Emdeber, Shoa, Ethiopia in 1967. At that time I was teaching a successive cohort of students who were progressing through the opening of grades 9 through 12 during the 1965 to 1968 years that I taught in the Emdeber public secondary school.

In my lesson plans, I followed the Ethiopian School Curriculum for history, which was based on the London O level standards then in place. Each year, students in history examined a concentric circle of events around a specific time period, beginning first with Ethiopian history, followed by African history, and then world history.

As students had few textbooks, including a 1935 history by Jones and Monroe that even looked favorably on Mussolini’s claims over the 1934 Wal Wal (Welwel) incident that served as a pretext for the invasion of Ethiopia that began the following year. In response to the dearth of materials, I would buy books at the Giannopolis book store on Churchill Road in Addis, and then, using extracts, integrate them into stenciled mimeograph sheets that I used to teach the various modules.

At the end of the year, I would have students bring me their mimeographed sheets, which I would then staple together with a table of contents and cover sheet so that they would have a take-away textbook of their own. I still have copies of the four years’ worth of history text materials that I developed while teaching history to students in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Before leaving Ethiopia to return to the U.S. in July 1968, I gave all of the history stencils to the Peace Corps office where I was told that they would be made available to any incoming Peace Corps Volunteer. I don’t think they survived the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.

MY PEACE CORPS CONTRACT initially was set to terminate at the end of spring in 1966. Volunteers were given the option of leaving in July 1966, or extending their contract. I chose to extend my contract by one year, thus completing my Peace Corps service in July 1967. However, because I was so involved with teaching an advancing cohort of students who by then had only completed grade eleven, I decided to stay an additional year under a contract with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. In the 1967-1968 year, I taught the cohort whom I had first met in 1965 and who then were prepared to take their twelfth grade leaving exams. Out of 21 students in history who took the exam, seven passed the test. At the time, I was told that this was exceptional for students in a rural school system. I have never inquired as to whether this was true or not.

These great books by Richard Pankhurst were sources for my mimeographed textbook.

These great books by Richard Pankhurst were sources for my mimeographed textbook.

Along the way of teaching, I came to know Norman Singer, another Peace Corps Volunteer who was teaching law at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa. Through Norman, I was introduced to Richard Pankhurst, founder and Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University. Richard already had carved out a notable reputation for his writings on Ethiopian history. I had used extracts from two of his books in my mimeo texts: Travelers in Ethiopia (Oxford University Press, 1965), and The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles (Oxford University Press, 1967).

Around that time, I told Richard that I was developing preliminary text materials for use in the Ethiopian secondary school history curriculum. He encouraged me to consider having them published by Oxford University Press, the publisher of the two aforementioned texts he had edited. I decided to stay the additional year and began discussions with the then Addis representative of Oxford University Press.

Through a series of events unrelated to my friendship with Richard Pankhurst, this never came to pass. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity to have worked on the project while I contemplated what I might do once I would be leaving Ethiopia to attend graduate school in the fall of 1968.

WHILE TEACHING secondary school history in Emdeber, I asked students what they could tell me of the history of their family, clan, and region from which they had come. Though most students had come from one of the Sabat Bét Gurage groups, some had come from as far away as Hosanna, where the Hadiya were more prevalent. From my reaching out to students, I also began looking into what was known about the Gurage from writings in the library of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Haile Selassie I University in Addis.

One book I came across was a record of a French government commissioned expedition by two explorers, F. Azaïs and R. Chambard, Cinq années de recherches archéologique en Éthiopie, province du Harar et Éthiopie (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste, Paul Geuthner, 1931). One volume in the series recounts a muleback trip they took down the Rift Valley in 1926. In their account, they took photographs of rock-hewn stone carvings near Butajira, in Soddo Gurage country, not far from Lake Zwai. That they were carved in stone suggested that they pre-dated the expansion of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam in the region of Sidamo.

Given the proximity of Butajira to Sabat Bét Gurage country, Richard Pankhurst, Norman Singer, and I set out in 1967 to see whether and of these stones were still extant. Arriving in Butajira and speaking with local residents, we found one stone that had been photographed by Azaïs and Chambard. It was lying on an angle in a grain field.

Statue leaning in a field near Butajira.

A photo I took in 1967 shows what it looked like then. Noting the distinctive markings, Richard obtained relocation permits from the Ministry of Interior for placing them in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies collection. This stone, along with a few others brought up subsequently with the collaboration and support of Professor Hailu Fulass, now constitute part of the collection in the Institute. I took a photo of three of these stones and a detailed photo of one of them in 1968. When I returned to Ethiopia to teach at the University in 2009, the stones looked only slightly more weathered than they did when first placed there in 1968.

Another stone in Gurageland

From this expeditionary experience in 1967, I learned from some of my students in Emdeber that similar stones were located in Sabat Bét Gurage country. In an unsuccessful relocation sequel, Richard, Norman, and I made plans for a government authorized acquisition of one stone in Ezha, one of the Sabat Bét Gurage groups, to be taken to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. On the day of our planned retrieval, I learned that it was still being used for ceremonial animal sacrifices. At that point, I decided that as long as such stones had an ongoing active spiritual function, no effort should be made to remove them. I do not know if the stones in Ezha were still there in my 2009 visit as I did not have time to make a return visit.

OUT OF MY LOCAL OUTREACH to students from my days as a secondary history teacher in Emdeber, I wound up writing two articles for the Journal of Ethiopian Studies. “On Gurage Architecture” was published in 1969 and “Oral Traditions and Chronicles on Gurage Immigration” was published in 1974. By that time, I was already busy with writing my doctoral thesis in economics, and so my engagement with Ethiopia was put aside, even though I still continued to follow events in what were then revolutionary times that led to the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974.

AFTER A CAREER IN teaching, research, and consulting in economics, I managed to obtain another Fulbright grant to return to Ethiopia in 2009, to teach in the graduate program in economics at Addis Ababa University. I was delighted to re-connect with so many friends and former students from years gone by, including Richard Pankhurst, then retired from the directorship of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, even though he continued to write and lobby on behalf of Ethiopian historical causes. In the process I wound up preparing a presentation to SOFIES, the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, in the spring of 2009. Richard Pankhurst, as ever a friend, was able to attend the presentation. He thought that my topic, “Social Identity and Economic Well-Being Among the Gurage: Some Historical Comparisons,” was a suitable topic for publication by the Journal of Ethiopian Studies. I refined a version of the presentation and submitted it to the editor, but to my knowledge, it has never been published.

While I have not returned to Ethiopia since 2009, I have been giving some thought to such a trip, possibly as a visiting scholar at a local university on a short-term visit. That I might return and no longer have such a friend as Richard Pankhurst to inspire work in a field that has been a long-standing interest, but largely unrelated to work I have done as an academic economist, would not be the same. I shall miss his presence. This said, the impact of the numerous projects in which he was engaged and supported will live on for generations to come.

Richard Pankhurst in a classroom

One response to “In Memoriam

  1. Richard was a wonderful man who gave so much to Ethiopia, to its students and other citizens, to its sense of history and place and to his friends. He and Rita’s hospitality and graciousness were and are deservedly legendary for their generosity of spirit. A sad loss but a good life.

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