"A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes-will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished" (An 1859 excerpt from John Stuart Mill's work, which Ketema Yifru jotted down in his prison diaries).
When Emperor Haile Selassie began the task of modernization, his primary concern was to educate as many young Ethiopians as he could so that they could help in building their country. The Emperor's educational campaign focused on giving opportunities to those who could not afford a higher education. The kids who later grew up to become Physicians, Diplomats, Ministers, etc., brought with them new and fresh ideas to the various fields that they were assigned to. One such person, who brought a fresh and new approach to the field of international relations, was a man by the name of Ketema Yifru. The biography that you are about to read is an example of how those who come from poor surroundings can make a difference in this world, provided that they are given the necessary tools that could help them achieve their goals in life.
He was born to Yifru Dejene and Yimegnushal Gobena on December 12, 1929, in the small village of Gara Muleta, Harerge. Growing up, Ketema lived his life as a poor kid, whose father ploughed the land for a living. He would spend most of his time playing soccer with a ball that was made from old clothing. There was always a glimmer in Ketema's eyes when he talked about his humble upbringing. It seemed that Ketema was proud of his humble heritage, because he always emphasized the point that he probably came from one of the poorest families in Ethiopia.
Gara Muleta, Harerge
Ketema Yifru lived in Gara Muleta until his country was invaded by Fascist Italy in 1935. His family then took him to what was then British Somaliland. There he would spend his time studying under the close supervision of his uncle, while his father fought the invading Italian forces. Ketema was able to successfully complete his primary education while he was living in exile, first, in the refuge school at Menchasein, Somaliland, and later at Traveta, Kenya.
Returning after his country's liberation, Ketema was now at the age where he required a secondary education. Unfortunately for Ketema, Gara Muleta did not have a high school. In those days, the closest place which had a secondary school was Addis Ababa. Thus, any hopes of attending a higher education looked bleak. One day, however, the Emperor, who had a habit of visiting small villages, showed up in Ketema's neighborhood. After some of the elders approached him with Ketema's problem, the King informed them that Ketema should come to Addis Ababa where he could attend school at Haile Selassie 1 Secondary School.
Ketema with his schoolmates (second from left in the front row)
Delighted with the news, Ketema Yifru could not wait until he got to Addis Ababa. In fact, he insisted that he should go there immediately. Unfortunately, his family, who did not have a dime to their name, were unable to come up with the money to pay for his transportation. Knowing the problem that his family was facing, Ketema had arranged for a ride. A persistent Ketema convinced his family that he would be safe in a coal truck, which would transport him to his final destination.
Ketema Yifru had not arranged for a place to stay thinking that he would be admitted to the school the very day that he had reached Addis Ababa. When he arrived in Addis Ababa, however, he was told to wait until matters concerning his school were finalized. Luckily for Ketema, the guards at the Emperor's palace offered to put him up, provided that he worked for them to earn his keep. Ketema would do odd jobs for the soldiers until he was finally admitted to the high school.
Months later, with the help of General Merid Mengesha, the guards were able to send Ketema off to school. At the high school, which was comprised of students ranging from obscure backgrounds to those who came from royalty, Ketema was exposed to the class difference, which was based on wealth and social upbringing. This lesson that Ketema learnt, would ultimately prepare him for what was in store for him in the future.
The Emperor, ignoring the advise of some of his trusted advisors, arranged for the higher education of those who could not afford it otherwise. As a result, after completing his secondary education (1948), Ketema, along with many of his classmates, was given the opportunity to study abroad. Because of the Emperor's good deed, the young man from Gara Muleta ended up in Holland, Michigan. Ketema enrolled at Hope College, where he received a bachelors degree in political science (1951). Then, the journey that Ketema took in search for an education would take him to Boston Massachusetts.
In Boston, Ketema continued his studies at Boston University, where he received a Masters degree in International Relations and Political Science (1952). In his final year at the university, Ketema interned at the United Nations, with recommendation from the Ethiopian government. When the Ethiopian government offered Ketema the chance to study for his doctorate, he graciously declined the offer and opted to return home to help his poor family.
Ethiopian students from the Northern America region pause to have their pictures taken on the occasion of their reunion, which was held in Duluth, Minnesota (1950)
While he was attending school in the USA, Ketema was exposed to racial inequality. The 1950's was a time where segregation between whites and blacks, in the United States, was openly endorsed by the government. Ketema remembered an incident, out of many, which happened to him while he and his white friends drove from Boston to Washington, DC. After a long trip, Ketema and his friends stopped to dine in the outskirts of Boston. In one of the restaurants, an irritated owner asked Ketema's friends what this person [Ketema] was doing in his place of business. To avoid an unnecessary altercation, Ketema convinced his friends that they could find another restaurant. He explained he never gave much weight to incidents, such as this, because he believed that he was as capable as the next person. That confidence would help Ketema when he would later enter Ethiopian politics, where one was judged based on his family's background rather than his merits.