New Delhi, March 7: Gennet Zewide’s face broke into a smile as she recalled her primary school English teacher from the 1960s in Ethiopia – a man from India with a booming voice who could make the naughtiest students in class pay attention.
To a generation of girls in her school, the teacher was an introduction to a different culture. His Indian lineage made students take him seriously, said Zewide, Ethiopia’s ambassador in New Delhi and the longest-serving foreign envoy currently posted here.
As she sat near the window of her office at the Ethiopian embassy on a sunny spring morning, Zewide’s smile transformed into a frown as her mind flipped from happy primary school memories to a worry in the present.
Ethiopia wants a fresh tide of Indian teachers to teach students and train local instructors. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said at least thrice that he wants India to “export teachers” to other countries.
But what could have been a perfect match between Ethiopia’s needs and Modi’s ambitions is proving a struggle for Zewide in her search for today’s avatars of her teacher – a hunt equally about sustaining a decades-old bond between the people of Ethiopia and India.
An unprecedented spike in India’s teacher wages in recent years, and expectations of another hike in 2016, have dimmed the sparkle of Ethiopia’s once-lucrative offers to Indian tutors, traditionally used to abysmal salaries in their own country.
“It’s a big problem for us,” Zewide, who was also Ethiopia’s federal minister for education from 1992 to 2005, told The Telegraph. “We still want quality teachers from India as seeds around which our own teachers can learn and grow. But it’s proving much harder to afford them any more.”
On Teachers’ Day last September, and then again in November, the Prime Minister had rhetorically asked aloud in public addresses why India couldn’t export teachers. As Gujarat chief minister in 2013, too, Modi had spoken about India’s potential for sending teachers abroad.
But the export of teachers isn’t new for India – and no country is more familiar with that tradition than Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most influential nations.
Since the 1950s, waves of Indian teachers have landed in the east African nation, embraced by an otherwise fractious Ethiopia as a backbone of quality at the country’s schools and colleges where they taught students and trained local instructors.
Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I’s mid-20th-century expansion of his country’s education system needed trainers from abroad, but the country couldn’t afford hiring teachers from the US or Europe. India’s British-introduced public education system was recognised as the best among former colonies, and the Ethiopian government tapped Indian teachers with salaries hard to turn down at the time.
Teaching at a private school in Mumbai, Ramashankar Iyengar was earning Rs 500 a month in the early 1970s when he surprised family members with his plans to take up an assignment in Ethiopia.
He earned $200 (around Rs 1,650 then) a month teaching mathematics for a decade starting 1973 at a school near Mekele in north Ethiopia, saving enough to buy prime land in Chennai when he returned.
“It was a win-win deal for everyone,” said Iyengar, now 75, over the phone from Chennai.
Working in Ethiopia came with challenges.
A year after Iyengar landed, Marxists in the military deposed the Ethiopian emperor, plunging the country into a brutal civil war that lingered through the 1980s under the Soviet-backed rule of Mengitsu Haile Mariam.
The expulsion of Indians by Idi Amin in nearby Uganda left Indians in Ethiopia like Sailesh Gaikwad apprehensive that they too might have to leave.
But through the civil war and a famine that led to over 400,000 deaths, the Ethiopian government and the country’s multiple ethnic factions never targeted Indian teachers.
“And the pay was worth the risk,” said Gaikwad, who taught English at a college in Awassa, 270km south of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia stayed a step ahead as Indian teacher salaries slowly crept up. It currently offers up to $1,500 (Rs 94,000) a month for foreign university teachers and close to $600 (Rs 37,000) for primary school teachers.
But an unprecedented 70 per cent hike for university teachers, first announced by the Indian government in 2008 but fully implemented across the country only by early 2013, means Ethiopia’s offer is no longer attractive enough.
University professors in India now earn a basic salary of up to Rs 78,000 a month under pay scales approved by the University Grants Commission. Primary school teachers now earn up to Rs 39,000 a month. The UGC is expected to introduce fresh hikes next year.
“Apart from the adventure of living in a different country, there’s no real incentive now to go teach in Ethiopia,” said Raghavendra Singh, a Delhi University physics teacher.
Currently, only about 300 Indians are teaching in Ethiopia, said Aklilu Kebede, a diplomat at the Ethiopian embassy in charge of political affairs and public diplomacy.
Sensing the crisis, the Ethiopian government sent two ministerial delegations to New Delhi last year to seek out assistance from counterparts in the Indian government, a senior diplomat at the ministry of external affairs said.
“But we’re only getting people who aren’t able to get regular teaching jobs here,” Zewide said. “The kind of quality we are used to getting from India is just not affordable now.”
For Amanuel Yoseph, a teacher in Addis Ababa who once studied under Iyengar, this crisis hits at more than just Ethiopia’s education system. It was through these teachers that many Ethiopians knew India, he said.
“We built a cultural connect, a lifelong friendship and bond,” said Yoseph, who still exchanges New Year greeting cards with his former Indian teacher. “It’s a bond I want my children, grandchildren some day, to gain from. We can’t let it snap.”