Don's Diary: Howard Wright

December 1, 2000

Landing at Bahir Dar in North Ethiopia is unsettling. The conflict in Eritrea is close by and the airfield is a base for government Mig fighter planes. The window blinds are shut for take-off and landing.

We are in Bahir Dar to fulfil a Department for International Development - British Council programme with the newly promoted University of Bahir Dar. We are met by its vice-principal, Gezachew Adunga, along with a former PhD student now working as an "ex-pat" lecturer. A Landcruiser takes us over a short stretch of road to the wide tarmac streets of Bahir Dar and down a dirt road to the government run Tana hotel. Haile Sellasie built a summer palace close to here overlooking Lake Tana - the source of the Blue Nile.

A comment that I was willing to give a lecture found me teaching 30 students at the hour of 8am. Teasing reactions to design problems from a class normally used to extremely didactic instruction was a challenge. However, the humour and obvious intelligence was rewarding. The students live six to a room in university accommodation and many own only a single set of clothes.

The afternoon saw us bouncing along a dirt road to the Tissabi falls on the Blue Nile. On the walk from the mud huts of the local village to the falls we collected a company of small children pestering us to buy their goods. One girl of eight was extremely indignant when I asked how she had learnt her English: "At school," she replied.

Only about 1 per cent of 18 year olds are selected for university after ten years of free state education.

Running a workshop on research-industry links, I found difficulty with the view of staff and industry representatives that specific problem-solving constituted research. We continued with a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis that revealed several problems: a lack of confidence in staff to embark on investigative work, compounded by the lack of staff time and very poor reward. Lecturers earn substantially less than colleagues in industry and government. This is compounded by the employment of ex-pat staff at international wage levels.

Attend second national conference on sustainability and appropriate technology, organised to coincide with our visit. Delegates include government, non-government bodies and staff from regional universities. There is a strong emphasis on environment management of Lake Tana and a concern for the sustainability of its fragile ecosystem. Suggestions to monitor and explore the behaviour of the lake were well received, but the education of the government, farmers and fishermen is a problem.

Short lie-in lets me review my visit and reflect on future developments - we need a strategy for administration, teaching and research. A meeting with the dean and vice-principal confirmed this and gives a time limit of two months. I am enthusiastic to return. Perhaps Africa had got under my skin.

Howard Wright is professor of structural engineering and head of the department of civil engineering, University of Strathclyde.

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