In Summary

  • This ancient historical city in the north of Ethiopia, which was once the country’s capital, was built by Emperor Fasilides (Fasil) in 1635.
  • Ethiopia has leveraged her diaspora for development by giving incentives for all kinds of initiatives.
  • As a command economy, Ethiopia also has an advantage over her capitalist neighbours where unions have become too strong and where too much freedom guaranteed by constitutions has implications on economic progress.

I travelled to Gondar, Ethiopia, last week at the invitation of the University of Gondar. 

This ancient historical city in the north of Ethiopia, which was once the country’s capital, was built by Emperor Fasilides (Fasil) in 1635. 

Prior to the 17th century civilisation, the area was occupied by Solomonic Emperors of Ethiopia, nomad rulers who migrated frequently and lived mostly in tents. 

Gondar is in the Amhara National Regional State of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which is largely inhabited by agriculturalists.

The city of Gondar has a little over 600,000 inhabitants and is dotted by several historical imperial structures. 

The most imposing is Emperor Fasil’s castle, which innovatively borrowed from Indian, Portuguese and African architectural styles. 

Nearby is the world-famous cathedral Debre Berhan Selassie, with its exquisite interiors. Some of the most beautiful architectural structures built by Africans can be found here.

The question that lingers in my mind is, how did we lose that level of finesse, quality and taste? Modern African architects conspicuously fail to match the aesthetics that our great grandparents were able to deliver. 

I was visiting Gondar to give one of the keynote speeches on emerging and disruptive technologies, with an emphasis on 3D printing. The theme of the conference was “The 3D Printing Revolution and Ethiopia’s ‘Unfinished agenda’ on Manufacturing”.

AFRICA'S CONTRADICTIONS

The chief guest at the conference was Getahun Mekuria, state minister of the federal ministry of science and technology.  

The conference was also attended by Dr Cosmas Ochieng, executive director of the Nairobi-based African Centre for Technology Studies, several senior government officials and the mayor of the city of Gondar, Tekeba Tebabal.

Gondar aspired to become the first capital of modern Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Tewodros. Despite all the modern developments in the city, it still retains its ancient character, with many people still using horse and donkey-drawn carriages for transportation. 

It is one of Africa’s contradictions that we were discussing cutting-edge technologies while some of our folks outside rode on medieval modes of transportation. Much of the old city is dotted with faculties of the University of Gondar. 

The university started in 1954 as the College of Medical Sciences in collaboration with the United States government and to date the university collaborates with many US agencies on various projects in Africa.

Statue of Emperor Tewodros, complete with dreadlocks, in Gondar, Ethiopia. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

Students here are eager to learn, innovate and come up with new products.

They are distinctively different from students from other parts of Africa in that they prefer the local language, Amharic, which is widely used to ensure that local people too are up to date with new technologies. The minister gave his speech entirely in Amharic. 

As we drove to lunch, our driver turned up the car radio and the broadcast was in Amharic. I requested an interpretation and I was told that the station was reporting on what their reporters had covered at the morning events. 

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

In many African countries, new technological concepts have no vernacular equivalent and when reported, the translation is nebulous. For example, a concept like Internet of Things might be reported as teknolojia ya kisasa (loosely translated as modern technology). 

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