Computer Science in Ethiopia

By JACOB ELIOSOFF

 

Why did you want to teach in Ethiopia?

 I actually started out looking for a position anywhere in Africa, but it’s hard to even begin a search that broad.  So partly by chance I ended up focusing on Ethiopia.  I’m a computer programmer by trade, not a professor, and I was looking for a school where my experience would really add something.  I mean India has plenty of eager computer science students, but it also has a much larger pool of teachers with the relevant skills.  The last thing I wanted to do was end up taking some local teacher’s job.

Ethiopia has a pretty extreme shortage of computer science teachers relative to local demand.  It’s also a country I knew very little about, so coming from Canada I figured I’d learn something about what life was like for people in a very different place.

 Well, my boss at a previous company was Ethiopian, but I didn’t use that connection as well as I should have.  I started out looking for an NGO that could help set up the trip.  But I didn’t find much.  CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) has a program for young Canadians wanting to work abroad, but it seemed to be aimed more at fresh grads than at more experienced workers like me.  I didn’t find anything like IPP.

Fortunately, this was 2002, not 1992.  I just spent a few weeks searching the Web and sending emails to various random Ethiopian organizations and potential employers.  Most went nowhere, but one guy referred me to an Ethiopian company that ended up hiring me as a software consultant.

Joacob Eliosoff

About the Author

Jacob Eliosoff is an International Professors Project fellow, lecturer and computer programmer from Montreal, Canada. He has been teaching Computer Science in Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia since 2009. He is interested in ways in which International Instructors can contribute to countries like Ethiopia, especially by cultivating the skills these countries need to build globally competitive economies. You can contact him by email jacob@cs.mcgill.ca. Jacob is still in Ethiopia.

Alpe d'huez and Galibier

I actually had two jobs – one with the company and one at Addis Ababa University.  I knew about AAU first, but getting a job there took much longer.  It came down to several months of bugging people.  Which still would have failed if I hadn’t had the department head’s support.  AAU has an enormous need for computer science instructors but one of the things I learned is that just because you have something to offer doesn’t mean an organization will jump at the chance to hire you.  In fact part of the reason the demand is there is because the hiring procedure is so laborious.

What were the best and worst things about your experience?

 OK, worst first.  I got off the plane in a country where I had never met anyone.  So obviously there were friends and family I missed.  But I knew that was part of the deal.  There were other predictable sacrifices, like slow Internet and the occasional cold shower.  But all that was actually less tough than I expected.  Addis Ababa has around five million people so I wasn’t exactly in the bush.

Alpe d'huez and Galibier Alpe d'huez and GalibierLess predictable was missing anonymity.  A Canadian friend of mine who also spent a year in Ethiopia wrote me an email the day he left about a long complicated commute on the tube in London.  He was lugging around three huge bags and no one once offered to help, or even looked at him.  Reading that from Ethiopia I really envied him – that may sound glib but I’m serious.  It’s a privilege to walk down the street unnoticed.

It was also frustrating to know I was doing a lousy job sometimes, giving badly prepared lectures or, especially, losing my temper at students.  I think to some extent that was just a consequence of trying to balance two jobs in a completely new environment.  So I have mixed feelings about the two jobs thing.

Good things, well there were a lot but the best is easy: the people.  I met Ethiopians I’m still in close touch with and really grateful to have met.  Teaching students with so much motivation was also a constant buzz.  I’ve already written about these so I’m not going to repeat myself here – so my webpage about the trip.

Do you have any tips for others interested in teaching at an Ethiopian university?

How did you get the job?

I’m talking to myself here…

Pay attention and adapt.  What made sense back home may no longer.  Do your students need to learn what you’re teaching?  Do they want to?  Do they even understand a word you’re saying?  Maybe if you slowed down your English a bit?

Follow the procedures.  At AAU I was supposed to go to a special booth on a separate campus every month to collect my salary.  At one point I neglected to do this for four months in a row.  OK, that was stupid but I figured, I’m teaching three courses, I can collect it at the end.  The result was a huge six-month struggle to collect the back pay.  I ended up getting it literally two days before I left the country.  I have a lot of stories like this.  In Canada you can often get away with following the spirit rather than the letter of the law.  Not so in Ethiopia.
Alpe d'huez and Galibier

 On the other hand, if someone gives you a form with ten pages of seemingly irrelevant information to fill in, don’t just sit down and start writing.  Ask someone who knows the system what’s actually expected.  You absolutely need people like this on your side.  Entering a bureaucracy without one is roughly like setting sail without a map.

Show respect.  Don’t interrupt.  First, because in a more formal society, behavior that you intend as just friendly may come across as downright insolent.  Second, because the whole premise that you have some special knowledge or skill to impart puts you at risk of seeming arrogant.  Don’t forget that you have as much to learn as to teach.

Aim for sustainable change.  Your students will rotate out in four years.  But if you can produce some lasting improvement to the system you’re working in, the benefits can reach new students for decades.  I brought several boxes of textbooks from Canada, but despite my department head’s urging I never did manage to put in place a system that would keep the books flowing after I left.

Dedicate at least 2-4 weeks at the very beginning – before you have a bunch of distracting commitments – to getting a hang of the local language.  I still wish I had done this.

Finally, by all means contact me at if you think I can help with information or contacts.  At the very least, if you go too I’ll be interested to hear about your trip.

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