An interview with
historian Bahru Zewdi

conducted by Melese Telahoun and published at www. EthiopianReporter.com

“HISTORIANS LIVE IN a very, very embattled kind of territory. They are always looked at with some degree of suspicion and apprehension by the political order.”

Professor Bahru Zewde is a historian by profession. He has been a student of history since 1966. He got his first degree in history in 1970 from the then Haile Selassie I University, now Addis Ababa University (AAU), after teaching for two years at the university as a graduate assistant. Professor Bahru went to London for further studies and obtained his Ph.D from the School of African and Oriental Studies of the University of London in 1976. Since then, Professor Bahru has been associated with AAU. Professor Bahru spoke to Melese Telahoun of The Reporter on issues related to the study of Ethiopian history and his own professional life as a historian. Excerpts:

I had learnt that, in your school days, your were an avid reader of literary works. And yet, you chose history as your area of study. Why did you choose history instead of literature?
Precisely because I am an avid reader. I think one of the greatest of my memories is reading in the National Library starting from my elementary school days, particularly, the high school days in the 1960s. We used to go there on a fairly regular basis especially in the summer. Reading is actually an important element in the historical profession. Reading extensively and continuously is one of the real fundamental requirements of a historian. The historian must be in a position to read volumes and volumes of books. You have to read a lot of sources before you come to any conclusion or before you are able to say this is how it happened. The turning point was, I think, in the eleventh grade. The influence of my American teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer, was very decisive because, at that time, I was, more, a science student or mathematics student. Basically those were my strong points. At the time, my idea of history was a jumbled collection of dates, figures and names which were all boring. But, after that experience of a new kind of history, then I said "this is my field. I saw the potentialities or the possibilities of history. And, as early as the eleventh grade, I decided that history was the subject for me. I have been lucky, because, when I joined the Department of History, at that time, it was staffed with a very good collection of faculty members, particularly, graduates of the new Centre of African Studies in London. They were part of this new generation of historians who were reconstructing African history from the basis of African sources as opposed to just European sources.

You pursued your studies in the days of the very strong student movement. Did the student movement have an impact on your studies?

Yes, indeed. I was part of the student movement. In those days, you cannot help but be part of the student movement. But I wouldn't describe myself as a very active leader of the student movement. I would say I was more on the sidelines. From time to time I would write articles for some the student magazines or journals. But I was not what you would call an activist. So, I think I was essentially an academic, remained an academic, and I think the priorities were very clear.

I think I was probably more active after I left for my studies in Europe than was the case in my undergraduate years. Even, then, I used to have a kind of principle which I always used to tell my friends, the trinity of the academic, the political and the social. I committed myself to maintaining, as much as possible, a perfect equilibrium between these three, which are all, in their own ways very, important. But one should make sure that one does not tip the balance too much on the other side.
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