Hours before the beginning of May, an audience witnessed the live sequel to trauma triggered in a hotel room in Athens, Greece half a century ago. I was one of four hundred persons who sat for two hours without a drink, popcorn or visit to the bathroom, listening as an actress read the psychological assessment of Lemm Sissay. Impossibly, Lemm was with us, listening.
Among other things, The Report reflected how, though designed for children without care, such as orphans, Adventist schools have not always been models of care. It revealed how, among children left without care are those who – predictably – fall between cracks in state-provided care. At the same time, The Report identified one child first falling, but then recovering against all odds, to rise spectacularly above cracks that engulfed others.
The parties to this trauma were an Ethiopian Airways pilot and the student he was taking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to England to study as part of the Emperor’s Education Programme. The outcome was Lemm Sissay, born in May 1967 at a home for unwed mothers in Wigan, England and taken into “care” by the state.
Lemm celebrated the month of his fiftieth birthday onstage at The Royal Court Theatre, listening to The Report. This detailed his life experiences, such as leaving primary school every day with spit on his back, unaware before age nine that there was any other black person in the world, and never meeting such a person before age seventeen. All-too-briefly, it mentioned the bright experience of his first gig, reading his own poems publicly at age seventeen. A valuable review captures the spirit of the event, though to be appreciated, it is necessary to listen to, or read Lemm’s reflections on rising through cracks in social care.
The Report left me wondering at how readily what fifty years confirmed as the birth of an eagle chick was confused with what, to all appearances was the birth of a chicken. It led me to explore another, less obvious crack in Lemm’s story, one familiar to my experience in the Caribbean, which is the prime subject of this blog. Lemm mentions that when, after years of searching he found her, his mother was an international civil servant. Crucially, he notes that his mother left a Seventh-day Adventist school in Ethiopia to attend the church’s college in England.
This blog connects the dots between Adventist missionary work in Africa and advanced study by an ambitious young woman in England. More than whatever funds a scholarship might provide, a family needed encouragement to decide to send a daughter to study in a foreign country. Tjat encouragement was uniquely available from a small Protestant mission with a large influence in the Empire of Ethiopia, ruled by its Emperor, Haile Selassie in 1966.
Schools were at the heart of an intimate relation between Adventism and Ethiopia. There, Herbert and Della Hanson focused, not on preaching, as Adventist missionaries normally did but on teaching. 2 From 1934 they taught school, as far as local conditions permitted. In 1936 when the royal family went into exile in England, they helped the Adventist Hospital and the Red Cross to do relief work. Still in Ethiopia at the end of Italian occupation in 1941, they were teaching in basic conditions when the Emperor returned.
The Emperor determined to modernize Ethiopia. Recognizing the Hansons’ persistent effort to develop schools, in 1943 he gave them land and facilities for what became known as Akaki School. Herbert Hanson’s building, teaching and direction of Akaki was such that it underlay this understatement by a knowledgeable observer: Akaki ”never encountered” the difficulties faced by other mission schools. 3
Started and developed “at the urging of prominent Ethiopians,” Akaki was important nationally. It supplied a foundation for careers in a country that needed capable personnel urgently. Akaki alumni would become “cabinet ministers and ambassadors, and… hold prominent positions all round the world.” 4 This – it so happens – is the career pattern Lemm’s mother followed.
Meanwhile, the Emperor led in supporting Akaki. And parallel to work done at the school, for three decades Della Hanson was resident tutor to the royal children and simultaneously, chief housekeeper at the Palace. Such was the nation’s regard for the Hansons that when Herbert died in October 1966, not only did several members of the royal household attend the funeral. The palace provided a royal hearse and escorts for a procession that included “ministers of state… and distinguished personalities, many,” as an Adventist church paper noted, “former students of Akaki school, and all of them close friends” of the Hansons. 5
A Wide Gap
There was a wide gap between expectation and the reality of Adventism in Great Britain, long recognized, except for the United States, as the largest sender of Christian missionaries. Expectation of options in schooling for missionaries and others was particularly high where Adventism throughout much of Europe and Africa, including Ethiopia was headquartered.
There were other reasons to expect a wide selection of training opportunities. Beside Adventist regional headquarters, England held other key, typical church institutions. These included a publishing house, food business and a hospital, its maternity department remembered for attracting “a large clientele, including the wives of a number of significant figures in public life” in the post-war years. 6
By 1966 British Adventism had other typical, important institutions – primary schools, a secondary school and above them, a college. Curiously however, these institutions were poorly interlinked, none stronger than the weakest of them all.
The weakest institution was the college, founded in connection with location of the church regional headquarters in London. Initially, study at the sole Adventist school in Great Britain was all at secondary level; then in the 1920s, primary school students far outnumbered those in tertiary study at the college. It took half a century for four church-run primary schools to open to permit higher level study to develop, hesitant pre-war progress at tertiary level shown in the thick red line charted above (data at Table I) below. Even after the 1950s however, the college offered one major only, and Adventist post-primary enrollment showed little relation to the number of students in its primary schools. The effect in Britain, where any student from a mission school had high expectation of advancement was an unexpectedly weak college.
In the church’s Ethiopian mission on the other hand, post-primary education finally appeared in 1964, when church leaders opened a small college. Yet, the result of the Hansons’ focused response to the Emperor, and to urging and support by others was unexpected achievement in schooling. By 1966 an Ethiopian population half as large as Britain’s maintained seven times as many Adventist primary schools as existed in Britain. Furthermore, primary enrollment in Ethiopia was twelve times larger than in Britain, as shown in Table II below.
The crack deepened. Beside the distance between its hospital and schools, British Adventism did not have the benefit of a vibrant institution such as Akaki in Ethiopia. Adventist institutions in Britain were underdeveloped, without the level of open mindedness generated and attracted as a matter of course by dynamic institutions of higher education. Therefore it did not matter if students arriving at the college were British or Ethiopian. Whether they came in normal, or wholly unexpected circumstances, Adventism was unprepared to accommodate students.
The sequel was dark with irony. Rising above the crack of unpreparedness that separated Ethiopian mission schools from schools in British Adventism, a child traumatized into writing poetry would become Chancellor of an English University.
|British Adventism – Growth of School Enrollment|
Source: General Conference, Department of Education Statistics, 1990.
|Adventist Education in Britain and Ethiopia Compared (1966)|
Source: Annual Statistical Reports, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
I belong to the Mossi people of Burkina Faso in West Africa, brought to the Caribbean in years when Tobago changed hands as many as thirty times among rival European states. The reason for that rivalry was obvious. My ancestors were taken to Tobago to work for Scottish planters primarily. They grew cotton and sugar cane, generating wealth legendary in Edinburgh and London at the end of the eighteenth century. I am also the product of circumstances described on a "mystery" tombstone in Plymouth, on the western side of Tobago. It reminds readers of the nameless mother held in a relationship like one in my ancestral line that left me with the Scottish name, Scobie. Those were the years when samaan trees first stood distinct on the Tobago skyline as Moravians and long after, Seventh-day Adventists made schools so much a part of everyday life that islanders began to see education no longer as a privilege, but as a right.