ADDIS ABABA (HAN) August 15.2016. Public Diplomacy & Regional Security News. INTERVIEW. By Addisalem Mulat.
Emeritus Prof. Alemayehu Tefera is a civil engineer by profession. He has spent most of his life time at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology. He has got more than 35 years of teaching experience in Structural and Geotechnical fields of civil engineering both at undergraduate and graduate levels. He has conducted numerous researches in the area of Geotechnical Engineering at home and abroad in addition to supervising a lot of research projects. What is more, he has several years of consultancy activities in the area of Structural, Foundation and Geotechnical Engineering. The professor is also life member of Indian Geotechnical Society and Indian Society of Earthquake Technology.
The Ethiopian Herald guest page sat down with Emeritus Prof. Alemayehu Teferra in his office to share his personal and professional life. Excerpts:
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, my name is Emeritus Prof. Alemayehu Teferra. I was born in an area commonly known as Bere Woreda, on June 9, 1940. It is not far from Addis Ababa. I grew up there until I was six years old. Then I moved to Addis Ababa with my parents. I am the only child of my parents. My parents were farmers. I attended church school for a short time. Afterwards, I joined Haile-Selassie day school.
I completed my primary and secondary education there. I had a lot of double promotion. I sat for the School Leaving Certificate Examination when I was seventeen. Then I joined the University College of Addis Ababa, Science section, the now Science Faculty. After first year, as there were options either to join the pre-engineering or biology department, I opted for the former.
After two years of pre-engineering courses, I joined the Engineering College. I graduated in 1961 in Civil Engineering. Towards the end of the fourth year, I was offered a scholarship by the government of Israel. I did not have an interest to go abroad for my interest was to work in my motherland. Sooner or later, having convinced my parents, I left for Israel and joined Technion Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel. After two years, I got my master’s degree. Even though, I had the chance to pursue my doctorate degree, I returned home in 1965 as I was eager to serve my country as I was the only child of my parents. By the way, I worked there for a year as an assistant lecturer.
What was university life in Haifa look like?
We were few in number. The code of conduct was completely different. It was a Catholic Jesuit school. They had their own code of conduct. We had time for studying and recreation. My friends and I were too young.
At the beginning, it was difficult to get along with other students since there was strict delineation between seniors and juniors. We began with general science education in the first year. In fact, it was not so difficult. In the engineering department, I had ten courses. Out of these, four or five were non-engineering courses. Philosophy, organic chemistry, geology, literature were compulsory courses and others like physics, mathematics and the like were basic courses.
You said earlier that you went to the now Science Faculty of Addis Ababa University. What was the teaching-learning process like?
When I was a student, the emperor used to come once or twice a year. He was in the habit of doing the same thing at the Engineering College. We were privileged. When I joined the university college, we used to have single rooms and all our laundry was actually taken care of. Part-time job were given to students who did not have enough money. I was actually not in that category. I always remember the Engineering College with deep sentiment and nostalgia for the reason that it was like a home for me. We had direct contact with teachers. We used to argue the teachers.
On the contrary, it was completely impossible to argue in Arat Kilo campus. Personally, after so many years of teaching, I always feel that students and teachers should always have a dialogue. It should not be a one-way street. In the engineering college, we had complete interaction with teachers. It was quite interesting. The teachers were from different parts of the world.
Where did you do your doctorate degree?
Having graduated from the engineering college, I went to Israel for three years. When I returned home, I began teaching in the engineering college. After I taught there for a year, we moved to Arat Kilo, the now Geology Department. By then, the dean was an Israeli. He suggested to me that I should go for my doctorate. I was ready to go. In fact, it was the time I was thinking of doing my doctoral degree. During my time, scholarship was no problem at all. Students simply could go to the United States of America or Britain for study.
There were a lot of scholarship possibilities. Anybody can go wherever he/she wants to go without any problem. The number of students who aspire for higher education was few in number. Last but not least, I made up my mind to study in German university following the recommendation of the dean. At the end of the day, I got a scholarship from the German government. After I got married in June 1967, I headed to Germany with my wife. Then we went to language school. After six months of German courses with my wife, I was enrolled as a doctorate student.
Was it smooth to pursue doing your doctorate degree in Europe?
At the time, I went to the Technical University of Aachen, Aachen West Germany; my advisor was not properly informed that I was there to do my doctorate degree. He was a professor. He thought that I was there for gaining experience for a year. Sadly, after a couple of months, when I expected to get my topic, I was told that I was not going to do my doctorate degree. I was the only black student.
They never expect a black person dare to do doctorate degree. The professor told me that he had no time for me. “My assistants are very much occupied. You can stay for a year and go back home,” he added. I was very furious. In this fashion, I headed straight to the German Academy Exchange Service and told them the reality on the ground. He was a racist. He had low opinion about black people. Then the officer said, “If we had told him earlier, he would have rejected your complaint. Since the recommendation from your college says you should do your doctorate here, we want to do that step by step.” After a week, the dean came to the professor and told him the reason why I was there.
Lastly, the professor told me that he would not give me a topic or he did not know me very well despite I have a master’s degree from Haifa. “If you want to do you doctorate degree, first you should be able to do here a master’s degree in engineering. You have to prove yourself,” the professor added. I said, “I will not do that here. Instead, I would go to America and do my doctorate degree.”
This time, my wife told me to confront everything and show that I was able to do the programme. Finally, I agreed. For this reason, I worked for my Dip Engineering programme. It was like a master’s degree. I was even warned to earn above ‘B’ grades in all courses. Then it was a challenge. I really worked very hard. I even developed ulcer in this regard. I bled twice or so a day. Finally, everything went all right and I passed with good grades. The professor turned out to be very much happy. He soon gave me the go ahead to start my doctorate degree.
What was your next move afterwards?
I proposed a certain topic. During our days it was difficult to get in touch with the professor. You made contact with him once in three or four months time by appointment. The other alternative was if he has trust on you, he would give you a project that has funds. At some point, the professor said, “Alemayehu, I know you have been here for three years, I trust you can do everything. I have a project from the Federal Government. Please conduct this research and be my assistant.” I said let me think about it.
While I was contemplating this, I met an old friend of mine in German. He told me that he was going to defend his dissertation. He had submitted everything. After a month or so, he got a replay from the professor saying, “This has been done by Mr X, Y and the rest. I will not accept your dissertation.” He packed and left. This bitter experience came at the right moment for me and thus I accepted the professor’s proposal. My duty was working with students. He gave me a topic from the government project. Writing a progressive report was compulsory. Whether he likes it or not, we had to sit down and talk regularly about the whole thing. The project took about six months.
After six months, he gave me additional research topic. I left the assistantship and took additional research topic. The research topic was taken from one German. He dismissed him and gave me the topic. I did two research topics although one was enough for my doctorate degree. I was funded by different institutions. I had more than 300,000 Deutsch marks at my disposal in this research. In this way, I was able to defend my dissertation in 1974. By the way, my wife was also a single child. Our parents were worried very much about us. After the completion of my doctorate degree, I had my first daughter in 1975. I was employed as an associate researcher in the institute with attractive salary and various privileges.
How did you return to your home country?
I was completely against the then feudal regime. My parents were more or less feudal but not that big. Subsequently, the famous famine came to pass in Ethiopia. My wife was studying nursing. She was towards the end of the year. She was pregnant. As I have tried to mention earlier, my daughter was born in June 1975. We decided to come back home. I wanted to help my country. We simply sat down and saw on television what was going on in Ethiopia. The situation was heartbreaking. I wrote to the university that I would comeback. Then the revolution happened. The military government took power. That did not worry me for I was completely against the feudal system. We packed everything and came back home. My daughter was three or four months old.
What was the situation in the country when you return home?
There were twelve doctorate students I used to supervise. The professor wrote me a very good letter of recommendation. In due course, when we returned home, a campaign called Development Through Cooperation was in full swing. Most people thought that I had gone mad for returning home. I was assigned in Bale area. We built schools, clinics and the rest with very few engineering and high school students. I stayed there for nine months. Afterwards, I was called to Addis for another assignment. The campaign was completed in 1977. I never regret for coming back to my country. After that, we started normal functioning.
Where was your first assignment after the campaign?
Well, after a year there was an election for a deanship. So I was elected as a dean of the faculty. I stayed as a dean for six years. I did a lot of work regarding curriculum designing. Then I went for a sabbatical to Berkeley for seven months and introduced a new concept of scientific assessment of earthquakes. Berkeley is a very renowned engineering institution in the United States. Then I came back and started teaching in 1985. I was elected as the executive board of UNESCO representing East African countries. I used to travel twice or thrice per year. It was during my time that we started the postgraduate programme. Before the incumbent came into power, we had a lot of activities here in the universities. I was an active member. I was also the first elected president of the Addis Ababa University.
Many say that the building code of our country is changing from time to time. Is it true?
Yes, it is very true. The first building code was adopted in 1975. In fact, I was involved. Different countries have different building codes. In my case, I make use of German building code. Others utilize European and American codes. In actual fact, there was no building code in our country before 1975. In the year under discussion, the Ministry of Construction organised a committee. I was one of the members of the committee. We adopted one Ethiopian building code. It was not that compulsory. If you are a consultant, or a designer you can make use of the country’s building code or other countries codes.
In the same way, in 1995 another committee was organized and came up with an improved building code. I think they have checked and compared with the European and American codes and proposed the current building code. It is still functioning. Two years ago, the government came and said we have to adopt the European building code. We organized committees. They were all from different groups. We did not create a new thing but we tried to modify a little thing of the European standard. That was over and done with last year. It is supposed to be out for designers and engineers. It still awaits the approval of the Ministry of Construction.
How do you describe the new code in terms of cost and professionalism?
The new building code requires a lot of professionalism. You cannot simply design anything. It requires a certain minimum requirement. In the Ethiopian New Year, the new code may be distributed. We need to have a seminar with a view to familiarizing stakeholders with the different tasks; we may even provide them with design aid. They should make themselves acquainted with the code.
It affects a lot of things. For example, even material testing requires a qualified person. Otherwise, achieving the intended target would be very difficult. That was not the case up to now. So everything regarding material testing should be done by qualified persons. Laboratories should be completely equipped. The owner of the building code is the Standard Institute. The revision is done by the majority of our academic staff while some of them are invited from outside.
How do you see the different buildings situated in every part of our country in terms of quality?
Architecturally a lot is expected from architects. They have to do a lot to adopt or adapt. These days, thanks to the Internet and software, you do not need to be very inventive. You can easily get the design. Architects should not always do that. They have to have a little bit innovation. I am not saying they do not have to use the Internet for such purposes. They have to take into account many things. In many cases, they copy and paste. Design engineers use the code of 1995 despite it has a lot of limitations regarding the earthquake components. We should take that into account in the design. Unfortunately, when they prepared the hazard chart for Ethiopia, they relied on very limited data.
As far as seismic activities are concerned, the whole country is grouped as non-seismic area. They call it zone zero. Zone one, two, three and four are the different seismic areas. Zone four is the highest seismic area. But there are some parameters in different zones considered in calculation. Time of some parameters is misrepresenting the actual condition. The first time we experience earthquake was when I was a student. People think that Addis Ababa is completely immune from seismic activities. We should never sit so idle and assume that Addis Ababa is not going to be visited by an earthquake. We have to prepare ourselves. When I was a student, there were not high rise buildings.
When they design structure, the code of 1995 assumes certain things given by the hazard chart. Addis Ababa was categorized as zone two. In my view that is not correct. It should have been zone three because the magnitude of the earthquake is expected to be higher than the one prescribed in zone two. Zone two is lower. Designers are not forced to use the building code of our country as it is optional. But we are going to insist them to use the code as of next year. The main reason why designers do not like using the code is because of its building cost. It will probably add 20 per cent for the reason that they are expected to add more enforcement, columns and the rest.
What are your worries as a civil engineer?
My worry is quality control. When you design, you assume a certain quality of material. But go around and see how it is actually being implemented. Let us say a certain engineer prescribes a certain amount of sand and cement having certain properties. But when you go to construction sites, you find sand with a lot of impurities and fine materials. Most of them do not test steel.
Steel is not produced in our country. We import steel with different characteristics from different parts of the world. Although they are supposed to test the steel and concretes at sites, they are not seen doing that owing to corruption between site engineers and contractors. Architects should be more creative than copying and pasting. There are also architectural, quality control and code provision problems.
What should a good building comprise?
It has to be optimally designed. That means it should not be unnecessarily over designed. The functionality of its architecture should be to the point. I am not saying it should look this way or that way. Once, an owner wants to have a certain building designed for a certain function, then that function must be optimal. It should have very nice appearance. During construction, quality control should be written in block letters. There are high rise buildings in different parts of the country. All of a sudden, a certain owner comes up with the idea of adding one in a five or six storey building. That should never be allowed. If we add one floor probably nothing will happen. But if you want to add two or more, you have to design the whole thing. The strength of the columns, foundation and other things should be checked properly by professionals in the municipality.
What does the title Emeritus mean?
The title of Emeritus/Emeriti is presented in a university setting to persons who have left the employment of the university and who have earned by service the privilege of such an honorific designation in view of the fact that the honour is provided in approval of eminent service to the university. An academic staff who is awarded the title of Emeritus/Emeriti can hold a university identification card which authorizes him to make full use of libraries, sport facilities, e-mail and any other system privilege enjoyed by regular academic staff, participate in campus seminars, colloquia, lectures, ad-hoc committees and other scholarly pursuits as and where appropriate, attend campus events that are open to other staff and many more privileges.