20 May 2017

Ethiopia: What Deters the Passion for Science


On a beautiful Sunday morning, I had nothing to do other than hovering around the local bookshops in Addis Abeba. I was just hoping to find one or two of "the greatest science books of 2016," as listed by bookworms and influential persons around the world. To my dismay, though I tried to visit most of the bookshops which sell foreign books, I couldn't find one. I had to ask some of the bookshop keepers how and where I can get such books. Their response was that I have to order and wait for, maybe, weeks or months. Though I was a bit disappointed, I thought that was because the books I asked for were new. I kept trying to find other science books which were printed before 2016 but in vain. When I asked why, they gave me this simple answer: there are no customers for such kind of books!

In the chronology of every developed country's history, at some turning point, there is always an era in which the people had started yearning for science and scientific truth. During that era, their enlightened scholars are those who are at the forefront of writing, explaining science in an elegant way, and sometimes metaphorically, making it easier for the layman to understand the seemingly hard and boring subject. This helps not only enriching the scientific knowledge of the people, but also fundamentally changes the people's psyche to be a sceptic, and to believe in logic, reason and experiment when pursuing truth in any given circumstance.

This time, we cannot conceive of our life without the golden intervention of science; it is deeply intertwined with our day-to-day activities that we almost take it for granted. Science highly influences our health, transport, communication, weather forecasting, social development, and overall economic power. After analysing the situation in our world extensively, one of America's renowned modern scientists, Carl Sagan, once said, "the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. It is perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant ... " What is far worse is the situation in our country, Ethiopia.

Our youth, though better than the previous generations, even with the help of expanded modern education and fast information exchange via the Internet, is still lagging far behind regarding scientific literacy. Why?

As per my observation, there are many reasons behind this misfortune. One main reason is that our culture, mostly derived from our religion, is very opaque to scepticism. We have no history of embracing science, nor do we appreciate men of science. We have been belittling, demonising or even punishing those who dare think differently and question our centuries-old way of thinking. Also, inside every history of our architectural wonders, marvellous religious literature and paintings, brilliant military strategies which helped us in securing our sovereignty, there is not a single scientific explanation on how our forefathers made them, but an illusive belief that they had always gotten help from angels or God. This erodes self-confidence, ruins the curious mind, and limits the imagination of an Ethiopian youth. We seem oblivious to this abstract snare, but it is this very psychological makeup which is subtly hindering our quest for scientific knowledge.

The unavailability of science books in the local bookshops also does impede our curiosity. As it happened to me, if you have a glimpse of the local bookstores, most of the books are either history books, or classics and modern-day novels which focus on social, political or economical issues. Some others are biographies of politicians, philosophy, or language-learning books. That is not bad by itself, it is a good start, and it should be appreciated, but what about contemporary science literature? What if you want to grab some science fictions, biographies of scientists, or books or journals which explain the recent advancements in the scientific arena? It seems bookstore owners are only focusing on the short-term profits they can get. They do not risk bringing new science books to change young minds, which is why they fill their shelves based on the current market demands only.

When available, science books are written in English - a language which our generation has no adequate understanding of. Book translators almost never tried to translate newest science-related books into local languages to increase the level of awareness of the youth, and to help them cope with the modern world. Perhaps they are also afraid of risking their time, money and energy for this noblest idea, for it also has no short-term benefit. The lack of science-book reading clubs, frequent science fair and science talk-shows and science-based local movies contributes to the problem.

It is a gradual process to radically change this situation, but we can start by funding those who have the potential and energy to write, translate, publish and narrate science in a fun and beautiful way. The state and private media can work hard on sponsoring and arranging frequent science talk shows, and documentaries. Last but not least, the government can coordinate and lead this by providing the necessary framework and capital. After all, a government that claims its policy of science and technology would speed up industrialisation and economic growth must also worry about the inputs.

Negaderas Gebrehiwot Baykedagn, the most celebrated of the early twentieth-century Ethiopian intellectuals who fiercely blamed ignorance for all our mishaps, once noted, "For intelligence can only be checked by intelligence ... woe, then, to the people that persist in its ignorance, it is ultimately bound to perish." Let's not forget his advice!


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