In that bright day in September of 1996, we were seated at the center of the university’s basket ball stadium which was packed with families and loved ones to attend our graduation after completion of seven agonizing years to be medical doctors. Our old t shirts and jeans were replaced by suits. We were dolled by black doctoral gowns with red hoods. It was a special occasion. We were particularly delighted to have had our choice key note speaker, Dr Tekletsion Woldemariam, a pediatrician who founded the medical school itself, Jimma Institute of Health Sciences.
“And now I present winners of the best research projects. These are going to be Ethiopia’s future leaders in science and technology,” the dean of admissions presented the research winners; the last of the prizes after the gold medalist was announced.
“And the winner is,” he paused gauging the pulse of the graduates. The stadium was quite. Families and loved ones were excited to find out if their daughters or sons were walking to the podium again to pick up a coveted prize. The faculty wearing their academic regalia, the dean of the medical school and deans of various schools such as the school of pharmacy, laboratory technology, environmental health sciences, nursing, invited guests were seated facing us in the first few rows. There was no overhanging cover so we all glowed in the blazing summer.
“And the best researcher of the class of 1996 is,”
The faculty were on their feet clapping knowing that this was the ultimate prize. There was not much in terms of research in science and technology in the country so producing high quality epidemiology based researchers was the ultimate goal of the school of medicine which was slightly different in its philosophy than the two other traditional medical schools, the one at Addis Ababa, the modern capital of Ethiopia, and Gondar, Ethiopia’s medieval royal city. It was different in its emphasis on community oriented philosophy allowing medical students to explore the medical needs of the surrounding communities through its mandatory yearly month long outreach programs.
As medical students, we were very close to each other. Partly because most of us were not from Jimma, rather spread as far away as Asmara, Mekele, Gondar, Gojam, Wollo, Welega, Arsi, Harrar, Addis; Ethiopians of different shade came together for one cause, to succeed and have a better future changing the society for good in the process. Asmara was part of Ethiopia when we started medical school. Our seven years were dotted with memories.
Assefa was seated in the raw next to me. I recall to these day how me and Assefa used to find ourselves in the campus cafe, very early in the morning, before anyone would wake up.
I remember knocking at the door and hearing the same voice day in and day out.
“Who is that? You are early for breakfast, push the door in and take a plate.”
The loud and thick voice always came from the same cook who was busy hurrying up the food and hot tea before the morning shift begins in earnest. We would grab a plate of oatmeal or scrambled injera, Ethiopian staple diet, or a loaf of bread. We would grab it quickly before he had a chance to see our faces so that we could make it back again on the line for a second breakfast pushing and pulling with everybody else as if nothing happened. Some days he would stare at us just to scare us off but we were never caught.
I even thought for a moment that I might win this thing. The selection committee was tight lipped so it was not easy to guess as to who might win the research prize. And finally the dean of admission finished those words,
“Asefa Taye Zegeye, please come to the podium to take your prize.”
That was the last time I saw Assefa. He went on to practice medicine in Desse, Wollo. He even joined Addis Ababa University to do a master’s program in public health. I was shocked to learn that Assefa had passed away of medical illness.
Rest In Peace.