A new documentary film explains how the origins of the $350 million Ethiopian coffee industry are tied to Oklahoma State University, a former school president and a tragic plane crash.
In 1950, former Oklahoma State president Henry Bennett became an assistant secretary of state to head up President Truman's international technical assistance program. Bennett planted the seeds for what would become a series of schools throughout Ethiopia.
Bennett died in a plane crash in 1951 in Iran while researching expansion of the program, which thrived after his death. Thousands of students learned ranching and agricultural techniques at the schools founded by Oklahoma State professors.
Ethiopian-American Mel Tewahade recently spent time in Stillwater, filming a documentary called “The Point Four.” The film is in three parts, the first of which is to be screened Feb. 2 and 3 at OSU. It tells the story of how these Oklahomans paved the path for monumental changes in Ethiopia's economy and society.
When agriculture professors and students from Oklahoma State University first set foot in Ethiopia in the early 1950s, they found a country secluded from its neighbors and cut off from the rest of the world.
The team found dense forests, rugged mountains, rivers, lakes, plateaus and valleys that was home to 25 million people, many of whom lived in the mountains to hide from would-be invaders.
Ethiopians spoke and wrote their own language, Amharic, further isolating them from their neighbors.
The pioneering Oklahomans were on a mission from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University): to share their knowledge of agriculture.
“Ethiopia didn't have modern exposure to anything, really,” Tewahade said. “We forgot about the world and we were forgotten by the world.”
Tewahade said he felt compelled to share the story of OSU's relationship with Ethiopia for two reasons. One is to express thanks to OSU and America for the outreach that changed the lives of Ethiopians. Second, he didn't want the story to die. He wants young people to realize that foreign policy can work, though it may take years, or even generations to see its effects.
“It's an amazing story,” Tewahade said. “I mean, my dad used to tell me how beautiful these people are. They came from Oklahoma, they're Christian. I didn't know what Oklahoma was.”
His father, Fitwarari Tewahad Woldyes, was governor of Harer in Ethiopia in the 1960s. The region was directly affected by the technology the Americans brought with them.
‘Bold new program'
The unlikely connection between OSU and Ethiopia first was envisioned in 1949. The world was still reeling from World War II.
Truman, who became president upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been elected to a full term. For his inaugural speech, he wanted to include a plan for a “bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped nations.”
It was implied that the goal of Truman's points was to steer uneducated populations away from naively accepting Communism forced upon them by intruders, Tewahade said.
Ethiopia was selected as a country to benefit from Truman's “Point Four” project, with an emphasis on bringing to it America's agricultural and ranching expertise.
After having formed a positive relationship with Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia at the time, Bennett was appointed by Truman as technical cooperation administrator for the project in 1950.
Among other tasks, Bennett was charged with bringing the most modern farming and ranching techniques to Ethiopia.
He and a survey team visited Ethiopia with prospects of planting the seed for a new agricultural university in Alemaya. However, the area had so few high school graduates, the group decided to first open a high school, Jimma Agricultural Technical School, which was started in 1952.
“The Americans came in and slept in a tent, fixing this building which had been abandoned by Italian invaders,” Tewahade said. They battled malaria, heavy forests, insects and other dangers in order to renovate the old mission building into a high school.
Tragically, in December 1951, Bennett died while on a tour of Point Four projects in other countries. His wife, Vera Pearl, and several others involved with Point Four also were killed. Bennett was memorialized at OSU with Bennett Hall, a student dormitory; Bennett Memorial Chapel; and a statue. The library at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant also was named for him.
In 1954, about the time the Jimma High School students were graduating and ready to move on to college, Stillwater received a most memorable visitor: Emperor Selassie. He and an entourage including his son, Prince Sahle Selassie, and granddaughter, Sebla Desta, visited to personally thank the school and faculty for its work modernizing agriculture and educating the people of Ethiopia.
Soon after, the new Alemaya College of Agriculture (now called Haramaya University) was established and officially inaugurated by Selassie on Jan. 16, 1956.
During the next decade, hundreds of Oklahomans would become involved in the Point Four program. Oklahoma A&M President Oliver Wilham continued directing the program after Bennett's death. Bill Abbott, as a liaison between the American and Ethiopian governments, is credited with recruiting hundreds of faculty members from OSU to participate in the program, along with Clyde Kindell, the last American president of the Ethiopian university.
In a letter dated June 11, 1966, Tewahade's father, in his position as governor of Hayar, wrote to Kindell upon his leaving Ethiopia: “Due to the fact that you have been selfless in helping Ethiopians ... I consider your departure as losing one of those highly esteemed Ethiopians and not as a foreigner going back to his country.”
Today, Ethiopia, a country of more than 80 million people, has a rich coffee industry where once coffee beans grew wild, unharnessed. Forty-two percent of the economy is based on its agriculture industry. Haramaya University now has 27,000 students to keep growing the country's cash crops.
Satellite maps of agricultural regions in Ethiopia such as Jimma and Alemaya look much like the view out an airplane window over Oklahoma: those familiar squares and circles that go on for miles in shades of rust and green are a reminder of the six-decade-long connection between Oklahomans and Ethiopians.