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Change the world


The journey to the coveted academic title of “doctor” usually takes years of hard work and dedication.



Dr Mulat with his supervisor Professor Lori Hartmann, of Centre College in the US

Nelson Mandela University student Mulat Zinabu Assefa, 36, went further, risking his life and walking through a war zone in Ethiopia to submit his doctorate.

On Wednesday, 12 December, he finished his incredible journey by walking across the stage at Nelson Mandela University’s summer graduation ceremony to be capped Dr Mulat Zinabu Assefa.

“It seems like a victory to me. Nelson Mandela said ‘when people are determined they can overcome everything’,” said Dr Mulat, quoting the legend after whom the Gqeberha institution is named.

Dr Mulat started his PhD in Development Studies on sustainable conservation practices in Ethiopia in the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences in 2017.

By the end of 2018, he had completed his field work on soil and water conservation in his home region, Tigray, and in 2019 he started to write up the first draft.

When 2020 started, he was lecturing at Mekelle University in Tigray, and vice-dean in the Faculty of Law and Governance.

Then COVID-19 hit the world.

However, his land-locked African country also had to contend with growing political instability, particularly in the northern region of Tigray.

After months of rising tensions, civil war exploded in November 2020 and Dr Mulat found himself trapped in the geographical hot spot of Mekelle.

Fieldwork in Ethiopia, searching for internet, and walking ...

“I was staying in a military command’s condominium in Mekelle, I was close to hearing the first bullet fired that led for the heinous war of the century. I knew things were falling apart.

“I only had 500 Birr (about R165) in my pocket. There was no water, power, telecommunications, or anything. The beautiful city of Mekelle became a ghost city.”

From then on, he heard gunfire at night, and the sound of drones and jets attacking.

“We were encircled and under siege for months. I lost my cousin, who was like a brother to me.

“Today I am very traumatised by the sound of jets, even if is now a peaceful sound.

“People were struggling to save their lives but I also wanted to save my studies. It was at such an advanced stage, but what was I to do?”

Even a simple pre-war task such as sending his supervisors an email, or WhatsApp, was impossible for most of the two years of war.

He could not get in touch with his family, who lived less than 200km away.

“It was impossible to use email, but we heard that they could get a signal at the top of the mountains.”

After several unsuccessful attempts, he eventually was able to send an email to his supervisor Professor Lori Hartmann, of Centre College in the US, and co-supervisor Professor Janet Cherry, at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa.

“They were very happy to see that I was alive.”

He also emailed Prof Kishore Raga of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), which sponsored his studies.

“I was stuck for two years in Tigray. Everyone living within the region was hoping for peace but the war was getting worse so I decided I had to take a risk and go out of the war zone.

He faced immediate execution if he was found with certain items so he set off on foot with only the clothes he was wearing, not taking a backpack or his passport.

“If they found you with a laptop or device having political elements of the war they would kill you,” Dr Mulat said. “We had to travel in the mountains and plain areas where there were no troops around.”

He walked for eight days, wearing a mask to camouflage his face when he met people on the way.

If he was stopped by officials, the plan was to say he was attending a funeral.

Eventually, exhausted and starving, he reached the relative safety of Addis Ababa in May 2022 and was reunited with his wife.

Mulat still had no access to his papers and laptop, though, and it took two more months to get his hard drive out, containing the material to go into his final 280-page dissertation.

With assistance from the NIHSS, he was able to return to Nelson Mandela University for the 2022 academic year and finish his thesis.

“It was worth it, I feel relieved that at least I have managed to complete it. I really put my life on the line to complete this study,” he said.

“It was a moral question that I should complete it because it meant a lot to me and my family. I have nine brothers and sisters and they are all behind me.

“In Ethiopia you will get a lot of respect if you have studied because there is a big place for education in my society.”

The Pretoria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) agreement in November 2022 was a turning point that saw the official end of the war. However, says Dr Mulat, the tensions continue.

“It is getting better but there is a lot that needs to happen, there is still work to be done.”

Today, Dr Mulat and his wife have an 11-month-old baby girl, and he is applying for a postdoctoral research fellowship to continue his studies.

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057