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The Australian National University

Obituary - Habtemariam Tesfaghiorgis

We are sad to report the death of our much-loved and respected former colleague Dr Habtemariam Tesfaghiorghis on 10 February, 2014, when he was only 66 years old.

Habte, which means ‘my wealth’ in his mother tongue, Tigrigna, was born in Hadida in Akele Guzai province in rural Eritrea on 21 May 1947. Even though his mother was widowed when Habte was young, his own and his family’s determination and value for education led him to pursue tertiary education and earn a BSc in Statistics from the then Haile Selassie I University, now the University of Addis Ababa. He received further training in Population Studies in Moscow and at the United Nations Regional Institute for Population Studies (UN-RIPS) in Ghana where he was among the first batch of MA graduates from the Institute. Habte was also among the first, if not the first, Eritrean to specialise in demography and for a very long time was among the very few demographers working in Ethiopia.

During his time in Ethiopia, working for the Central Statistical Office, Habte and his colleagues successfully carried out the first ever Population and Housing Census in Ethiopia in 1984. The 1984 Census was not only instrumental in meeting the traditional needs of the government but also served as a key source of data for a long list of Ethiopian and Eritrean demographers who went on to pursue higher degrees in Demography/Population Studies around the world. Habte himself used the 1984 Census data for his PhD in the Demography Program of ANU with the thesis title: ‘Fertility levels, trends and differentials in Ethiopia’.

Habte’s contribution to Australian demography began in 1990 while his PhD thesis was being examined and when he joined the newly-created Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at ANU. This led to several seminal and path setting publications in the emerging research field of Aboriginal economic policy. These included important demographic projections of the Indigenous population with Alan Gray. This work is still relevant today in the annual ‘Closing the Gap’ policy reports.

Habte worked as a Research Fellow in Graduate Studies in Demography in the then National Centre for Development Studies (NCDS) at the ANU from 1991 to 1997. During this time, he taught courses in technical demography and continued his research on the demography of Indigenous Australians. Because NCDS had a considerable interest in the South Pacific region, Habte was also involved in the censuses of Tuvalu and Kiribati. During his engagement in the South Pacific, his relaxed and friendly manner led some I-Kiribati (meaning ‘the people of Kiribati’) to ask if he was one of them, perhaps from one of their outer islands. Later on he worked with Chris McMurray on the Samoan Fertility Survey.

After leaving ANU, Habte worked for the Department of Social Security (now the Department of Social Services) in the research and evaluation areas, where he made an important contribution to policy related research. Examples include his projections, ‘Aged pensioners and expenditure’, and research on fertility including male fertility. He was highly regarded by his departmental colleagues, both for his expertise and his work style.

Demography graduates and staff have many happy memories of Habte, including occasions when he was the host and Hareghua, his wife, had cooked her famous Eritrean dishes. Yohannes also remembers that Habte and Hareghua were the first to come to his house to welcome him to Australia, visiting him repeatedly, and each time bringing the unique and delicious homemade Eritrean and Northern Ethiopian Bread, Hambasha, with them. Yohannes says that one thing which he always remembers of Habte is his generosity, positive attitude and dignity even in the face of great adversity. When Yohannes saw him last, not long before his death, Habte was in the same positive attitude and as dignified as he has always been, which gives one the impression of hope and how much he cared for people around him to contain his pain.

As an indicator of the high regard in which Habte was held, several hundred people from different walks of life attended his memorial service on 13 February 2014. During the service, Pastor Randy Perkins listed Habte's qualities as: ‘Generous, humble, gracious, loving, kind, friendly, a man of integrity, a man with a servant's heart, a gentleman, and a man of great intelligence and wisdom.’

Habte is remembered by his former students for his patience, kindness and humour, which made him an outstanding teacher of technical demography. He was always prepared to put his students' interests before his own research. Condolence messages from our alumni mentioned his smile, qualified with adjectives such as ‘lovely’, ‘huge’ and ‘the sweetest’. Others wrote that he will be remembered as a thorough gentleman and down to earth human being’; ‘a great teacher and a great human being’; ‘someone with happy disposition and huge smile’; ‘a nice man with the sweetest smile’ and ‘someone who had a very positive outlook on life and always had time to share a lovely smile’.

Habte is survived by Haregugha, whom he met in a long distance bus trip from Asmara to Addis and to whom he was married for 43 years, their two daughters (Senait and Rezina) and two sons (Fitsum and Semere) and grandchildren Jeromey, Samuel and Calvin.

Dr Yohannes Kinfu, Adjunct academic, Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute
Dr David Lucas, Adjunct academic, Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute

Updated: 24 June 2014/ Responsible Officer:  Head, School of Demography / Page Contact:  Website Administrator