Grammy winner The Weeknd makes $50,000 donation towards new U of T course

The Weeknd donated $50,000 to help fundraise for a course at the University of Toronto teaching the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. Photo from Getty Images.

It hasn’t been spoken in more than 1,000 years, but soon students at the University of Toronto will learn how to read and communicate in Ge’ez, an ancient Semitic language from North Africa.

The course has been made possible by several large, private donations, according to a press release from the university. Professor Michael Gervers donated $50,000 and then Scarborough-born Grammy winner Abel Tesfaye (better known as The Weeknd) matched his donation. Other donors include the U of T’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Bikila Awards organization, which is an Ethiopian community named after Olympic marathoner Adebe Bikila.

According to the press release, there are tens of thousands of ancient Ethiopic manuscripts sitting unread because there aren’t enough people who understand Ge’ez. Professor Gervers believes the new course could help change that.

Gervers told CBC News that the upcoming course represents a rare chance to learn a language taught in just two other parts of North America.

U of T’s Scarborough library is now working on digitizing the historical manuscripts for the course, which will be taught by Robert Holmstedt.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Holmstedt said students are interested in learning about Ge’ez for several reasons. Some are drawn by the desire to find out more about their cultural heritage, while others are eager to interpret ancient bits of history.

“I like giving students access to things that 99.5 per cent of the world doesn’t have access to,” Holmstedt said in the university’s press release. “It’s part of advancing our knowledge and the pursuit of truth.”

Department chair Professor Tim Harrison is hopeful that the course is just the first step towards launching a full Ethiopian studies program at the University of Toronto. It would be the first such program in North America.