Much different. Much the same

A PCV from the ’70 returns to Ethiopia to set up a memorial library and enlists the help of an eager group of current PCVs. Culture shock! Some comparisons — mostly favorable — are inevitable

By Janet [Danzl] Lee (Endeber 74–76)

“Once a Peace Corps Volunteer, always a Peace Corps Volunteer.” Those words could not have rung more true as when I returned to Ethiopia in August 2009 and connected with current Volunteers in Mekelle, Tigray Region. I returned to dedicate a library in memory of a colleague, Dr. Thomas Hooyman, a fellow faculty member at Regis University near Denver where I am a librarian.

Nearly a year earlier, I had introduced Dr. Hooyman to Ato Yohannes Gebregeorgis, the Founder and Executive Director of Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, an organization that is establishing children’s libraries in Ethiopia and working to build a reading culture through the introduction of high quality, locally-published bilingual children’s books. Dr. Hooyman conducted an interview with Ato Yohannes on the university radio station. The two men became fast friends and dreamt of building a literacy radio station together. A week later, Dr. Hooyman was killed in a motor vehicle accident.

Shortly after Dr. Hooyman’s death, a campaign was begun to raise funds to establish a library in his memory in Ethiopia. We settled on Mekelle as the site for the library. Mekelle turned out to be the perfect spot for building a memorial library to my friend, not too small and not too big. During my Peace Corps days, I had never been to Mekelle. Volunteers were restricted from going that far north. After all, I served during the overthrow of Haile Sellasie and the initial reign of Mengestu and the Derg. Times and circumstances have changed and Peace Corps Volunteers are once more assigned to Tigray.

Because Peace Corps had been reintroduced into Ethiopia — for a second time — a year or so prior to my return, I contacted Nwando Diallo,  the Peace Corps Country Director, who forwarded to me email addresses of the Volunteers in Mekelle. Email in Ethiopia!!?? That was my first hint at culture shock.  I contacted the Volunteers, Shelley McCreery from Illinois (Mekelle 09-), Danielle Hoekwater from Michigan (Mekelle 09-), and Nick Strnad from Ohio (Mekelle 09-), to alert them of my arrival and the project at hand.  They promised to set that week aside to help with the project. They emailed me their cell phone numbers.  Cell phones!!??  Second blast of culture shock. I didn’t even have electricity or running water during my stay in Ethiopia in the ’70s.  I was quickly set straight. The cell phone coverage was bad.  There were rolling brownouts every second or third day. There were issues with the water. Perhaps things hadn’t changed so much after all.

I thought back on my days as a Volunteer and reflected on niceties that I or others missed. So, I offered to bring any needed supplies:  sanitary products, contact lens solution, chocolate? The response? Reese’s peanut butter cups, Cheez-Its, Peanut M & M’s, pretzels with salt. Would it be asking too much to ask for a Dr. Pepper?  I tried, but the good Dr. Pepper was confiscated in Amsterdam. Remembering how difficult it was to find current reading material, I carefully packed several copies of Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father and Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I had met both authors, but their signed copies were securely left at home.

It is a pleasant 45 minute flight from Addis Ababa to Mekelle. We arrived the obligatory two hours ahead of time, took off, and enjoyed the smooth ride. As the plane neared the airport, the pilot circled the airport once, twice, three times as he made a determination that it was not safe to land due to the heavy rains. So, the plane flew back to Addis to wait it out. Everyone took this in stride. It was the rainy season after all. A few hours later, we boarded the plane and took off once again. This time the pilot could see the runway and we landed safely.

After we gathered our luggage, supplies, books, and computers, we proceeded to find taxis. All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t speak the language. We were in Tigray and they were speaking Tigrigna, not the Amharic that I had studied further south. Then the rains hit again, a great deluge. The taxi driver took off, the muddy rain pelting the windshield. Only one of the two wipers worked; fortunately, it was on the driver’s side. As he pulled over to the side of the road, I hoped that there was indeed a side of the road since the area was somewhat mountainous. All the while my young companion, Rachel Scott from the Seattle Public Library, held her hoodie over her head. I had visions that soon Ato Yohannes would be building “The Rachel and Janet Memorial Library.” After a few more delays for the driver to pull in rain-soaked luggage from the roof of the taxi or clean off the wiper blades, we arrived at the hotel safely and took a deep breath.

The Volunteers came quickly to meet us and I distributed the goodies. The chocolate was a definite hit as were the books which would surely make the rounds. We were later joined by Cauchavius Watts from St. Louis (Wukro 09-), as he passed through Mekelle for a day on his way to Addis Ababa.

But first, let me deal with my visit to a typical Peace Corps residence in Mekelle. My first house as a Volunteer had a thick thatched roof; the second house was made of mud and eucalyptus branches.  When the rains came I would stand at the door and listen to the rain pelt the roof. I was mesmerized by the heavy rain since it is a rare occurrence in Colorado. The houses in Mekelle were made of stone rather than mud, but a Peace Corps residence is much the same on the inside no matter what the region of the country: a couple of chairs, a table, a three-burner propane gas stove, open shelves rather than cupboards, a bed, a poster or two, and a map to remind the Volunteer just exactly where he or she is. An outdoor kitchen was nearby, complete with a small wood pit for making injera. And everywhere we walked we were followed by children yelling, “Camera! Camera!”

Cauchavius Watts, Janet Lee, Shelley McCreery, Danielle Hoekwater and Nick Strnad

Still there was work to be done. We were on a mission. The Volunteers quickly jumped into organizing the books on the shelves, setting up two computers and a DVD player, cleaning, and interacting with the young students from the school. This gave us time to compare our experiences, frustrations, joys, and worst case illness (schistosomiasis, giardia). Many things had changed for the better. Much was still the same. Ethiopia is still a beautiful country with children who will easily steal your heart. Surprisingly, I think my living allowance was higher thirty-five years ago. We soon became a true Peace Corps family, sharing my shower (not at the same time) complete with hot water, lip balm, water bottles, and Ethiopian food. The library dedication was beautiful, made all the more powerful because of our shared experiences. Shelley thanked Ato Yohannes profusely for bringing the library to Mekelle rather than setting it up in Addis Ababa.

The City of Mekelle was so impressed with our work and commitment, that it offered Ato Yohannes and Ethiopia Books for Children the use of a magnificent building for a future library. As Ato Yohannes, Nick and I toured the facility, Nick commented, “Why do I get the feeling that I will be involved in this project?” Because Nick, you are my right-hand man. He later admitted that it was one of the best weeks he had in his Peace Corps experience.

Not only did we become a Peace Corps family, but we continue to work together on a Peace Corps Partnership grant application to support the new Mekelle Children and Youth Library. We hope the library will be dedicated in August 2010, only a year after we first met. (Peace Corps Partnership Grants allow people in the U.S. to donate tax-deductable contributions to projects PCVs are working on.)

(Similarly, Ato Yohannes and Ethiopia Reads is working with an E&E RPCV Legacy Program project, under Champion Lois Shoemaker (Asmara 62–64), to build six school libraries around Awassa.  More news on the progress of the Awassa project in an upcoming issue of THE HERALD.)

Nick, Janet and Ato Yohannes

Work continues with Ato Yohannes to expand the new library in Mekelle. I will return to Ethiopia this July to help him set up this library and Nick and the others will be at my side. It will be called the Segenat Children and Youth Library in memory of the child soldiers who fought during the revolution. We plan to have a children’s reading area, a spot for youth to study, reference materials, meeting rooms and an instructional room complete with computers.

22 responses to “Journeys

  1. william seraile


  2. I personally know Janet, Johannes, and Young Nick – and admire and applaud the hard work to help these kids of Ethiopia. Give $1.00, give $10.00, give $10,000. Just give – and in return you and many wonderful kids will receive so much.

  3. William:

    Gayle and I also served in Mekelle (71-73). We also could use our Amharic in town but outside of this provincial capitol not so much. I think that we may have also lived in this same house. We would also love to see what it all looks like now. Every Ethiopian we meet since service, tells us that “things have really changed in Mekelle”. One can only wonder how much.

  4. william seraile

    Scott and Gayle, there are many photos of Mekelle on the internet. Type in Mekelle, Ethiopia to search for them. I understand that Mekelle now has a law university, several grand hotels (not the dingy, cheap ones that I remember) Mekelle now has 100,000 residents not the 20,000 when I lived there. We only had electricity from 6 p.m till midnight except when the governor ‘s daughter (the emperor’s great granddaughter) got married; it stayed on until 2 a.m. We had about 30 volunteers in 1963-64 which prompted me to request a transfer but to no avail as several nurses went elsewhere in the country to avoid working with Bulgarian doctors and PC Asmara wasn’t going to left me leave.

  5. Joyce Campbell

    Come on, Bill, remember when it rained in Makelle we used to don knee high rubber boots and ponchos and went wading in the water. And we needed the knee high boots. (Our idea of entertainment). I was in Ethiopia I, ’62-’64, and lived across the street from where Bill lived. I’m glad there is a good library now. The first library in Makele, started by PC June Clifton, was at Atse Yohannes IV School, in 1963. We all worked on it gathering books and manning the space when we weren’t teaching. I have photos of it if anyone would like to see. It took us two days to travel to Makelle from Addis by bus or jeep/landrover. And the only people who ever flew into Makelle were Harris Wofford and Sargeant Shriver, I believe. There was no landing strip. I’m happy there are still PCs there and that the town seems to be thriving. I’d love to see it again, now almost 50 years later.

  6. Joyce,

    I would love to see the photos of the first library. We could do some before and after comparisons. We plan on dedicating the Segenat library in August, funds permitting. And since I am always glass half full, I know that we will raise the money needed.

    Mekelle is indeed beautiful. There are some very nice hotels complete with hot water, internet, bars and restaurants. It is a modern, bustling city but not overcrowded.

    Come join us for the dedication in August during the Ashenda holiday.
    Also, check out the Ethiopia Reads website Click on libraries and look for the Tom Hooyman library. I have some photos posted there.

  7. william seraile

    Joyce, I probably lost some brain cells when I had dysentery in June of 1964. I don’t remember that TYPE of rain. I do remember the extremely windy and cold evenings from October/November until about April. In the late summer of 1964, Operations Crossroads Africa “built” a one room library in Mekelle but the fall rains demolished most of it and it was still vacant and unused when I left in July, 1965. Internet bars in Mekelle! I didn’t have a radio and no one had access to television. We sure did have a large personal library provided by the Peace Corps and I remember reading James Bond novels for entertainment. Joyce, I was sorry to hear of the deaths of June Clifton and Willie Mae Harris. Do you remember my housemate Ivan Myers? He hooked up some pipes to allow us to have hot showers for about 15 minutes. You and your housemates would come over to wash your hair. He, too, has died along with Jerry Hoffman, Glen Gish, and Brenda Mathiesenwho were in my group.

    • I see your comment above about Ivan Myers. If this was the same Ivan Myers, he was my math teacher in my senior year of high school. Along with teaching us calculus, he also taught us how to make beer (!) and regaled us with Peace Corps stories as well as tales about driving a NYC taxi. A fascinating, good man. And I found this site only because I was hoping to write him. So sad to learn that he is gone. Does this sound like the same Ivan Myers you knew?

      • Joyce Campbell

        Richard, this does sound like the Ivan I knew. I saw him last at a PC reunion in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. How sad to hear that he has passed. Making beer is just what he would have done.

      • Richard – You are definitely talking about my father, Ivan. Did you attend Collegiate or Linsley? My father died in 1996, so it is impossible that Joyce Campbell “saw him last at a PC reunion in Washington, D.C. a few years ago”, unless he faked his own death over 18 years ago.

  8. Joyce Campbell

    I spoke too quickly, Janet, I have a black and white print and I know I have slides somewhere. I’ve been looking through some old slides but it would take me a while to locate the exact ones. June Clifton was married to Don Taube, last address in Wilmington, NC. I’m sure June kept a record. Also Dick Stringer in Lancaster, PA, was a great photographer and must have an amazing collection of photos. I must have packed away my old journal but I’ll look for that as well.

  9. Joyce Campbell

    Bill, thank you a million times. I checked out Makelle and was simply stunned by the changes. I also appreciated your In Memoriam. Now, I’d like to go back more than ever.

  10. Michael Brand

    I left Makelle after two years of teaching in Atse Johannes (1966-68) with a feeling that the place would never progress. For that matter, I returned twice after (Summers 1969 and 1973) and was even more saddened with what I saw. My cousin who had fought during the liberation of Ethiopia (He was in a group of soldiers that came with General Wingate to rid the Country of the Facists.) described to me what he had seen while in Ethiopia. Things didn’t seem to have changed much over the 20 year period we had both been in the Country. What a wonderful surprise to read about present day Makelle! I do remember the torrential rains we experienced during July 1967 because it was during the time of our Summer Project (A Day Camp was established in a local elementary school to help students with English.). The noise it made on the roofs of our homes was deafening, and the mud produced by the rain made walking very difficult. There was only one paved road in Makelle at that time. Barbara Baker suggested contributions be made for the new library. Where can one send a contribution and can anyone tell me the correct spelling for Makelle?

  11. william seraile

    Phonetics explains the different spellings of Mekelle which, like Tigre, has no correct spelling. I have seen Tigre spelled Tigray and Mekelle spelled four or five ways. My atlas (1971) has it as Makale. The same is true of Adwa (Adua). If it is any consolation, Thomas Jefferson spelled the same word two or three different ways in the same paragraph.

  12. Barry Hillenbrand

    Bill is right. There is no correct way to spell Ethiopian names. It all depends on the transliteration system. Consistency should be the rule, but we are far from consistent in THE HERALD. My favorite story about spelling–perhaps it is urban legend–has the Imperial Ethiopian Geographical Institute replying to a inquiry about the spelling of Addis. Is it Ababa or Abebe ? The Institute replied that it surely was Addis Ababa. But in the letterhead, sure enough, it was spelt Addis Abebe.

  13. Hello all:

    I just checked Nick’s Peace Corps Partnership Grant and it is fully funded. I am sure that it is a result of E & E RPCV supporting the current volunteers in Mekelle. Thank you all so much for supporting Nick in this grant.

    If you are still in the giving mood, seriously consider the existing Legacy grant or consider sending a contribution directly to Ethiopia Reads at and designate the Tigray expansion.

  14. M. Susan Hundt- Bergan

    I loved Janet’s story and its witness to the Peace Corps’ approach to life and the world. And it makes me want to go back to Bahar Dar and see my town again… Thank you, Janet!

  15. It is nice of you to help Ethiopians.Im Ethiopian and want to thank you for your generosity to be involved in the development of the childrens.Mekele city is a peaciful city that wel come every one and hope to conitinue your work in Mekele city and other.

  16. Dear Janet Lee!
    Your observation about Mekelle is quite right. It backs me about nine years back. I like Mekelle City. I was studied at Mekelle University for five years.
    I thank you for sharing us your experience about Mekelle.

  17. Dear Binyam:

    Thank you for your comment. Since I wrote that article, I have returned for an extended period of time (five months) to help set up the Segenat Children and Youth Library in Mekelle. You can look at these two articles with photos about this experience:

    Mekelle has changed greatly in even the year inbetween my two visits. The electricity is much more stable as is the water supply. Although, water was turned off in my Kebelle for 10 days, a quite disheartening experience.

    Ashenda should be upon us in the next week or so. I am sure the girls are practicing their singing and dancing and finding the perfect dresses.

    Belas! Wouldn’t a Belas taste really good right now?


  18. I’m sorry I didn’t reread William Seraile’s post from 2010 where he mentioned that Ivan had died. It must have been another person that I misremembered as Ivan. Ivan was a funny and creative person. He and Bill would come over to our house now and then for dinner. I had a battery run record player and records from Asmara and we would listen to music. Hot water was a real treat and living just across the street made it easy to run over for a shower to wash our hair.

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