Remember Glen and his legacy of green
A returning PCV discovers living memories of Glen Gish (Mekelle 63–65)
By Janet Lee (Endeber 1974–76)
EACH MORNING I walk into the city from my compound, about 35 minutes away, to begin work at the Segenat Children and Youth Library in Mekelle. I know that I am being watched; the call out of “ferengi” is a bit hard to miss. Occasionally, small children will greet me. Some will walk with me and attempt conversations or wait until I speak to them first. On occasion I am greeted by an adult, but usually only if we have met previously. As I near the library, school children recognize me as part of the library and shake my hand in welcome.
One day in mid-October, a kind and gentle man entered the library. Ato Teame Gidey had observed me for some time walking down the street, sometimes alone, sometimes with Ato Yohannes Gebregeorgis of the Tigray Libraries and Literature Development Project. Ato Teame wondered what I was doing for such a long time in Mekelle and where I was going each day. He soon discovered that my journey led to the Segenat Library. He was overjoyed to see such a beautiful library established just for children. He found out that I am a librarian and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who worked in Ethiopia years ago. I am on a six-month sabbatical leave from Regis University in Denver to return to Ethiopia and work with Ato Yohannes in setting up the Segenat Children and Youth Library.
Ato Teame is a retired educator who taught throughout Ethiopia for over 30 years. When I told him that I, too, had been a teacher in Ethiopia, with the Peace Corps during the time of Haile Sellasie, his eyes misted over. He named off all of his former Peace Corps teachers. Like Ato Yohannes, and other men of his generation, he had been taught by Peace Corps Volunteers in the ’60s and early ’70s.
There was one Volunteer of whom he spoke most fondly. Mind you, these Volunteers were here over forty years ago. The Volunteer was Glen Gish and he ran the forestry club at a local high school. Ato Teame regaled me with stories of Glen and how the forestry club planted tree after tree in a reforestation effort between what is now the Hilltop Hotel and Mekelle University. He spoke of the sorrow that the students shared with the Volunteers when U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and recited a Tigrigna poem that they had written that expressed their sorrow as well. He promised to get a copy of the poem as well as to show me the certificate that Glen had presented him after his service in the forestry club.
He invited me to take a “little” walk with him up the hill, past Glen’s house where the club met and watched films, and walk among the vast forest of trees that Glen and the forestry club had planted and that remains alive today.
The “little” walk turned out to be a bit more of a march, as Ato Teame, his son Adam, and I hiked up the mountain, stopping frequently along the steep switchbacks to view the city of Mekelle, what was once a small town of 50,000 people and now a proper city of nearly a quarter million people.
Ato Teame shared his memories:
Mt. Chomaa (meaning “sweet” as in tasty or savory) was ideally suited for vegetation and the reforestation project, and, under Mr. Glen’s direction, fifty to sixty boys scampered up the mountain to plant trees one by one right at the beginning of the rainy season. People at that time would only cut, slash and use the native trees for wood for fires and never thought about planting trees for the future. The Governor of Tigray would meet the boys at the summit of Mt. Chomaa with bread and marmalade, and tins of sardines. The boys would gather in excitement and “boogie” and dance the “twist” and sing songs by Elvis Presley. Mr. Glen’s fingers “touched the soil” and the people readily accepted this new notion of thinking about the next generation.
As Ato Teame and I surveyed the area, I noticed a fire pit with the remains of a bonfire or “demera” for celebrating the recent Meskal holiday. I can imagine now how thousands of youth would have sung and danced and lit straw torches from the bonfire and then when twilight came, process down Mt. Chomaa in zigzag fashion lighting up the mountain. Were it not for the efforts of this one Volunteer and a group of stalwart boys, forty-five or more years ago, this mountain may have remained barren. And thanks to the memories of Ato Teame, a gifted story teller, the legacy of Glen Gish, who died of cancer in July of 1982, can be retold today.