Coming Full Circle

A visit with the President of Ethiopia in Emperor Haile Salassie’s old palace brings back memories of an earlier era — and a charming conversation

by Haskell Ward (Nazareth 63–65)

In early September in my capacity as a member of the national Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society I participated in the First Global Summit on Women’s Cancer in Africa held in Addis. At the end of the conference five of us met with Girme Wolde-Giorgis, the President of Ethiopia, to deliver a copy of the conference declaration and to thank the Ethiopian government and people for their support of the meeting. The American Cancer Society was a leading partner at this Addis Conference which was organized by the Princess Nikky Foundation. Along with Princess Nikky Onyeri of Nigeria, I was a spokesperson for the visit with the President.

DO YOU SPEAK AMHARIC? Haskell Ward and President Girme Wolde Giogis

This was my first visit inside the palace grounds since 1973 when I participated in a luncheon Emperor Haile Selassie hosted for the International Association of Africanists. It was most likely one of the last large gatherings before his overthrow the next year. That earlier meeting was held in the Palace’s large Grand Ballroom, the room where our Peace Corps group, Ethiopia II, first met the Emperor in 1963 when he received us at the beginning of our tour as PCVs.

Our meeting with the Ethiopian President was held in what was once the Emperor’s main office where he conducted business with his ministers and other non-ceremonial visitors. After we were led into the office by the Chief of Protocol, Princess Nikky spoke first, then I followed. The President was very surprised and amused when I spoke to him in Amharic. I told him that I had served as an English teacher in Nazareth 48 years ago at the Atse Gelawdios Secondary School. The President interrupted me to say that the Peace Corps had made a great contribution to Ethiopia and had been a major catalyst in the modernization of the country. He indicated that he had great admiration for Sargent Shriver and was saddened to hear of his death. He also noted that the Peace Corps is now back in the country.

I thanked the President for the impact that Ethiopia and its people had had on my life that I now appreciate even more as I grow older. When he ask how old I was, I replied that I would be 72 on my next birthday. At that he said, “You are still young. I wonder if you know how old I am?” I said I would be afraid to guess. “I am 87!”

The President is a very large man and during our photo session said that his legs made it difficult for him to stand. Though somewhat disabled, he is still mentally very  alert. I told him that we were going to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Peace Corps’ founding at the end of this month in Washington, and that those of us who had served in Ethiopia would have dinner at the Ethiopian embassy. He said that his ambassador to the U.S. was in Addis then.

We spoke of the drought in Somalia and a number of other issues, and he acknowledged that the cancer burden was a major issue confronting his country, He thanked the American Cancer Society for supporting efforts to address it.

The president has a sharp mind and wit and a broad set of interests. He asked Princess Nikky how it was that she was a princess even though Nigeria had no king. When a delegate from South Africa identified herself as the representative of that country’s First Lady, he asked “Which one?” She said that in fact she represented two of President Zuma’s four wives. He asked the Uganda representative what “our brother Isaias” Afwerki of Eritrea had discussed with Ugandan President Yowerki  Museveni during Isaias’ visit to Uganda the previous week.

Our courtesy call was unrushed and very informal. We finally took our leave. The grounds of the palace looked quite clean and the President told us that the main Palace building itself was under renovation. My meeting with the Ethiopian President completes a circle of sorts. It reminds me also of why I decided to devote my life to addressing some of the continent’s problems which were illuminated to me first — and in the clearest terms — in this country.

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