PCVs in Ethiopia

Sliding in Broadside: “What a ride!”

PCV Keith Keyser may be three times the age of most PCVs, but his energy (and success) is a wonder to behold.

By Janet Lee (Emdeber 74-76)

“He may be retired, but I have a hard time keeping up with him,” says a twenty-something male PCV about fellow Volunteer Keith Keyser. To look at Keith, one would not imagine that he had just celebrated his 70th birthday. Nothing slows him down. He is adored and respected by the other Volunteers, many of whom are the age of his own grandchildren. In fact, he signs most of his emails Keith/Dad/Grandpa/Great Grandpa. He is also more wired than most of the other Volunteers, updating his Facebook page, blogs and emails at all hours of the day and night through the use of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology — electricity and internet permitting, of course; this is Ethiopia after all. That should not come as a surprise; he retired as the IT Director from Denver Water not so long ago.

Although assigned to the Finote Selam office that is in charge of the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS and the support of those with suffering from the diseases, Keith has tallied up a wide variety of successes in his short two years in Finote Selam.

Among them are:

  • Creating an Access database for the hospital to manage its patient medical records
  • Setting up a chicken project complete with a three-room chicken house and an incubator room;
  • Writing a handful of grant proposals;
  • Setting up a community library and securing reference books for the secondary school library;
  • Helping set up two urban gardens;
  • Hosting weekly English language discussion groups in his home;
  • Helping obtain soccer balls for a youth and sports group;
  • Working with a health club at the Preparatory School to distribute mosquito nets;
  • Accompanying three girls to the summer Camp Glow, Girls Leading our World camp in Gondar;
  • Volunteering with Operation Smile in Jimma, an organization that performs surgery on cleft lips.

Still nothing has touched his heart as much as his work with the mentally ill and in particular, a young woman named Ana (not her real name). His emails are filled with her trials and tribulations, ups and downs, bumps and bruises, progress and relapses. She is schizophrenic with a persecution complex, and like so many mentally ill in Ethiopia was ignored, abused, and left to fend for herself. While working as a housemaid for a family, the son took advantage of her sexually. When she became pregnant, the family kicked her out of the house. She was approximately 16 years old and on the street when she gave birth. She struggled to raise her daughter while begging, but ultimately her child was taken from her and given up for adoption. Until she met Keith, her only protector was a Moslem bike repair shop owner who allowed her to while away her time at his shop. She slowly came to trust Keith and called him her “father and mother.”

It took some doing, but Keith was able to put together the proper papers, accompany her to Addis Ababa and have her admitted to a hospital where she was treated. Although nearly everyone else had given up on her, “Her eyes tell me that there is a vibrant person in there that wants to come out!” It is unclear what may have triggered her illness. It may have been brought on by her poverty and lack of ability to care for her daughter who was then taken away from her, or some other traumatic event in her life, including being sexually molested while living on the streets. Her situation is further complicated by being HIV positive.

Even though the hospital may be one of the best mental hospital in East Africa, Keith felt like he was abandoning her at the hospital, a bit like in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Ana shared a ward with 19 other women, each in varying stages of illness and delusions. Patients usually have a family member to watch after their affairs, provide them with care, food, tea, and other types of support. Keith was able to find a surrogate caregiver for a fee. In the meantime, Keith needed to deal with the typical Ethiopian bureaucracy of paperwork and signatures for her treatment.

After nearly two months of hospitalization, she returned to Finote Selam where the community was surprised at how “normal” she had become. She seemed to be recovering well emotionally, but was having difficulty adjusting to the HIV/AIDS medication, a common occurrence for the first few months as the body’s immune system is challenged by the medications. For the most part, she has reliably taken the medications on her own, but has occasional mishaps. She developed a severe infection on her head while Keith was away on Christmas holidays, an infection that is not that uncommon in AIDS patients. That has been treated and her life has some resemblance to normality.


Keith’s reputation as a miracle worker and sympathetic soul has drawn others with mental illness to him for assistance. He and Ismael, the bike repair shopkeeper, have taken over 45 patients to the Addis Ababa hospital for treatment, a harried and eventful eight-hour mini bus experience, each direction. But Ana will always have a special place in his heart.

Keith has decided to extend his service and transfered to Mekelle at the beginning of this year to work with the Clinton Foundation to help improve the management of the country’s hospitals. This extension will allow him to occasionally check on Ana and his other projects. It seems that Ethiopia has had as much an effect on him as he has had on it. The extension will also give him an opportunity to travel further within and outside of Ethiopia and pursue his passion for photography. One of his recent photos, “Preparing the Garden for Planting,” was selected as a finalist in the Peace Corps 50th anniversary photo contest.

His wry, self-deprecating sense of humor comes through in his emails, blogs, and Facebook page, especially in the captions to his most exquisite photos. In a pre-Peace Corps experience in a Masaii village in Tanzania, he reflects, “The Masaii village people gave us gifts before we left; I was given a goat since I was the oldest member of our group.”

What keeps him going? Where does he get that passion for life? He explains that he believes in this adage: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, wow . . . what a ride!!!”

Preparing the Garden for Planting

8 responses to “PCVs in Ethiopia

  1. Mary Myers-Bruckenstein

    Kieth, what a wonderful article. I admire your energy.I was wondering, what is the name of the Hospital in Addis where you were able to recive care and treatment for Psychiatric illnesses? have you ever been told that Schizophrenia can be genetic and inherited? I believe there is a study to that conclusion out of Ireland. I want to make you aware of an organization called Women With Disabilities in Addis. Berhane daba is the President of this organization and she can be reached through The National Library of Ethiopia or at PO BOX #717 , National Library of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Please feel free to contact me for any further information. Sincerely, Mary Myers- Bruckenstein, Addis Ababa 1968-1970 RPCV

    • Hi Mary Myers-Bruckenstein,
      The name of the mental hospital in Addis is Emanuel Hospital. We had 6 patients admitted for treatment there and I have been able to follow up with 2 of them and they are doing very well. However, an 18 year old female 11th grade student, who was the top girl in her 10th grade class, 2nd overall, had a mental melt down just before her mid term exams a couple weeks ago. She is an orphan living with an uncle who beat her with a belt in front of all the school, to try to get her to behave! She is one of three girls from Finote Selam that went to the PC Camp Glow last summer. The people in Finote Selam did what they thought was right and took her to Emanuel Hospital for treatment. She was given an injection, 10 days of medication and told they would contact (the support people) when a bed was available. I was able to bring her to Mekele where she was diagnosed as bi-polar and with care and support and a new medication is currently doing well. I’m afraid she would, at least initially, have gotten worse in the 20 patient wards at the hospital, but she may have eventually recovered. It is too early to tell how this story will end, but I hope to be able to enroll her in a couple weeks in an international school. We are also having lab work done to determine if there is something physical (thyroid?) that is causing her problems.

      I will contact Berhane Daba of the Women With Disabilities to see if there is anything they can help us with. Thanks for the contact information.

      Mental illnes in Ethiopia is almost entirely ignored, something that God gave the person and only God can cure. They often go to be treated with holy water. It is difficult to walk by a “crazy street person” and not do something to help them. If you know the story of the star fish, we help one at a time.

  2. Linda V. Williams

    Keith was the subject of a piece that aired on Colorado Public Radio last week. His is a truly inspiring story. You can hear the piece, and several others on Ethiopia, by going to http://www.cpr.org/#load_article|Series_ColoradotoEthiopia.

  3. Hi Mary Myers,

    Could I get an e-mail address for you, and in case you have or know how I could get, addresses for:

    Gary Barry
    Fred Marquis
    Harrison C. Bloom
    Charles N. Caldwell
    Mary J. Pelon Caldwell
    John S. Cullison
    Lonna Huntington Dole
    Delbert Lyle Gilkerson
    Lonna H. Dole Harkrader
    Stephen O. Meyer
    Mary J. Pelon
    Jerry Martin Weissman
    William Unger

    … all RPCV’s who served in Ghimbi, Ethiopia. My purpose is to send them news about George Ebeyan … an Ethiopian who was very kind to all of us (I have tried through the RPCV site with no response).

    Thank you,

    John Hartung

    PS: I think Harrison Bloom’s middle initial is ‘G’.

    • How do you know George Ebeyan? My grandfather was called George Ebeyan, and I know that some of my family was in Ethiopia.

      Gary Ebeyan.

  4. Great article, Janet. Keith sounds like a great man doing wonderful work. I would love to meet him.

  5. Keith, are you in Makele now? I will be going to Ethiopia in September with other former PCVs. I’d like to visit Wukro, just north of Makele, and am looking for someone to accompany me there…

    Karen S.
    Ethiopia PCV 1973-1975

  6. Karen, I would be happy to accompany you there. There are two PCVs living there now who will know the town much better than I. Baily Crandall and Kevin Tobin. Both of them are on Facebook.

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