Home Again . . . a Third Trip to Ethiopia
By Linda Seal (Debra Berhan, Asmara 1964–66)
I’m back from my third trip to Ethiopia, and I’m wondering if you can go home again. I still consider Ethiopia one of my homes because I lived there for four of my first six years out of college. From 1964–1966,
I served in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and from 1968–1970, I returned as the wife of a foreign service officer. The two years between my periods of living in Ethiopia were spent in Washington D.C., where there were many Peace Corps Volunteers and Ethiopians. There was also a special invitation to the White House lawn to welcome Haile Selassie to America.
For my third trip to Ethiopia, I went back for the month of January 2012. I expected to go home again, but after almost a half-century, I saw many bittersweet changes.
On my way from the (new) airport, I noticed tall new buildings and also how crowded the streets had become. When I left Addis in 1966, the population was 500,000, and now it has grown to several million. The sight of dust devils and the smell of berbere in the air were familiar as was the sharing of the road with cattle, sheep, garis, buses and people, and the overall confusion of who had the right of way. The kindness of the Ethiopian people remained the same, but I did not like being called “ferengi” by the children in the countryside. I did not feel like a foreigner, but I was one, and they knew it.
I looked for places that I recognized and people whom I used to know. I recognized several city squares, but when I found my former house in Addis Abeba, I discovered there was a giant new fence around it. I couldn’t even attempt to visit my home in Asmara because of the fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Oh well.
I was sure I’d find my house in Debre Berhan, because it was on the main road to Addis. I hadn’t traveled more than a few miles out of Addis when I realized that there was a new road. Gone was the bumpy old road and in its place was a new, paved road. But my house in Debre Berhan was no more, having been torn down to make way for the new road. What was once a village is now a city. I had hoped to meet the new Peace Corps Volunteers who were assigned there, but they were in Addis Abeba for training.
The only person I met whom I had known before was an Ethiopian who had married a Canadian teacher and returned to Canada with her. He and I had taught in Asmara, then part of Ethiopia, during my second year of Peace Corps service. Like me, he was visiting Ethiopia for the holidays in 2012.
I looked for a young man named Wondemagegnehu whom I had known in Debre Berhan in 1964. Originally he had been living in our compound as a student, later he became a friend of the family, and had visited us in Asmara and in Washington D.C. During my second trip to Ethiopia in 1968, he had moved back into our compound.
To my dismay and sadness I found out that he had died of yellow fever. However, I was able to meet his family, and found out that both of his children are now teachers.
Comparing the Volunteer experience
One of the delights of this third trip was being able to attend an afternoon of Peace Corps training, through the generosity of Dan Baker, the Acting Director of Peace Corps/Ethiopia. As much as I had enjoyed my ten weeks at UCLA, I think that the Peace Corps is doing a better job of training its Volunteers by having them train in Ethiopia.
I did have an opportunity to spent time with the two Volunteers stationed in Debre Berhan, Tony and Erin Portillo, and even though they had been in Ethiopia only a few months, it seemed to me that they had a better handle on customs and the people than I had after the same amount of time. I would have loved staying with an Ethiopian family when I first arrived in Ethiopia. Many of us early Volunteers formed close relationships with Ethiopians, but we also tended to hang around other Volunteers a lot. Tony and Erin’s Peace Corps group is smaller. There were 13 Volunteers in Debre Berhan when I was assigned there, too many, I think, for a small village. That is one of the reasons I chose to teach in Asmara the second year.
While in Asmara no one wanted to speak to me in Amharic, only in Tigrigna, which I did not know. It makes me glad to see in the current Peace Corps training that the Volunteers are being taught the languages spoken in the areas they are serving. Finally, I am pleased to see that the Peace Corps is back in Ethiopia after a short hiatus, still involved in medicine and education.
William J. Clinton Foundation
Another delight of sitting in on the training was learning about the Clinton Foundation and its desire to hire Peace Corps Volunteers who wished to stay in Ethiopia beyond their two-year commitment. I think that this foundation has learned the lesson to let the local people take credit for whatever good they do. For them to help in the health care area is especially important to me since I just had learned of Wondemagegnehu’s death due to yellow fever. I am sure that the Foundation’s efforts will save some other lives that otherwise would have been lost. It seemed to me that in the olden days aid to Ethiopia was the type of “taking a lot of credit for giving electric sewing machines to villages without electricity.” This is not the Clinton Foundation’s way. With experienced Volunteers helping, I’m sure that their aid will get to the right people.
So, home again ????
I still possess the same warm feelings towards Ethiopia, but it is a different Ethiopia than the one I knew. I hold dear the children of my friend who now teach school, and the young woman who shared her family with me and taught me to make wat. I can keep in touch with them by email. The Peace Corps way of training is better now, but I still miss the old Ethiopia.