Ethiopian Film Producer Discusses Peace Corps in Ethiopia and Truman’s Point Four Program
I would like to express my great appreciation to Mel Tewahade for granting me the following interview— Janet Lee, editor.
The Herald: Briefly describe your journey from Ethiopia to the U.S. How did you ultimately end up in Colorado?
Mel Tewahade: My journey started in December 1977 from Massaw, Eritrea, where civil war took place between Ethiopian forces and Eritrean fighters. I walked to Port Sudan [314 miles] where I was a refugee for four months. I ultimately found a job as a sailor on a Greek ship and made it to Europe. I lived in Germany for two and half years and moved to Canada. I married and lived in Canada for fourteen years before moving to Colorado in 1993. I am founder and CEO of Infinity Wealth Management, Inc.
The Herald: As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, I recall an agricultural extension agent, a graduate of Alemaya University (the current Haramaya University) conducting training and research at my site. I knew there was some type of connection to Oklahoma State University. What was the relationship between the universities and what motivated you to produce the documentary film “Point Four?”
Mel Tewahade: I was motivated to produce the “Point Four” movie because I grew up in Harer where my father was the Regional Governor from 1962 to 1969. I traveled to Alemaya (renamed Harmaya) with my father and the university left a lasting impression on me.
President Harry Truman appointed Dr. Henry G. Bennett to be the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Point Four Program (named after the fourth point in Truman’s inaugural address). In 1952, an agreement was put in place between the Ethiopian government and Point Four (predecessor to USAID). Point Four in turn contracted with Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M) to build and run the agricultural school at Alemaya. Emperor Haile Sellasie provided funds; the school was designed by Oklahoman engineers. Italian contractors and Ethiopian laborers worked together to open the school in 1956. OSU ran Alemaya until 1968 and then handed over the operations of the school to Ethiopians.
The Herald: You recently produced a video about the history of Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Did you have an early connection with Peace Corps Volunteers in your youth? What influence do you feel the early Volunteers had on the people of Ethiopia and what influence did Ethiopia have on those same Volunteers?
Mel Tewahade: Yes, I had a connection to Peace Corps in my youth. My eighth grade English teacher was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Addis at Menelik High School. I was always impressed with how nice most of the Peace Corps teachers were and not threatening like our Ethiopian teachers. They always had kind words for us even though we sometimes behaved badly. The Volunteers were tactful and showed us that we can solve problems without losing our temper.
Peace Corps Volunteers also loved Ethiopia for its people. Ethiopians left a lasting impression on the Peace Corps Volunteers. They witnessed that Ethiopians are close to one another and have strong love for their families. Ethiopian children are very much loved by Peace Corps Volunteers. We Ethiopians are grateful to all the Peace Corps Volunteers who helped countless Ethiopians in time of need. When we fled our country from communist persecution, many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers sponsored, lobbied, opened their doors and helped us to integrate into American society. We will never forget that.
The Herald: As you accompanied the group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers on their “Return to Ethiopia”/5oth anniversary celebration of Peace Corps in Ethiopia this past September, what surprised you most about this journey? What would you hope that these Volunteers take back home?
Mel Tewahade: I was surprised to witness the love Peace Corps Volunteers have for Ethiopia and its people. They truly cherish the time they spent teaching Ethiopian children. I was also surprised to witness the feelings that Peace Corps Volunteers had for their former students and how they worked hard to locate and meet them.
I was astonished to know how many Peace Corps Volunteers are in some kind of projects in Ethiopia. Some send books, help run orphanages, build libraries, and send medicine to Ethiopia. What I want the Peace Corps Volunteers to take back home is the knowledge that their work was not in vain and to let them know that they have transformed the lives of countless Ethiopians.
The Herald: The Third Goal of the Peace Corps encourages RPCVs to help Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries. Do you have specific suggestions to these travelers on how they may fulfill this Third Goal in respect to Ethiopia?
Mel Tewahade: As most RPCVs know, Ethiopia is an ancient country with ancient customs and practices. Some of these customs are good, like love of country and family. Others are not so good. For those who are not happy with the level of progress in Ethiopia, just remember that the country went through a very difficult time during the communist occupation. The country is just starting to recover from it. If Ethiopia keeps up with this growth rate, it will become a pleasant place to live and work.
Please help the current generation of Ethiopians learn more English so they may be able to succeed in business. English as language was literally destroyed in Ethiopia during the Russian time. Any help in that regard will be a great contribution, making English the language of commerce in Ethiopia.
The Herald: Peace Corps Ethiopia was reinstated a few years ago after many years of non-service. Any advice to these new Volunteers?
Mel Tewahade: I am happy that Peace Corps is reinstated in Ethiopia. I would like to see the number of Volunteers grow to the 1962 level.
During the 50th reunion, the new Volunteers came to Addis to watch my movie, attend a panel discussion on Education in Ethiopia, and also to enjoy the evening ceremony at the American Ambassador’s residence. They are a bunch of great young people and are having great success in Ethiopia. I also learned from them that they stayed with Ethiopian host families in the villages during their training. That was unthinkable for us, even though I am Ethiopian.
The advice I have for the current Volunteers is to keep on doing what they are doing. You are the best and you keep changing lives. Stay with it, even when it looks that the problem is insurmountable.
The Herald: What new projects do you have on the horizon? Are there any roles that RPCV Ethiopia can play in these projects?
Mel Tewahade: People in Ethiopia went through hell for a long time. The communists traumatized the population in its entirety. The people need to build their confidence and feel good about themselves. Peace Corps Volunteers can go back to Ethiopia to participate in their fields of specialization.
I will be going back to Ethiopia to look at farming, tourism and the insurance business. Please feel free to contact me if you need have ideas to share.