The Spot in the Cow Field: An RPCV Returns To Ethiopia After 35 Years
By Chuck Adams (Bonga 2011–13)
Karen Dawn Speicher (Wukro, Bonga 1973-75) knew exactly what she was looking for: The place with the cows. Ever since her Peace Corps service in Ethiopia in the mid-’70s as a secondary school English teacher, one image that stuck with her was her mud-walled house in Bonga with the window that looked out on a cow pasture with a backdrop of jungle. There she would sit, sipping warm milk with local honey, gazing out at the cows and murky forest beyond while contemplating her life after Peace Corps. It was a moment perhaps embedded in every Volunteer’s service: the existential pondering, the long drawn out silences, the mysterious and unknowable future that lay out there, like a lion in the bush, waiting for you to reach out.
Karen had entered that thicket a long time ago, and now she wanted to reach back. Her return to Ethiopia coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps Ethiopia program, and current PCVs like me were quite willing to host these returners and help them reunite with the people and places of their past service.
As we drove to Bonga in a rented 4×4, Karen told me stories about her life as a PCV at the start of the Derg regime. She had spent her first year in Wukro, but the revolution caused too many hardships for the Tigrayan people and Peace Corps reassigned her to Bonga for her second year. She said that Bonga in 1974 had an hour or two of daily electricity, but it lacked a hotel or restaurant. When she remembered a spat she had with her maidservant (something about using the same tub to wash clothes and to prepare food in), Karen grimaced. “That was the one thing we never agreed on,” she said. “It was a gap between our two cultures.”
When I told Karen we were nearing Bonga, she perked up, giddy at the thought of finally returning to her site after 35 years. “This is really happening,” she said to herself. “I can’t believe it.”
We pulled around a bend and Bonga revealed itself to us in full panoramic view. “What is that huge building?!” Karen exclaimed. I could only shake my head. That huge building is the five-story Kafa Zonal Complex, an ugly behemoth built only a few years ago. It signified all that has changed since Karen served here.
Back during Karen’s service, Jimma was the capital of Kafa. After the downfall of the Derg regime, in 1991, the new coalition government redrew the political map, placing Jimma inside Oromia and designating Bonga as Kafa’s new zonal capital, thus ensuring its rapid expansion over the next twenty years. Karen’s first impression of Bonga: “It sure is a lot bigger than it used to be.”
We ate lunch at Kafa Coffeeland Hotel and then took a stroll down to the edge of the Kafa Biosphere Reserve, along the Barta river. Men were taking baths in the river nude so we did not linger for long. Returning up the hill, we passed numerous houses where entire families popped their heads out to look at us. It is a cultural practice to invite us in, but we sadly declined due to a shortage of time. Karen and her nephew Jared, who was traveling with her, were only day-tripping to Bonga, and had only a few precious hours to explore. Karen’s number one priority was finding the home where she lived, or as she called it, “the cow field.”
Karen remembered very little, but with my firsthand knowledge of present-day Bonga and its environs, we could zero in on a few possibilities. She knew it was in a flat pastureland area, that it was in a place with grazing cows, that it was only a short walk from the secondary school, and that she could walk into the jungle beyond the pasture and find monkeys in the trees. I had a particular area in mind.
The driver dropped us off at the gate to the Bishaw Wolde Yohannes Secondary School, the site where Karen believed she taught English. Back then there were only a few cinder-block buildings; now there were over sixteen. We stumbled across a groundskeeper and told him of our mission.
Karen was more to the point. “Where is the place with cows?” she asked him, expecting something so general to be somewhere so specific.
But after a few exchanges in Amharic, the groundskeeper said we could walk on a path behind the school to just such a place. When he saw that even a current Bonga PCV was lost, he became our impromptu guide, leading us through tall grass, reeds, and nettles along a path overgrown and muddy. The groundskeeper pointed out areas of matted grass, the result of a resident pod of hippos that staked out this no-man’s-land behind the school for their own.
We walked until we reached sight of the cow pasture, precisely the one I had in mind to show Karen. Bisected by the Barta River, it was on a flat piece of wetland, about four acres in size. Due to the rainy season, the river had flooded the path, leaving the cow pasture just beyond reach.
But the viewpoint convinced Karen. “That’s definitely the spot over there,” she said. “I can just feel it. Don’t know for sure, but it just feels right.”
So we backtracked to the main road and a re-routed around the school until we were tromping through the cow field, with only Karen’s intuition and gut feeling as a honing beacon to find this special place lurking deep within her heart and her mind’s eye.
While she was convinced this was the area, she had trouble locating her house. Mud-walled houses have a short lifespan; her house has likely long since disintegrated. But Karen moved around the cow field and down the footpaths of the neighborhood possessed of a conviction in finding this spot — if not her house then at least the view she had outside her window, the place where her past and her future collided over a cup of hot milk and a soundtrack of moos.
In the end, we never found Karen’s viewpoint. Uprooted by seasonal flooding, deforestation, population growth, and time’s slow-moving sculptural finesse, the image had eroded. But the picture and the moment had been stored on a long-dormant memory bank inside Karen’s body, and she simply had to step into a cow field to feel it rebooted. “I’m satisfied,” Karen said. She was looking out at Bonga but her mind was elsewhere.
We age and our lives spin off in wildly different directions. Thus we require places where we can go to be re-centered after periods of distress, like beacons in a tempest. As we left the cow field and walked back to the car, I wondered where my beacon would be located here in Bonga. I looked around at the hills, the lush forests, the tranquil palm groves. It all looked beautiful and poignant, but I now know that only one place will speak to me, and it will take decades for it to reveal itself.