A Peacemaker Who Inspired Goodwill in All

A Tribute to Fisseha Haileselassie 1957–2012

by Karen D. Speicher (Wukro, Bonga 1973-1975)

As a teenager, he seemed wise beyond his years  .  .  .

In 1973, when my Ethiopian colleagues in Wukro, Tigray, were filled with paranoia and begging me to help them get visas to the United States, Fisseha maintained a calm innocence and a quiet equanimity. Amidst the charged atmosphere of hushed denunciations of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, that confused me as a newly arrived, 23 year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, Fisseha became a dear counselor and friend. Against the backdrop of hatred toward the U. S. for supporting the Emperor, who was responsible for a political famine creating starvation in the north, Fisseha became my cultural liaison and interpreter, protecting this firenje from the taunts of out-of-towners and advising me on local customs and taboos. Following the hasty departure of my Peace Corps site-mate — leaving me as the only foreigner in the area — I don’t think I would have survived my first year in Ethiopia without Fisseha.

One of at least ten children, Fisseha told me that his name meant “happy”: “My mother was happy that I was born,” although the exact year of his birth was uncertain. He had come from a remote village to attend school in Wukro and needed a place to stay. I was the local English teacher with an extra room in my house. So Fisseha moved in, and along with Ukwar, who came daily to cook and clean, our little compound became a place of refuge during that storied year of student strikes and political intrigue.

Fisseha & Karen

Fisseha & Karen

The local people were always very kind to me. However, there was an occasion when older university students returned to Wukro for a visit. Upon seeing me riding a bicycle on the main road, they began throwing rocks, calling out, “Bloodsucker! Bloodsucker!” When I arrived home in tears, Fisseha sought out these offenders, telling them how I had helped the villagers with medical needs beyond my school duties, and he brought them around for tea. Typically, Fisseha was a peacemaker who inspired goodwill in all.

During the summer before the coup of September 1974, I was relocated to Bonga, Kaffa. I left Ethiopia the following year, and Fisseha and I subsequently lost contact. Yet my heart remained with the people of Tigray, whose suffering I had witnessed firsthand. I especially wondered about Fisseha: Was he dead or alive? Was he imprisoned by the Dergue? What kind of life was he living? Did he join his sister, Tadelech, in Addis? Sometime in the late 1980s, when I was a Montessori teacher in Arlington, Virginia, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from someone in California stating that he was Fisseha’s brother: If Fisseha came to the U.S.A., would I meet him? “Of course!” But aside from that isolated phone call, I had no evidence of Fisseha’s existence for 37 years.

On the recent RETURN TO ETHIOPIA trip, my innermost wish was to have a reunion with Fisseha. I took a few old photos along, intending to show them to some of the folks in Wukro who might remember him.

It is uncanny how fate intervenes to bring closure to our innermost questions. On the evening of our arrival in Addis Ababa, while we were being entertained at the lovely Hiber restaurant, a young news reporter asked if he could interview me. It turned out that he was from Wukro. I showed Alem my photos of Fisseha, and he confidently asserted, “Don’t worry! I will find him for you!”

On our second day in Addis, while we were attending a reception at the presidential palace, Alem approached me with some grim news: “I called my uncle who lives in Wukro. Ato Fisseha died two weeks ago  .  .  .” This was stunning! After 37 years, how strange it was to miss someone by two weeks?! “Are you sure it was the same person?” I protested. Alem assured me that he had described Fisseha’s unique features and hair, and he gave me the phone number of his Uncle Berhane so that I could arrange to meet him personally in Wukro where I was scheduled to be on Saturday.

On Saturday, my nephew Jared,who had travelled to Ethiopia with me, and I flew to Makele. We were greeted at the airport by Kidane, a driver, who would take us to Wukro where we had arranged to meet current PCVs Kevin and Rashad.

I was mindblown upon arriving in Makele, but words cannot begin to describe how I felt upon entering Wukro. Growth and development have brought such enormous changes to the area that I barely recognized the village where I once lived. In fact, an entirely new town has been annexed to that old village. (Credit for this progress is no doubt due to Tigray-born Meles Zenawe, Prime Minister of Ethiopia from 1991 until his death this past summer.) I sought out the ancient, fixed features: “Gut Bahari” — the river where I used to go swimming until Fisseha advised me not to, reporting that the townspeople had been gossiping about my impropriety; “Cherkos” — the ancient rock-hewn church carved in the shape of a cross containing religious cave art. Seeing those landmarks gave me some comfort, but the juxtaposition of the old village with the new town was unsettling: How had I managed to live in that simple, remote place so many years ago, before computers, cell phones, etc? Yet a part of me longed to see that very spot again just as it was in my memory.

We met Kevin and Rashad as planned and were chatting gaily at a sidewalk table when I turned my head and screamed in surprise and delight: “G’relassie!” Gebreselassie was another student whom I remembered fondly, and I happened to have with me an old photo of him playing his harmonica. He had heard that “Miss Karen” might be coming to town, so he showed up at the hotel with his son, Tesfay. Gebreselassie confirmed the news I had received about Fisseha’s death, which added poignancy to our joyful reunion, even more so when, during lunch, Gebreselassie conveyed the news of the passing of another former student who had been killed fighting the Dergue.

Gebreselassie currently works as the registrar in the same school where I used to teach, so he led us there and even pointed out my former classroom. In fact, he was able to guide us to the houses where I used to live, one on top of a hill near the church that I vacated due to termites, the other in the village where I rented from Wzro. Hewot, a native of Eritrea who has since returned there.

We made our way back to the Luam where two Berhanes awaited us: Berhane M., Alem’s uncle, and khaki-clad Berhane Woldeyesus, a friend of Gebreselassie who had also been a close friend of Fisseha. Berhane W. explained in Tigrinya that Fisseha had died of cancer, placing his hand on his head to indicate a brain tumor. His passing had actually occurred three months ago. Fisseha’s widow, Tsion, was an Amhara woman, and they had a son, Miserak, who had graduated from Gondar University and a daughter, Muluberhan, 20, who was studying to be a pharmacist in Addis Ababa.

Jared and I traveled north to Axum through the dramatic mountainous scenery of Tigray. There we met up with sixteen others for a four-day historic tour which included Axum, Gondar, Bahar Dar, Lake Tana, and the Blue Nile Falls. Throughout, I was quietly grieving for Fisseha and making phone calls to his daughter to arrange our meeting in Addis.

Tsion and Muluberhan

Tsion and Muluberhan

Tsion, Muluberhan and I met at a hotel in Addis Ababa. We embraced. We cried. We sat. We sipped our sodas. We shared a few photos. I gave Muluberhan two pictures of her father as a teen, and Tsion showed me her husband’s ID photo as a man of 50+. I did not recognize that short-haired, sober-faced fellow in the business suit.

Fisseha must have been proud of his lovely family. The Tigray native who did not want to visit Bonga ended up marrying an Amhara and settling down in Mizan Tefari, a town even further southwest than Bonga! There he worked with the Department of Public Works and raised his children.

When we parted, we agreed to meet again in the afternoon when Muluberhan would bring more photos to share. She arrived with a friend and we three ladies went to the Habesha restaurant to share a vegetarian beyanetu meal. Muluberhan gave me a few more photos of her father. One which I particularly like shows him in his thirties, smiling, a happy family man. Was he truly happy? Muluberhan indicated that his life had not been easy, but her lack of fluency in English and my lack of fluency in Amharic limited the sharing of details. Leaving the restaurant after dark, we shared a taxi part way back to my hotel. Then we bid each other farewell on the eve of my departure from Ethiopia.

Fisseha Haileselassie has always been a vivid memory of my Peace Corps experience. To return to Ethiopia and find him gone punctuated the finality and the finite context of my stay there. Our lives had touched during a particular intersection of time and space at a unique point in Ethiopia’s history. I shall always feel grateful for having known that kind and gentle young man, and I am grateful for the opportunity to meet his daughter, Muluberhan, whose name means “full of light” and who represents the bright future of Ethiopia.

Rest in peace, Fisseha!

One response to “Friends

  1. judy ballinger (previously judy Bruce)

    I was one of those Americans still in Tigray when you were in Wukro…I had been following my husband around doing research in AdiShihu-Maichew area, then in Hawzen and in Adigrat. I remember meeting you briefly.
    Did you know Mr.Bill, the elderly PC volunteer in Maichew? His adoptive
    daughter Shefena lives in Arlington. Are you still there?
    Your story is a lovely remembrance honoring Fisseha. I hope some day to do the same for my Tigray friends. Thank you, judy Ballinger

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