Greg Engle — Country Director, Singer/Songwriter Whose Hope is to “Leave This Place Better than Before”
by Janet Lee (Emdeber 74–76)
THE COLORADO ROCKIES may seem about as far away from Ethiopia as one can be, but it was the perfect spot for a conversation with Peace Corps/Ethiopia Country Director Greg Engle. Ethiopia and Colorado have more in common with each other than one might expect: altitude, mountains, intriguing rock formations, cool morning temperatures, abundant wildlife, and issues with water. It is no wonder that many Ethiopian immigrants now call Denver home.
Greg and his wife Maureen have a small mountain home southwest of Colorado Springs, the location of the University of Colorado/Colorado Springs, their alma mater from which both received degrees. It is a bit of a drive from Denver, where I live, and the hustle and bustle of traffic and city life. The mountain road took many twists and turns and climbed in elevation, yet my final destination was just 8,720 ft, slightly higher than that of Addis Ababa. After I turned off the paved highway, I found myself in a maze of well-maintained dirt roads with directions to “take this fork” or to “veer slightly to the right” at another turn. Few roads were named and the locals knew them by their numbers: CR 341 or CR 320. As I slowly ventured forth, I soon found myself face-to-face, nose-to-nose with a magnificent deer. After a furtive glance at me, it bounded off into the distance. A sign that it was going to be a great day.
Over tea, freshly baked cornbread, and the glorious white honey for which the northern region of Tigray is renowned, we quickly jumped into conversation about our shared experiences: Peace Corps, Ethiopia, Africa, and travel, typical of most RPCVs when they first meet no matter their assignment. Greg and Maureen are both RPCVs (Korea 80-81), their Peace Corps service cut short when the U.S. Government made some drastic budget cuts. Rather than transfer to another Peace Corps assignment, Greg accepted a Foreign Service appointment and ultimately served in Ethiopia, Pakistan, Germany, Washington D.C. Cyprus, Malawi and South Africa over the course of nearly three decades. He also served as the U.S. Ambassador to Togo from 2003 to 2005. In addition to his other overseas assignments, he served in Baghdad from 2005 to 2006 as the Minister Counselor for Management Affairs. From these varied experiences, he has learned many languages including: Urdu, Hindi, Korean, German, and French. Having just recently taken the post of Country Director on June 30th 2012, can Amharic be too far behind?
Greg speaks enthusiastically of his job and the Volunteers in Ethiopia. He believes Ethiopia is exactly where Peace Corps should be. With 230 volunteers, including the group of 59 trainees (designated as G9), which arrived in country in early July, Peace Corps/Ethiopia is the third largest program in Africa after Senegal and Zambia. It is a relatively new program, with Volunteers reintroduced to Ethiopia six years ago, which faces the challenges and opportunities of a new and growing program.
Working with the Volunteers is “amazing,” and not at all a burden, Greg tells me. This makes his six or seven-day workweek manageable. There has been an explosion of Volunteers this past year, although the size of his staff has not grown proportionally. Whenever he himself needs a lift, he wanders down to the Volunteer Resource Center and chats with some of the Volunteers who inevitably wind up there to use the Internet, check on resources, receive updates, and meet with other Volunteers. He encourages them all to stop by his office for a five-minute chat whenever they are at the Peace Corps headquarters. It is one of his ways of keeping connected. He finds Volunteers with whom he works to be a great group — constructive and positive, and when faced with difficulties and challenges, they look at ways to make things better. Most of the early Volunteers in this series worked in the Health Sector and many took it upon themselves to work in the schools and set up clubs. Choices that made the biggest difference.
He met many of the RPCVs during the Return to Ethiopia in 2012 and was pleased at the connections between the RPCVs and current Volunteers. Greg was also touched by the stories of the RPCVs as they connected with former students and colleagues. He specifically mentioned the story of Doug and Alma Raymond, who met with a former student, Nasser Kutabish. As Doug relayed his story, tears welled in his eyes. Nasser and his brothers, now highly successful, credited Doug and Alma for much of their success, bearing great influence on their lives some fifty years prior. Greg frequently repeats this story with current Volunteers when they question their purpose in Ethiopia.
The most challenging aspect of his job, he stated, is finding suitable sites and productive jobs. Since it is a relatively young program, there isn’t always a proven track record among the organizations and governmental entities with which Peace Corps works. It is an educational process with site visits typically taken one month after installation, where Peace Corps administration meets with officials and Volunteers. Everything flows from a positive and successful placement, otherwise the Volunteers struggle to determine where they might fit in. A successful work experience balances the daily inconveniences, minor health issues, and taunts of “ferengi.” The Peace Corps Office works diligently with the Volunteers, from PST (Pre-Service Training) to COS (Completion of Service), ensuring a successful assignment, which is of course about the Volunteers helping Ethiopians, as well as Goals Two and Three. He declares: it is “All about the Volunteers.”
The Volunteers of today are highly connected; each is assigned a cell phone for safety reasons. Most have reliable access to the Internet or are relatively close to a town or village that has Internet capabilities. For the twenty or so Volunteers who are not readily within an Internet zone, Greg must rely on texting for urgent communication. He encourages blogging, fulfilling the Third Goal while still in country, relaying to the outside world what Peace Corps life is all about.
In response to how RPCVs can best support current Volunteers, Greg does support direct contributions to the various Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) grants written by the current Volunteers, but would also encourage direct donations to the PCPP Country Fund. Although this fund is relatively small each year, it enables him to award “mini grants” of about 3,000 Birr ($160 US) to the Volunteers. The mini-grants are facilitative, providing the Volunteers with just enough funds to cover the expenses of refreshments, poster materials, or paints for events such as a Malaria Day program or Healthy Lifestyles. Click to donate to either Volunteer-designed grant programs or to the Ethiopia Country Fund.
It would be impossible to have a conversation with Greg without at some point referring to his music. I first learned of his musical talents through the release of the YouTube video The Volunteers of Ethiopia a montage of photos of current and recent Volunteers set to the song, A Simple Prayer, that he wrote for his children several years ago. He was recently asked by Peace Corps/Washington to produce a new video that covered the entire continent of Africa set to the same song and A Tribute to Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa was born.
Greg began playing the guitar at eight years old and has played it nearly every day since. Fourteen years ago, “songs came out” culminating in the production of the album Take it Personally produced in 2010 (available from Amazon as an audio CD or downloadable as an MP3).
Greg’s song Woody’s Ghost (original version) won first prize in the 2011 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival Songwriting Competition. (The YouTube version is Woody Walks this Land.) After reading Joe Kline’s book, Woody Guthrie: A Life, Greg knew that one day he would write a song about Guthrie and one day the song just “happened.” While searching the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival website, Greg came upon the songwriting competition, entered it, and took first place. The song is a fictitious conversation that Greg had with Guthrie, whom he picked up hitchhiking in Oklahoma. In the piece, Guthrie states, that although his song, This Land is Your Land, is sung by school children everywhere, two verses are frequently omitted: the verses about people and neglected folks, and people that are forgotten on the other side of the door. In the conversation, Guthrie asks Greg to “promise this . . . to teach those verses to my kids.”
Two other songs from his album, Take it Personally have been set to YouTube videos: Nelson and Market Day, Africa. Both songs are indicative of the powerful effects that Africa had on Greg throughout his three decades of service.
Greg Engle is not only the Country Director for Peace Corps/Ethiopia, but also a singer/songwriter with a “rough voice,” a humanitarian, and a gentle soul. He most certainly has had a great effect in all those countries in which he served, and like in his song, A Simple Prayer, his lasting effect in Ethiopia will be to “leave this place better than before.”