Returning Home to Ethiopia
by Charles Kreiman (Assella 1968–70)
Late afternoon, our last day in Assella, trying to find the place I had called “home” 43 years earlier.
My home had been in the same compound with Zewde, the music teacher. Belihu our guide, a retired teacher, had been an 8th grade student and bass drum player in 1968. I drew a rough map from memory, the arc of the main road, now paved, turning east at the center of town, up the hill to the school, formerly Ras Darge, now renamed Chilalo Terara. On the map, I placed my home just north of the main road and down the hill from school. Belihu suggested that Tadesse, the retired woodworking teacher who lived a short distance away, might recall where Zewde had lived.
A knock at the gate, exchange of greetings, smiles, an invitation to come in. Tadesse seemed vaguely familiar; obviously elderly now, with only a few teeth remaining, but still animated and welcoming. In the large main room were his wife, daughter, and grandchildren. An offer of tea, more discussion. Graciously, Tadesse’s daughter agreed to join us, directing our driver Afera to go a short distance and then stop at an intersection. Tadesse’s daughter approached a gate and knocked. Again, the greetings, smiles, discussion.
Yes, they agreed, this had been Zewde’s house some 25 years ago although the street looked a bit different from the picture I had taken long ago. A crowd gathered; curious youngsters of course, along with some older folks as well. I explained, “Ine bi Assella astamari c’ arba tsost amet bifeet nebrku. [I was a teacher in Assella 43 years ago.]” (I recalled the words, but I’d never really mastered Amharic sentence structure or verb conjugation). Out of the crowd one woman came forward; she must have been about 10 or 11 when I was there. She recalled that a foreign teacher had lived on this street. I took out a picture of me from 1969. Looking at me and the picture, she nodded, now sure that I was the one she remembered.
Another woman stepped forward. “Which one was your house?” she asked. Replying that it had been at the back of the compound, she led me through a gap in the fence, down the path, and there it was, remodeled now into a two-family structure. But, yes, this was the place that had been my home. I snapped a picture and the flash lit up the scene. So, on my next-to-last day in Ethiopia, I guess I truly had returned home.
Assella was the last leg of three weeks in Africa, mostly in Ethiopia. I was fulfilling a dream of returning, an urge to reconnect, an unquenched curiosity about what was there now, who was there now, and how were they doing. As Peace Corps teachers, we had struggled in our own minds and in our discussions with doubts about our purpose, our impact: Useful? Beneficial? Positive? Negative? I think we had one answer, when a man joined us on that street corner in Assella, recalling with pride that Mr. Bass (Ethiopia VII math teacher Bob Bass) had brought bread to the striking students camped on the outskirts of town. I hope that Bob’s wife Bette (Ethiopia VII science teacher) takes comfort that her late husband, the ringleader of our group of strike supporters, is still remembered fondly by at least one former student.
As many RPCVs have discovered, Ethiopia somehow maintains its hold on you. For me, it was an enduring influence both personally and professionally. Once stability returned to Ethiopia in the 1990s a return trip was a dream for me, yet remained unrealized by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I’ll admit some envy as I learned of others who had gone back. Reconnecting with Ethiopia X’s at the 50th Reunion, the idea of making the trip to Ethiopia came was discussed. Although joining the September 2012 “Return to Ethiopia” trip was out of the question for me, I continued my connection with Ethiopia through the Denver-Axum Sister Cities Committee.
August 2012 – After my wife picked me up at the Denver airport upon returning from a business trip, we went directly to a Sister Cities meeting at an Ethiopian restaurant. When plans for a trip to Axum came up on the agenda, I announce that my wife Ellen and I were committed to be the first names on the list. Recent events had resolved those seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and I was eager to recruit as many Ethiopia X’s as possible to join local Sister Cities folks for the 2013 trip to Ethiopia.
October 2013 – The Denver-Axum Sister Cities delegation, a group of 10 on Ethiopian Airline flight 501, flew nonstop from Washington/Dulles to Addis Ababa, having successfully solved the logistics of bringing along 8 boxes of Project CURE medical supplies for St. Mary’s Hospital in Axum. In the end the only other Ethiopia X to make the trip was Ninian Beall (Wollamo Sodo). Once we arrived in Addis Ababa, visited major sites, and recovered from jet lag, our group embarked on the traditional “Historic Tour,” with some extra time planned in our Sister City of Axum, under the guidance of Assefa, an engaging, knowledgeable, and thoughtful young man from our Ethiopian travel agency.
As we experienced Ethiopia in 2013, I sensed that Ninian and I reacted a bit differently from the others in our group. This was our second time around. Even after more than 40 years, the people, the streets, the smells, the chika bets, triggered memories, a familiarity, a warm, even comfortable feeling. For the others, there seemed just a bit more wonder and amazement as they absorbed Ethiopia for the first time.
Taking in the sites and marvels along the Historic Tour made up for my omissions of the past. Peace Corps veterans had advised us newcomer Volunteers to vacation in Kenya and Tanzania for needed R&R. There were detailed guides about where to go, where to stay, and how to get around, by air, train, or car, including the best hitch hiking spots. It was indeed a great vacation, but I had missed so much of Ethiopia. This trip brought home the sense that Ethiopia was a place of substance, with a long history, tradition, and cultural depth. I did include a brief excursion to Tanzania on this trip, photographing the scenery and as many species of wildlife as possible. But Ethiopia was different; more than the obelisks at Axum, the castles of Gondar, or the churches at Yeha and Lalibela, it was a total experience, reinforcing my connection with the place and the people of Ethiopia.
Sharing some of my pictures with other RPCVs after we had returned to Denver, one commented that “things” look very different from what he remembered. My reaction was yes, “things” are very different today. The cell phone towers are everywhere. More rural areas are now connected to the electric grid. Combines now harvest the lush fields of Arsi (what we used to call “Arussi”). Addis Ababa is a mass of construction, new commercial and residential structures everywhere, a ring road, the beginnings of light rail. The road from Addis Ababa to Nazareth is a burgeoning commercial corridor, with numerous industrial sites and a “dry port” at Mojo bustling with trucks and shipping containers.
But these “things” while tangible and new, still seemed more of a surface change. Driving the newly re-constructed road from Bahir Dar to Gondar, one still must contend with laden donkeys, cattle, and sheep. Amidst new western style apartment blocks are endless numbers of chika bets with dirt floors and no glass windows. The deep-seated values of hospitality and kindness shined on the faces of the students who greeted us in Axum and Assella. Searching for my home in Assella, an impromptu crowd showed an almost instinctive helpfulness to a grey-haired ferengi who had been a teacher there 43 years earlier.
While in Addis Ababa I had the chance to walk from the Piazza to Arat Kilo, an area I had frequented during in-country training and on numerous weekend trips. It was another example of the juxtaposition of the old familiar and the new. As before, there were many jewelry shops, but some now featured more modern designs in the display windows. There were newer buildings in places, but many familiar sites, including the Greek Orthodox Church. As before, we ran into our share of street hustlers trying to sell their wares and beggars unabashedly requesting money. The International Hotel near Arat Kilo was still there, where we had spent many nights and enjoyed many cups of cappuccino, while across the street all I could find were unfamiliar university buildings where Peace Corps/Ethiopia Headquarters had once been.
As a historian and political scientist by training, I was struck by Ethiopia’s experiment in federalism. As PCVs in 1968, our formal language instruction had been limited to Amharic. In the name of national unity and identity, instruction in Tigrinya, Oromo, or other local languages had been strictly forbidden. Now elementary students in Assella learn in Oromo. Regional government bureaucracies flourish, helping to turn the formerly sleepy town of Nazareth into a regional center that is Ethiopia’s 3rd largest city. Yet there was questioning of how well all of this was working. At a hospital that needed a replacement commercial dryer, there was uncertainty whether funds for a new dryer would come from the regional government or the ministry in Addis Ababa; meanwhile sheets were spread on the grass to dry. Students who had their local language reinforced in school faced the challenge of taking national exams in Amharic. There were signs of regional jealousy in questions about the fairness and equity in the distribution of investment for infrastructure, business and industry. Gazing at massive memorials to those who had fought and died to oust Mengistu and the Derg, it was hard to find a sound rationale for such massive government spending for edifices while basic needs remain to be met.
I see a resemblance between Ethiopia’s efforts to find a national – regional balance with America’s continuing efforts to resolve federalist issues. The concept of a loyal opposition is not an easy one to accept or make work. News reports of Ethiopia include stories of arrest of political opponents and journalists who publish critical stories. Human rights advocates have been critical of government crackdowns and arrests. Ethiopia clearly has an ongoing challenge to achieve stability and growth while coping with internal tensions and less than friendly neighbors. While recognizing these shortcomings, I can still say I felt totally comfortable traveling around Ethiopia in 2013, even though it may seem inconsistent with my refusal on ethical grounds to set foot in Spain while Franco was in power.
This was truly a trip of a lifetime, expectations fulfilled, even exceeded, renewing and strengthening my connection to Ethiopia. For 2014, I will be serving as Chair of the Denver-Axum Sister Cities Committee, working on getting the sanitation truck we have purchased from Denver to Axum, among other activities. The full itinerary had left only brief moments to inquire about the fate of Ethiopian teachers and students I had known. So with my Ethiopian visa good for multiple entries over two years, I have good reasons for another trip to Ethiopia in the near future.