by Shayna Rosenblum (Frewyeini (Sincata) Tigray 2012–14)
I never remember my parents having to teach me to be brave. I was never afraid of the ball playing sports. In fact, I was a little too fearless at times. I gave speeches in front of the mayor when I was in elementary school. And I loved sleepaway camp — one month in the mountains alone without my parents. No one had to ever tell me not to be afraid of the ball or to speak louder or not to be homesick. This is who I was and in a sense foreshadowing who I would eventually become. But if you ask my parents they would tell you that I had a hard time with change and making the decision that would evoke that change. But now, I find myself in a pretty big period of change. Getting on that plane . . . making it real will be difficult. Like my childhood self I am a little hesitant for this change and to let go of this life abroad.
In a few days, I will land on U.S. soil for the first time in two and a half years. I have mixed emotions about my arrival stateside in a similar way that I had mixed emotions about leaving Ethiopia for good. If you ask most Volunteers, they would describe it as bittersweet, but that’s so predictable. Bittersweet is not how I would answer people when they ask the very very loaded and dreaded question “So, how was Ethiopia?” How do you answer such a thing? Over two years of things no one else can relate to. How do I speak these words in English nonetheless? “What has Ethiopia taught me?” or “How are you different?” would be better questions to ask a returned Volunteer. If you think you know about bravery I’d say I know more. I have been braver then anyone I know in America and that’s what Ethiopia is. It’s brave. I am brave. My fellow Volunteers are brave. My students are brave. My friends are brave. Sometimes, you have no choice but to be brave in the face of what Ethiopia is.
But even then, I couldn’t answer these questions. I would likely tell you a story instead. I was at a farmers market in New Mexico before I left. I was in a bad place. I had a bad year. This guy at the market went on and on about his cucumbers. I remember listening because of how proud he was. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I wish I was ever that proud of anything in my life.” My jealousy was apparent that he loved his cucumbers more than anything I had ever put work into. I always remember him because as I walked away he smiled and said “enjoy your moment.” It was powerful to me specifically at that time. So when people ask me about Ethiopia I’ll explain some of the moments that added up to make me . . . well, me, and how proud I am of what I’ve done. I am even more proud than the hippy man and his cucumbers.
Ask me about Ethiopia and I’ll tell you about a girl named Danyite (all names changed throughout) who has a skin pigmentation problem, and was removed from school. I desperately tried to get her back in school. I rubbed myself all over her skin to prove that it’s not contagious, and told the other kids how smart and cool she was. By the time I walked out of the village with my bag she was the queen of the block, organizing games and speaking better English than some of my co-workers. She returned to school and was ranked number 3 in her second grade class.
Ask me about Ethiopia and I’ll tell you about how Danyite was almost beaten to death by her mom. The way I waited one second too long to pull the breast-feeding mom (with a 3-day-old infant) away from kicking the girl’s head into the wall kind of haunts me. How am I different? I won’t wait. I won’t hesitate when I see bad things happen. I am braver than I once was. I’ll tell you of the way she loved stroking my arm, telling me how beautiful I am the same way I told her how beautiful she was every day. The way she disappeared for six months and everyone told me she was in the village. I was brave letting it go, moving on with my life and hoping that she was alive and safe. She arrived like magic one day like nothing happened and we picked up with her English right where we left off.
I’ll tell you about Haymanot, the outspoken teenage girl who stood up to bullies and adults who wouldn’t look at her burnt, scared face. She stood in class and corrected her teacher’s English with a slight slur because of her hanging lip. From that moment on I wanted to know her. A girl speaking up. A girl without fear whom the community shuns. She showed me what bravery is. I insisted on painting the nails on her deformed hand with nail polish one afternoon. I was just asking for the other hand like nothing was weird. I pretended like I didn’t see the strange shapes or the lack of nail and we smiled. I painted what I could. I ran my fingers across her skin one last time as I remember her shining at Camp and everyone voting her the “most inspirational” award. I advised her to continue her education. “Gobez iya” (I am awesome/smart), she said. We laughed.
I’ll tell you about my co-worker Mibratu who spoke four languages and loved to learn. He bought eight baby chickens with all of his savings. A big deal and an investment he told me one day. In his hand was a book titled How to Become Successful and Rich with a picture of a white guy in a suit on the front. “I have to try, Shay, right? I have to try and keep trying. I have a family, you know.” He later informed me that all but two of the chickens died. “I am in trouble,” he said. “That was all of my savings.” He spoke proudly at the school’s coffee ceremony, a monthly social program, reciting English phrases to impress me and teach the others. He sat next to me and whispered translations into my ear from the trivia game and became really excited when I knew the answers. Like I was a child and everyone was not equal. I got the first shot at the answer while everyone clapped for me. All he wanted from me was the promise that we could continue to practice English. He just wanted a simple letter from America. Maybe his family was hungry (teachers make $65 a month) but all he cared about was learning and keeping in touch. He’s so brave to be living in a place with little opportunity. But his spirit and smile I could never forget.
Or Hiwot and her daughter Merahawit. Hiwot never went to school and can’t read or write even in her native language. When she got a cell phone I watched her daughter help teach her to memorize the keypad. She did a “work for food” program building the roads carrying heavy rock day after day. “It’s work,” she’d say as if she wasn’t tired or her 90-pound body wasn’t sore. Week after week she’d give me some of the rice she earned. “No, no,” I’d protest, but she insisted.
Or Atsbaha whose parents both died (presumably from HIV) and he continued to smile as long as you didn’t talk about HIV education. He was the number one student in his grade 9 class this year.
Or Germanesh, who was in an arranged marriage at the age of 11. She had two children when her husband left her years ago. She works as a maid making $10 a month, but continues to make everyone smile and laugh when she comes around. She is somewhat of a class clown and a good friend. I learned her story just weeks before I left.
Or Getaneh, who was raised in the rural area, poor and hungry, whose town was bombed as he walked to school. He later worked as a soldier and then tried to escape through the desert to Sudan but was caught. He came to my door and often we’d stand outside and talk about philosophy for hours. Culturally not allowed to enter the home of the opposite sex, we stood and squatted for hours sometimes. One night he said, “Shay. I have a big question for you. I want to marry Frewyeini, but I don’t have money (dowry) to pay and her father said no. We made a plan. We will get pregnant so that he must say yes.” “Is that bad?” he asked. “I am not a bad person.” “Do you love her?” “Yes,” he said. “Then don’t let her go, and do whatever you need to. And no, I don’t think that you are a bad person.” A few months later, I was in their wedding, drinking beers with the groomsmen as we all got ready. A few months later, a week before the baby was born Getaneh was transferred for work and Frewyeini had to rely on neighbors to rush her to the clinic (I was also away at camp). Without power or a doctor she asked me for my blood type before I left afraid of bleeding out. And then, when the baby was born I walked with Frewyeini and the new-born out of the church in a procession through town for the christening. Getaneh was promoted at work and now runs the accounting department of a bank.
Or Weini. The brightest most interesting and impressive single Ethiopian woman I know. She’s a professor at the local university and is interested in talking about philosophy, religion and life. She’s adventurous and is up for anything new and exciting, which is rare for Ethiopians and women especially. She keeps up with us running and loved yoga when I taught it at summer camp. I left her my mat and some videos. She took us to where her family is from on the border as we hiked the mountainside and crossed bridges together and I felt sad that she couldn’t cross to America with me.
All of these people were examples of what perseverance and bravery really is. My acts of bravery came in the form of punching men in broad daylight for grabbing me. Or getting the community to rally around me when a man started to stalk me on my runs, in cafes, outside of my house and masturbated. I stood in a room full of men confronting the guy as my community asked, “Do you want us to kill him?” “No,” I said. “I just don’t want him to come near me.” Simply buying my food at the weekly market brought challenges. I had to go in, swat hands away from my breasts and argue over pennies for the right price. Snapping at them in their native language, “I heard you. You just told him 8 birr and now you are telling me 12.” “No,” I would say, walking away. Simply to eat, to buy my food took bravery and conviction. Getting on a bus was like a wrestling match or better yet a wrestling match within a mosh pit sometimes. Clutching my purse to my boobs, protecting both, I used my size as leverage and yelled at people when they didn’t let old women and moms with kids on first. “Balage (bad!)” I’d yell as men pushed the girls to the ground making space for them to get a seat. Running a double marathon in The Tigray Trek that was outright crazy. Something like 50 miles in two days. Who knew I could? But we were all brave those days, not thinking about the miles behind us just set on reaching the next town. The next week getting my wisdom teeth pulled wide awake digging my nails into the chair trying not to jump away. Gripping brave and strong because the people I was surrounded by daily were just that.
Ethiopia has been a whirlwind of experiences. Imagine if someone asked you for your life story, but really only wanted your two minute elevator speech. What would you say? I am thinking about that as I write this. And though I enjoy talking about Ethiopia it is also really difficult. Being brave maybe comes more naturally to some than others, but Ethiopia is another beast. Another level of assertiveness that I really never naturally had within me. Like saying “F*** you” takes a lot of energy for me. But Ethiopia taught me to say it and act like that at times for the sake of safety. And it taught me love for the sake of sanity and hope for the sake of simple survival. Ask another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer how they have changed and some from Ethiopia will tell you things like they have become meaner, less patient, and angry. But most will tell you that they have become braver and wiser and stronger than they ever thought possible.
I don’t know if anything has concluded. I am significantly more well read, more understanding of the world around me, meaning I know nothing with certainty. I am less afraid of anything, more curious and I stand “in the middle” or undecided on a lot of things that I once thought that I was certain of. I am neither a Republican nor Democrat, and after a passionate early 20s campaigning and protesting for or against things I once found important — I do not believe in politics with any conviction or certainty anymore. I am frustrated by systems that forget about “the people.”
My fervor is not for religion or politics. It’s for people, young people more specifically, my girls’ group for their openness to the world for change and their bravery because they have to stay there. Opinions matter, but they only matter if you can see, understand, and appreciate the other side. I do not believe in saving Africa or charity in the way westerners do. I will never give money to Africa, and avoid buying anything that claims to be a charity. I do not believe for a moment that Africa will progress on its own with western money. I believe in sustainability and empowering local people. I believe that kids will be that change for the next generation and I believe in deep friendship that cross all sectors, languages and religion.
“Yakanyalay, Tigray” and “Amaseganalo, Ethiopia.”
Epistles and Stories by RPCVs from Ethiopia
edited and facilitated by Alan Smith (Debre Marcos Group XVI 71–73)
Vocational trainer of new PCVs: Group XVII (Summer 1972) and Group XIX (Summer 1973)
I HOPE YOU FIND this sampling of stories and letters home as enjoyable and encouraging as I have. Every PCV from Ethiopia had similar experiences, no matter what their years of service. These and many more stories are chronicles that show life in Ethiopia during different time frames and with different challenges.
There were many struggles that had to be overcome or at least worked around to fulfill our desire to “do good” in the world.
- Many female Volunteers experienced harassment or disrespect because of a woman’s place in the culture.
- During the late ’60s and early ’70s males experienced the “draft dodger” or the CIA label especially during their travels.
- Contact with the outside world was by aerogrammes (small, blue, self-folding into its own envelope) that sometimes made it — and sometimes not. The best turnaround time for an exchange of communications from the U.S. was one month.
- Packages sent from the U.S. rarely made it intact.
- Phone calls — find a phone at a school? a post office? a suk? — were expensive and most often had to be made in Addis Ababa. If you were to receive a call at your site, some runner would need to track you down and you would go to the phone and hope that the party on the other end had not gone far.
- Looking for foreign foods? Cans and boxes could be purchased in Addis, put in a cardboard box, and be put under your feet on the bus back to your site.
- Let us not forget the cultural shocks — a public hanging in the market; the stoning of a person to drive them out of town . . .
Each era produced a unique set of obstacles to overcome so we could continue to work at our site. Some PCVs actually extended for one or more years.
Additional examples of stories can be found at E&E RPCVs’ Facebook page . Looking for a place to archive your letters and other memorabilia for posterity? Click here for further information about donating your materials to the Hoover Institution that is archiving materials from PCVs who served in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Inspired by these authors? Want to share here in The Herald? E-mail me at: email@example.com for further information.
by Charlie Ipcar (Addis Ababa 65-67, Ebdeber 67–68)
I remember when I was an advisor to the Science Club at the Technical School in Addis Ababa where I was a Peace Corps teacher, some students approached me one day requesting the formula for rocket fuel. I had experimented with small scale rockets in high school and imagined that they were working with a similar project. I dutifully looked the formula up in my old reference book Twentieth Century Formulas under “pyrotechnics” and ascertained that what they needed were equal parts of sulfur, carbon, and potassium nitrate, carefully mixed together.
The students went off happily to mix it up. I didn’t think much about it until they invited me for a test firing a short time later and I saw the six-cylinder rocket launcher they had built, each rocket being about a foot long and cast out of aluminum, with an electric firing mechanism. This was a technical school I reminded myself.
I would continue this story but I am probably boring people . . .
The multiple rocket launcher worked well in its initial test. The students aimed it up about 90 degrees, and fired off one rocket that sailed up about a 1,000 feet and came down in the soccer field.
The next weekend when Emperor Haile Selassie paid a visit (I actually got to bow to HIM), the students tried again. I was somewhat concerned that if there were an accident that I’d be shipped home within 24 hours, either in a box or strait-jacket. The Indian teacher who was the actual Science Club advisor was, if possible, even more surprised and concerned.
I was standing by with my camera, and everything went off perfectly well for a second time, except for my brown underwear.
One added benefit for the students was that the police from the barracks across from the school had also witnessed the rocket launching and for years never interfered with student demonstrations.
in the Ethiopian countryside
by Randolph Marcus (Asella, Arussi 66-1968)
These pictures depict a weekend I spent waaaaay out in the Ethiopian countryside in 1967 with the family of Teshome Worku, one of my students. The trip from Asella was a couple of hours by bus and then two or three hours by mule. The Worku family lived in a remote open plain, far from even the tiniest village. Their tukul was the only man-made structure for miles around. Being the guest of honor, I was given their only bed, a wooden frame with a straw mattress. The rest of the family slept on the floor along with several farm animals. They had a few head of cattle and some horses. I went horseback riding in the afternoon and promptly fell off as we galloped across the field. Fortunately, my only bruise was my ego. All in all, it was an eye-opening experience. Living and working in a small Ethiopian town like Asella was one thing. But this glimpse of life in the rural highlands really showed me the grit, dignity, and fortitude of the independent Ethiopian landholder. Unfortunately, the picture of me is not very sharp- but hey, there were no selfies in those days. Teshome took that shot.
The Field trip
by Michael O’Brien (Grawa 66-69)
I bought a pair of binoculars in East Africa and was using them to observe birds and a family of baboons that lived around the cliffs below Grawa. When I showed one of our students how they magnified the view they got all excited, told other kids about the cool science-thingy, and the next I knew we had to organize a science field trip. Here’s the group during the only organized moment of our expedition. Needless to say the birds and baboons vanished as we trooped out, but the kids had a good time. They liked science.
A Letter to my brother
at the end of training 1971 —Dira Dawa
by Alan Smith (Debre Marcos 71-73)
Today I sit on the porch in front of my room and write about what my eyes see. Standing with the background of mountains that seem miles away. They thrust up thousands of feet from the valley and are encased in a thin haze. As the breeze blows, the trees, flowers and grass sway. Upon this current a hawk glides, plunging towards the earth to recover the glide again. The blue of the sky is broken occasionally by the white of a cloud. Among all this beauty what do my eyes detect? The movement of one of nature’s strangest creations — Man — Homo Sapiens! Why is it that even in a culture that is known for its slow pace of life, man always seems to be on the move? With all man’s mastery of nature, why has he been unable to live in harmony with nature and his fellow kind? In my experiences here I have found answers to many questions only to find new and different question raised. I am still working on trying to imagine or find the type of life I would fit into.
Continuing – I never seem to finish a letter.
Let me get real, in letters to mom and dad I cannot always tell everything that is on my mind. My permanent site is a small town called Debre Marcos. It is the capitol of Gojjam province and is found at an altitude of 8,700 ft. It is like Goba (except they need a woodworking teacher not a business teacher), however there are not big mountains nearby just a high plateau. The school is two years old and there are adequate tools, both hand and machine, in USAID crates in a store room. The room and supplies will be adequate to teach (I should not have to ask many times for pencils). Only thing wrong with my new assignment is that I will, as before, be alone! This being alone scares the h**l out of me. However, I believe once I get there for good and make some friends, that this feeling will lessen.
Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia: The Story Behind the Story
by Hoyt Smith (Addis Ababa, 1962-65)
THERE ARE MANY REASONS why each of us chose to enter the Peace Corps in the early ’60s. I was sympathetic to the civil rights movement and I wanted to experience Africa while working on a Master’s Degree in Painting from the University of Tulsa. The Peace Corps seemed like a good way to accomplish this.
Having endured a rigorous training program, I soon found myself in Addis Ababa in John F. Kennedy’s first group of Ethiopia Peace Corps Volunteers in September 1962. Known as “Ethiopia I,” there were 277 Volunteer teachers, making it the largest Peace Corps group at the time ever to come to a single country. Because of my experience as a Publications Photographer for the University of Tulsa, I became the unofficial Peace Corps photographer for Harris Wofford, Peace Corps Country Director in Ethiopia, taking PR photos of visitors like Sargent Shriver, the first Director of the Peace Corps. I was so pleased with Peace Corps Ethiopia that I stayed a third year and established and developed a curriculum for a Mechanical Drawing Department at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa. I also set up a black and white photo lab there.
In addition to Peace Corps PR events, I liked to photograph people, places, and wildlife in Ethiopia, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Fortunately I had several occasions to photograph Emperor Haile Selassie: twice in the Jubilee Palace and again in 1965 at Jan Hoy Meadow, where he invited Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to watch a demonstration of the sport of Yeferas Guks, a spectacular display of horsemanship. A group of mounted warriors armed with shields lead off from a starting point and were followed by a second team of horsemen shortly thereafter throwing spears in mock battle. Both warriors and horsemen were bedecked in their finery. The warriors put on quite a show for photographers as well.
Both visits to the Jubilee Palace were special. During the first, the Emperor stood on the balcony of the Palace
and welcomed our group to Ethiopia soon after we arrived. Inside the palace, he served us wine and shook hands with our entire group. Photos 1B & 1C.
At Christmas, the Emperor invited PCVs in Addis back to his Palace for a party. I had been working on a pastel portrait of him to hang on the wall at my school. Harris Wofford got word of this and insisted I take my unfinished drawing along. Against my better judgment I complied and received a chance to speak with the Emperor personally about the unfinished portrait.
The third time I met the Emperor was at an International Art Exhibit in which I had one of my thesis paintings on display .
He seemed more impressed with my painting of an elderly Ethiopian priest.
THESE STORIES SERVE as background to the many opportunities I had to focus on photography in Ethiopia. I did not include most of these photos in my new photo book Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia: Revisited because the book is not about me or the Peace Corps, but rather about the people and places in Ethiopia.
During vacations I traveled to Ethiopia’s Historic Sites and captured how they appeared over 50 years ago. From grand castles and churches hewn out of rock, to the faithful who spent their days in prayer, I tried to capture the essence of this beautiful country.
After returning to the U.S., I had several Ethiopia photo exhibits and slide shows, providing me with both a chance to relive my experience and to share it with others. Many years later I decided it was a waste letting hundreds of photos lie around in boxes so I designed and had Apple print a 100-page coffee table photo book entitled Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia in the Early Days of the Peace Corps.
In 2012 my wife and I went to Ethiopia for the RPCV Reunion where I intended to supplement this book with changes we saw there. To my surprise we identified eight major areas of change and I brought back thousands of new digital photos. These categories of change include: Government, Population of Addis Ababa, Churches & Mosques, Trends & Fashion, Education, Construction, Ethiopian Airlines, and Countryside & Historic Sites. I changed the title of the book to Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia – Revisited and devoted the second half of the book to these changes. Not surprisingly, it now has doubled in size. I added a special black and white Ethiopian Portrait Gallery to the first half of the book.
Fortunately Theodore M. (Ted) Vestal,) Associate Director, Peace Corps Ethiopia, 1964–66), lives in my hometown of Tulsa. Among Ted’s many accomplishments are that he is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Oklahoma State University and is an author of several publications on Ethiopia including The Lion of Judah in the New World. I asked Ted if he would be my co-author by transferring my rough text to his elegant style, adding historical significance and getting my foot in the door with potential publishers.
Ted and I chose to self-publish a first edition of 250 soft cover books geared to Ethiopia RPCVs, 30 of which include the 2012 Ethiopia Reunion group photo taken in front of Emperor Haile Selassie’s old Jubilee Palace. A few of these remain. The books sell for $45 plus $7.10 for shipping by Express Mail. You may order from our website at http://www.ethiopiarevisit.com. This site gives you an overview of the book and payment information. Please read a review of the book by Alan Smith in this edition of The Herald.