What Goes Around Comes Around
Ethiopia Through the Eyes of the Son of Peace Corps Volunteers
by Christopher Tombari — son of Marty Tombari (Gidole 66–68) and Carol Sue Tarbox (Dessie 67–68)
I LOOK OUT THE WINDOW on the sun rising through the early-morning mist as our Ethiopian Airlines flight descends toward Addis Ababa International Airport, and I think, “Some kind of karmic wheel has come full circle.” I recall being told by each of my parents that they experienced a similar misty — but perhaps more mysterious and foreboding — introduction to the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine” almost fifty years ago.
I’m arriving in the country where my parents met. I have to say that I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Ethiopia . . . I think I’ll have to mention that at some point!
When my parents, Marty Tombari and Carol Sue Tarbox, entered the Peace Corps in 1966 and 1967 to volunteer in Ethiopia, marriage was not the motivation. Rather, they were inspired by President Kennedy’s call for Americans to work toward the greater good through peaceful means. Certainly those two individuals could not have foreseen that they would find each other, and that their first-born son would follow their Peace Corps path almost thirty years later.
Growing up, my first understanding of Ethiopia revolved around dramatic stories of the jungle, flooded rivers, abandoned Range Rovers, strange and unsettling food, and a backpack permanently pierced by the fangs of an unseen snake one pitch-black night in the jungle. Dad spun tales of his work in the village of Gidole (near Arba Minch) in a sensational fashion designed to entertain his young son.
Thus, I was not motivated to join Peace Corps at an early age.
As I grew up and heard more about my parents’ actual work, I started to pay attention. My father organized community development projects, and my mother taught EFL in Dessie. The details of their projects, especially teaching, sparked my interest. Within two months after graduating from college, I was on my way to Mongolia where, for two years, I taught English and trained former Russian language instructors to become EFL teachers as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I also took my 12-string guitar, which I left behind when I returned home, and joined a small local band.
Now that karmic wheel has come around. Here I am, almost twenty years after my PC service in Mongolia, traveling to Ethiopia — the site of my parents’ PC experiences.
So how does the son of returned Peace Corps/Ethiopia Volunteers, and an RPCV himself, come to travel to the country where his parents met? I am part of an official delegation from the city of Aurora, Colorado, visiting our Sister City, Adama (known to my parents as Nazret). I am the only one in the 19-person delegation who is neither affiliated with the city government nor an Ethiopian ex-pat. My job as Department Chair of the College Preparatory ESL program at the Community College of Aurora means, in a sense, that I represent the educational interests of the city.
I quickly learn that traveling in an official delegation is the antithesis of the Peace Corps experience. We get the celebrity treatment and travel in a five-vehicle caravan, complete with TV camera crew — a far cry from the garis my parents hailed back in their time. Moreover, we are not there to “teach a man to fish” — our hosts want investment.
What is reminiscent of my Peace Corps experience, however, is that in this short time, I am working my tail off to make a respectful impression — this time, by mastering polite phrases and greetings in Oromo. My efforts, including correct pronunciation and inflection of “oh, really?” elicit sympathetic smiles and laughter, whether from elementary students or village elders. The mayor of Adama encourages our delegation to call Adama our “second home.” And that line about giving the country of Ethiopia credit for my existence — it goes over very well in speeches and other formal introductions.
I’ve heard it time and time again: “Africa changes you.” But it’s not just Africa; it happened to me in Mongolia as well. Any place where you connect with people is a place that changes you. You feel like you belong in a place and with people you didn’t even know existed a few short days earlier. At the invitation of our hosts at a cultural banquet I borrow a guitar from a member of a local band, and accompany our delegation as it leads a crowd of Ethiopians in an exuberant rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”
After a whirlwind six days, we return to the Addis Ababa airport for our return flight on a luxurious Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner. I look forward to the genuinely “friendly” skies of Ethiopian Airlines and think that airline companies in the U.S. could learn a thing or two about customer care.
Then I spy workers restoring an old DC-10. It looks just like the one that formed the backdrop in an old family photo featuring my much younger-looking parents. I capture the moment with my smart phone and message my mom: “Hey, isn’t that the Vomit Comet?”