My Return to Ethiopia: 54 years Later
by Douglas Mickelson, Ethiopia I
(Yirgalem, Sidamo, 1962-64, Ras Desta School )
I have followed the experiences of many of the RPCVs who returned to Ethiopia. As a member of Ethiopia I, 1962-64, I had always hoped to return and be one of those Volunteers who were able to visit and re-connect with their past experiences. As time went by, the window for returning seemed to close. I was unable, because of work commitments, to join the “Return to Ethiopia” group in September, 2012. At the time, I thought I had missed my only opportunity.
A return is possible
Upon my retirement on June 1, 2015, however, the opportunity and desire to return came together. My wife, Annette, who is not a Returned Volunteer, and I began to organize and plan a return trip. After researching various travel agencies that organized trips to Ethiopia, we selected Ghion Travel, an Addis-based travel agency with offices in Washington D.C. Our plan was to travel the northern historical route, the Omo Valley, and end our trip with a visit to Ras Desta School in Yirgalem, where I had been a teacher.
On a personal level, I was very fortunate that Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974–76), Editor of The Herald, had continued her work in Ethiopia in establishing libraries, and had worked with one of my former students, Yohannes Gebregeorgis. With her providing me Yohannes’ contact information, I followed up with him and we arranged to meet in Addis. Yohannes also had continued relationships with others who were in my grade 9C class at Ras Desta School.
So our journey began with huge amounts of excitement and enthusiasm. With the expert assistance and guidance of Ghion Travel, we visited Ethiopia, February 10 to 28, 2016.
And what a trip it was! I hope to share my experiences with you and to encourage those of you who have not yet returned, to make every effort to do so. For me, the return after 54 years was memorable.
Compared to a trip in a DC 6 that was 44-hours long in 1962, this time we flew in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2016, non-stop flight from Dulles to Addis, we arrived at Bole airport at 6:30 am, Friday, February 12. We proceeded through immigration and customs and walked out the door to a beautiful Addis morning. We were met by our driver who took us to the hotel.
On the way, I closed my eyes and took in the sounds and smells of the city. It seemed the same as over 50 years ago! Then, I opened my eyes and the changes were dramatic. From construction sites, to automobile traffic, to light rail, to crowds of people, Addis was a different city. Blue and white taxis were still there, but they were no longer Fiats! Juxtaposed with trucks and cars, horse-drawn buggies still shared the streets. The contrast and similarities of 2015 with 1962 continued throughout our trip.
Yohannes met us at the hotel and we spent time with him. He had arranged to have us meet with six of my former students in the afternoon. He also arranged to have Brannon Brewer, Peace Corps Country Director join us. Later, two more former students joined us. What a time we had!
When I walked in, almost in unison, they stated that I had shrunk! I had to remind them that they were 15 at the time and had not yet grown up! I had sent pictures to Yohannes of the 9C class, which had generated huge excitement among the group.
We reminisced, shared life stories, and talked about our journeys.
It is interesting what they remembered. They all cited their positive experiences in my classroom and how I had influenced them. Specifically, they remembered three things: I was their homeroom teacher. I introduced them to American short stories; they still remember and enjoy them. Their favorites were “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle.” By far, their favorite was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” And finally, they remembered hula hoops! Does anyone remember how we were able to get them?
The achievements of this group of Ras Desta alumni, given the adversity they experienced, are remarkable. From being a refugee and escaping through Sudan and then to the US, to being jailed and surviving two years before being released when the regime changed, to surviving the difficult years of the Dirge.
The journeys of this group are testament to their determination and commitment to Ethiopia. Particularly noteworthy are the achievements of General Kassaye Chemada who was recognized as an Ethiopian war hero and honored in Washington D.C., 2009. These students came from remote villages; some from over 350 kilometers, to begin 9th grade in Yirgalem. Ras Desta was the only secondary school in Sidamo at that time. They lived in small groups in single rooms with a single light bulb hanging from the rafters. Electricity was only available from 6:00 pm – midnight. Their learning conditions were stark yet they succeeded! In an earlier 2008 article in The Herald, I noted that the students were remarkable by their motivation, desire, and commitment to Ethiopia. They were/are an impressive group.
When the time came to leave, there was sadness and joy. Yohannes mentioned that there were other former Ras Desta Students who were not able to make it.
Those who heard of our visit and were unable to come were really sad. Those who came were so excited they would not stop talking about it. Me, too! For me, it was one of the most memorable experiences I have had. It was amazing to hear their stories and to describe the importance and impact we Peace Corps Volunteers had on their lives. I am so proud to have been a part of their journey.
Seeing the country
After these rewarding and emotional events, we proceeded with the rest of our trip on to the northern historical route. This trip also brought back memories. During the summer of 1963, Bob Savage, Debra Berhan, and I were assigned the task of conducting an inventory of the Ministry of Education bookstores in this area. We had a Land Rover and spent six weeks traveling and working from Bahr Dar, to Gondar, Axum, Adowa, and Asmara. At the time, Lalibela was not accessible by motor vehicles. Now, there is a significant amount of road construction underway and access to the historical sites is improving dramatically.
The next leg of our trip took us to the Omo Valley from Addis via Toyota Land Cruiser. We covered over a thousand miles in our journey to the south. It was a part of Ethiopia I had not visited. The area is very different from the north; there are many more tribes, cultures, and languages. More than any other area of Ethiopia, time seems to have stood still. I’m sure that much of the peoples’ lives have not changed significantly in the past 100 years. It is a fascinating part of the country.
The final leg of our trip was to Lake Awassa, now a large resort city, where we stayed and used as our base to visit Yirgalem. I had brought along pictures of the single restaurant in Awassa where our group spent New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1963. The staff at the reception desk was thrilled. They couldn’t believe it. Most of them were born in the early 1990s and the changes at Awassa were part of their lives.
Finally to see Yirgalem
I barely recognized the countryside along the 45-kilometer trip from Awassa to Yirgalem. Before, hardly any people; today, lots of people. The road is lined with shops and vendors. Local artifacts, fruit and food are on sale. If I had been driving, I would have missed the turn off to Yirgalem. While I had expected change, I was stunned by how dramatic the population had increased. This continued into Yirgalem. It had changed from a village to a city. We had to ask directions to the school. In 1962, Ras Desta was at the far eastern edge of Yirgalem; today, it just past the middle as the city has expanded eastward significantly.
We were directed to the school and changes were evident as we approached. Again, and this I expected, the school had expanded dramatically. It was in the same location, but there were many more buildings and students, and it is now an elementary school only. We walked to the school grounds and were directed to the Headmaster’s office. He was very interested in my early experiences and the Headmaster, it turns out, had a Peace Corps teacher when he was in 7th grade.
We then went on a tour of the school grounds. Students are the same the world-over. They crowded around us and wanted to know where we were from and what brought us to Ras Desta School. They were thrilled to hear of my experiences with Ras Desta students. Note the similarities between 1962 students and 2016 students.
The final task was to find my previous home in Yirgalem. There were six of us, all male Volunteers, assigned to Ras Desta School. No women were assigned to Yirgalem because of the distant location and concerns for their safety. We were assigned to two houses; a two bedroom house for two and a four bedroom house for four of us.
The Peace Corps provided us with a gas stove and kerosene powered refrigerator. We also had a hot water heater and running water. The Yirgalem water supply did have a central distribution system that provided water throughout the village for about six hours a day. Everything had to be boiled. We had a storage tank on the roof of the house that provided us with water. Electricity was available from 6:00 pm to midnight. Our “indoor bathroom” did have a shower, bath tub, and commode. The commode was connected to a deep hole in the ground in our back yard. The system did work, but I’m not sure of the long term consequences of the sanitary system. All in all, it was comfortable — or so it seems looking back over the 50+ years.
The house for 4 was just off the school grounds, so even after all this years Annette and I were able to identify the location. Much has changed as you can see in the photographs.
We concluded our Return to Ethiopia trip with our visit to Yirgalem. During our 2 ½ weeks in Ethiopia, we traveled by plane, van, and Toyota Land Cruiser and covered about 2,000 miles. We experienced modern Ethiopia in Addis and the unchanging people of southern Ethiopia. We met and discussed issues and trends of Ethiopia with many Ethiopians representing different sections and groups.
Wherever we went, I was asked what are the differences and changes I observed. By far, to me, the biggest change was in population growth. People, people, people everywhere. I was stunned by the growth along with the huge increase in traffic; Addis was unbelievable. And this is connected to another significant change; construction of roads and buildings. The Chinese have a large presence, particularly in the countryside in updating and paving the roads. There has also been a very noticeable and dramatic increase in the construction of mosques. Many Ethiopians expressed concerns about the impact of the expansion of Islam on the identity of Ethiopia as a Christian nation. The other major change was the explosion in the number of schools — from elementary schools to universities. In Gondar, for example, the university was expanding to accommodate over 25,000 students.
Ethiopia is changing and is confronting the increase in population, improving the nation’s infrastructure, and strengthening schools. Interestingly, many expressed concerns about the decline in the quality of education since the time of Haile Selassie. It’s the same issue we are experiencing in the U.S.: access vs. quality.
According to the “Peace Corps/Ethiopia Annual Report 2015,” since 1962, nearly 4,000 Volunteers have served in Ethiopia in education, community development, business development, agriculture, and health. Today, nearly 250 Volunteers are serving in Ethiopia and play a significant role in the country’s development. I am proud to have been a part of the first group of Volunteers to serve in Ethiopia and wish the current Volunteers the best in their journey and continued development.
On our very long flight home and since our return, my wife and I have discussed and shared our experiences and the impact of my Peace Corps Volunteer experiences over 50 years ago. It seems almost surreal. The trip, more than anything, confirmed my deep appreciation for my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Ethiopia will always remain in my heart. It was a life changing experience for me.