You Can Go Home Again
A Return Visit to Emdeber
by David B. Levine (Emdeber 1964-66, PC/Ethiopia Staff 1967-70, Director, OPTC, PC/W 1977-81)
Fifty-two years ago, in early September 1964, my then wife, Nancy Langford, and I arrived in Emdeber as its first Peace Corps Volunteers. Our assignment was to add a secondary school unit – the first such in all of Gurage country – to its functioning elementary school. We were also PC/Ethiopia’s first “experiment” with a “remote location” – a euphemism for a post without year round transportation or telecommunication services, without water or electricity, and in this case, without prior Peace Corps vetting of the site. Why and how Emdeber became a Peace Corps site and how we managed to get ourselves selected for the assignment are part of a longer tale of the Gurage commitment to education.
Nancy and I started a 150+ student ninth grade, and were joined later that year by PCVs Jack Caraco (an Ethi II transfer from Addis), and Ethi IVs Phillipe LeBel and Kathy Moore. Jack completed his tour that year; Nancy and I the next, having opened the 10th grade; Phillipe and Kathy completed theirs, and Phillipe arranged a direct contract with the Ministry of Education to stay another two years to see the first 12th grade graduation.
The Gurage enthusiasm for education, the warmth, richness and welcoming nature of Gurage culture and its people, and Emdeber’s isolation from Addis Ababa, combined to make it an idyllic Peace Corps assignment for all of us.
Fast forward fifty years to this June.
I returned to Ethiopia after an absence of almost twenty years. While I’d been back as a PC/E staff member from 1967 to 1970 (during which time my son, Daniel, was born), and been able to return another few times, once during the Derg, and a couple of times in the 1990s, this trip was different. It was a family outing of myself, my wife Judith Katz, Daniel, his wife Marian, and our 16-year-old-granddaughter Morgan — a trip for which Daniel and Morgan had been lobbying for several years — to see Ethiopia “through my eyes.”
After a couple of days in Addis and the usual whirlwind tour of the Simien Mountains, Gondar, Lalibela, Axum and Harar, we were ready for the highlight of the trip: a two-day return to Emdeber and Gurage country. Through the efforts of Deneke Hailemariam, a longtime friend from Emdeber now living in New York, his brother Yakob Hailemariam, and Fikre Hugiane, a former head of the Gurage Development Authority, plans for our visit were formulated — and several surprises were arranged.
We left Addis early the morning of June 8th — two Land Cruisers, two drivers, Tariku (our Travel Ethiopia-provided guide for our entire Ethiopia stay), the five of us, and Ato Fikre. The drive took us first through what is now unending urbanization and the extension of Addis right through Alem Gena, and then through Tefki, Teji, Tullubollo, Wolisso, and Welkite, now with multi-story buildings and no longer merely the one road bus and truck stops they were. Overall, after a combination of familiar though expanded agricultural activity mixed with almost unrecognizable changes, we arrived at the Emdeber Secondary School.
Our visit was in many ways serendipitous. The Emdeber Secondary School has been planning 50th Anniversary celebrations, and the arrival of one of its founding teachers dovetailed well.
The school is now located on its own, separate campus, comprising several buildings of classrooms, a library and computer room, shinte bets and washrooms, and athletic fields. There is a staff of more than twenty — including women teachers, of whom there’d been none in the 1960s — and a population of over 1,000 students, with many more girls among them than in our day. Though the semester had officially ended early that morning, students had been asked to stay pending our arrival.
Woreda officials and school staff were introduced to us, the assembled students were called to order, we were introduced and a bit of our history reviewed, and speeches were made. In mine, I emphasized how the school had started because of the Gurage’s enthusiasm for education and willingness to push the system, and that their recognition of the 50th showed that enthusiasm was still there, and needed to be continued right through university.
We then toured the school, accompanied by a video team that stayed with us all day and at some point conducted a formal interview of me. We all then went to the old elementary school where the secondary unit had its roots, pointed out where the library and basketball court that we PCVs had built had been, and located the compound in which Nancy and I, and four students had lived. We all then proceeded to an Emdeber hotel at which a special luncheon had been arranged. The hotel had gotten out its finest Gurage pottery and baskets, and we had kitfo, ayb, goman, kotcho, injera, drinks, and of course good Gurage coffee. At the end of the meal, more speeches, gifts for each of the five of us, and a teary thank you from me.
When we’d first come to Emdeber in the 1960s, a major force for Gurage education and development, and a remarkable human being, was Abba Francois Markos, a Gurage Catholic priest who was then in his mid-fifties (he died in 1989). He presided over a large Catholic Mission — an impressive stone church, a group of Sisters, schooling in domestic crafts for young women, etc. He had remarkable relations with all — local community leaders and government officials, as well as leaders of the Muslim, Orthodox, and traditional religious communities. When we first arrived in Emdeber Nancy and I had stayed at the Mission for a few weeks while our house was being completed and relied heavily upon Abba for our introduction to the community. Phillipe and Abba developed a special and very close relationship. I firmly believe that much of early Gurage development and much of the education and launch of so many successful young Gurages can be traced to the efforts of this remarkable man.
The Mission remains an impressive compound, and now has a statue and small shrine to Abba Francois. The interior of the church is now as extraordinary as the interiors of any of Ethiopia’s more famous churches! Within the past couple of years, the entire interior has been repainted by an Addis Ababa church artist in a style best called contemporary-traditional. All the standard scenes – the Trinity, Mary, saints, heaven and hell – are represented, and familiarity with Ethiopia’s traditional church painting guides one through the myriad of representations. Some contemporary scenes have been included – even some with Abba Francois. The quality and comprehensiveness of the work should put this on the must-see list of anyone with a strong interest in Ethiopian church painting.
In 1964, Nancy and I hired a young woman, Tamra Mariam, as our housemaid. She’d been trained at the Mission and recommended by Abba. When I returned on PC staff, we brought her to Awassa and then Addis to work for us, and when Daniel was born, she was his mamita and carried him on her back for the first year of his life until we left Ethiopia. Tamra might have been any age from 15–30 then, and might be anything from 70–85 now — neither we nor she knew! We’d sent word that were she still alive we’d like to meet her at the Mission – and there she was. The reunions were sweet and powerful, with Daniel and Tamra’s being quite special. Again, there were lots of smiles and lots of tears.
As I still believe that the Gurages build the best houses in Ethiopia — maybe even Africa! I’d wanted us to visit one and take a close look at its remarkable construction. So, from the Mission, we continued to Ato Fikre’s saar bet in Gura, Cheha, perhaps a 15-minute drive on one of the many connecting roads within Gurage linking up the extensive network of now asphalted ones. What magnificent structures these houses still are! And many now have windows — an innovation for which the early Emdeber PCVs take credit (whether deserved or not!) — and some have small solar panels embedded in the thatch roofs: that was indeed a surprise. Ato Fikre has added a small rectangular house in his compound, with electricity and fuel generated by bio-energy — one of various innovations he’s introducing for community consideration. One piece of bad news regarding housing — thatch for roofing has become increasingly hard to obtain and expensive beyond most folks’ means. The days of the Gurage house may be numbered.
We returned to Welkite for the night, which was highlighted by a wonderful dinner at the home of one of my former students, Yoseph Hailemariam. His wife, Trunesh, prepared a multi-course meal for us, with all the Gurage trimmings. Yoseph is a retired teacher, living on a very modest government pension, and so the efforts they went through to welcome and feed all of us — my family, Ato Fikre, our guide and our drivers — was another indication of the lasting impact our years of service and the relationships we establish during them can have.
Early the next morning we visited Welkite University – a new institution not far from Welkite on the road to Agena. WU was established 5 years ago with 2,000 students; it now has 10,000 and is anticipating 20,000 by 2020. Located on a massive campus of 40 hectares, it will have its own water treatment and bio-energy generating plants, and incorporates quite extensive research, outreach and community engagement programs. It is one of 44 (!) universities now functioning throughout the country. The number and rate of expansion raise questions about teacher qualifications and quality of education: balancing demand, expansion and educational quality is clearly a challenge, and the question of what all those graduates will do has no good answers at this point.
We continued to Gubre, the highest part of Gurage country, and then down off the Zebider mountain escarpment to Butajira. This road, from Agena up, and then from Gubre to Butajira was built in the last 2-3 years, and is one of the most spectacular I’ve driven in Ethiopia. You start in the clouds and after uncountable switchbacks wind up several thousand feet lower. If you have the opportunity to make this drive, seize it! Butajira has a lovely service-oriented hotel, the Redeit Hotel, at which we had a delightful lunch, and then continued to our final stop at the edges of Gurage country — the Tiya stele, quite different, and likely older that the Axum stele — before returning to Addis.
In Conclusion . . .
To close, a few overall observations. Some of the differences — size, population, roads, water, electricity, numbers of both elementary and secondary schools, clinics and hospitals, Welkite University – are obvious and other than the surprise at actually seeing them, are to be expected. Yet even within these, the extent of the paved road network, both connecting all the sabat bet and linking them directly to Ambo, Hosanna and Butajira was a marvel. The growth of agriculture, whether in the almost ubiquitous small household plots for teff, wheat, etc., to supplement the ever present enset, or the large flower plantations we saw, was unanticipated by me, as of course were the roof top solar panels and the many water towers. Also unanticipated by me was the increased visibility of mosques and Muslim population. While the population was always there, it was often indistinguishable from the Christian and animist populations. Now, the number of head scarves, and the rarer but present bourkas, along with new mosques in virtually every town, make the Muslim presence clear.
More important is what hadn’t changed — the beauty of Gurage country, the warmth of its people, the continuity of tradition, whether in the look and feel of homesteads or the hunger for education and the desire for personal and communal improvement. That celebrating the 50th anniversary of the school should be important enough to demand over a year of planning, and the surprising seizing of our visit both to honor its origins and to provide an opportunity for documentation and preparation, was of course deeply personally touching, but also a manifestation of what we’ve always admired about the Gurage.
We’re left with wonderful memories, deep appreciation for Ato Fikre and all those who welcomed us, admiration for the continuing struggles of life in Ethiopia, and a suspicion that maybe you can go home again…