A Tale of Two Cities
Library Projects Prompt a Return to Ethiopia
and offer an opportunity to experience diverse transportation modes
by Janet Lee, (Emdeber 1974–76)
Having taken advantage of an opportunity to visit Kenya this past summer with a Regis University colleague, I traveled through Ethiopia on my return home with two goals in mind.
I especially wanted to connect with a University of Denver colleague, who had been on sabbatical since January and was teaching at the Adama Science and Technology University. We are both librarians and library projects were the focus of my trip.
I also wanted to visit the site that will benefit from the RPCV Legacy Program project that I am championing.
As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer/Ethiopia from the 1970s, I have seen many changes on recent visits. The most striking change on this visit was the express/tollway (40 Birr each way) from Addis Ababa to Adama — which I knew as Nazaret.
As we approached Adama my colleague and I were met by a wind farm of 50 to 100 wind turbines that supplies this region with much needed electrical power.
It was remarkable to travel 80 km per hour on the freeway unrestricted by traffic, donkey carts or herds of cattle. It was also remarkable to see the heavy influence of Chinese investment in the infrastructure. Railway tracks that would guide trains to Djibouti were visible nearby, running parallel to the abandoned Ethio-Djibouti Railway originally built by the French between 1894 and 1917. I clearly remember traveling to Dire Dawa by train as if it were yesterday.
My main form of transportation in Adama (and later in Axum) was by bajaj, the three wheeled mini-taxis that inexpensively take people from place to place.
Back to Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa is still a bustling city and traffic jams impeded movement in many areas. Some routes were surprisingly free from congestion, although two very serious mini-bus accidents did give me pause on my first full day in Addis. I watched in curiosity as a man, most likely the driver of one mini-van, was waving his arms in the air and then clasping his head in disbelief that this could happen to him. The other van was a charred mess, although there was no evidence that anyone was seriously hurt.
A few years ago, I navigated mud paths that circumnavigated rising railroad trestles around Meskel Square that would soon support the rails of the first electric light-rail to operate in a city in sub-Saharan Africa. On this visit I could see the train overhead carrying passengers on one of the two lines that run through the city. My time was limited in Addis and other circumstances prevented me from having an opportunity to take a ride on the train, although it was on my list of things to do.
A side trip to Adwa
After having flown to Axum from Addis, we took a mini-van to Adwa to visit Rick (Addis Alem 68-70; Training 72-75) and Elizabeth Stoner’s cultural museum project (see Rick’s article in the last issue of The Herald “Old Adwa Cultural Museum.”
I sat in one of the front row seats of the mini-van and could clearly see the scenery along the winding mountain road to Adwa, not too unlike the steep curves of the mountains in my home state of Colorado. Adwa is a historic spot and I expected to see monuments and statues, but did not. It is no wonder that Rick and Elizabeth have taken on this tribute to history. My companion and I walked along the dusty streets with beautiful mountain peaks in the background.
We took a shortcut that led us down a steep path where we rock-hopped across a river (my years of experience in Colorado coming to my aid) and up another steep river bank to the cultural museum. Rick and Elizabeth have made great headway on this project and it is worth a visit if you are in the area.
Back to Axum
On the return trip to Axum, the only available seat was in the back row, next to the window, as far from the door as possible. Visions of the charred mini-bus in Addis kept going through my head. I looked at the windows, planning my escape route should the bus roll over one of the steep banks. No amount of rationalization about the number of people who take this trip daily could calm my nerves. Opening the window and getting fresh air did help and obviously I did make it back to Axum safely and live to tell the tale.
Not surprisingly, that was not to be the last of my transportation issues. I knew better than to schedule my in-country flights too closely with my flight back to the States. Previously I had flown on flights that circled my destination only to return to Addis due to weather. Likewise, I have been stranded at that same airport hearing my in-coming plane circle overhead only to return to its origin. My flight to the U.S. was scheduled for late on Sunday and taking no chances I planned to fly to Addis on Saturday. You guessed it. My flight to Addis was cancelled.
After a series of checks and double checks with the one airport employee who spoke some English, I was assured that there would be an announcement if there were problems. And indeed there was an announcement in Tigrigna, Amharic, and English. Unfortunately, with the reverberations of the sound system and the speakers in the waiting area, the only word I understood in any language was “cancelled.” I was the only ferengi at the airport and I could feel all eyes on me. As I searched for the English-speaking staff member, a man approached me to explain the situation in perfect English. I asked if he was a passenger and he answered, “No, I am the announcer!” I knew I was in good hands. He even arranged for transportation back to my hotel, where there was an available room. A flight did eventually leave Axum on Sunday.
Back in Addis
I had booked a room in Addis for Saturday night and had made appointments to meet a number of people on Sunday, including my Denver colleague whose suitcase I was to bring back home. Due to the unrest and demonstrations against the government, both mobile phone and Internet services had been shut down for about four days. I was unable to reach anyone to warn of my delay. Some took the chance and showed up at my hotel.
I discovered later that a number of in-country Peace Corps Volunteers were consolidated during this time period, with some being unable to return to their sites. Some were able to take it in stride. For those PCVs who were not able to say “good-bye” to their colleagues in their towns, it was a much more heartbreaking situation.
Accomplishing my goals
Despite all of this, was my trip to Ethiopia fruitful? Did I visit the library programs that I had come to see? Absolutely! It couldn’t have been better. I met with the Library Director of the Adama Science and Technology University as well as visited with the staff of three of the public libraries there (see Aurora Sister Cities International/Adama Ethiopia). The ASTU Director and I are looking at opportunities to present or publish together, most likely at the African Public Library Association conference in Addis Ababa in May 2017.
In Axum, I visited the University of Aksum Libraries and toured the traditional bricks and mortar library that held study spaces and of all things, books! Then off to the workspace of the Digital Library to meet the staff and get progress reports on both their institutional repository and online catalog. Three years ago, I was told that the online catalog had met its demise due to a virus. On this visit, the IT person had just successfully downloaded open source software that would be the backbone of the new online catalog with the help of a series of YouTube videos. Now the real work begins. It was during the demonstration of the institutional repository that I was truly humbled, as a library staff member pulled the business card from his wallet that I had given him three years ago. I know that I will return.
The ultimate purpose
The focus of this trip was to get a progress report on the Axumite Heritage Foundation Library and Cultural Center in Axum. Three years ago, the building was a shell of cinder blocks and concrete. One could make out the accessible ramp and the stairwell, but little more. On this visit, I met with the foreman of the construction company and the building took my breath away. Although not complete, every small detail was thought out: the marble flooring, windows, stairwells, doors, and natural lighting. The building is a sight to behold. This visit is more fully described in a library-related blog: Axumite Heritage Foundation and Cultural Center.
E&E RPCVs has approved a Legacy Project related to this building, the Axum Children’s Library Enhancement. Of the goal of $10,000 approved by the E&ERPCVs board, Dwight Sullivan (Yergalem, Dodola 70-72) and I have raised nearly $3,000 toward our goal, thanks in large part to fellow RPCVs. If you would like to support this project, more information can be found at: Legacy Project: Axum Children’s Library Project.
Checks may be sent to:
Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs
c/o Randy Marcus
1634 Martha Terrace
Rockville MD 20852-4134
Make out your check to “Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs,” and in the subject line enter “Axum Children’s Library.” Please include your email address so that we can send you a tax receipt.
Libraries in Ethiopia are faced with many challenges including the lack of training, professional status, library education, and general infrastructure. Yet, everywhere that I visited, there was optimism among the staff for the future and a drive to improve their skills and better serve their constituency.