by Alma Toroian Raymond (Dabat, Addis Ababa, Asmara 67–69)
We started looking for Nasser, our former student in Ethiopia, in July 2008 after we discovered on the Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs’ website a listing of other Volunteers in Dabat, the town where we served. We located one of those Volunteers in Columbus, Ohio after entering his name in a Google search and finding a church bulletin announcing that he and his wife would be addressing the congregation regarding their work in Dabat, Ethiopia, our teaching site.
Bill Hershey (Dabat 68–70) answered my first email and put us in touch with one of his former Dabat students, Abraham Dere Beyene, who was living in Atlanta. Abraham remembered us from our days in Dabat and said he would attempt to find Nasser.
On Christmas Eve of 2008, we received a letter from Abraham with an email address for a Nasser M. Kutabish. To ensure that this was indeed our former student, I sent Nasser a photo of the girls in his 8th grade class on December 26th, and asked him to tell me their names and how they were at the time he last saw them. The following morning, I went to my email as usual and was astounded to find an email from Nasser. He was elated to have heard from us, had all the right answers about the girls, and remembered the words to the songs my husband, Doug, had taught in music class. Nasser also included a photo of himself along with his excellent 8th grade final exam scores. It was the best Christmas present that we had ever received. We were all overjoyed at finding each other.
Arriving in Ethiopia
The first time Doug and I flew into Ethiopia was in 1967 on a Pan Am plane loaded with fresh Peace Corps recruits. This time it was 2012 with an Ethiopian Airlines plane loaded with 100 Returned Volunteers who were returning to Ethiopia in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first Volunteers in Ethiopia. I recall having seen the Nile from my window seat in 1967. I didn’t see the Nile on this trip, but it was obvious that we were flying over Ethiopia — the view of the countryside revealed cultivated fields, green land, villages with some farm buildings and an occasional mud and stick tukul.
We passed over the Simien Mountains of Northern Ethiopia. There were farms on every plateau, each separated from others by thousands of feet of rugged canyons. I could only imagine how difficult it would be to take crops to market or to visit anyone from the next plateau. I recalled that Ethiopians call across great distances to greet neighbors or share information.
Upon landing in Addis Ababa in the daytime, we were met by Peace Corps/Ethiopia Country Director Greg Engle, the press and diplomats. Ethiopian coffee was served along with other refreshments as speeches were made welcoming our arrival. I was in a daze.
Anxious to find Nasser and his wife Zekia, who had traveled together from Yemen to meet us and to spend the next two weeks with us, we left the reception and walked to the front of the airport to see if they were waiting for us inside near the ticketing and arrivals desks. The front doors of the airport were locked and nobody was allowed to enter despite it being in the middle of the day. We rattled doors until it was confirmed that we could not go inside. Then we saw a couple in the distance with bouquets of yellow Meskal flowers hurrying from the parking lot toward the airport. We hadn’t seen Nasser in 45 years, but he was totally recognizable. We had a wonderful reunion and met his beautiful wife Zekia for the first time.
From that moment, our Ethiopian adventure began.
Our first days in Ethiopia
It was 45 years ago when we said farewell to Nasser as we boarded a bus and left Dabat. During the Red Terror — that began in the mid-’70s — his father moved the family for their safety to Sana’a, Yemen from which their ancestors had emigrated. Now Nasser is a successful businessman, has a wonderful wife, and is the patriarch of a large family.
Nasser had hired a van with a driver named Hailu who always kept the van nearby where he waited, cell phone in hand, for a call from Nasser. Hailu drove us from the airport to the very impressive Radisson Blu Hotel in Addis. The lobby of the Radisson was resonant with the joy of newly arrived former Peace Corps Volunteers visiting with their former students — mere teenagers the last time we had seen them.
We had arrived in Addis at the beginning of the major holiday called Meskerem, and thousands of Ethiopians were out wearing their very best for to celebrate the holiday, and carrying yellow Meskal flowers and tapers to light against the dark. The crowd made its way to Meskal Square not far from where we were staying. There were groups in colorful dress, singing and marching to the beat of large drums as they proceeded to the square where a giant bonfire had been erected and would be set aflame at the climax of the ceremony.
Nasser took us to lunch at the home of Semunesh Demetros. She remembered being in my English class when she was a young girl. Now she is a diplomat who was about to leave for Geneva to work on getting Ethiopia into the World Trade Organization. In addition to Nasser and Zekia, others in attendance at the lunch were: Nasser’s brother Hussein, Bizu Ayane, Fasil Assefa, Senat Assefa and Getanet Berhane. These were among the many of our former students who have become successful in business as adults. They attributed their success to having met us all those years ago. When questioned about this, they said it was because our presence in Ethiopia showed them something different, and they realized that they could do something different, too. Some of them are diplomats; many of them such as Nasser are wealthy businessmen and women. One student had been a jet pilot for the Ethiopian Air Force. During the Red Terror, he was assigned to fly over and bomb the region that contained Dabat. Rather than bomb his hometown, he flew on to Saudi Arabia where he landed and announced his defection.
There is a general sense of upward mobility in Addis Ababa, with high-rise buildings being erected all around the city, as in other large cities we visited. Everything had changed so much that it was difficult if not impossible to find the two houses that we lived in when we were there in the ’60s. We were able to find the building where the Peace Corps office had been located, and across the street, we found the former International Hotel where Peace Corps Volunteers stationed outside Addis often stayed when in the city.
Travel to Gondar & Beyond
As we traveled, we witnessed Chinese road workers widening and rebuilding the road that goes north from Gondar to the border with Eritrea. The difficult terrain made progress slow. The pavement disappeared a short way out of Gondar and was replaced by rocks that looked like they were destined to serve as a base that later would be covered with asphalt. The countryside was green, and droves of people were walking with donkeys and sometimes horses or mules on their way to or from markets and churches. These multitudes were not in existence when we lived there. In those days, we would see only a handful of people along the road. The rocky ride was jolting at times, and such it was as we rolled into Dabat after so many years.
It is hard to describe the emotion we felt as we entered the town. Our house was the first thing we recognized, but it was much altered and there were people teeming around it reading postings on a bulletin board on the exposed wall. It seemed that the Chinese road project had claimed the front half of the house, exposing what had previously been an interior wall.
When we had come to Dabat in 1967, the house had been a roadhouse with a bar and rooms in back that were sublet. As Volunteers, we slept in a back room and the “bar” was our kitchen and living room. Some of our fellow teachers lived behind the big house and three teachers from the university in Asmara lived in another room adjacent to ours.
A round mud tukul with a grass roof in the back corner of our compound had housed the zebanya and his family. I felt sorry for the old guy. He was supposed to sit on the cold front porch all night with his gun. In the daytime, he would take a long-horned cow out to plow fields. When we left Dabat, Doug gave him a pair of shoes. Doug’s shoes were big enough to fit the fellow, and he was obviously delighted with the gift. We had never seen him wearing shoes before.
During this return visit, we found Dabat in many ways changed for the better, and in other ways not changed at all. There has been a population explosion all over the country [the current population in Ethiopia is 4 times what it was in the ’60s] and Dabat was not excluded from this startling growth. Technology had blossomed as well. Most adults in Ethiopia now have cell phones, including the citizens of the remote towns like Dabat. In addition to that, many have electricity for lights and widescreen TVs in their homes regardless of whether the homes are of modern construction or if they are roughly built of mud and stones.
We rolled slowly through town with children running alongside our van smiling and waving. Stopping near the old City Hall, we were amazed to see that it was still standing. The mayor and his entourage greeted us, shooed the children away and led us to his office in one end of the building. Apparently, the rest of the building was too dilapidated to be used. It was built by the Italians during their occupation in the 1930s. A small group of people anticipating our arrival greeted us, and then the Mayor and the Executive Director of the vocational school led us up a flight of stairs to his office and meeting room.
Walking Tour of the Schools
The mayor had a list of needs and was seeking associates to help with financing the projects. They needed school supplies, books and desks, and latrines. After the meeting, they took us on a tour of the schools. The old buildings that we taught in are still in use and it was hard to believe that we actually taught in those miserable little rooms that were more like small stables. I recall that some of the classrooms had dirt floors and the children sat on rocks or on the dirt. The Swedish Peace Corps came to Dabat while we were still teaching there and built a new school building. That building is still standing and is in use.
There are seven school buildings in the town now including the ones that we used in the 1960s. One of the new school buildings is a vocational school. We peered through the windows and saw desks in that building. The mayor is hoping for a library and books, for a staff room, and for more desks for some of the other buildings. In my opinion, what the Dabat schools most sorely lack is latrines for boys, girls and the staff. Studies have shown that girls, especially adolescent girls reaching puberty, stay in school longer if separate latrines are available to them, and I would like to help remedy this problem. Members of the Dabat Alumni Club (all former students of ours) are making a visit to Dabat to explore possible solutions, and will report back to all of us. They are brilliant and hardworking people who can always find something to laugh about. They were fun when they were our students and they are fun and hard working now. Perhaps I will be able to get some ideas of where to start when I learn from them what the costs might be. (See postscript for update).
While we were in Dabat, we made some house calls. The first was to visit Nasser’s relatives who hadn’t seen him since he was a boy. The relatives who remained in Ethiopia live in a mud and brick house in town. They were happy to see Nasser and to meet his wife. A cousin who grew up with Nasser arrived and collapsed in tears of joy at the sight of him. It was a sweet reunion and we were privileged to bear witness. A beautiful young woman made fresh coffee while squatting over a small brazier in a dimly lit corner of the living room. The fragrance was wonderful and her lovely, almond- shaped eyes were all we could see of her in the dark corner. We noted the presence of a widescreen color TV on the wall silently flashing color. There were electrical lighting fixtures and most everyone one had a cell phone.
Nasser and his friends have credited their success to having met us all those years ago. We would like to think that we did have a small role, but truth be known, it was Nasser himself who actually made the wise decisions and did the hard work. He is responsible not only for his success, but also for his very survival during those turbulent times. Many of his friends were killed and others survived by denouncing others. We are very proud to call this former student one of our dearest friends.
Through a referral from Greg Engle, we connected with Patrick Wozny of the American Embassy in Addis, who gave us hope for potential funding for the latrine project, and the Dabat Alumni Club prepared and submitted a proposal for the latrine project to the Embassy. We have just received notice from the American Embassy that our latrine project has been funded. This is a wonderful result of our return to Dabat.