Ethiopian Peace Corps “Folks’ Tales”
By Joe Bell (Alamata 1969–71)
With apologies to Shlomo Bachrach (1939–2012) the author of the book Ethiopian Folktales that many of us know from our time in Ethiopia in the 1960s and ’70s, it seemed a convenient title for this collection of anecdotes from some of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who returned to Ethiopia September 24 – October 8, 2012. In preparing this essay, I learned that Shlomo, who was on PC/Ethiopia staff from 1966 to 1968, made Ethiopia his life’s work, the most recent years of which were devoted to producing an on-line news report – “East Africa Forum” – and to the effort to trademark Ethiopian coffee beans. I also learned that he passed on just as our return trip was being planned.
By way of introduction, the idea for a 2012 Peace Corps Volunteers’ reunion in Ethiopia first was announced at the 2011 Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps by Leo Cecchini who proposed the idea. Details for the trip were announced in March in a email to all those with addresses on our database. Articles in the Herald then provided the latest in travel details. Subsequently Marian Haley Beil created a Facebook page for “Ethiopia and Eritrea Returned Peace Corps Volunteers,” that enabled those going on the trip to exchange questions, advice, etc. (That page now continues for ALL E&E RPCVs and PCVs as an instant way to share our continuing reminiscences, reactions and thoughts of how we can continue to devote some part of our busy lives to the people we met there many decades ago, plus announcements of opportunities and other items of interest to those in the group. For months several Returned Volunteers devoted many hours to planning the trip for the rest of us. Leo Cecchini, Russ Misheloff, and Stephen Cristofar, were the main organizers and Darrel Hagberg, Marian and others helped with the effort.
My own involvement came way late in the process, almost too late to make the trip. But I did go and like most all of us, my life and consciousness have been once again deeply changed. This essay is a quick effort to collect and share the experiences and thoughts of those who reunited with other Volunteers, Ethiopian colleagues and former students and relived a transformative part of our lives.
The return trip had three phases: first, the months of planning, a gathering of the group at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the flight, a reception at the American Embassy, meeting current Volunteers and other group events in and around Addis Ababa. Second, the return trips to communities of service, historic sites and reunions with Ethiopian former students, families, friends and officials. Third, most of us returned to Addis Ababa to share stories and experiences at a final dinner before we gathered in the new International Terminal for the flight home on the Boeing Dreamliner. Sadly, no one was permitted to travel into any part of Eritrea due to the continuing, even if quiescent, conflict between the governments of these countries.
Before departing most of us gathered for injerra and wat and socializing at the Ethiopian Embassy on September 22, 2012. Including some American ‘sister city’ folks, there were about a hundred Americans aboard flight ET501 from Dulles to Bole Airport, arriving at 7:45 a.m. on September 24. Among those waiting to greet us at the VIP lounge, with frankincense and the coffee ceremony, were Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Ambassador Taye, American Ambassador Donald Booth and Peace Corps Director Gregory Engle.
- Following the audience with Ethiopian President Girma Wolde Giorgis at the Jubilee Palace
Thus began three days of non-stop events, both substantively serious and sublimely moving, including: a question and answer session with Ethiopian President Girma Wolde Giorgis at the Jubilee Palace; a conference on education with present day Ethiopian educators and Peace Corps Volunteers at the Kotebe College of Teacher Education; viewing a new documentary titled “The Peace Corps in Ethiopia;” Ambassador Booth’s reception for hundreds at the Roosevelt House on the embassy grounds; the Meskel Celebration; and Ethiopian food, music, dancing and singing at the Hiber Club. Then we split into various touring groups for visits around the country or to go to our other hometowns. Many took the “historic tour” as I did, flying to Bahar Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, Axum, Dire Dawa and Harar with side trips along the way.
Most of the anecdotes here are from the time we spent revisiting historic Ethiopia – searching for old friends, and distant changed places, seen again with new perspective.
The Shades of Green
Mary Myers-Bruckenstein (Addis Ababa 1968–70)
Yes, it’s Ethiopia. The hillsides are green in various shades as crops of corn, wheat and teff are growing. All the farmers are at work plowing their fields — still with oxen and wooden plows; no tractors seen on these fields. The homes are neat, one story tukuls, dotting both the hillsides and the roadways. The cattle are everywhere and they are well “rounded” too. The donkeys and goats follow in groups along the roadsides, being driven to market. In front of every home there seems to be a dog curled up asleep in front of the door.
Teff, wheat and other crops, held up in outstretched hands, are offered for sale by farmers along the roadside. The crop production was that good this year. The children play in little groups with smiling faces and gleaming white teeth. They are not afraid and they plead for money, a pen or a photo. This is a new generation, in a new time in a once simple land of farming cycles. They all will have to come to grips with the signs of modernity and other sights now lining the roadways: Chinese-built factories, wind turbines on the hillsides, paved roads being constructed by great gangs of workers, greenhouses, new construction in every town, as well as increasing traffic jams and noise, and an overlying sense of confusion.
Above Addis Ababa
Betty Hagberg (Debra Berhan/Addis Ababa 1964-66)
As our plane circled Addis Ababa before landing, I was astonished to see large groups of high rise buildings on the outskirts of the city. The government is building tens of thousands of condominium units in cities throughout the country. The days of tukuls and tin roofs in urban areas are beginning to fade. Poor and middle income families can participate in a lottery system for new housing. The winners get the opportunity to make a down payment and learn what it means to have a mortgage.
It Was the Trip of a Lifetime
Marvin Vinande (Nekempte/Nekmti 1963–65):
After 50 years, returning to Ethiopia was a very momentous undertaking. Health issues were a concern; my wife Aralynn and I debated for many months whether to undertake the journey. In fact, it was great from the minute we landed in Addis. Concerns seemed to vanish as we returned to the place that taught me so much. The landscape was green and the flowers were in bloom. It was hot but not a problem.
Two of my former students, Asfaw Abosse and Assebe Ergie, wearing suits and carrying flowers had waited in the main terminal for several hours but missed us as we were entered into the VIP lounge of the international terminal, but we had a very emotional reunion at our hotel. How could nearly fifty years have passed?
Two days later a group of Nekemte Volunteers and our former students traveled by a terrible road from Addis for 13 hours to return to the place where we had all once lived. The trip was exhausting but worth every minute. The town had grown up hillsides and changed so much that it was almost impossible for us to get our bearings. It is now home to a large university.
Together, we found our former school and shared many memories. We took a reunion picture in front of my old classroom. I am very proud of the fact that Asfaw went on to teachers college and taught seven years in the same school. Asfaw discovered my former house, now a café behind a new row of buildings that had sprung up along the main road in the past 50 years! The caretaker of so many years ago now still lives there; he hollered, hugged and kissed us, language was no barrier! A local wonderful family welcomed us to their home and an Ethiopian meal.
Upon our return to Addis, we had three days to meet with other former students and acquaintances. Shiferaw Negeri, who had worked for Ethiopia I volunteers John and Susan Lawson has a daughter on the Ethiopian National Women’s football team. Zekarias Keneaa teaches and is currently Dean of the Law School. He is the brother of Lia Keneaa who has been a friend of ours for probably 40 years. Through mutual acquaintances, familial ties and the Internet, I finally found one student who made a great impact on my life.
Fekadu Kanno met us for dinner with his wife and daughter. Finding Fekadu made my trip complete. I not only found the students I sought, but I was also able to hear the about their lives and the impact I had on each of them. The students did not have an easy life. Two were imprisoned at different times but they survived and made good lives for themselves. Many of their children have degrees from the University. Hopefully the political situation will remain stable so that they can use those degrees.
Reconnecting with these wonderful people, hearing their stories, sharing memories and pictures with them, was truly what made the trip so very meaningful and wonderful. My wife and I now know what people mean when they say “It was the trip of a lifetime.” In fact, the students want us to come back in three years . . . We will see!
Not Falling at the Blue Nile Falls
Mary Virginia [Ginger] Hajoglou (Dembi Dollo 1972–74
My historical tour began in Bahar Dar far from the town where I was a teacher. Never having been to the Blue Nile Falls, I had no idea of the trek ahead. The walk from the bus to the trailhead was easy, I thought to myself with a smile. Then, there it was — a rock strewn steep downhill slope connected to an equally challenging uphill climb. Taking a deep breath, I descended a few steps and stopped. No way could I keep my balance and navigate this path. Astoundingly, a beautiful strong hand grasped mine and down the trail we went. The hand belonged to a wonderful young Ethiopian man who became my savior. He and I never let go of each other.
Since it was market day, on the uphill direction trudged a continuous line of heavily burdened men, women and children – some herding goats, donkeys and yes, long-horned Zebu cattle. I was as great an interest to them as they were to me. We did some fancy dodging of cattle horns and long-stepped over freshly deposited manure piles.
Eventually, we made it to the Falls. They were cascading with a thunderous roar, looking like chocolate milk on its way to Egypt. I gathered my dwindling energy reserves and stumbled back down and then up the trail. Totally exhausted but feeling triumphant, my climbing partner and I returned to my bus. I tipped him way more than I should have, but I paid what it was worth to me to have that amazing experience. Though I never got his name, he earned my eternal gratitude.
A Tale of the Red Terror
Charles Wood (Woody) Jewett (Aggaro, Addis 1966–68)
Long fascinated by Africa, thanks to reading Albert Schweitzer and to an uncle who had traveled there, I was thrilled to be selected for Peace Corps service in Ethiopia, immediately following Hobart College graduation and stateside training at UCLA. I landed in the small town of Aggaro outside of Jimma with fellow trainee Marshall Broitman. We joined a 2nd year PCV David Fox.
School started with the three of us teaching all subjects in grades 7 and 8. Ethiopian teachers approached us about providing living space for several deserving students, and soon we had six boys living in our out-building in the back yard. Two 7th graders, Girma Tesfaye and Fekadu Mengistu, were bright, focused, and hard-working. All the kids did minor chores in return for room and board. The town’s power generator shut down the first month so we all read and studied at night using camping lanterns and candles. Girma became my Amharic tutor.
I extended for a third year and requested placement in Addis. Girma, who had been admitted to the Tafari Mekonnen School continued to live with me. We had electricity!
Afterwards, we stayed in touch as Girma progressed through high school (switching to the Commercial School) and then the university. Soon he was married with four kids. During the years of Dergue Terror we decided to NOT communicate so as not to jeopardize his family’s safety. In summer 1996, at the end of a business trip to the continent, I stopped in Addis for a long weekend; I reconnected with Girma, met his wife Nejati and family, had dinner several times, and went shopping at the Mercato.
During the “Peace Corps 100” reunion visit, I again met with Girma, his wife Nejati and family. Sadly, I also learned the details of the death of my former student Fekadu at the hands of the Dergue. He had become a teacher and one day his school was visited by “committee members.” Being an honest and forthright guy, Fekadu spoke out and almost immediately was arrested along with most of his fellow teachers. They languished in jail in Jimma for three weeks and then were shot. What a horrific history — the Dergue executing the young, the bright, and the future.
An equally devastating experience for me in Addis Ababa this time was visiting the Red Terror Martyrs Museum with friends. They saw, high on the wall of photographs of murdered victims, the photo and name of their student and would be “son” whose status had been a mystery. We all flinched and wept for yet another young hero, lost in Ethiopian history.
The Emotions of 46 Years
Susanne Boyd (Gondar 1964–66)
Alan and I had already been discussing a trip to Ethiopia in celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary in 2013, so you can imagine our excitement when “Return to Ethiopia” — and the possibility of taking the trip with others who had shared the same experience — appeared in my inbox! We signed up immediately.
We reveled in the Facebook discussions in the ensuing months, covering everything from shopping hints and tipping to the costs of medication and packing lists. And to be having these conversations on Facebook, when we had lived in a town (Gondar) which only had a radio phone in the post office when we were there in 1964-66 as Ethiopia III’s! We could scarcely contain our excitement as the day for departure drew nearer. What would Ethiopia be like after 46 years? Would we see former students? (Unfortunately, we did not) We were more than ready to see old friends, make new ones and have a real adventure.
The adventure began, of course, with our arrival and all the ceremonies in the airport, the audience with the President at Jubilee Palace, the Meskal celebration in Addis and it continued through our wonderful tour of the highlands, Harar and Dire Dawa. We could not have asked for a better group of people with whom to tour and share the trip of a lifetime.
With all the wonderful experiences we had, my most unforgettable moment on this trip was my reaction to seeing the countryside for the first time in 46 years. When we broke through the clouds to begin the landing at Bole Airport and we could see the verdant plots of green, the tukuls and the Meskal flowers, tears began to roll down my cheeks. In all our planning, I had not truly realized the depth of my emotional connection to Ethiopia, and I was so very glad to be back. Thanks to all who made it possible.
Break of Day in Dire Dawa
Alma Toroian Raymond (Dabat 1967–69)
Long before first light, there is a distant chorus of dogs howling to one another. At 4:45 a.m. the Muezzin calls to the faithful from a nearby tower. A truck passes on the street below, headlights tracing a path across our bedroom ceiling. I’m drawn from our Delight Hotel room to the balcony where I have a full view of the city by moonlight.
By 5:30 a.m. there are a few people walking. Women ward off the morning chill with their shamahs pulled across their faces. A woman sweeps the cobblestone sidewalk in front of her shop. Unseen others call morning greetings to one another while tending brazier fires behind huts across the street. Morning tea and breakfast will be ready soon.
By 6 a.m. the sun is rising. I watch a few pairs of students jogging on the high school stadium track across the street. The first bus comes through town picking up passengers along the way. By 7 a.m. crows are flying, horns are beeping from the Bajaj taxis down on the street and the city is bustling. I am eager to be out there with everyone.
The Dabat Alumni Association
Alma and Doug Raymond (Dabat, Addis 1967–69)
Our Return to Ethiopia was a constant stream of wonderful experiences. For an impression of just one highlight, we focused and decided to tell about the Dabat Alumni Association in Addis Ababa. It was as unexpected as it was gratifying.
Dabat, a very small town on the high plateau a couple of hours north of Gondar, had one school in the 1960s, and it ended with the 8th grade. We taught science, English and music there during the 1967–68 school year. Much to our surprise, Dabat has an active Alumni Association. It meets on the 7th of every month in Addis Ababa. Nasser Kutabish, a good friend who was once our 8th grade student, invited us to the October meeting.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that such a club existed at all, and I guess you could say we were more than slightly amazed when we found that the membership includes: Three international trading-company entrepreneurs; an executive accountant who is an articulate activist critic of the custom of child marriage; a criminal-court judge; a nun; a restaurateur; a man who is building a startup plant for producing household water filters; an athlete; a diplomat who represents Ethiopia’s interests to the World Trade Organization, and more than one retired teacher. Five of the people in the list are women. A remote member in Denver, Colorado coordinates an auxiliary network in the USA.
The Association’s principal mission is to raise money for civic projects. At the meeting we attended the discussion centered on three proposals: construction of latrines for Dabat’s schools (there are now six schools, not just one); construction of wells with hand pumps for safer water supply, and construction of a town library. The general consensus was that the school latrine project would provide the greatest immediate benefit to the community.
We joined the club on the spot, and came away with a renewed impression of our former little town’s vigor and dynamism.
Our Hopes Were Met 1000 Fold
Millicent Keck Quam (Makele 1964–66)
and Beth Crockett Schroer (Makele 1964–66)
Returning to Makele after 46 years, Beth Crockett Schroer and I took an early morning plane from Addis. Our first stop was Atse Yohannes Secondary School where we had taught. We would never have recognized it. Nothing looked familiar.
After seeking directions from two men, I asked if they had known any Peace Corps teachers. I was not prepared for the response of one of them, which was, “Yes, my teacher was Mrs. Quam.” Of course I shouted, “I’m Mrs. Quam.” We couldn’t believe it. His name was Teama Giday and he had been my student in 7th grade English. We were so happy to see each other we couldn’t stop beaming. He told us that he was visiting the campus for the first time in 10 years; he showed us around, and then walked with us past our two houses.
After this meeting, for the next two full days, Teama kept returning to see us at the hotel, bringing former students with him each time. All told, we saw and talked with 13 former students — one was a shopkeeper in town, another was a security guard, several others had been teachers, one a pharmacist, several were businessmen. All of them repeatedly expressed how much the Peace Corps had changed their lives personally and how much it had changed the educational climate in the country.
I had brought photos from our time in Makele. We went through them all, identifying students and hearing stories of their lives then and now. Sadly some of them had lost their lives in the struggle to free the country from the Mengistu government. But, many of them were quite successful, a number living in the U.S and Europe; very many of them having children with advanced degrees. I had hoped that my teaching would have allowed our students to get “better jobs” — I was shocked to learn that they were in fact leaders in the government, in business, and in education. Clearly I had had too “small” a vision for my students.
Our other significant experience was meeting the current Peace Corps Volunteers in Makele. We met them for dinner twice and visited one of their schools. Their lifestyles are so different from ours, 48 years earlier. They are living in small compounds, usually with two or three other Ethiopian teacher families. They do their own shopping, cooking, laundry. They are expected not to hire any household staff — as we were all encouraged to do. Their focus is more on living with and having Ethiopian peers. They work training elementary school teachers in English and in English teaching methods. We had spent more of our time teaching and preparing to teach. Both were appropriate for the times.
Ethiopia has changed vastly. There are many more elementary and secondary schools and many more trained teachers. The emphasis now is on in-house teacher training, not direct teaching — and at the elementary level, not the secondary level. What was the same, however, was the same attachment to their students and to Ethiopia and the same enthusiasm for their work that we had had almost 50 years ago.
By the end of our stay in Ethiopia, we had seen more than 40 of our former students. I had hoped that returning to Ethiopia would have the feeling of a “Homecoming.” Those hopes were met 1,000 fold by the warm receptions we received everywhere.
I Don’t Want it to End
Ronald Lewis Peterson (Nekempte 1973–75)
My 1973–75 Peace Corps Ethiopia service came to life again for me in dramatic ways in 2011 and 2012.
In March, 2011 I published my first novel — A Time to . . .: A Baby Boomer’s Spiritual Adventures — that focuses on a Returned Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteer who relived milestone events in his life. Then I joined the Association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to reconnect with others who served. From that, I learned there was an RPCV living in my state (Michigan) who had served ten years before me in the same town and taught at the same school where I had. Marvin Vinande and I became friends.
These events compelled me to participate in Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary celebration in Washington DC last October. At a dinner at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC, I met several RPCVs for the first time since we had trained together in Ethiopia some 38 years ago as well as one of our in-country trainers who now is the communications officer for the Ethiopian Embassy in DC, Tsehaye Debalkew. The memories that had been stored away for almost four decades soothed me like a cool breeze on a hot day. I was thrilled to also learn that a return trip to Ethiopia in 2012 was being discussed by Returned Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteers.
Returning home, I received an email message from Alemu Hailemariam, a top student in my eighth-grade English class during my first year of Peace Corps service. We had lost touch after the Dergue took control of Ethiopia in 1975. He told me that he had been trying to find me since 2001 to thank me for supporting him during my Peace Corps service; he found my contact information on my website. He was the last surviving child of a peasant family and an orphan at the time we had met. I had only known that he was an excellent, deserving student. Today he is a health services quality officer with five hospitals in Addis Ababa and married to a government employee, Maledu. Together they have two college-educated daughters: Kidist (a clinical nurse) and Andnet (a geographer). This past spring they each provided their parents with a grandson.
When the return to Ethiopia trip was confirmed in the spring, I had to participate. The reunion with Alemu at Bole airport was very emotional. The following day, we met Ethiopia’s president, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, at Haile Selassie’s former palace and had our photo taken with him. He was sincerely interested in the relationship Alemu and I had developed. Two TV and radio networks must have also thought our story was interesting because they shared it with their audiences.
The time Alemu and I spent together in Addis with his family and on our trip back to Nekemte, the town where we had lived, was too good for words. On that trip, we were joined by two other RPCVs who had also served in Nekemte (Marvin Vinande and Doug Worthington) along with their wives and the three students they had supported.
The most memorable moments of that trip included touring our old school, visiting the spot where my old home had stood (It is now a computer training center) meeting old friends, and learning the terrible news that my best Ethiopian friend, the high school wood shop teacher, was killed by the Dergue about four years after I left Ethiopia. Tadesse Tiruneh had been the model for one of the main characters in my novel. His death, and those of some 500,000 others, during the Red Terror, served as a grim reminder of a time that, thankfully, has passed.
During my two-week visit to Ethiopia, I also toured the historic northern cities for the first time: Bahar Dar, Gondar, Lalibela, Axum, Dire Dawa and Harar. While these places are truly spectacular and inspiring, it was Alemu and his family, the many kind Ethiopians I had come into contact with, and the caring Peace Corps Volunteers, former and present, who I had met, that made this the most memorable, meaningful trip of my life.
Alemu and I don’t want it to end, so we are developing a water project proposal for the school where we had met. If successful, it could serve as a model for others around the country. I also hope to use my public relations, media relations and marketing communications skills to help promote Ethiopia in America as a great place for businesses to invest and for tourists to visit. Ethiopia has changed a great deal for the better since the Peace Corps first arrived in 1962 and Americans owe it to themselves to learn much more about this wonderful country and its beautiful people.
The Feeling of Connectedness
Tom Andrews (Makale and Addis Ababa 1964-66)
Near the end of our trip, I could not help being a little jealous of all our travelling companions who were overflowing with stories of visiting their towns of service and connecting with former students. I was feeling the downside of having served as a lawyer and having made few ongoing relationships. Then, in Harar some of us toured the Ras Tafari Makonnen birthplace museum, with its photo gallery of prominent Hararis. I was startled to see a picture on the wall of the wonderful man I worked with for a year — Ato Mohammed Abdu Rahman. It showed him just as I remembered him, captioned with his official title as when we worked together, along with a picture of his father next to him — the descendants of the last sheik of the independent city state of Harar. Though he was assassinated by the Dergue, seeing his picture there on the wall finally gave me the feeling of connectedness I had been missing all along. And I shed tears of loss, too.