Category Archives: Journeys

RPCV Legacy Program project


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.

adama-axumI 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.


Expressway from Adama

Expressway from Adama

First Adama

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.

Wind farm outside Adama

Wind farm outside Adama

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.

Bajaj ride in Adama

Bajaj ride in Adama

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.

Commuter train in Addis Ababa.

Commuter train in Addis Ababa.

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.

Rick and Elizabeth Stoner's Old Adwa Cultural Museum

Old Adwa Cultural Museum

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
Gari crossing

Gari crossing

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.

Eating belas on the side of the road

Eating belas on the side of the road

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.

Grand entrance to the Axum library

Grand entrance to the Axum library

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.

In conclusion

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.




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) 

September 1964

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.

The old school has withstood time and still serves the lower grades

The old school has withstood time and still serves the lower grades

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 library has withstood the test of time and is in active use

The library at the secondary school has withstood the test of time and is in active use

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.

Students stand at assembly welcoming the return of one of the first PCVs to expand the school to the secondary level

Students stand at assembly welcoming the return of one of the first PCVs to expand the school to the secondary level

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.

The computer lab at the "new" secondary school during the 50th anniversary celebration

The computer lab at the “new” secondary school during the 50th anniversary celebration

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.

The Catholic church had a significant physical, spiritual, and developmental presence in the community

The Catholic church had a significant physical, spiritual, and developmental presence in the community

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.

In honor of Abba Francois

In honor of Abba Francois

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.

The interior of the Catholic church and its beautiful artwork

The interior of the Catholic church and its beautiful artwork

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.

The magnificent Gurage homes with thatched roofs

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.

The enchanting landscape of Sebat Bet Gurage.

The enchanting landscape of Sebat Bet Gurage.

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…

Although many things have changed — roads, electricity, tall buildings — the smiling faces of children have remained the same.

Although many things have changed — roads, electricity, tall buildings — the smiling faces of children have remained the same.




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.  yirgalemOur 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.

l-r rear: Doug and PC/Ethiopia Country Director Brennan B, front: Former Ras Desta School 9C students, Yohannes Gebregeoris, Eshetu Gixaw, Tafesse Mesfin, Zelalem Wakwyo.

l-r rear: Doug and PC/Ethiopia Country Director Brannon Brewer; front: Former Ras Desta School 9C students, Yohannes Gebregeoris, Eshetu Gixaw, Tafesse Mesfin, Zelalem Wakwyo.

My students
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.


9C — 1963

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., 2009These 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.

l-r: Zelalem Wakeyo (lawyer in private practice); Eshetu Gizaw (electrical engineer and owner of a successful electrical business); Doug Mickelson (RPCV); Kassaye Chemada (Brigadier General, retired); Medhane Zeratsion (statistician retired); Yohannes Gebregeorgis (librarian); Tafesse Mesfin (veterinarian and researcher of veterinarian medicine).

l-r: Zelalem Wakeyo (lawyer in private practice); Eshetu Gizaw (electrical engineer and owner of a successful electrical business); Doug Mickelson (RPCV); Kassaye Chemada (Brigadier General, retired); Medhane Zeratsion (statistician retired); Yohannes Gebregeorgis (librarian); Tafesse Mesfin (veterinarian and researcher of veterinarian medicine).

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.

Doug and the headmaster

Doug and the headmaster

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.

Photo 5. Ras Desta Students, 2016

Ras Desta Students, 2016

Photo 6. Ras Desta Students-1962.

Ras Desta Students-1962.

Our home
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.

Photo 7. 1962 our Peace Corps home; white house on the left.

1962 our Peace Corps home; white house on the left.

Photo 8. 2016 site of former home; note changes and construction of a mosque.

2016 site of former home; note changes and construction of a mosque.


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.


What Goes Around Comes Around

Ethiopia Through the Eyes of the Son of Peace Corps Volunteers


by Christopher Tombari — son of Marty Tombari (Gidole 66–68) and Carol Sue Tarbox (Dessie 67–68)

tombari-mapI LOOK OUT THE WINDOW on the sun rising through the early-morning mist as our Ethiopian Airlines flight descends toward Addis Ababa International Airport, and I think, “Some kind of karmic wheel has come full circle.” I recall being told by each of my parents that they experienced a similar misty — but perhaps more mysterious and foreboding — introduction to the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine” almost fifty years ago.

I’m arriving in the country where my parents met. I have to say that I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Ethiopia .  .  . I think I’ll have to mention that at some point!


Carol Sue Tarbox Tombari (3rd from rt), Marty Tombari (2nd from rt.)

When my parents, Marty Tombari and Carol Sue Tarbox, entered the Peace Corps in 1966 and 1967 to volunteer in Ethiopia, marriage was not the motivation. Rather, they were inspired by President Kennedy’s call for Americans to work toward the greater good through peaceful means. Certainly those two individuals could not have foreseen that they would find each other, and that their first-born son would follow their Peace Corps path almost thirty years later.

Growing up, my first understanding of Ethiopia revolved around dramatic stories of the jungle, flooded rivers, abandoned Range Rovers, strange and unsettling food, and a backpack permanently pierced by the fangs of an unseen snake one pitch-black night in the jungle. Dad spun tales of his work in the village of Gidole (near Arba Minch) in a sensational fashion designed to entertain his young son.

Thus, I was not motivated to join Peace Corps at an early age.

As I grew up and heard more about my parents’ actual work, I started to pay attention. My father organized community development projects, and my mother taught EFL in Dessie. The details of their projects, especially teaching, sparked my interest. Within two months after graduating from college, I was on my way to Mongolia where, for two years, I taught English and trained former Russian language instructors to become EFL teachers as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I also took my 12-string guitar, which I left behind when I returned home, and joined a small local band.

Now that karmic wheel has come around. Here I am, almost twenty years after my PC service in Mongolia, traveling to Ethiopia — the site of my parents’ PC experiences.

goro-prep-schoolSo how does the son of returned Peace Corps/Ethiopia Volunteers, and an RPCV himself, come to travel to the country where his parents met? I am part of an official delegation from the city of Aurora, Colorado, visiting our Sister City, Adama (known to my parents as Nazret). I am the only one in the 19-person delegation who is neither affiliated with the city government nor an Ethiopian ex-pat. My job as Department Chair of the College Preparatory ESL program at the Community College of Aurora means, in a sense, that I represent the educational interests of the city.

I quickly learn that traveling in an official delegation is the antithesis of the Peace Corps experience. We get the celebrity treatment and travel in a five-vehicle caravan, complete with TV camera crew — a far cry from the garis my parents hailed back in their time. Moreover, we are not there to “teach a man to fish”  — our hosts want investment.


click for full size

What is reminiscent of my Peace Corps experience, however, is that in this short time, I am working my tail off to make a respectful impression — this time, by mastering polite phrases and greetings in Oromo. My efforts, including correct pronunciation and inflection of “oh, really?” elicit sympathetic smiles and laughter, whether from elementary students or village elders. The mayor of Adama encourages our delegation to call Adama our “second home.” And that line about giving the country of Ethiopia credit for my existence — it goes over very well in speeches and other formal introductions.

I’ve heard it time and time again: “Africa changes you.” But it’s not just Africa; it happened to me in Mongolia as well. Any place where you connect with people is a place that changes you. You feel like you belong in a place and with people you didn’t even know existed a few short days earlier.  At the invitation of our hosts at a cultural banquet I borrow a guitar from a member of  a local band, and accompany our delegation as it leads a crowd of Ethiopians  in an exuberant rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

After a whirlwind six days, we return to the Addis Ababa airport for our return flight on a luxurious Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner. I look forward to the genuinely “friendly” skies of Ethiopian Airlines and think that airline companies in the U.S. could learn a thing or two about customer care.

Click for larger photo.

Did you ride on this plane? Click for larger photo.

Then I spy workers restoring an old DC-10. It looks just like the one that formed the backdrop in an old family photo featuring my much younger-looking parents. I capture the moment with my smart phone and message my mom: “Hey, isn’t that the Vomit Comet?”

Full circle.


Ethiopia Redux: An Extraordinary Month of Teaching

by Richard Sherman (Adigrat 1968–70)

I want to share with my fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia a recent extraordinary experience of teaching in Ethiopia.  My involvement in teaching a specialized course for a group of students at the Defense Engineering College was one of the most rewarding of my life.

I believe that we all grew by leaps and bounds through our teaching of young, usually eager, Ethiopian students years ago. We Peace Corps Volunteers likely benefited as much as our students did — and maybe more.  Some of my former students from Adigrat, Tigre now sit in positions of authority in the Ethiopian government. When the opportunity to teach this most recent course was presented to me, I had no idea how it would fulfill my best dreams as a teacher.

I have probably been back to Ethiopia ten times since my Peace Corps stint ended. Logistics and technology did not work well for me in Addis during my month there in February 2014 — some things don’t change any too quickly. However, the people component of the trip was fantastic.

In addition to the lectures and readings I gave to the 49 army engineers in my class, I assigned a term paper to be generated by teams of five students each. The assignment was to develop a business plan for a new or existing business. I had few assumptions or expectations as to the results I would receive — but this was to be the sole basis for evaluation in the course.

As fate would have it, these students were simply waiting for this opportunity. They all manage quasi-government factories for an organization known as METEC and had been working without the benefit of business plans in their respective areas. These were bright, ambitious young people who wanted to see their industries and the country move forward in positive ways. They could have been the sons and daughters of our former students.

About half way through the course, some of the students sat down with me and emphasized that these projects were not just an exercise for them, they expected — with the proper guidance — that some of the plans being developed would actually be funded by METEC and/or other government and private sources.

This came as great news to me as I anxiously awaited the final papers to be submitted. I worked closely with many of the teams over the remaining weeks and began to anticipate what I finally received: an absolutely outstanding group of plans that are indeed fundable in selected cases. The plans were for industries manufacturing such items as lathe cutters, wire and cables, machinery cutting tools and irrigation pumps. All the papers were in the A to B range. If realized, these plans will add an industrial component to Ethiopia’s development that was unimaginable in the past.

I have requested that the students keep in touch to let me know of any practical results that might be implemented. The plans have price tags of between one and ten million USD for the most part, and my fondest dream is that one or more of these business plans will be implemented. What a bonus for teaching a short course in Ethiopia, after 46 years.

Richard Sherman, Ethiopia X, earned his doctorate in Politics at Brandeis University. Later in his career, he consulted on fund raising, loan sourcing and marketing and is still involved in the later two on a part time basis.


Returning Home to Ethiopia

by Charles Kreiman (Assella 1968–70)

Late afternoon, our last day in Assella, trying to find the place I had called “home” 43 years earlier.
My home had been in the same compound with Zewde, the music teacher. Belihu our guide, a retired teacher, had been an 8th grade student and bass drum player in 1968. I drew a rough map from memory, the arc of the main road, now paved, turning east at the center of town, up the hill to the school, formerly Ras Darge, now renamed Chilalo Terara. On the map, I placed my home just north of the main road and down the hill from school. Belihu suggested that Tadesse, the retired woodworking teacher who lived a short distance away, might recall where Zewde had lived.

A knock at the gate, exchange of greetings, smiles, an invitation to come in.  Tadesse seemed vaguely familiar; obviously elderly now, with only a few teeth remaining, but still animated and welcoming.  In the large main room were his wife, daughter, and grandchildren.  An offer of tea, more discussion.  Graciously, Tadesse’s daughter agreed to join us, directing our driver Afera to go a short distance and then stop at an intersection. Tadesse’s daughter approached a gate and knocked. Again, the greetings, smiles, discussion.

Yes, they agreed, this had been Zewde’s house some 25 years ago although the street looked a bit different from the picture I had taken long ago.  A crowd gathered; curious youngsters of course, along with some older folks as well.  I explained, “Ine bi Assella astamari c’ arba tsost amet bifeet nebrku. [I was a teacher in Assella 43 years ago.]”  (I recalled the words, but I’d never really mastered Amharic sentence structure or verb conjugation).  Out of the crowd one woman came forward; she must have been about 10 or 11 when I was there. She recalled that a foreign teacher had lived on this street. I took out a picture of me from 1969.  Looking at me and the picture, she nodded, now sure that I was the one she remembered.

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(click to enlarge)

Another woman stepped forward.  “Which one was your house?” she asked.  Replying that it had been at the back of the compound, she led me through a gap in the fence, down the path, and there it was, remodeled now into a two-family structure.  But, yes, this was the place that had been my home.  I snapped a picture and the flash lit up the scene.  So, on my next-to-last day in Ethiopia, I guess I truly had returned home.
Assella was the last leg of three weeks in Africa, mostly in Ethiopia. I was fulfilling a dream of returning, an urge to reconnect, an unquenched curiosity about what was there now, who was there now, and how were they doing. As Peace Corps teachers, we had struggled in our own minds and in our discussions with doubts about our purpose, our impact: Useful? Beneficial? Positive? Negative?  I think we had one answer, when a man joined us on that street corner in Assella, recalling with pride that Mr. Bass (Ethiopia VII math teacher Bob Bass) had brought bread to the striking students camped on the outskirts of town. I hope that Bob’s wife Bette (Ethiopia VII science teacher) takes comfort that her late husband, the ringleader of our group of strike supporters, is still remembered fondly by at least one former student.

As many RPCVs have discovered, Ethiopia somehow maintains its hold on you.  For me, it was an enduring influence both personally and professionally. Once stability returned to Ethiopia in the 1990s a return trip was a dream for me, yet remained unrealized by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I’ll admit some envy as I learned of others who had gone back. Reconnecting with Ethiopia X’s at the 50th Reunion, the idea of making the trip to Ethiopia came was discussed. Although joining the September 2012 “Return to Ethiopia” trip was out of the question for me, I continued my connection with Ethiopia through the Denver-Axum Sister Cities Committee.

August 2012 – After my wife picked me up at the Denver airport upon returning from a business trip, we went directly to a Sister Cities meeting at an Ethiopian restaurant. When plans for a trip to Axum came up on the agenda, I announce that my wife Ellen and I were committed to be the first names on the list. Recent events had resolved those seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and I was eager to recruit as many Ethiopia X’s as possible to join local Sister Cities folks for the 2013 trip to Ethiopia.

October 2013 – The Denver-Axum Sister Cities delegation, a group of 10 on Ethiopian Airline flight 501, flew nonstop from Washington/Dulles to Addis Ababa, having successfully solved the logistics of bringing along 8 boxes of Project CURE medical supplies for St. Mary’s Hospital in Axum. In the end the only other Ethiopia X to make the trip was Ninian Beall (Wollamo Sodo). Once we arrived in Addis Ababa, visited major sites, and recovered from jet lag, our group embarked on the traditional “Historic Tour,” with some extra time planned in our Sister City of Axum, under the guidance of Assefa, an engaging, knowledgeable, and thoughtful young man from our Ethiopian travel agency.

As we experienced Ethiopia in 2013, I sensed that Ninian and I reacted a bit differently from the others in our group. This was our second time around.  Even after more than 40 years, the people, the streets, the smells, the chika bets, triggered memories, a familiarity, a warm, even comfortable feeling. For the others, there seemed just a bit more wonder and amazement as they absorbed Ethiopia for the first time.

Taking in the sites and marvels along the Historic Tour made up for my omissions of the past.  Peace Corps veterans had advised us newcomer Volunteers to vacation in Kenya and Tanzania for needed R&R. There were detailed guides about where to go, where to stay, and how to get around, by air, train, or car, including the best hitch hiking spots. It was indeed a great vacation, but I had missed so much of Ethiopia. This trip brought home the sense that Ethiopia was a place of substance, with a long history, tradition, and cultural depth. I did include a brief excursion to Tanzania on this trip, photographing the scenery and as many species of wildlife as possible.  But Ethiopia was different; more than the obelisks at Axum, the castles of Gondar, or the churches at Yeha and Lalibela, it was a total experience, reinforcing my connection with the place and the people of Ethiopia.

Sharing some of my pictures with other RPCVs after we had returned to Denver, one commented that “things” look very different from what he remembered. My reaction was yes, “things” are very different today. The cell phone towers are everywhere. More rural areas are now connected to the electric grid. Combines now harvest the lush fields of Arsi (what we used to call “Arussi”). Addis Ababa is a mass of construction, new commercial and residential structures everywhere, a ring road, the beginnings of light rail. The road from Addis Ababa to Nazareth is a burgeoning commercial corridor, with numerous industrial sites and a “dry port” at Mojo bustling with trucks and shipping containers.

But these “things” while tangible and new, still seemed more of a surface change. Driving the newly re-constructed road from Bahir Dar to Gondar, one still must contend with laden donkeys, cattle, and sheep. Amidst new western style apartment blocks are endless numbers of chika bets with dirt floors and no glass windows. The deep-seated values of hospitality and kindness shined on the faces of the students who greeted us in Axum and Assella. Searching for my home in Assella, an impromptu crowd showed an almost instinctive helpfulness to a grey-haired ferengi who had been a teacher there 43 years earlier.


Chuck & Ellen at the International Hotel (click to enlarge)

While in Addis Ababa I had the chance to walk from the Piazza to Arat Kilo, an area I had frequented during in-country training and on numerous weekend trips. It was another example of the juxtaposition of the old familiar and the new.  As before, there were many jewelry shops, but some now featured more modern designs in the display windows. There were newer buildings in places, but many familiar sites, including the Greek Orthodox Church. As before, we ran into our share of street hustlers trying to sell their wares and beggars unabashedly requesting money. The International Hotel near Arat Kilo was still there, where we had spent many nights and enjoyed many cups of cappuccino, while across the street all I could find were unfamiliar university buildings where Peace Corps/Ethiopia Headquarters had once been.


Visiting a study hall (click to enlarge)

As a historian and political scientist by training, I was struck by Ethiopia’s experiment in federalism. As PCVs in 1968, our formal language instruction had been limited to Amharic. In the name of national unity and identity, instruction in Tigrinya, Oromo, or other local languages had been strictly forbidden. Now elementary students in Assella learn in Oromo. Regional government bureaucracies flourish, helping to turn the formerly sleepy town of Nazareth into a regional center that is Ethiopia’s 3rd largest city. Yet there was questioning of how well all of this was working. At a hospital that needed a replacement commercial dryer, there was uncertainty whether funds for a new dryer would come from the regional government or the ministry in Addis Ababa; meanwhile sheets were spread on the grass to dry. Students who had their local language reinforced in school faced the challenge of taking national exams in Amharic.  There were signs of regional jealousy in questions about the fairness and equity in the distribution of investment for infrastructure, business and industry.  Gazing at massive memorials to those who had fought and died to oust Mengistu and the Derg, it was hard to find a sound rationale for such massive government spending for edifices while basic needs remain to be met.

I see a resemblance between Ethiopia’s efforts to find a national – regional balance with America’s continuing efforts to resolve federalist issues.  The concept of a loyal opposition is not an easy one to accept or make work.  News reports of Ethiopia include stories of arrest of political opponents and journalists who publish critical stories.  Human rights advocates have been critical of government crackdowns and arrests.  Ethiopia clearly has an ongoing challenge to achieve stability and growth while coping with internal tensions and less than friendly neighbors.  While recognizing these shortcomings, I can still say I felt totally comfortable traveling around Ethiopia in 2013, even though it may seem inconsistent with my refusal on ethical grounds to set foot in Spain while Franco was in power.

This was truly a trip of a lifetime, expectations fulfilled, even exceeded, renewing and strengthening my connection to Ethiopia.  For 2014, I will be serving as Chair of the Denver-Axum Sister Cities Committee, working on getting the sanitation truck we have purchased from Denver to Axum, among other activities.  The full itinerary had left only brief moments to inquire about the fate of Ethiopian teachers and students I had known. So with my Ethiopian visa good for multiple entries over two years, I have good reasons for another trip to Ethiopia in the near future.


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.

bell-jMy 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)

bruckensteinYes, 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)

McLaughlin-Betty-photoAs 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

gingerMy 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)

jewett-c 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)

boydAlan 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)

peterson-rMy 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)

andrews-tomNear 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.