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E&E RPCVs Group News

Preserve and share your Peace Corps History at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives

at Stanford University

by Marian Haley Beil (Debre Berhan 1962–64)

hoover-logoIssayas Tesfamariam, of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University, has contacted me as president of Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs to inform the group that it is soliciting materials from individuals who were Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia and Eritrea during the 20th Century to add to their research collection. The Hoover  is dedicated to documenting war, revolution, and peace in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries . . . and supports a vibrant community of scholars and a broad public interested in the meaning and role of history.

Issayas has written:

Hoover has an impressive collection on Africa including materials from top down (officials, gov’t, etc.) to bottom up (reported by missionaries, etc.). We are continuing collecting more materials from the Horn of Africa region, hence the importance of your group Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers).

Individual materials in the possession of your group would be a great addition to our collection. The periods between 1960s and 1970s and the1990s are our priority.

The materials must be originals. The materials could be pictures, notes, postcards, posters, memorabilia, ephemera, pamphlets, correspondences and etc.

This is incredibly exciting opportunity  to be invited to participate in this project. I hope many of you RPCVs will avail yourselves of this wonderful opportunity to contribute your history as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia and Eritrea to the Hoover Institution Library and Archives.

We offer our immeasurable thanks to the Hoover Institution Library and Archives for this invitation to participate in recording some of the history of a great institution – the Peace Corps.

For details on how to share your history, click donor-instructions to download a printable .pdf information sheet.



We Wait for the Sun

Fury is more tolerable than fear.

by Carol Beddo (Bahr Dar 1964–66)

(Editor’s Note:  “We Wait for the Sun” was originally published in:  The Best Women’s Travel Writing v. 9, [Travelers’ Tales, 2013].  Used with permission by the author and the publisher.)

Carol - 1st day of Training 1964

Carol – 1st day of Training

EVERYONE IN THE VILLAGE is congregated at Bahar Dar’s dirt airstrip, each of us dripping sweat in the hot afternoon sun. But not one of us is thinking about searching for shade. We’ve come out of respect to witness Flora’s coffin as it is loaded onto an Ethiopian Airlines DC-3. Tropetas is leaving with her, and we don’t know if he will ever return. The elderly Greek couple has run our village bakery for decades, and now Flora will be buried in the Greek cemetery in Addis Ababa.

Tropetas beats on his chest as if it’s a drum. He’s worked himself into a sweat that soaks the hair on his head, absorbs into his cotton shirt, and flies off his body with each successive strike of his powerful fists.

Four men dressed in Ethiopian Airlines khaki uniforms push a rolling luggage carrier across the bare red dirt. On it is the coffin, a simple, ordinary, plywood shipping crate bizarrely festooned with colorful airfreight tags — yellow, green, blue. The tags are in constant motion, cheerfully waving and bobbing about in the mid-afternoon wind coming off Lake Tana, as if celebrating a festive birthday party rather than solemnly mourning a tragic death.

We mill about the airfield, encircling the silver plane, until we move to open a pathway for the metal stairs being wheeled out to meet the plane’s passenger door. Tropetas is oblivious to everything except Flora, who’s dead and in her coffin, his deep voice locked in a continuous chant. “Flora! Flora! Aaaa-waaa-waaaa-waaaa, Flo-raaa! Flo-raaa!” Over and over, shouting in an anguished voice that booms as if through a megaphone, trying to call her back.

The uniformed men roll the luggage cart to the airplane, pause, and instead of lifting the shipping crate into the cargo hold, slowly, with the dignity of pallbearers, carry it up the stairs and into the passenger section. Tropetas follows close behind, still bellowing his calls to Flora, keeping a rhythm by thumping his chest, one fist after the other. I imagine his public grief must be mixed with fury at his helplessness and failure to protect his wife from attackers.

Early this morning, while the air was still cool and fresh, I first heard the news: Last night, two men invaded their home, assaulted and murdered Flora, and stole their savings. I felt my usual disconnect from yet another harsh village reality and even now, while everyone around me seems completely consumed with loud sobbing or funereal wailing — the traditional and respectful observance here of any death — I feel only plain and simple sorrow.

Living here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve seen how the Amhara people accept death in this grand, ceremonial way. They embrace loss with a rowdy ritual, for to resist suffering is considered unnatural, against God’s plan. Acting out today’s sorrow makes it possible to wake tomorrow and to celebrate life with gratitude for a new day.

Never before have I witnessed such dramatic grief, and seeing Tropetas in this state increases my sweaty discomfort under the oppressive sun. Soon the damp hair on my head will drip sweat onto my shoulders. I’m sticky with heat under my arms, between my breasts, and where my thighs touch beneath the hot tent of my skirt.

For me, it seems Flora’s death was an aberrant burglary and murder. And since there is no way to make things right, my quiet, modest sorrow is all I can summon. I cannot behave as if I am an Amhara, and I don’t want to.

On my walk home, I buy a box of powdered milk at Alem’s suq, a convenient stop on the way from the airfield.

“These shifta are mercenaries. Eritrean mercenaries,” Alem informs me from behind his service counter.

I know he’s speaking of the robbery and murder. He says it as though something actually has been determined, but this is the first I’m hearing of it, and I’m skeptical. Living in this village, I’ve learned it is a place where an opinion is allowed to quickly become a fact, where too often nothing will stop conjecture from becoming a false truth.

“Uhmm, Alem,” I say, “we’re way far south of Eritrea. Why do you think Eritrean shifta would be down here in Gojjam Province?”

bahrdarHe hands me the cardboard milk box and a few coins in change. I’m only half listening for the response, already contemplating my next task. This morning I boiled water and left it on the stove to cool. Right when I get home, I’ll try once again to mix the powdered milk with that water, something I have to do at least once a week. But even though I use an eggbeater, I’m never able to eliminate lumps. I’m considering the wisdom of straining them out. But do Sue and I even have a strainer? Maybe we should just give up on the already-stale Kellogg’s cornflakes we bring back from Addis Ababa. The cornflakes are no longer crisp, the powdered milk doesn’t even taste like real milk, and the lumps are disgusting. Each morning, the only thing truly crunchy about our cornflakes is the sugar we sprinkle on top.

“They don’t all stay north and fight in the border war,” he says, returning me to the errand I came for. Now he emphasizes his words by loudly spitting a disgusting, thick wad of yellowish sputum onto the hard-packed dirt floor; generations of tribal hatred ooze from this Amharic man. “They raid homes here to pay for their secession movement. Disloyal Eritreans!” He speaks the last words in an obscene growl. “Be careful, weizerit Carol,” he says, addressing me as Miss Carol for emphasis. “Tonight you must lock your doors and shutters tight.”

His words walk with me on the path through the eucalyptus forest to our home. I ask myself: what does the battle for Eritrean secession have to do with me? And of course I lock up at night, but why “must” I tonight?

A widespread, fearful chatter had started at daylight and was soon enhanced by the throng at the airport. Everyone had heard something, seen something, or had suspicions. Was an item missing from someone’s compound, or was it simply misplaced? Was a certain chicken taken, or had it merely not returned from its morning or afternoon scavenge? Fewer eggs in the nest — had someone helped himself? The stories got invented and reinvented, but always with one essential question — are the two shifta still here? By day’s end, it seems suspicion and distrust provide our only defense against harm. This is why a stranger is noticed in this little village. And two strangers together might as well be a dozen.

It’s taken until this evening for me to realize how naïve I’ve been. I should have understood earlier what everyone else already knew: The shifta are looking for cash money and American women not only have money, we are also defenseless. All day I’ve been able to keep the murder in some distant, comfortable perspective, but now I’m uneasy. Am I merely joining in the village hysteria? After all, I’m from someplace else, and I expect to go back there. Since I’m not really from here, I tell myself, I needn’t and shouldn’t fall into irrational fear.

But I know I will be lying awake tonight, listening for strange sounds. This is a village without telephones and, as far as I know, there’s no one to call for help anyway. How ignorant, helpless, and ill-prepared I am. It’s not something I grew up with, learning how to protect myself from the most basic of threats — assault and burglary. Would it have been too difficult for the Peace Corps to include the possibility of real dangers during our three-month training? Or did such things not occur to them, just as they had never occurred to me?

We ask the boys to move Sue’s bed into my larger room. Neither of us wants to be alone this night. I decide to keep our one sharp kitchen knife in my bed, insisting that Sue arm herself with our scissors. And this is it; we have nothing else to serve as weapons. Sue wants to flip a coin for the knife, but I refuse. I don’t believe she would be capable of inflicting a knife wound on anyone. Of myself, I have no doubt — I will. We agree not to turn off my bedroom’s single light bulb hanging on a wire in the middle of the ceiling. She has never really stopped being afraid of the dark, and I have to admit, I do feel safer with the light on.

“Please do not worry, Madam,” Alimaw says in his new, manly voice, which has thoroughly changed from the boy’s voice he had when we took him into our home. He’s the oldest and tallest of the three boys who live in our extra room. They’re students at our school, all from poor families in distant villages; they do simple chores for us, and in return, they have a place to live and a small allowance. But only Alimaw — who is self-appointed — is the kindly caretaker of the American women Peace Corps teachers.

“But what if they come here?” I ask. “We’re all alone out here in the forest.”

“We will stay together in the house,” he says.

“But what if they are out there?”

“We will know they are here if we hear stones thrown on the roof, Madam.”

“What? Why?” This seems totally crazy. “What do stones on the roof mean?”

Shifta make the noise to see if we are home, or if we have mean dogs.”

“But we don’t have dogs. What do we do?”

“Madam, we turn on all the lights.”

“Huh? Why? To show them we are inside?”

“Yes, Madam. And we do not open doors or shutters until dawn.”

I’m working hard to control a searing, hot fear as it rises from my gut and enters conscious thought. All my life I’ve hated feeling afraid or helpless. I don’t know which feeling I hate more, but I do know that as this night wears on, I’m getting angry at the shifta. And fury is always more tolerable than fear.

We doze off finally and are awakened by Bang! Rattle rattle rattle. Plop! Sue and I both sit up straight in our beds and stare at the ceiling. Bang! Rattle rattle rattle. The tin roof announces our predators, no mistake. I grasp my knife and have not a shred of hesitancy to use it.

Now at 4 a.m., teeth clenched so hard and tight I fear cracking a tooth, I am determined that I will not die tonight. Not in this country. I refuse to die a victim here. Bang! Rattle rattle rattle. Plop! How many times must I hear this?

Alimaw is deliberately making noise as he moves through the house, turning the lights on, all bare bulbs hanging by wires from the ceiling in each room. There are few glass windows in Bahar Dar—thankfully, none in this house. For the first time, I see the wisdom of sturdy wooden shutters that lock or open only from the inside.

Now — sudden gunshots in the eucalyptus forest. How surprising that they sound like toy cap guns. Pop pop. Over and over. And no way to know what is actually happening. No voices. No authorities shouting commands or shifta begging for mercy. Suddenly it’s quiet again, completely silent, and I know I’ll spend the remaining hours of this dark night with teeth clenched in my dry mouth, tense, waiting. Am I safe? In danger? Can I stop being scared now?

“Madam,” Alimaw says through my closed door. “The lights are on. Also the porch light.”

“Were those gun shots, Alimaw?” I’m speaking so rapidly I fear he may not understand my words.

“Yes, Madam,” he says in a calm, hushed voice.

“How do we know if they were shifta guns? How do we know if shifta are still out there?”

“We wait for the sun, Madam.”

Not just this day, but every day, news travels with morning light. Alimaw learns first thing that two shifta were captured.

“Oh dear, dear,” Sue says in the high-pitched tone she uses when she’s frightened. I hear this voice frequently, because Sue is frightened of so many things here, even the bugs.

“Where were they captured, Alimaw?” I ask. I want more information, and quickly.

“Madam, they were very near.” Alimaw is hanging his head. He does this when he doesn’t want me to read his emotion.

“Oh dear! Oh my goodness!” Sue says in that tremulous soprano, while I say nothing.

Perhaps I should feel relieved by their capture, but a clot of hatred forms in my heart instead.

Alimaw leads us outside to the constantly growing group of neighbors, all heading together in the same direction, as if we’re a herd being led to morning water. Walking within the group, I’m absorbed in thoughts of what happened in the little village. Flora’s murder and Tropetas’ hysterical grief affected each of us. Everyone was threatened, even we who intend to be in Bahar Dar only for our two-year stays.

The traveling mob of villagers, the women’s heads covered with their white shamma to protect against the damp morning chill, begins to squeeze down into a narrow column of women. Sue and I step in with them, while the men stand apart, tall, slim, and barefoot with stick-thin calves below their once-white jodhpur trousers. The men have wrapped their shoulders and heads in thick, white, cotton gabi. Each man has a doula, and some lean on them, the tall poles grasped upright in one hand like a staff. Others hold doula across their shoulders with both wrists resting over the top, with hanging folds of gabi draping below their elbows like feathery white wings.

Even as the column lurches forward in stops and starts, each woman huddles against the women beside her, as well as the women ahead and behind. This tight, close group carries with it the familiar, rancid body odor of the provinces, a combination of the rank smell of kibbay, a culinary butter also used as a hairdressing and skin lotion, and the stale smoke of indoor cook fires. At last we reach a jail — the first time I become aware that there is one — a three-sided building, its fourth side open to the elements, enclosed only by iron bars and a locked iron door.

We feel righteously entitled to view our enemy, two despised shifta. Though they remain in the morning shadow, far back from the bars, we see their disdainful expressions. They seem arrogant, completely unrepentant, as they stare directly at Sue and me because, as usual, white firengi, foreigners, stand out anywhere. I pass along with the line and, never looking away, glare my hatred back at them. This hatred is new to me, rising easily from beneath my breastbone, a concentrated heat that stops and sticks in my throat. Our tormenters are caged like animals, and I want them punished. I want them to see me and my gloating, triumphant sneer.

The next morning, I’m walking to school early to prepare for another week of teaching and am surprised to see the village gathered again, this time on the bare, open land between the airstrip and our school. What they are looking at is too awful to believe. And in this instant I know what everyone must have known and understood would happen, even though I didn’t.

Suddenly breathless, I can no longer silently bear the painful pounding in my chest. “Ahg. Uhg.” It is all I can say, repeating in rhythm with my heart. My lungs stop. And then I’m panting, out of breath, and I want only to be able to move my feet, to run away as fast as I can and pretend I never saw this. At the same time, I truly cannot believe that what I am seeing is real. I try to take it in with small, quick glances — two shifta, a rope tight around each broken neck, heads off-kilter from their bodies, trousers soiled by the emptying of bowel and bladder.

But yes, it is real, and I understand exactly why they have been left to hang here for these hours since dawn, the time of execution. It is hard to do, but at last I am able to look at them, dangling from ropes attached to newly erected scaffolds. We stand together, all of us staring at the dead men, considering what each of us understands and feels about what has happened here. Happened to us, and to our village.

Carol - just before leaving Bahar Dar - 1966

Carol – just before leaving Bahr Dar – 1966

How is it I can feel glad? I wouldn’t say happy, just glad, satisfied to see those men hanging by their necks, dead, knowing they cannot harm me. Primal revenge.

So much at once. Anger. Hate. Revenge. Satisfaction. Worse, I have learned two terrible things: I could kill to save myself; I could get over feeling bad about doing that.

So here we stand, we who lusted for revenge, and now we’re avenged, satisfied that two men are dead. But for me, this bright satisfaction suddenly tarnishes, because I am also deeply, deeply ashamed.

Carol Beddo, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, 1964—1966, returned to her Peace Corps station in 2003. Flooded with memories, she began to wonder: Who was that young woman? While writing those memories, Carol is coming to understand how the Peace Corps experience provided a foundation for the rest of her life as a community activist and as a consultant in public policy, political campaigns, and elections. Numerous personal essays by Carol have been published in the San Jose Mercury News. Her Peace Corps stories have also appeared in anthologies: The Best Travel Writing 2009 and One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo: 50 Years Of Peace Corps Stories. The Peace Corps anthology received the Silver IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) for travel essays in 2011. “We Wait for the Sun” won a gold Solas Award in 2012 for Travel Memoir.

News of Ethiopia

Written and complied by Barry Hillenbrand (Debre Marcos 63-65)

How to raise some cash

Ethiopia is in need of cash for development projects. Sure, the World Bank and other donors give Ethiopia a lot of help, especially in food aid, but the country’s five year growth plan unveiled in 2010 calls for more than $35 billion to be invested in infrastructure projects including roads, dams and railroads. How to get the cash? Ethiopia has already sold off some farm land to foreign investors causing considerable controversy, but now an Addis research company suggests that the government sell five of the crown jewels of state-owned companies, including Ethiopian Airways, Ethio Telecom and the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. That could raise nearly $7.8 billion, which would build a lot of bridges.

Difficult trials

Several important trials are taking place in Addis, with the government dragging various opposition leaders and journalists in front of courts charged with terrorism. Right after the Genna Christmas celebration, Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lelisa appeared in federal court to hear charges accusing them of conspiring to overthrow Ethiopia’s government by force. They were also accused of being recruiters for the Oromo Liberation Front, an outlawed separatist group.

According to a Voice of America report, Bekele and Olbana had been considered among the brightest of the young generation of politicians being groomed to take over following the 2010 electoral disaster, when the opposition was virtually shut out of Parliament. Bekele had been named deputy chairman and external relations chief for the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM), and Olbana held a similar post in the Oromo People’s Congress.

The men were arrested last August after meeting with a visiting delegation from the Amnesty International rights group, which was later expelled from the country. Along with seven co-defendants, Bekele and Olbana had also assisted a BBC news crew that been investigating allegations that Ethiopia used billions of dollars in development aid as a tool for political repression. The government strongly denied the report, calling it irresponsible.

In court, Bekele tried to argue that he had been working for peaceful change on behalf of what he called “downtrodden Oromos.” Chief Judge Endeshaw Adane cut him short, saying the hearing was only for entering a plea.

The trial of Bekele and Olbana is being heard in the same high-court complex where a verdict is due soon in the case of two journalists also charged with terrorism. Reeyot Alemu, a columnist with the weekly paper Fitih [Justice], and Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now defunct Awramba Times, are charged with plotting to sabotage telephone and electricity lines.

In a third terrorism trial, opposition politician Andualem Aragie and internet blogger and political analyst Eskinder Nega are among 30 defendants charged with conspiring to overthrow Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government by violent means. While Eskider and Andualem will be in the courtroom, most of the defendants are in exile and being tried in absentia.

And in a related ruling, Ethiopia sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in jail in December on charges of supporting terrorism after the pair illegally entered the country with a Somali rebel group. Photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye were arrested by Ethiopian security forces in July during a gunfight between Ethiopian soldiers and rebels in the no-go region of Ogaden, and were put on trial in October.

Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled on 27 December that Persson and Schibbye should suffer “rigorous imprisonment” following their convictions. The verdict, he said, “should satisfy the goal of peace and security.” Prosecutors had asked for 18 years in prison for the pair. Speaking from Stockholm, Karin Schibbye, Martin’s mother, told The Guardian, “It’s absurd. You can’t really take in that they are sentenced to 11 years. It’s obviously so wrong. They are innocent. They entered the country illegally and should be punished for that and nothing else.”

In and out of Somalia

In 2006 Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to support a fragile and largely ineffective Africa Union backed government against Islamists, including al-Shabab. While the Ethiopians managed to secure parts of Mogadishu and some outlaying towns, they were not really comfortable nor successful. The Somalis were always resentful and suspicious of the Ethiopians, who had fought a war with them in the 1970s. In 2009 Ethiopian troops withdrew.

Since then, conditions in Somalia have not improved greatly, but a growing African Union force, called Amisom has gained strength as countries like Uganda, Djibouti and recently Kenya have contributed troops. But still the Islamists have power and in last August Ethiopian troops once again entered Somalia. In December Ethiopian forces ousted Al-Shabab from a border town called Bulo Hawo. They helped secure Beledweyne, long a strong hold for the government. But Ethiopia is once again pulling back. They will give their positions to the African Union forces — and wait for the next call for assistance from the AU.

Stick to marijuana

The Netherlands, long famous among young travelers in Europe for its lenient soft drug policies and pot cafes, is banning khat. Four times a week fresh shipments of khat came through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Khat leaves, as some RPCVs may, err, ahh, recall hearing tell, need to be fresh, otherwise they lose their potency. The trade is worth some $18 million per year (bless those EU statistics), but the Dutch are eager to limit the trade because it is causing problems in the Somali/Ethiopian/Eritrean communities in Holland. Khat is banned in the U.S., Canada and several other EU countries.

Commitments not forgotten

BEST BUDS: President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis

Since leaving office three years ago, President George W. Bush has kept a relatively low profile, but in December Bush traveled to Ethiopia to support a project which may be one of the proudest accomplishments of his administration. Bush delivered the keynote address to an international conference on AIDS in Africa. He spoke to an audience of mostly African scientists, health professionals and AIDS activists. But he addressed his most pointed remarks to U.S. lawmakers and taxpayers. According to a VOA report, he drew enthusiastic applause when he said this is not the time to cut back funding for the battle against sexually-transmitted diseases. “During lean budget times, the United States and the developing world must set priorities, and there is no greater priority than saving human life,” he said.

Mr. Bush was showered with gifts and honors during his one-day visit to Ethiopia for his leadership in creating PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief. The 10-year, $39 billion program is considered the largest ever initiative dedicated to fighting a disease.

Bush said that he understood that in the U.S. there is pressure to balance budgets and cut spending, but he said that reducing successful humanitarian programs would diminish America’s standing in the world. “I know that during moments of economic hardship, there can be a temptation for Americans to disengage from the world. But we cannot retreat. We cannot afford to falter when we’re needed most. Isolationism is always short sighted. It’s always a mistake. It can always lead to greater hardship and despair,” he said. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presented Mr. Bush with his government’s Outstanding Leadership award for PEPFAR’s contribution to improving health.