It was better than any college or high school reunion to see old friends and colleagues with whom 49 years ago I shared an adventure and life changing experience.
On September 13th, The Embassy of Ethiopia, in honor of the fiftieth year anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, hosted a reception and delicious Ethiopian buffet for Peace Corps volunteers who served in Ethiopia from 1962 through the start of the turmoil in the 70’s. It was my honor to be a member of “Ethiopia I,” among the first 280+ Peace Corps teachers invited to Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962. At the time the secondary schools of Ethiopia were a bottleneck through which too few students were able to graduate and pass on for additional training and/or attendance in the University. Twelve of us were sent to Haile Selassie Secondary School in Gondar. It was the only secondary school in the large historic province of Begemeder in N W Ethiopia.
Students came from hundreds of miles from remote villages and farms to attend the school. If they had no family in Gondar they lived in improvised shelters and subsisted on an extremely modest government stipend. It was many a night that we would see students doing their homework while seated under the faint glow of the few streetlights in the town. Five years ago my son, John, the editor of this Journal, persuaded me that it was time to revisit Ethiopia. At the time, John was studying in Paris so I “picked him up” and off we went to Ethiopia. In the back of my mind was a wish to reconnect with former students and to be able to write about their lives then and now and how they survived famine and the chaotic revolutionary decade of the 70’s. For the “then” part I have my detailed six volumes of diaries I kept while teaching. From my Mother I inherited a tendency to save everything so I even brought home a vast archive of student essays and papers.
Gondar is no longer a sleepy provincial capital. It now has a population of over 100,000 plus a university and even a modern beer plant. My expectation of reconnecting with former students was not met. John and I did, however, make wonderful new friends. My old school is still a big part of the community, however, now it is named Facilidas School after the ancient emperor whose palaces and public works abound in Gondar. The house where I lived surrounded by a five-acre field is now almost hidden by numerous houses. The house itself has been added onto and is now a school for over five hundred Montessori students. John and I had a tour of each of the thirteen classrooms where in each one the students performed a song or recitation in our honor.
In one classroom we listened to an anti-corruption song. One of the many former students I hoped to see again was Zewale Zegeye with whom I had corresponded with into the 1970’s. At that time, I quit writing to him for his own safety as I thought with the revolutionary chaos the last thing he needed was to be accused of receiving letters from America. Zewale was a natural leader. He was the leader of the Scouting troop in Gondar started by Mr. Ward, the former British headmaster of our school, and was student body president in his senior year. Zewale loved to write plays, which we might view as being in a “Bollywood” genre. In my diary notation for May 18, 1963 I wrote of Zewale coming to my house late in the day because for the twelfth time he had to go to the local Ethiopian Government Ministry of Interior office where the officials had deleted lines from a play he wrote and planned to direct.
He was extremely upset and asked me “In America do you have to have your plays approved?” I replied “no” and then asked him a question whether in his lifetime he could remember when there could be no plays at all. He admitted that he could. We discussed the fact that small progress might give him hope for greater freedom in the future. I was reminded of my favorite Ethiopian proverb “Cus b cus inculal begaru ye hidal” (Little by little an egg gets legs and slowly walks away.” Zewale went on after high school to work in the office of the City Council in Addis.
This is an excerpt from the last letter I received from him in August 1970:
What I have seen is money electing people not people electing people. Anyway nothing can be finished unless it is started, so I will try again and again hoping to be a member one day, even though there are many obstacles which I should walk over.
I wish happiness, good health and good fortune to you and yours.
I learned while revisiting Gondar that sometime after that letter was written Zewale served as an administrator of a district north of Gondar near Dabat. While there he came to the attention of the military strongman in Gondar who assassinated Zewale by dragging him to his death behind a vehicle.