Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Meeting Emperor Haile Selassie

12.08.11

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Meeting Emperor Haile Selassie

12.08.11
Richard Lyman

As with my two previous posts I am drawing stories from the diary I kept while a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in Gondar, Ethiopia.

In Amharic the word “tarik” has the meaning of both “story” and “history” so this is my “tarik.” I’ve told my son, John Lyman, that I will try each month to provide a new “tarik” until I exhaust the material. There will be no chronology to the stories. My daily diary entries are essentially a verbal record. There were no newspapers and radio was limited to the BBC, VOA and a few eastern block stations. News in the government newspapers printed in Addis usually revolved around which factory HIM (His Imperial Majesty) visited.

My information was gleaned from conversations with students, colleagues, the citizens of Gondar, other foreigners working in Gondar and occasional visitors to Gondar who would bring news and rumors of happenings in the capital. My spelling of names and places is based on what I heard and is not taken from any official documents or memos. Amharic has its own alphabet so when I transposed Ethiopian names into English there was a great deal of spelling flexibility. I landed in Ethiopia on September 6, 1962 and stayed in Addis for two weeks until September 21, 1962 at which time eleven of us were flown to our new home in Gondar. The purpose of the two weeks stay was officially called an “orientation” period. However, we suspected it was to give the Peace Corps time to sort out where we were assigned and to make final housing arrangements for us. During the two weeks in Addis we were treated to several wonderful events.

On September 8, 1962 I wrote:

It was Saint Johannes day so we were transported in Italian buses to St. Johannes church over narrow roads clogged with pilgrims. The buses nearly hit several cars, horse drawn wagons, beggars and pilgrims. We were next taken to Africa Hall which was built by Haile Selassie at a cost of $6 million(Eth.) to house the Organization of African Unity. The front of the building contains a striking stained glass image several stories high. Africa Hall is across from HIM’s Jubilee Palace which was built in 1955. Haile Selassie has many titles. Among them: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Haile Selassie 1, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia and Keeper of the Seven Umbrellas. Someone obtained permission for us to visit HIM’s private zoo and formal Japanese garden on the grounds behind the palace. We were told His Majesty’s cheetahs were tame so I entered the cage to pet one. Everything went very well until some fellow standing outside the cage dropped his umbrella and startled the animal. There was a brief period of uncertainty as I hastily exited the cage. I did, however, have a friend on the outside who captured for posterity the event on film. We emerged from the back of the palace in time to witness HIM leaving the grounds in his maroon Rolls-Royce surrounded by his machine gun armed body guard. (On a rare visit to Addis the next year I was driving a Jeep when HIM approached from the opposite direction. As everyone else does, either through custom or law, I got out of the Jeep and bowed as he passed. The act of bowing did not offend my democratic sensibilities as I had great respect for what HIM was attempting to acomplish in Ethiopia).

On September 11, 1962 I wrote:

Today is New Years Day in the Ethiopian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar consists of twelve months of 30 days and a thirteenth month (Pagume) consisting of the remaining five or six days, depending on whether it is leap year. To celebrate New Years day we were honored to be invited to the homes of hundreds of Ethiopian officials. George Parish, John Stockton and I went by VW to the home of Ato Mulugeta Gebrewold who is with the Development Bank of Ethiopia. He is unmarried and lives with his two sisters and aunt in her home which sits right on the street a short distance down the hill from the Piazza. His mother lives in the provinces and we were told that his older brother and father had been killed. The celebration began with glasses of home brewed talla beer (growing up on a farm it reminded me of burned barley). Then followed glasses of teg (mead/fermented honey). The meal was served on a two and a half foot tall elaborate woven basket table. Layers of ingera were spread on the top of the basket. (Ingera is a flat bread made from teff flour. Teff is a fine seed grown in Ethiopia which, unlike our wheat, contains no gluten. Thus, when teff flour is mixed with water and allowed to stand carbon dioxide bubbles off instead of the dough rising. The flat ingera has the appearance of tripe and has a wonderful slightly sour taste).

Gondar, Ethiopia circa 1963

Gondar, Ethiopia circa 1963

On top of the ingera were about ten different wats (spicy sauces). We were shown how to break off pieces of ingera with our right hand and dip it into the sauce of our choice. We made note of the location of the raw ground beef wat and did our best to avoid it. Ato Mulgeta’s Aunt was a most gracious hostess and she introduced us to the custom of “gosha.” (My sons tell me that Ethiopian food and “gosha” have now entered our popular culture because the “Simpsons” have recently been shown enjoying it while eating in an Ethiopian restaurant). I was seated next to our hostess so she repeatedly reached into the common table and gathered up large handfuls of wat and ingera which she plunged into my mouth.

In the spirit of the day and being a good guest I ate and ate. Only when she gathered a large handful of raw beef and fed it to me did I make a decorous retreat to the WC. In addition to the many wats. at the end of the meal we ate dabbo (a type of bread soaked in something so it was like cheese cake). After the meal we were served demitasses of coffee with a spoonfull of sugar in each and tea made with cloves. We then talked and played cards (a form of rummy called conquer). While we were drinking more teg, a dozen neighbor children came by singing songs celebrating the end of the rainy season. After Ato Mulugeta gave them several dollars they sang a final song of thanks in which they wished that the host’s house would have one more child when they came next year.

On September 20, 1962 I wrote:

At 4:00 HIM invited all of us to return to the Jubilee Palace for a reception. We entered through the front doors which were guarded by His Majesty’s two cheetahs. I greeted the one as an old friend. The reception room contained three huge chandeliers. We were served champagne from his finest crystal goblets. In my TWA bag I smuggled in my small Philips tape recorder so I was able to record a “bootleg tape” of Harris Wofford’s introductory remarks and HIM’s welcoming speech. (Harris Wofford was living in Addis and serving as Peace Corps African Director. It was a pleasure to work with Harris.)

When HIM is driven through the streets his two small papillon dogs accompany him. During the reception they were very active at his feet. (A “tarik” we heard later while teaching in Gondar was that Ethiopian government ministers when received by HIM were sniffed by the dogs. If the dogs registered disapproval of the minister, that person might find his standing with HIM impacted.) My tape captured several moments when the two dogs barked as HIM was speaking and he responded by verbally reprimanding them. Following the remarks of HIM we were each invited to step forward and shake his Majesty’s hand and then back away from the throne.

A few years ago when Dallas Smith was at my home for dinner he and I entertained family and friends with our stories of life in Ethiopia in the 60’s. Dallas felt duty bound to add a footnote to our story of meeting HIM at the palace by revealing to everyone that when I stepped back after shaking HIM’s hand I stepped on one of the royal dogs. I had neglected to mention the incident in my diary.

5 comments
9 comments
agostino
agostino

richard next time you come on cape cod we`ll give an other shot on a carpaccio dinner, saluti, agostino.

Ian Parker
Ian Parker

Wonderful article.  I look forward to any follow up pieces.

Ian Parker
Ian Parker

Wonderful article.  I look forward to any follow up pieces.

Sarah J.
Sarah J.

Nice stories by Richard.  Thanks

Bill Nicks
Bill Nicks

Thoroughly enjoyable article.  Fantastic stories!!

Sarah J.
Sarah J.

Nice stories by Richard.  Thanks

Bill Nicks
Bill Nicks

Thoroughly enjoyable article.  Fantastic stories!!

Bill Nicks
Bill Nicks

I've enjoyed reading this series.  Thanks

Bill Nicks
Bill Nicks

I've enjoyed reading this series.  Thanks

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