Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: 300 Gondar School Gardens


Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: 300 Gondar School Gardens


The “Gondar 12,” Madelyn Engvall, Jack Prebis, Charlie Callahan, Frank Mason, Andrea Wright, Patricia Martin-Jenkins, Peggy and John Davis, Martin Benjamin, John Stockton, Dallas Smith and I, arrived on the flight from Addis.

Gondar is in the historic, traditional and remote Begemedir Province which stretches from north of the Siemien Mountains to the south of Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile). We were assigned to the only secondary school, Haile Selassie I Secondary School (HS1SS), in the vast province.

On September 21, 1962 I wrote:

The ‘Gondar 12,’ Madelyn Engvall, Jack Prebis, Charlie Callahan, Frank Mason, Andrea Wright, Patricia Martin-Jenkins, Peggy and John Davis, Martin Benjamin, John Stockton, Dallas Smith and I, arrived on the flight from Addis. Gondar is in the historic, traditional and remote Begemedir Province which stretches from north of the Siemien Mountains to the south of Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile). We were assigned to the only secondary school, Haile Selassie I Secondary School (HS1SS), in the vast province. Gondar was established as the center of the Empire by Emperor Fasilides in 1635. He and subsequent kings built fine castles and churches there for the next two hundred years. Emperor Tewodros moved the capital to Magdala in the mid 19th Century.

We knew Gondar was remote from the fact that HIM (Haile Selassie), when he had a problem with a student leader at University College in Addis, would send the student off into exile as a teacher at our school in Gondar. One such story I recorded in my diary:

Ato Gebeyehu came over to our house for lunch. He is really a bright fellow having been educated for a year in Oslo and traveled widely in Europe. He claims to have a PPE scholarship to Oxford but the Ethiopian government won’t let him leave the country again. For the first two terms of this school year he was exiled to Debre Berhan near Addis but this term he has been sent to Gondar as it is further away. His problem with the government stems from the fact that he is so articulate and was president of the University College student body last year. When the students protested the refusal of the government to reopen the closed dormitories, he was forced to leave University College. The students threatened further strikes unless he could return so he is supposed to be re-admitted for his senior year next fall. The dormitories were closed because they were becoming a center for student exchange of ideas and thus the government is now trying to disperse the university students throughout Addis.

My best estimate for the number of students at HS1SS was under 1,000. I base this on my experience helping the Gondar Health College vaccinate the students for smallpox. That day I sat at the table and checked off 900+ names as the students bravely approached. The health workers would then swab their arm with alcohol, apply a few drops of vaccine and then punch it in through the skin using large dull needles. I would then collect the needles in a small tin and as needed pour in alcohol and light it to sterilize them.

In the Empire national examinations were given to students completing the eighth and twelfth grades. Only three of the previous year’s twenty-four seniors passed the exam. To go on for further education students needed to pass those tests. That first year the twelve of us from the Peace Corps had very little contact with the twenty seniors and small number of eleventh grade students. That was because there were five contract teachers from India who had seniority and only taught one subject,either English, Mathematics or History. We thus were assigned what was left over.

Other staff were: Ato Kettema Kifle, the director, Mr. Ooman, his very capable assistant from India, a British couple under contract, Larry and Pamela (Hebe) Marston, a school secretary Ato Shiffera (the son of the District Governor of Chilga), Aba Gebre Meskel, the school priest and morals teacher, and about a dozen Ethiopian teachers.

The first Ethiopian teacher I got to know was Ato Demussie. He expressed his frustration with the passivity of some of the students by saying “They want us to take knowledge and hang it around their ears like bells.”

Classes began on October 1 after all the assignments were worked out and the students registered. All instruction was in English. This was the first exposure to the English language for the seventh graders. The school day began at 8:20 with the ringing of a bell made from an empty WWII shell and ended at 4:45. There was, however, a two hour break for lunch.

Over the two years I taught 10th grade math to night school students (policemen and students at the Health College), 7th grade science, 8th grade math, 9th grade geography, 10th grade Math, 9th and 10th grade agriculture and 200+ 7th grade students gardening.

As it does today, the school (bearing the new name of Fasilides School) sprawled for about 1/3rd of a mile along the road from the Bath of Fasilides (a unique 17th century castle standing on pillars in a pool) towards the center of town. I was asked to be the garden master over a fertile area just opposite the Bath. On the site was this mysterious small round stone structure which was locked-up and for which no one seemed to have a key. It had a small high window through which I boosted one of the small seventh graders and he opened the door from the inside. It turned out to be an abandoned well house built during the Italian occupation. I replaced the lock with one of my own and used the building as storage for all the tools (sickles, pick-axes, shovels, watering cans and hoes) which the children would need.

Aba Gebremeskel

Aba Gebremeskel

Each school in the Empire had a storekeeper who was personally responsible for all books, tools, and materials. Our storekeeper tried his best to be helpful. He, however, was personally financially liable for all materials.

Therefore, we had to sign for everything we checked out of his storeroom with the knowledge that in order to leave the Empire in two years we would have to have a signed paper from him stating that everything was returned. I had been warned that a previous garden master had had 11 sickles and 14 pick-axes walk off the school ground. Elsewhere in the Empire some other Peace Corps teachers reported that their storekeepers protected themselves by simply not allowing books and materials to leave the storeroom. On the back wall of the storeroom I discovered a map from the ‘30’s showing Ethiopia as a part of Italian East Africa.

There were very few textbooks and those we had were often of limited help. I recall that the seventh grade science books had chapters titled: “Birds of the Moorlands” and “Twigs in Winter.” We had to create our own books by standing at the blackboard and writing and writing and the students would copy and copy it all into their copy books.

At Carleton College we were required to wear coats and ties to dinner so, somewhat out of defiance, I purchased a denim blazer on which I sewed the college badge. That was my standard uniform in Gondar. The two large pockets were always filled with many pieces of chalk. Only after several weeks of teaching did it dawn on us that we were talking too fast and the students were having trouble understanding our American English. In five of the schools in the Empire, the Ministry of Education was experimenting with the teaching of agriculture. Ours was one of those and I, along with John Davis, team taught agriculture. There was no curriculum, no funding and no materials.

USAID shipped two dozen new typewriters to our school but they could not find a dozen leghorn chickens in the Empire to send me. I decided that my 50 eager students were unlikely to return to the farms of their fathers. However, because they might become teachers or possibly work with farmers, I believed that they should thoroughly understand the science of growing things. Thus, I spent a great deal of time teaching them how plants and animals, including humans, utilize nutrition, minerals etc. The students often shared their common folklore with me about such things. All the salt in the province was excavated in the Danikal depression and was sold as blocks or in bulk in the Saturday market. It was not iodized and because of the leached out soils in the area, goiters were a big problem.

After a lesson teaching about the body’s need for iodine, a student, Abderman, came up to me after class and gestured with his hand around his neck to indicate where a goiter could develop and then asked, ”Sir, you mean if I sleep with a woman with this I will not get it?”

When the new USAID typewriters arrived at the school all the students wanted to learn to type. Having the typing skill was viewed as a pathway to a comfortable government job in Addis. Dallas Smith was asked to teach typing. He wrote a list of “rules” for taking typing in order to maintain decorum and the equipment. Some of the rules related to having clean hands and trimmed fingernails. The latter requirement posed a cultural conflict because Begemedir was the heartland of Amhara tradition and one of the local traditions observed by many was to grow a long nail on the little finger of one hand thus showing that one did no manual work. The desire to learn typing trumped tradition for almost everyone. On the first day of typing class Dallas stood in the doorway with nail clippers at the ready.

I spent time with the students in the gardens after school and on Saturday mornings. They took great pride in their small plots. On December 11th I observed some of the 7th graders proudly marching around the school compound showing off the radishes they had grown. There were many instances when students invited me to their houses and proudly showed off the gardens they had planted for their families. All but one student, the son of a minor local nobleman who regularly sent his servant to weed his garden, received a very high grade in the class.

Each of the 200+ students tore a page from his/her copy book and wrote an essay about his/her garden. I brought all the essays home and in reading them for this article I noted that many of the students, in addition to furnishing their homes with vegetables, sold several dollars worth of produce in order to buy pens and copy books. They wrote very eloquently in spite of their limited exposure to English.

Genet, a seventh grade girl had this to say (I made a few edits):

Our school garden is very powerful because it has many uses. Some uses are as follows. It gives energy or force. It protects from some diseases. I have very good plant in our school. I liked Cabbage, Salade, Costa, Tomato, Carrot, Beet Root and so on I planted in the school some seed and it will became big I take from our garden place to my house and give for my mother. At that time my mother happy by some plant because she know the uses of plant and she thank a lot me.

Considering the turmoil that Ethiopia has experienced over the past fifty years, I believe that the simple skills I taught about growing one’s own food may have been the most useful survival skill I offered my students from whom I learned so much.

Victoria Erdelevskaya
Victoria Erdelevskaya

Great series! Love reading them. Could definitely make a good book! Please keep them coming.


Wonderful that you kept a diary. Enjoyed Thomas

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