When we arrived in Gondar, Ethiopia on September 21, 1962 we were assigned to houses rented by the Peace Corps office in Addis. John Stockton, Dallas Smith, Marty Benjamin and I were given a house on a hillside surrounded by several acres of fields across from the school. The house was enchantingly reminiscent of a Joseph Conrad novel. It was of frame construction set on a massive elevated stone foundation. Each of the four rooms had louvered doors opening onto a veranda which surrounded the entire house. The metal roof added more to the mystique, especially during the rainy season when the sound of the intense rains made being heard difficult.
The house had been built by an Italian engineer for his own use during the period of Italian occupation of Gondar (1935-1941). By 1962 the ownership of the house was murky at best. A man who called himself the “landlord” would appear at our door but we suspected that he was an agent for some important person or government body that had taken ownership after the war.
The Peace Corps paid the $110Eth./month rent ($44 US) directly so we never knew who received the money. However, we were summoned into court throughout the two year period over numerous ownership disputes. We sensed that there was a badge of honor attached to an Ethiopian for bringing a matter before the court.
Originally the house had a bathroom, so as part of the lease the “landlord” was charged with restoring it. In the rafters of the house were two large concrete tanks which were regulated by floats and stored water which flowed through the town water pipes. Throughout October we battled with the landlord to complete the work.
The workmen he sent confided in us that he had a history of not paying his workers and not finishing jobs. We got his attention on October 6 when he came to inspect the leaky sink, loose/leaking toilet bowl and bathtub that was not hooked into the sewer line to the septic tank. He was standing close to the toilet when John reached up and pulled the chain on the toilet flush tank. As we anticipated, the leaking toilet poured water over his fancy Italian shoes. Ultimately we gave up and paid the plumber from the hospital to moonlight for a few hours to do the job right.
A small white dog appeared at our house, as if asking for a place to stay. Because she was so pregnant one of our students named her Sintayu (I have seen too much). We adopted her and although she was friendly she would bark at visitors in a non threatening way. We developed the impression that she might be a racist because she only barked at our Ethiopian visitors . However, Marty put forth a very plausible theory to explain Sintayu’s behavior. Marty observed that Sintayu only barked at visitors who were not wearing shoes.
As the dry season intensified there was an influx of rats seeking water and a source of food. Out bathroom was the focus of their attention. They would climb down the pipes from the attic and crawl up other pipes from the basement. As we were working on our lessons and papers we would hear the clanging of the steel traps we had scattered around on the floor. On December 12, 1963 my diary noted that in one trap we caught “two rats at one time.”
Late in the dry season during the months of March and April, at the start of the small rains, we were accosted by an invasion of moths and unique flying worms. The worms were large and numerous and were attracted by our study lights. We became very practiced snatching them out of the air.
Water was brought to our house through the town water system. Because the pipes were often above ground and subject to leaking we did not drink the water without first boiling it. As the dry season ended and the small rains began, the water would be shut off for days at a time. Before the rains started we would try to take the precaution of having out bathtub full of water. Once the rains began we could catch enough water from the roof to meet our needs.
Many residents of Gondar could not afford to get their water from the town system. They depended upon women to deliver water which they would carry in heavy earthen jars on their backs. The water carriers would fill their jars from the nearby Oaha River. As the dry season continued the river would almost dry up. As the women took a short cut walking through our compound passing our front door, we would listen to the musical sound created by the floating metal cans used for dipping as they clanged against the sides of the earthen jars. By hiding my tape recorder near my front gate I captured a recording of the water carriers’ symphony.
Dr. Rossa, the American director of the Gondar Hospital stopped at the house on October 14, 1962 and invited us on an inspection tour of the Gondar water collection system located in the mountains about 10 km. north of Gondar. There pipes ran from several small mountain streams and then the water was collected at a central little stone building from which it was sent through a larger pipe to Gondar. There was a large unopened bag of chemicals in the building but there was no evidence that the water was treated in a systematic way. Near the water system was the road to the Sudan which is passable (barely) in the dry season. Dr. Rossa related that herds of elephants and hippos in the lowlands between Gondar’s 8,000 foot elevation and the Sudan can be seen only during the rainy season.
After touring the water works, Dr. Rossa took us to his favorite swimming hole in one of the mountain streams. Because no one lived in the area he expressed confidence that the risk from shistosomiasis/bilharzia (liver flukes) was minimal. He did, however, advise us to never swim near the shore in Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, because infected snails inhabit shallow water.
The swimming hole was a delightful refreshing pool trapped beneath where the mountain stream formed a waterfall. As we were enjoying ourselves a puzzled Ethiopian farmer walked by and peered down at us.
Six years ago my son, John, accompanied me on my first return visit to Gondar. Of course, I wanted to show him my old house. The formerly spacious field around it is now filled with countless new houses, but my old house still stands. It and a building constructed next to it now house the Rekebnaha Kindergarten and Primary School, a 600+ student private school. The Headmistress of the school, Rekebnaha Geremew, welcomed us to the school and we toured each of the classrooms. The dirt basement has been excavated and is now a resource center with computers.
It was very touching to see the 50 eager young students studying in my old room. Close to 100 of the students in Rekebnaha School are orphans who attend without paying school fees. The school can be contacted at:
Rekebnaha Kindergarten and Primary School
P. O. Box 111
After touring the school I was reminded of a comment made by one of my students, Teshale Berihune. On July 20, 1963 Teshale visited my house in order to borrow several books from our Peace Corps footlocker library. At the time only Marty Benjamin and I were living in the house. Teshale commented on how strange it was for just two people to live in such a large four room house. He said: “Mr. Lyman, this is a house, not a village.”
Today my old house, hosting hundreds of students, has indeed become Teshale’s “village.”