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Culture & Religion

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 9

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 9

Days after our arrival in Gondar we were approached by numerous students asking for employment in our house in exchange for a place to stay and a small stipend. While, as I’ve indicated in a previous chapter, we were reluctant to admit we needed help we were impressed by the story of one tenth grade student, Yimer Mekonnen.

Yimer Mekonnen

In exchange for Yimer’s help with laundry and market purchases we converted a “summer kitchen” off of the porch into his room. Like most students Yimer was from a small farming village far away in the province. In my, “Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 2,” I wrote of our cross country walk from Lalibela to Debre Tabor. We walked within sight of Yimer’s village, however, although we offered, he declined to visit.

Yimer was fortunate to have family, an aunt and uncle living in Gondar. Most students were living away from their villages for the first time and were subsisting entirely on a small monthly stipend ($15 Eth.) from the Ministry of Education. When the time came for Yimer to leave his village to attend secondary school in Gondar, his local priest took him aside for a heart to heart talk. The priest warned Yimer that moving to a big place like Gondar meant that he might begin to not observe the fasts of the Orthodox Church and then he would begin to have religious problems and finally, worst of all, he might start to eat pork.

To leave one’s village was a big deal. Students frequently would refer to it as “going to another country.” Rereading Yimer’s comments about leaving his village reminded me of my own family’s reaction to my announcement that I was going to Africa with the Peace Corps. I got to share the comments with others while in training at Georgetown University during the summer of 1962. The Peace Corps psychologist conducted small group sessions to judge our suitability for participation in the program. I remember in one session the question was asked whether we had thought of being homesick while abroad.

It gave me an excuse to tell the group the story of my Grandmother, Evelyn Brackett Lyman’s, reaction to the news that I was going to Africa. She was the matriarch of the family and I was the only grandson so she pulled me aside one day to ask “How can you go to Ethiopia? I won’t see you again.” My reply to her was “We both know you are too stubborn to die!” Sure enough she was there two years later at the Minneapolis/St Paul Airport when I stepped off the plane. My diary entries for February 1964 often mention listening to reports on the BBC, VOA and Ethiopian radio of the fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia.

(Photos: Yimer Mekonnen)

On Sunday Feb. 9 I wrote:

The Ethiopian government has taken responsibility for the Somalia border area out of the Ministry of Interior and reassigned it to the Ministry of Defense. Ethiopian Radio claims that Somali casualties are at the rate of 4 to 5 per Ethiopians killed. In the afternoon the school lost its soccer game with the army 2 to 1. We watched the game from the high bank overlooking the end of the Zobel field so that we would be out of rock throwing range. Yimer’s uncle, brother and cousin came to Gondar this morning. They’d been walking for four days from their village near Debre Tabor. They came to our house and Yimer introduced us. They showed great respect for us by bowing and shifting their shammas off of their shoulders. Yimer proudly showed them his room, bed, books, watch and clothes. They came to Gondar because someone in their village tried to bomb the uncle and they needed to report the incident to the provincial officials because the brother had witnessed the incident.

On February 10 I wrote:

Somali radio claims to have blown up an Ethiopian ammunition depot and killed 350 Ethiopians. Yimer took the day off from school to take his relatives to the court. He says it was a good thing he did because ‘they are just country people and would have been run over by cars.’ Every time a car came towards them they would panic. In the court they were so awed they forgot their own names. Yimer says they are very anxious to leave tomorrow and get back to the safety of their village.

Yimer, was a wonderful source of folklore and culture. He was able to help us understand what was happening around us. He started life as a shepherd boy in his village. He related that at times when there was frost on the ground he and the other shepherds would tie leave from the false banana plant to their bare feet. We never asked the ages of our students for two reasons. First, they might not really know and secondly, they might in all likelihood ask our ages. I assumed that Yimer and many of my other students had been shepherds and had started school at an older age and they well might be older than I.

Scattered throughout my six volumes of diaries are many quotes from Yimer:

Solomon Abate wore a deflated soccer ball to school in the afternoon. It makes a swell rain hat. His father Ato Abate is a judge and is also the fattest man in Gondar. Yimer says that Ato Abate once tried to ride in a horse drawn garry and broke it. Yimer bought me a policeman’s raincoat (zenab libs) for $8.50. Policemen were given two coats a year so if they have a spare they sell it.

Yimer told us that the former mayor of Gondar (the one who paved the streets) has died in Addis and there will be a ceremony of public mourning tomorrow morning under the big tree near the market. Yimer said it will be a traditional ceremony with ‘the slaves carrying empty talla jars on their backs.

Yimer told Marty why Ethiopians want so many children. They believe that success comes only through luck so if they have seven children the chances are greater that one child will be lucky and will thus be able to support the whole family.

Yimer and I went to the arada (market). He showed me the different kinds of sheep. Those from North of Gondar, near Dabat, have short tails while those from south of Gondar, near Debre Tabor have fat tails. A number of women were selling butter which they took out of a gourd and melted over a charcoal fire. This was cooking butter. The hair butter is sold in a little solid pat between two fresh leaves.

About once a month Yimer would gather up all our empty bottles and tins and recycle them by selling them in the Saturday market. When my son, John, and I were in Gondar six years ago empty bottles were still sought after. A stone mason working to restore the wall at the Bath of King Fasil very politely asked if he could have the empty water bottle I was carrying.

On 19 June 1963 I wrote:

Today is Wodaja which is a pagan celebration that occurs three times a year. People believe they must kill a multi-colored chicken in their houses. As a result the price of chickens has been very high this week. In addition there is a great deal of dancing. We could hear the drums during the night. Yimer tells me that Wodaja is an appeal to the pagan deity Zaff for mercy in case of illness in the coming year.

I took the photograph below of Yimer’s Aunt and Uncle standing in the doorway of their house. I regret that I never wrote down their names and after fifty years I cannot remember them. If records of the Gondar Health College sanitarian department still exist from the period when the sanitarians took the census and assigned each house a number then their house number would answer the question. They were a handsome couple and extremely gracious. They often included us in neighborhood and family gatherings.

Pinned to the wall of their house was a photograph of the uncle proudly posing as a dashing young man in his Italian police uniform. On a number of occasions during visits to the homes of students I met uncles, fathers or grandfathers who had worked for the Italians during the occupation. I guess that would be expected because Gondar had been the center of the Italian occupation and contained upwards of 20,000 Italians. In spite of stories of Italian atrocities I did not hear of reprisals against those Ethiopians who had served them.

Once an Ethiopian teacher whispered a joke in my ear:

Who were the two most foolish men in the world? First was Mussolini for wanting Ethiopia. Second was Haile Selassie for taking it back before the Italians had finished building it.

On weekends I would often be invited by students to take walks with them and explore their favorite places in Gondar. Frequently we spent time at their families’ and friends’ houses drinking talla and tea and eating ingera. I was always honored to be invited into their homes.

One Saturday Yimer and Mulattu took me on a round about journey to the Falasha village north of Gondar. It wasn’t the usual route of going through the Piazza and turning left onto the Asmara road.

On the walk, Yimer (with no embarrassment) pointed out the house where his aunt lived as the mistress of an Italian soldier during the occupation.

Here is what I wrote on that April 1964 day:

The area then had its own hospital, cinema and was full of barracks buildings. Tukul Hill which towers up behind the Post Office was called Tigre Mecha because centuries ago when the Emperor lived in Gondar the Tigres from the north would come to see him and always camp on the mountain side.

Mulattu’s father was an officer in the Italian army. From Mullatu’s comments it sounded as if he commanded some Italian troops. After the war his father quietly switched sides and joined the Ethiopian police. When we crossed a bridge on the Asmara road near the Incode (Israeli) meat packing plant Mulattu recalled when it was built ten years ago because at that time he used to watch his father’s cattle on a nearby hill.

After visiting the Falasha village we returned to Gondar through the Megech River valley. An eleventh grade student was rounding up his father’s donkeys in order to take some grain into Gondar. Along the River there are the ruins of Italian block houses and irrigation works. Big pipes still lead into some fields but the pumps are now gone. We climbed the mountain behind the Roman Catholic Church. On the way we passed more ruined forts and the foundations of the little round huts where the Ethiopian Italian troops were housed.

We stopped at the house of a mentor to Yimer whom he referred to as ‘his brother’. There we had tea and ingera with a glob of pepper paste on it. The family was preparing to go to a celebration of the marriage of an eight year old girl. Two families were concerned about keeping their adjoining land in the family so they are marrying two of their eight year olds. Up the street there was a tent set-up and the people under it were wailing because Mekuria (a ninth grade student last year) had died in Addis. Mekuria’s father was a policeman and had been transferred to Addis last year. While in Addis Mekuria had been sick most of the year.

On 27 April 1964 I wrote:

Yimer invited me to his aunt’s for lunch. She served miser (lentil) and sherro (chickpea) wats and lots of talla. The aunt and uncle have a new servant girl (Abebe) who appears to have caught Yimer’s eye. Abebe recently divorced her husband in Yimer’s village and moved to the big city. The area of Gondar where the aunt lives is called ‘Shameye Seffer’ after the man who came from Dessie with his followers during the war. It is only half a mile from our house. An Ethiopian soldier who served with the UN in the Congo is building a $5,000 house in the neighborhood. He plans to rent it out. Yimer says even a common soldier returned from the Congo with over $1,500. The roof of the aunt’s house has been used five different times. It’s Italian roofing steel and is worth the same as the thin Japanese sheets that are now sold. On the walk back to our house on the shady lane, a neighborhood talla seller told Yimer that she would like to marry me.

1 March 1964 I recorded another event:

Yimer invited us over to his aunt’s for an afternoon party. Every year just before the Easter fast she has a celebration for the neighbors and people who attend a certain church. The people who live far away come for the afternoon while the near neighbors wait for the evening performance. At the side of her rectangular chika (mud) walled house she created a flat topped little hut for the party. The corners had posts dug into the ground and walls and ceiling were made out of branches and blankets. The dirt floor was covered with eucalyptus leaves. We sat on woven mats placed along the side walls. Many of the afternoon guests had come to Gondar during the occupation. They had accompanied a Ras (leader) and when he died they remained in Gondar. All of us were given glasses that were kept full of talla. Two servants tended the talla jugs which were as large as beer kegs. It was all two men could do to lift a full one into place.

Two priests sat along one side. A servant to one man sat in the center of the floor by himself. After a while one of the priests stood up and delivered a prayer. The other priest then got up and said it was a happy time that everyone could be present. He then quoted an Ethiopian proverb to the effect that when everyone else is present at a gathering, white men will come.

Yimer estimated that his aunt spent $25 for the teff for the injera and $50 for the dagussa and barley for the talla beer. The ingera was served with a paste made out of water, beriberi and perhaps sesame seed oil.

On the way back to our house we passed a wedding party on the road in front of the Davises’ house. The bride and groom were on one mule and another man followed them on a second mule. The bride was wrapped in a shamma and she appeared to be no older than fourteen. All around the two mules six other young men danced, sang and just jumped about. They periodically raced each other down the road as they returned to their village in the mountains.

This brief “Part 9” from my Ethiopian Diary celebrates the contributions Yimer Mekonnen and his family made toward enriching my two years in Gondar.


What a very eye opening experience and so well written I felt like I was there!