Aba Gebre Meskel was the morals teacher/orthodox priest assigned to our Haile Selassie 1 Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia. My sense was that he arrived at about the same time as the twelve of us. Even without his turban he was very tall. As our nearest neighbor we saw a lot of him and gained a deep respect for his views and good works. While on our Easter visit to the ancient churches of Lalibela “Lalibela and a Mule Journey across Ethiopia” he shared his opinions on the state of the Orthodox Church. Government agencies and programs would recruit workers through secondary schools like ours.
On one occasion a two year long program in Addis to train better educated students to become school morals teachers came to Gondar to recruit participants from among our 11th graders. Every morning after the school bell rang our students would line-up in the courtyard of the first compound and Aba would address them for ten to fifteen minutes. He would follow announcements with a moral lesson for the day. On May 18, 1964 the lecture concerned students taking chalk from the school and writing “dirty things” on the blacktop streets of the town. It was our understanding that in schools in areas of the Empire where there was a majority Moslem population the morals teacher would be of that faith.
Aba was concerned about the many students who, even though they were receiving a monthly stipend from the government (usually it was $15 Eth. or $6 US), were not able to afford to buy enough food. By March 19, 1963 he and a committee of students were putting the thatched roof on a “tea house” on the school grounds where students could at least each day get some very sweet tea and a hard roll to eat. He and the committee solicited and raised money from students, faculty and town’s people which was entrusted to Aba. He expressed great concern about what to do to safeguard the fund. The logical thing to do would have been to open an account at the State Bank of Ethiopia but Aba was convinced that if he did, some person would accuse him of taking the money. I teasingly suggested to him that he carry it around in his turban. I’m not convinced that that isn’t what he did.
March 19, 1964 many of the Ethiopian teachers in Gondar met to form a Teachers’ Association. The stated purpose was the creation of a benevolent society to help each other out financially in case of sickness, etc. The concern of the teachers was that the government would view it as a union and see it as a threat. To avoid that perception Aba agreed to be appointed the chairman of the group.
It was through an incident with Aba that we learned a great cultural lesson. On a number of occasions we invited Ethiopian teachers and friends to share a meal at our house and they would agree to come at a certain time and date. Too often they would simply not appear and gave no excuse or explanation.
On January 26, 1964 I wrote:
At about 8:00 am Marty and I walked up the mountain to visit Debre Birhan Church which is supposed to be 300 years old. We waited outside the church while the priest finished his sermon in Geez (the liturgical language). There were a few Ethiopians walking in and out. The walls and ceiling are covered with colorful paintings of angels and Biblical scenes. Women would remove their children from their backs before entering the church. There was a great amount of stone kissing.
When we were returning home we passed Aba’s house. Aba was sitting in a corner of the courtyard and a number of Ethiopians were sitting around on chairs. Yimer told us that Aba had just heard that his mother died. We expressed our condolences and then asked: When did she die? Yimer told us that she died five years ago. Aba’s mother lived in Gojam province which is about 200 miles away. Although Aba’s servant girl in Gondar from the same village, had known of her death for several years she did not share the news with Aba because she did not want him to be sad. However, Aba had just recently fired her and out of spite she told him about the death.
Demissie and other Ethiopians in Gondar knew about the death but did not tell Aba. We asked Yimer why this is done and he told us what happened when his own father died. Yimer did not learn of his father’s death for a year. Although it happened six years ago in the case of Yimer’s father, Yimer still has not told his aunt about her brother’s death. This is in spite of the fact that every day Yimer sees his aunt when he eats at her house. According to Yimer the reason is that the news would make his aunt unhappy and no Ethiopian wants to do that to anyone.
As we had done previously when we heard of the death of our School Director, Ato Ketema’s mother, we went to Aba’s house and quietly sat with him. This incident with Aba helped us understand why our invited guests didn’t appear. They avoided telling us directly what they felt would make us unhappy even though they had no intention of coming in the first place. In an historical footnote we had Ethiopian colleagues in Gondar who claimed that Ethiopian tarik (history and/or story) is full of stories of kings dying and the people not being told of the death for years.
At the 50th Peace Corps celebration at the Ethiopian Embassy in September Dallas Smith and I discussed with Ato Wahide Belay Abitew and Ato Tebege Berhe what should be done with all the photographs, recordings and other items we aging Peace Corps veterans brought back. Many historical and cultural records and data were no doubt lost during the Ethiopian Revolution and we may have retained items of important historical interest to Ethiopia. In many instances our children have no particular interest in our collections.
Dallas as a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in music was particularly interested in the sacred music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Aba Gebrel Meskel was very helpful to Dallas in gaining permission to record and understand the high holy orthodox masses (kaduses) of the historic churches of Gondar. The masses often lasted throughout the night and participants would stand the whole time, at times leaning on a long cane held under the pit of the arm. Aba’s grace lives on in the 20 seven inch reels that Dallas recorded and has now donated to the Harvard University Music Department.