Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Road Trip with a VW Bug

05.22.12

Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Road Trip with a VW Bug

05.22.12
Richard Lyman

Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia we were not allowed to own private vehicles. That at least was the rule, however, not so in practice.

Only days after landing in Gondar one of our twelve fellow volunteers purchased a very used VW bug for $300 Eth. On September 24th my diary noted that the driver had tried to avoid hitting a cow and as a result the car had ended up in a ditch. When the volunteer went back the next day to retrieve the car it had disappeared. That was the end of that vehicle story. The only other private Peace Corps owned motor vehicle in Gondar was a well used European motorcycle bought by Jack. It was forever in need of spare parts and repair but while running it gave Jack a certain jaunty air.

In Addis and Asmara there was a heightened sense that private vehicles would be helpful. We being country folk in the provinces of Gondar only heard joking references to Volunteers owning cars in Addis and registering them in their servant’s name. They were euphemistically referred to as “sebanas (watchmen) cars.”

During our first year in Gondar we were administered out of the Peace Corps office in Addis. The second year, after the forced amalgamation of Eritrea with Ethiopia, we were looked after by the Asmara Peace Corps office. The Peace Corps supplied us with several shared bicycles and a motor vehicle. In the course of the two years we received a number of different vehicles. For a while we had a Land Rover such as you would see in a 50’s African safari movie. Most often we had a blue multi passenger Jeep. In between were a number of pick-ups and other trucks. The general rule was that the Gondar Peace Corps group was the “lost tribe” and we got whatever vehicle was not needed elsewhere in the Empire.

At one point we had a truck returned to us that we had used the previous year. It, however, after being taken away from us had been rolled over elsewhere in the Empire and was a bit worse for wear. At our organizational meeting of the Gondar Peace Corps 12 John Davis was chosen as chairman and I was designated as the “Minister of Transportation.”

That honor meant that I had the keys to the vehicle and the $2,000 Eth. in Peace Corps vouchers for fuel and repairs. Not unrelated to my achieving the post was the fact that our house was the only one with a metal shed in which the vehicle could be parked.

Every two months the Peace Corps would pay for one of our number to fly to Addis in order to keep in touch. We would rotate that honor which carried with it a lot of responsibilities. The designee had to carry out a number of duties on behalf of our whole group. He/she was not to return without:

First buying a number of jars of peanut butter, a Time Magazine, going to the Mercato (the largest market in Africa) and buying items (books, tools, supplies, etc.) that we would need to return to the school store keeper to replace items our students lost and which we were personally liable for and collecting all the latest rumors, stories and news from the capital.

On one of the visits to Addis, Andrea was so loaded down with items for the rest of us that she had to send them air freight. Jack returned from an April 1963 Addis visit with the interesting tidbit of information that in seven months Ethiopian Peace Corps Volunteers had racked-up 18 insurance claims related to vehicles. We were fortunate in Gondar to have a mechanic, Petros, who worked at the local Agip Gas station on the Piazza between the Cinema Bar and the castle compound.

Petros could keep any neglected Peace Corps vehicle running. Travel from Gondar was really only possible in one direction, towards Asmara to the North. During our first year the road south around the east side of Lake Tana was slowly transformed from a muddy dirt track into a proper gravel highway. As for travel west to The Sudan, that was only a thing of dreams. Doctors at the Gondar hospital had made the trip during the dry season and shared stories of the adventure which will be a part of another day’s diary post.

In September 1963 His Majesty left Ethiopia on a state visit to the United States. Because an attempted coup had taken place on a previous occasion when he was out of the country there was concern about history repeating itself. Among ourselves we strategized, in passing, how all 12 of us could fit into the Land Rover and drive to the Sudan. Mr. Ooman who was assistant school director related that the last time when there was unrest in the capital policemen were sent to the homes of every foreigner in Gondar to stand guard. We felt absolutely secure and only in passing made note of where the trail to the Sudan began. Our plan was a fantasy because it was still the rainy season so the trail would be mud and we’d never all fit in the vehicle along with enough gasoline for the trip.

Driving on the left we quickly learned required great concentration. The few roads were paths for farmers to reach market with their livestock and produce. Overtaking a pedestrian was an iffy proposition. Often walkers would not be expecting a motor vehicle so there would be a startled response and they would take off in unexpected directions. Ethiopian men sometimes would be seen walking down the road holding hands. In one instance when I drove up behind two such men I witnessed the one on the right run towards the left and the one walking hand in hand on the left run towards the right. The resulting cross over sent them both to the ground. Fortunately I was able to stop.

My students claimed the incidence of some Ethiopians running in front of a vehicle, just barely averting being hit, was not because of being startled but was related to their belief in evil spirits. If the person running across in front of the vehicle felt he/she was being followed by an evil spirit then the evil spirit might be killed by the vehicle. We used our vehicle sparingly because most of the time we walked or rode our bicycles. On several occasions we helped the Provincial Ministry of Education deliver books and supplies to outlying schools.

Several of these photographs and the following diary entry were made on October 4, 1963 when Marty and I made such a delivery:

Marty and I were at Asfaw’s (the assistant provincial Education official) house at 6:00 in order to start the book delivery. The middle seat of the Land Rover was piled full of books. The labels on some of the packages read “sience.” I just hope the books didn’t use the same spelling. The climb to Amba Giorgis was quite a strain on the vehicle. Most of the way I had to drive in second gear. At Amba Giorgis we dug out six packages of books from the bottom of the pile. The village is atop a hill and is really little more than a collection of leaning chika (mud) houses with tin roofs.

The Debat school is in an old Italian building. The stable out back is used for a number of classes. The school’s water supply is used by many of the town’s people. Many students meet outside as there is an enrollment of 500. Compared with Gondar the outlining schools are really shabby and poorly equipped. However, Gondar schools are certainly inferior to those Addis. It’s a case of over centralization which keeps the funds in the capital city.

Asfaw is an Amhara from Shoa (Addis) who has never been north of Debark and could only talk at length about the night life in Addis. The director of the Debat school counted out his 16 packages of books and then took us to a bar. We had 8:00 AM tea with a hefty shot of cognac. Then we were off for Debark. There we had difficulty locating the school as no one we asked seemed to have heard of it. We finally found it at the end of a lane which ran into a stream that was crossed by a wobbly footbridge.

The Simien District Education officer counted out his 6 packages of books and then climbed into the Land Rover for the trip to Adi Archi and points north. He added one package of books and two powdered milk boxes full of chalk to our remaining packages of books. He brought along his WWII British rifle and a cartridge belt full of ammunition. As we were driving down the Welkefit Pass (from Debark to the Tekeze River the road descends from the mountain heights through elaborate switch backs built by the Italians during the occupation) we were surprised to see Ato Asfaw take off his sports coat and reveal his shoulder holster and revolver. The Amharas are scared to death of the shifta (bandits) who frequently appear along this stretch of road. The shiftas usually only stop and rob drivers, however, there is a political element to their activities which is a threat to Amharas.

Half the way down from the pass we had to stop so Ato Asfaw could take a shot at a monkey. At the base of the pass we delivered one package of books to a school in a dilapidated Italian building. It was in a beautiful setting as the road was lined with eucalyptus trees. At Adi Archi we delivered our last two packages of books. The school is in an old Italian house which is being eaten away by termites. With each passing year the back walls of the house are settling so that now the doors are only about four feet high. In some rooms the students reach the outside by just walking through gaping holes in the walls. There was an absence of any sort of repair or maintenance. The school well was about 15 meters deep and had stone steps winding down into it. We ate at the local hotel. Marty and I had meat wat but Ato Asfaw said he couldn’t have any meat as he didn’t know whether the Simien District official would report him for eating meat on a fast day.

We then set out for a tiny place 25 kilometers from the Tekeze River where we delivered our chalk. The school had one room in which the two teachers lived and taught. All the houses were built right up to the road and the place was hot, dirty and full of flies. On the way back Ato Asfaw said he saw a tiger. Fortunately he did not get a shot at whatever it was. We arrived home tired and dusty at 7:00.

As a totally unrelated item I’d like to mention that an early 1964 The New Yorker Magazine issue mentioned the unique telephone listing for the Palace in Addis. On April 6, 1964 I borrowed the Addis phone book from the school office and checked. Sure enough there was a phone number listed for the “Palace Chariot and Vehicle Department.”

January 1964 Ambassador Edward Korry and his wife drove down from Asmara for a few days in Gondar. He met with us at the hotel in Gondar and gave us a lengthy briefing on Ethiopian/American affairs. Because he was planning to fly back to Addis from Bahir Dar and we had a few Ethiopian Christmas vacation days off we asked him to let us ride in his official car when it returned to Asmara. He graciously agreed to have his driver Ato Jacob drive us there on January 4.

This is what I wrote on January 4, 1964:

We were up at 6:00. Marty, Trish, Madelyn and Yimer drove to Bahir Dar. I left money for Aragash to pay our bread bill and then went up to the hotel to wait for the return of Ato Jacob from Gorgora, a village on the north side of Lake Tana. It was from Gorgora that Ambassador and Mrs. Korry took a ferry to Bahir Dar in order to catch a plane to Addis. Ato Jacob arrived at 10:30 after spending an hour saying good by to his Tigrenean friends in Gondar. Some had given him letters to give to friends in Asmara. The car was a new Chevrolet. The road was extremely dusty so we were soon covered in dust.

Because Ethiopian Christmas is next week the roads were full of people coming and going to market. There were big market days in Debat, Adi Archi and Endi Selassie. At Adi Archi we stopped for a coke at the hotel/bar. At one end of the market square is a Coptic Church which has taken over the old Italian Roman Catholic Church building. Endi Selassie was a mandatory stop for petrol from the hand cranked pump.

At Selik-Lika, which is one third of the way from Endi Selassie to Axum we were stopped about half a kilometer out of town by a crowd of perhaps 200 people. They were all Tigreneans who were on their way home from market. The men all had tears in their eyes and some of the women were hysterical. Under a pile of branches was the body of a 20 year old, only son, of one of the women. She was screaming and half a dozen other women had to restrain her by holding onto her hair and covering her with their dresses.

The man lying in the road had just been killed by a car driven by a foreigner who drove on. The people stopped us thinking that if the other car contained our friends it would have to return for us. Ato Jacob got out and talked with the people while insisting we stay in the car. They were very careful not to touch the car as it had diplomatic plates plus Ato Jacob had made it very clear His Majesty would not approve. After about 40 minutes a Land Rover came from the other direction loaded with policemen. The driver was a Peace Corps Volunteer who had come with the second Peace Corps group who were largely working with expanding a University Extension program. The man’s original assignment was in Harar but he had gotten himself reassigned to work on a manpower survey of Ethiopia.

The only second year volunteers (Ethiopia II) we had met were those who were assigned to Gondar. Three of the newcomers (Gayle, June and Alan) pitched right in to help alleviate the terrible teacher shortage we had in our secondary school. A fourth one named Helen announced upon her September 1963 arrival in Gondar that she had come to be a secretary. Harris Wofford had privately asked us to try to convince all of them to stay. Helen soon returned home. The remaining two volunteers had very light night school teaching schedules but they refused to help by teaching classes in our school during the day.

The two Americans in the Land Rover were on their way to deliver a lecture in Asmara when they hit the young man. Instead of staying at the scene and possibly facing an angry mob they drove on 20 km. to get the police in the next village. As we were waiting for the matter to be sorted out several buses stopped and the passengers had to get out and look. Finally the body was lifted into the Land Rover and the police chief climbed into the car with us and we set off for Axum where the district government is. Not far out of Axum Ato Jacob pointed out the place where the American Consul was stopped by shiftas last year.

The heads of the Asmara AID office and USIS were also along. They had driven three vehicles with no Ethiopians along as drivers. Before leaving Asmara they asked Ato Jacob what to do to be certain not to encounter shiftas. He told them not to tell anyone in Axum they were going on to Gondar and to not leave Axum for Gondar until at least 8:00 AM. They started out from Axum much earlier than that with Campbell from the Consulate in the lead vehicle. He was followed by Gail from AID and Kent from USIS in a third vehicle. Gail saw Campbell being stopped by shiftas so he spun his car around in the road and headed back. As he passed Kent he yelled that shiftas were ahead, but Kent (an idiot) said he wanted to see what they looked like. The shiftas then stopped Kent too and took everything out of his car. They told him to take off his prescription sunglasses too and when he refused they clouted him on the head.

We got to Axum at about 7:00 and checked into the touring hotel. The Shaffas (an Iranian doctor and his wife) were there as they were on their way back to Gondar after a vacation in Massawa, Eritrea. At about 9:00 the driver and passenger in the Land Rover checked into the hotel.

January 5 I wrote:

Ato Jacob went to arrange a bond for the driver of the Land Rover so we walked around Axum. The tourist organization wants to know how many tourists come through Axum so we had to grudgingly check in at the police station. The town is not as dirty as it was a year ago because some of the worst buildings have been cleared away from around the obelisks and churches. After exhausting the tourism possibilities of Axum we went back to the hotel and played crazy 8’s until 2:30 when everything was ready for us to leave for Asmara. Ato Jacob posted a bond of $1,000Eth. and bought the police captain a drink at the hotel. The trial is to be in Makele, the capital of Tigre Province, later this month. Just a short distance from Axum, Ato Jacob almost hit a woman who darted across in front of us. Only 20 km. from Asmara a tire blew. We were glad to arrive in the city.

It is only 350 miles from Gondar to Asmara but that trip was an eternity. As an aftermath to the accident I recorded these comments from Andy Bell who was the Peace Corps administrator in Asmara. He flew down to Gondar to check on us after he had settled the unfortunate accident in Tigre.

January 20, 1964 I wrote:

It was quite late at night when we met with him (Andy Bell). He’s most efficient and helpful but is totally lacking in any sense of humor. We asked if he had had a chance to meet Ato Yoseph (our Provincial Head of the Ministry of Education). He rather reluctantly said “Yes, but he was somewhat incoherent.”

Yoseph had been in a bar and was quite drunk and abusive towards Bell. We were rather relieved that now one Peace Corps Official had met the “real Ato Yoseph”:

Bell has been settling the accident claim in Tigre Province. He said it was one of the most difficult things he’s been asked to do while in Ethiopia. He said that the family of the dead man asked for $1000 Eth. but he told them he wanted to receive the same treatment as would an Ethiopian so they settled for $700 Eth. ($280 US) as a death payment. He said they didn’t seem very upset and were very friendly towards him. Their only complaint was about the one foreigner who laughed while at the scene of the accident.

On June 8, 1964 Ethiopia switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. We expected chaos but everything went smoothly. When I first got back home in late summer to Minnesota I found that I was quite ambivalent as to which side I drove on. On more than one occasion I found myself sliding into the driver’s seat on the wrong side of the car. In general I would orient myself by envisioning which side of the road our rural mailbox was on.

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