I don’t recall the issue of censorship being discussed in our Peace Corps training program at Georgetown University during the summer of 1962. Our means of communicating with home were very basic and primitive when compared to the instant internet communications of today. My weekly letter home was anticipated and shared with family members and friends. Among my parents’ generation there was a great reservoir of good will towards Ethiopia and His Majesty Haile Selassie. They remembered with great emotion his 1936 appearance before the League of Nations where he appealed to the world to take collective action against the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia and their horrific killing of civilians.
Some Peace Corps volunteers became aware that their letters were being published by their families in local newspapers. In my “Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: The Gondar Saturday Market” I describe how Dallas sent home his motion picture films with the knowledge that his mother was showing them to her friends. He took great delight in imagining their reaction to the particularly gruesome film of the butchering of a cow at Easter.
Because I sent home each of my diaries as completed I indulged in a bit of coding. For example, I may not have wanted Mother and Grandmother to have known that their “Richy” missed a day of school because he drank too much delicious cold homemade teg (honey/mead) at the local Gondar celebration of His Majesty’s birthday.
In my diary I attributed my absence to illness. I did, however, write about waking up late the next day when four of my concerned students appeared at the end of my bed holding flowers they had picked in the school gardens.
In re-reading my diary for these articles I have come across several choice stories which I so carefully coded that even I can’t recall what they were about. For us Time Magazine was an important source of information about the outside world. Harris Wofford once confided to us that he never imagined that he would actually look forward to reading Time.
Early in our stay in Ethiopia, Time Magazine was banned for a brief period of weeks. The story we were told was that a Time article insulted Ethiopian censors by referring to the band that greeted foreign heads of states as “tootling.” Twice in two years I used the telephone which was located in the school office. To be heard in Addis or Asmara one had to shout. During the Ethiopian Christmas break which fell in January 1963, the Peace Corps brought all volunteers in the Empire to Asmara for a ten day training session.
After four months in Gondar a visit to Asmara was like a vacation in Italy. At the time Asmara still had a large Italian population and many wonderful restaurants. The first thing I did when we arrived in Asmara was to go to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and book the use of the telephone line to call home at noon Minnesota time on January 17, 1963. I then wrote home and told them that I would be calling at noon on that day. On January 17th I presented myself at the telephone office and was terribly disappointed to be told “His Majesty Haile Selassie has come to Asmara and has reserved the line because he is expecting an important call from London.”
Being bumped by the Emperor seemed like a plausible excuse.
In early September 1963 I was at the agricultural college in Eastern Ethiopia learning more about farming in Ethiopia to help me with my classes in Gondar. I took the train back to Addis from Dire Dawa. On September 8 I wrote:
We were late getting to the train so all the second class cars were filled with people, some sitting on the floor. By the middle of the night a young State Bank employee named Ato Tilahun found us a place to sit. On one bench was a wide eyed young man of about 20. He was wrapped up in a Somali blue piece of cloth. Around his wrists was a padlocked chain. The other end of the chain was held by an old Galla woman we assumed to be his mother. She had a reed basket out of which she brought some chat branches which the young man eagerly chewed. She then gave him several hard rolls which he attacked like a hungry dog. Next she gave him a drink of milk out of a tea kettle. After that she said something to him and he hopped off the bench and curled up on the floor. A Moslem merchant seated on the bench across from the couple opened his suitcase at one point. In it was a bundle of bills.
The State Bank of Ethiopia wrapper said $5,000. During the night a man sleeping under our bench broke open a sack of Harar coffee. In the morning he emerged covered with ground coffee. He was not amused when I joked about “sine buna” (a cup of coffee). Between Awash and Nazareth three Nottingham University students got on the train and slept on the floor. At one stop an old Italian casually tossed a banana peel out the window and hit a policeman on the face. The latter just glared at us. Arriving in Addis I went to eat at our favorite China Bar. I knew it was time to go to the Peace Corps transit house for a nap when I dozed off during lunch and my head drooped into my wonton soup.
While I was in Addis waiting a flight back to Gondar Harris Wofford asked me to contact volunteer Richard Lipez who was thought to be visiting in Gondar on his return from his summer break. The Peace Corps office wanted him to immediately return to Addis without speaking to anyone. I saved the September 4, 1963 issue of the Voice of Ethiopia newspaper which contained a vitriolic attack on Richard. It seems that his family had been publishing his letters in a hometown newspaper. His playful joking to his family about all the different ingredients Ethiopians use to make the wat (stew) they eat with their ingera (bread) had traveled back to the ears of Ethiopian censors.
The Voice of Ethiopia had just been freed from prior censorship by the “Patriots Association” and was adjusting to the notion of self censorship. The paper in a front page article attacked Richard for allegedly saying that “Ethiopians eat Fat Pussy Cats.” On the second page Editor Yacob Wolde-Mariam ended his editorial titled “Damned Bad Lies!” with the statement: “Tales of ‘Jokes’ cannot fool us. The choice for Lipez is between confession of ‘damned lies’ and that of leaving this proud land. The infected eye must be plucked out!”
The incident was immediately forgotten but it did re-enforce the need to exercise caution in our letters and to publish the best stories fifty years after the fact.