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Culture & Religion

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 15

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 15

When I was assigned to teach agriculture at Haile Selassie 1 Secondary School in Gondar I had a lot to learn about agriculture in Ethiopia.

Senveten in Gondar

Unknown to me at the time of my arrival in Gondar was the fact that there were two agricultural extension agents in the area, Ato Arega Effende and Ato Yilma Degafa. Ato Arega was assigned to Gondar and points south and Ato Yilma to the north around the Debat area. They were both a big help to me. According to sources in the American Embassy the Extension program worked well as long as the Extension Service was part of the Ministry of Agriculture. However, after it was reassigned to the Ministry of Education it was neglected within that bureaucracy.

I saw the most of Ato Arega who had been educated at American University in Beirut. He would from time to time pop into my classroom unannounced and recruit some of my best students to put on demonstrations and give speeches at local farmer meetings. It was a wonderful experience for them to practice public speaking. In a future article I will talk more about that. Ato Arega had a favorite pair of wrangler denim pants which he would always wear. We often refer to blue denim pants as levi’s or jeans, however, in Ethiopia they were wranglers. We assumed it was because the wrangler brand got to Ethiopia first and thus it became the generic name just like the Amharic word our students used for a ball point pen was scripto.

On March 31, 1963 I wrote about attending a senveten with Ato Arega. A senveten is a social gathering of farmers after church:

John Davis, Yimer Mekonnen and I went with Ato Arega to a farmer meeting south of Koladuba. We left in our Land Rover at 8:00, giving several students who live in Azozo a lift. At Koladuba we drove through the empty arada (market) to reach the Health Center. The only activity in the market place came from a few goats sleeping on top of the portable grain scales. At the Health Center we were shown around by Ato Haile and Ato Zerai who both then came with us.

After collecting the two we set out along the river which cuts the Denbia Plain. The road was a dirt track used sometimes by vehicles, but usually by donkeys. The Denbia Plain stretches for miles to Lake Tana with only a few groves of trees breaking the flat landscape. The soil is excellent, however, there is no drainage during the rainy season which makes the whole plain almost a swamp. Because the soil holds so much water it deeply cracks when the dry season comes. Along the way we photographed a blue heron like bird called “inavoacchew” (snake swallower). We also saw a number of white pigeon like birds with the cattle. They are called sabesa in Amharic.

After driving several miles we saw in the distance a church surrounded by wonza trees. We then left the dirt track and started across the cracked fields. The fields contained a little sorgum and teff stubble. The cracks were so rough that we had to walk the last mile or so. In some fields were the stumps of recently cut acacia trees.

We finally came to Debre Yesus Church where we saw the farmers and their families seated under a tree. They get together every week for a ‘senveten’ social hour. A different farmer furnishes the talla and ingera and wat each week so there is friendly competition. After greeting the head men we joined the circle seated on the ground and began to eat and drink. The men were in a circle between the tree and the fields and had possession of the large ingera basket filled with ingera soaked in a ber-beri sauce, along with five large clay water jugs (each must hold four gallons) which contained talla. Between the circle of about thirty men and the tree were the women and children. Birillis (narrow necked drinking vessels) and water glasses were freely passed from person to person and were quickly emptied.

Among the men were two priests; one was blind and the other one was the priest at the Debre Yesus Church. Every time a new man joined the circle he would go to the priest and be touched on the forehead by the cross. Then he would kiss the top and bottom of the priest’s cross.

Ato Arega finally started the meeting. The purpose was to elect officers of the farmers’ group and also to select a date for the next meeting. Because there were four villages represented there was a great deal of discussion over representation. After the matter was dealt with the blind priest composed a poem in honor of Ato Arega. The poem was delivered in Geez. As the heavy drinking continued everyone would as needed walk away from the circle to pass urine out in the fields.

Malaria hits the plain quite hard during the rainy season. One farmer related to me how it got so bad one year that the dogs and vultures ate the bodies before they could get them buried. He boasted about being a progressive fellow because he knew that pills were just as effective as a murphy (injection). Our students all expressed great confidence that a murphy (injection) would cure anything. There were even men who made a living by buying a syringe and a bottle of penicillin in the pharmacy in Gondar and then walking from village to village charging for a murphy.

After Ato Arega finished his program we took a group picture for which everyone enthusiastically posed. We then drank a final toast and set off in the noonday sun across the cracked fields. Driving back we saw Nile geese near the river. We also saw herds of cattle watering in the river. The herd boys were playing a game called ganna which is much like our field hockey.

Only weeks before I was to leave Gondar two of my students came to my house to take me on a walking trip to visit a ruined Fascil Church.

This is what I wrote on June 28, 1964:

Bitew and Alemnew Tebedge took me across the river which runs behind Debre Berhan Church to see the Fascil Church ruins on the other plateau. The walk took about an hour, 15 minutes going down hill and 45 minutes climbing up the other side. When we got to the top we had to walk through fields of sprouting barley. Then we came to a series of thickets and old walls which we had to practically crawl through. All that remains of the church is the arched outer wall. As we were leaving we heard lots of talking in the thicket to the north.

The nearby villagers were having a senveten so we walked into the thicket, hoping that we’d be invited to join them. Every Sunday after church the villagers gather in the thicket to talk and drink until the talla runs out. There were about 75 men and 25 women present. They weren’t using birillis as in Gondar but were still drinking from gourds and cow horns. While we were eating and drinking with them they discussed and settled a land dispute that existed between two of the men. I wanted to take a photograph of the group so I was elated when they on their own asked me to do so.

They all very solemnly sat around in a circle while I photographed them. Off to one side sat a poorly dressed very black woman. I asked Bitew and Alemnew about her and they said she’s the slave who carried the talla on her back to the celebration. (Several months later after I arrived back in Minnesota I sent several copies of the photos to Bitew and Alemnew with the request that they please give them to the villagers.)

While reviewing my diaries relative to senvetens I came upon an unrelated but fascinating item.

June 23, 1964 I wrote:

As I was finishing lunch Mengestie Belay pounded on my door and asked me to come quickly and look at the tornado funnel cloud passing over the Arada (market). To the southeast about a mile away we watched from my porch as the funnel passed from Addis Alem (the Moslem quarter of Gondar) towards the Piazza. Half way there it lifted off the ground and went up over our house. I never thought a tornado could happen in a place as high as Gondar.

On June 27, 1964 I followed up on the tornado when I wrote:

I met Feleke Zergaw on the piazza and we went off to take photographs in the market. I’d select a subject and then Feleke would ask sellers it if was ok for me to take a picture. The vendors were most cooperative and seemed to enjoy posing. (Many of the photographs I posted in a previous article about the market were from this market visit). Feleke and I stopped to see Ayehubizu’s house as it was damaged by the tornado. She was up on a ladder climbing around the house plastering it with fresh mud. Her appearance was in sharp contrast to how neat and clean she usually looks in her 9G school class. About 50 roofs were lifted off by the tornado. It went down one side of the diagonal street from Addis Alem to the neug (oil seed) mill. At the cinema bar Feleke and I ended the morning’s adventure by each having a dish of ice cream.
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