Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Ato Ketema Kifle


Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Ato Ketema Kifle


April 11, 1964 was the night of the big farewell party for our school director, Ato Ketema Kifle. Several times he made trips to Addis to lobby the Ministry of Education for a promotion and he finally received one and was appointed the director of a school in Harar. Mr. Ooman, the very efficient assistant director of our school took charge of planning the event. At first there was a great debate between those who wanted a sedate cookies and punch affair and those who wished to have an alcohol fueled event. The debate wasn’t even close and the latter event prevailed.

Mr. Ooman arranged for the party to be held in the back room of the electric company. The paparrazo from the Foto Vito Shop on the piazza was present so it was a very well documented event. The photographer would line up little groupings for numerous pictures just like in the society pages of a newspaper. As was my usual practice I dropped by his shop the next day to buy up all the embarrassing photos of myself. He had a stealthy way of operating so to this day I cannot recall what he looked like.

On the morning of the event I went to the market to Asmellash’s tailoring shop. Asmellash was one of my students who could look at a picture in a catalog and create a garment matching the photo. I made him a deal to take in one of my suits in exchange for the denim blazer I had worn for two years. The blazer was one I bought when I was a freshman at Carleton College to meet the requirement that we wear coats to dinner in the dining hall. It had served me well in Ethiopia because it had deep pockets which I kept full of chalk. Much of my classroom time was spent at the blackboard. My students would copy down what I wrote and thus create their own textbooks. A week after trading in the blazer to Asmellash he showed up in class proudly wearing the fashionable cowboy denim jacket he had fashioned from my blazer.

In a silver shop that morning I ran into Ato Demisee who was on the faculty of our school and had known Ato Ketema while he was at University College in Addis. Ato Demisee was buying a set of cufflinks to present to Ato Ketema at the party. It was always fun to talk with Ato Demisee. Ato Demisee asked if there would be room in my trunk for him to be shipped to the US. I said it sounded like a great idea, however, he would have to figure out how much ingera we would have to include to last him for three months.

In one of the photos from the party I am the image of “Ichabod Crane,” tall, skinny and wearing an old pair of saddle shoes. When I left for Ethiopia I brought all the shoes and clothing in my home closet and by March of 1964 I had worn out all my shoes except for a pair of work boots and the silly looking saddle shoes. Teferra, in one of my classes, asked me if the black and white shoes were my football (soccer) shoes. In addition to the denim blazer my other distinctive wear was a giant straw hat I found in the market. Days after arriving in Gondar I suffered ill effects (nosebleeds and headaches) from the high altitude and intense sunshine so I acquired the hat which I wore everywhere.

When the classroom periods changed throughout the day students stayed in the same room and teachers moved from classroom to classroom. On March 10 as I was approaching 10E classroom for my math class I glanced ahead and saw a student slip a dead bat under the attendance book on the desk. As I entered the room the students all stood, as they did whenever a teacher entered and waited expectedly for my reaction to the bat. I just quietly took off my hat and dropped it over the attendance book. At that point they gave me a round of applause.

March 26th I noted in my diary that our school and those in most of the Empire were out of blackboard erasers, locally called “dusters.” Someone in Addis had failed to order a supply so there was a massive shortage. Recalling a family folk tale told to me about my Great Grandfather, Henry Lyman, who led a colony from Massachusetts to Chanhassen, Minnesota in 1853 I couldn’t let my homeroom 9G suffer without a duster. Henry, as the family tale went, in 1853 encountered near Christmas Lake Mr. McGrath who led the New York colony to Excelsior, Minnesota. Mr. McGrath complained about being out of bullet patches so Henry whipped out the tail of his shirt, tore off a piece and handed it to Mr. McGrath. Even though it is very cold at night in Gondar I brought my flannel pajama top to 9G for their use as a duster. Madelyn reported to me that one of her 9G students in an English essay paid tribute to my sacrifice.

Many attended the farewell party for Ato Ketema. There were townspeople, Ato Joseph and others from the provincial Ministry of Education , school staff and most of the faculty (Americans, Indians, Brits and Ethiopians).

One photograph shows Ato Nefse, Aba Gebre Meskel, Ato Ketema, Ato Maori and Ato Beru. Ato Nefse had an unfortunate liking for Alcohol. He had nothing to do with the school but managed to crash the party. Dallas and I knew him because he was a talented painter and painted for us on parchment some wonderful religious paintings. The one I cherish depicts St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia slaying the dragon. The walls of the numerous ancient churches in Gondar were covered in similar paintings.

In my “Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Aba Gebre Meskel” I tried to convey my high regards for Aba Gebre Meskel, our school priest. Seated on Ato Ketema’s left was Ato Maori, our school storekeeper. In order to leave the kingdom we had to return everything we checked out of the storeroom to Ato Maori and get his signature. Because I signed for many hoes, pick axes, watering cans and books that my students “lost” I spent months scouring the market for used replacements to return. Next to Ato Maori was seated Ato Beru the school dresser (nurse).

The week following the party Ato Beru was missing for a few days from school. After the party ended he got into an argument with Ato Gedelew and was hit on the head by a rock. On the 14th my diary noted that when several students asked to go to the dresser I had to tell them that Ato Beru was home with a “sore head.” Rocks were everywhere so they were the weapon of choice. We were amazed that fights were often not just a scuffle but frequently became deadly.

The party itself began at 6:00 with tables of Indian and American snacks. Larry Marsdon (a contract teacher from New Zealand) brewed a powerful punch from an “old Maorie Recipe.” As the night wore on Mr. Ooman paid tribute to Ato Ketema with the brief statement that “He is a good Boozer.” My favorite photograph of the evening is of myself (in saddle shoes) next to Peggy Davis who is next to Gayle Bradshaw who is next to Ato Tarakegn. Kneeling are Ato Assefa and John Stockton. Gayle came with the second Peace Corps group but fit right into our group with her willingness to do the job. We never told her that only a few months before this party one of our older students had approached Frank Mason asking Frank’s permission for the student to marry Miss Bradshaw.

Ato Assefa and Ato Mohammed were two teachers sent to our school because the authorities in Addis wanted them away from University College for a year. I never heard what they did to merit that punishment. Ato Assefa taught physical training (PT) classes in our school. He took his job very seriously and drove the students hard. In my diary I noted several instances where students reacted to having to exercise in the heat of the dry season by going on strike and even fighting with Ato Assefa. We would joke with him and instead of calling him Ato (Mr.) we would sometimes address him as PT Assefa.

The respect the students had for Ato Assefa was demonstrated on Sunday, January 27, 1964. At that time the Ethiopian teachers in our school led by Ato Assefa played a football (soccer) match against one of the other town teams. There was a large crowd and behind a table under a shade were nobles and the Governor. Everything went smoothly until an opposing player kicked Ato Assefa in the head knocking him unconscious. Students started to yell “He’s dead, lets kill the man who did it.” They then threw stones at the player responsible for the injury and he had the presence of mind to seek shelter under the table behind which the nobles and Governor were seated. The students then threw rocks at the nobles. Students were soon joined in the rock throwing by the shoeshine boys from the piazza and the grain carriers. Ato Ketema bundled Ato Assefa into his car and raced him to the hospital where he soon regained consciousness.

The next day in school Colonel Assis and a cadre of police went classroom to classroom arresting students involved in the rock throwing. They also arrested Ato Mohammed and accused him of instigating the riot. Ato Mohammed, knowing that he would be blamed, said he went to his house immediately when the riot started and had nothing to do with it. As a loyal friend of both Ato Assefa and Ato Mohammed, Ato Demisee volunteered to stay overnight with Ato Mohammed in the jail.

On Wednesday, January 29th most of the 9th through 12th graders were out on strike because of the arrest of Ato Mohammed. We thought it a noble gesture. Student strikes were usually faceless affairs because no one student dared to take a leadership position. Without a student leader the police and government would have no one to single out for retaliation. Col. Assis took a conciliatory stand and released everyone from jail.

The one student who had a lot to say was Feleke Zergaw who was in several of my classes. Feleke often talked with me and told me that his family were not Amharas but were from southwestern Ethiopia where they owned some coffee land. Both his father and brother had good positions with the national police in Gondar. The government of Ethiopia had a policy of sending government employees away from their homeland to serve elsewhere in the Empire. I was concerned at times that Feleke would get into trouble because unlike any of my other students he was outspoken. On this day with Col. Assis, Feleke went on at length describing what was wrong with the police. Col. Assis got the better of Feleke to the amusement of all the students by pointing out that Feleke’s criticism of the police would also apply to his own father and brother.

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