Fifty years ago today I was a 24 year old Peace Corps Volunteer serving my second year as a teacher at Haile Selassie I School in Gondar, Ethiopia. I was awakened during the night of November 22nd by the sound of a loud radio which wafted through my louvered doors. I thought it curious that anyone would walk around at night with a radio playing. There was pounding on the front door. John Davis (a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer) was standing there and announced that “Kennedy is Dead.”
During our brief training session in the summer of 1962 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. we were invited to visit the White House to meet President Kennedy. In its November 1962 issue, Ebony Magazine featured an article about our White House visit. In one of the photos my face conspicuously looms out of the audience. I know it is not analogous to the iconic photograph of Bill Clinton shaking JFK’s hand, but it is proof that I was there.
In my diary I never recorded that any of the 12 of us in Gondar ever discussed how we felt about President Kennedy. On February 2, 1963, however, I did record a wry remark made by my housemate Marty regarding the numerous Peace Corps Administrators in Addis: “The Peace Corps Administrators in Addis are merely receiving their pay two years late for their work during the 1960 election.”
From my diary on November 22, 1963:
…John brought his radio into our front room and we listened to the account on the VOA. Peggy Davis rushed off to the third Peace Corps house to tell them. President Kennedy died at 19 hrs. GMT or 10:00 PM local time. We listened to the Greenville, NC transmitter until it signed off at about 1:00 AM . Then we picked-up the New Jersey transmitter which abruptly broke into its broadcast with “Hail Columbia” and signed off at 1:48. We then picked-up a third very weak VOA band and listened to President Johnson’s speech as he arrived in Washington. Yimer Mekonnen, one of our students came in for a while and sat listening very intently. Following the broadcast, we brewed tea and then went back to bed.
November 23, 1963:
At 7:00 we got up to listen to the BBC news. The Marsdons (a British couple teaching in our school) and Ato Yoseph stopped at the third Peace Corps house to pay their respects. Azanaw was crying in the yard. Ato Demessie and some of his friends came by and were thrilled by the fact that the new president was sworn in within an hour after President Kennedy’s death. Demessie commented, “It was seven years after King Menelik died before anyone was told of his death.” Ato Asefaw put a crudely lettered sign on the door of the USIS library in our school saying “closed in memory of the late President J F Kennedy.” A few of my students paid their respects and expressed concern that there would be chaos in America and we would have to return home immediately. Our European concept of a monarchy is that when the king dies the eldest son is then the new king. The Ethiopian system is historically quite different with the strongest regional king rallying support through intrigue and sheer military strength to become the new King of the whole Empire.
Today and yesterday Ethiopians celebrated by feasting in honor of St. Michael. All afternoon and night gentle rains fell.
November 24, 1963:
Early in the day Radio Addis Abebe announced that HIM Haile Selassie left for the US and that Government Departments that deal with Americans will be closed tomorrow. Looking out my bedroom window I was deeply touched that the Ethiopian flag was flying at half mast above our school in honor of President Kennedy.
November 25, 1963:
The BBC informed us of the death of Oswald. The VOA made no mention of his being shot. Before flying off to Washington for the funeral, HIM Haile Selassie was reported to have been told by his ministers not to go. He replied to them “I must go as I have lost an eye.” In the morning there was a memorial service at the Roman Catholic church in Gondar. The sanctuary was so packed and stuffy that volunteer Frank Mason fainted and had to be carried out.
The students at the health college scheduled a memorial service in the afternoon. I just wanted to be alone so I took a long hike up the Oahe River into the mountains. Along the river there are a number of crude irrigation systems. The students and I have rebuilt a mile long canal which leads from the river to their school gardens. There are places in the rocks where there are shallowdepressions where women bail in water and add some indot (ground seeds and leaves of the plant) along with their soiled clothes . They then pull up their dresses and walk on the clothes. The indot produces a great deal of suds and seems to work as an effective detergent.
All of the old wood carriers I passed smiled and said hello. The women carry bundles of branches strapped to their backs while the men balance heavy logs on their shoulders with their walking sticks propped under the load behind their backs.
At 8:00 we listened to the start of the funeral procession. We thought it was quite tastefully broadcast except for the clod on the Lincoln Memorial who made it sound like a broadcast of the Rose Bowl Parade.
Gondar was remote and there were no newspapers or media broadcasts. The news we heard was often a rumor carried by a traveler from the capitol or often local officials would repeat rumors which they were not necessarily authorized to repeat. I wrote on February 22, 1964 that “Haile Selassie is supposed to have reimbursed Ethiopian Airlines $100,000 Ethiopian for his trip to Washington for the funeral.”