In 1962 the Haile Selassie Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia had a diverse teaching staff. In addition to many Ethiopians there were Indians, Peace Corps teachers and a couple from Britain, Pamela (Hebe) and Larry Marsdon. Larry was a New Zealander and Hebe was English. We were told her nickname, “Hebe,” (cup bearer to the gods) was from her time as one of the senior stewardesses on British European Airways (BEA). Although now middle aged, she was a very beautiful woman. Larry was a consummate story teller and led us to believe that during the war he had been on a British navy submarine. Maybe so? They always invited us PC teachers to their raucous and memorable parties and they socialized with those in power in Gondar and thus were a source of many rumors and, at times, actual news.
It was not until I returned to the states that I could begin to understand their behavior. Hebe and Larry would enter into vociferous argument and if a hapless bystander would innocently take the side of one or the other, Hebe and Larry would jointly “attack” the third party. It all became clear in 1966 when Dallas (one of my fellow PC teachers) and his wife, June visited from Madison, Wisconsin. We decided to go see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was only a short time into the movie before Dallas leaned over and said with amazement “We know these people!” Sure enough George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Liz Taylor) were Larry and Hebe Marsdon. As we watched George and Martha devour the hapless young couple Nick and Honey we could only think back to what we witnessed in Ethiopia.
Dallas and June were married in Gondar. The month before the wedding I noted in my diary that Dallas stopped by to tell me that he had told the Marsdons that he was getting married. I responded, “Congratulations, now that you’ve told the Marsdons you have to go through with it.” The wedding of June Dickinson and Dallas Smith took place on the castle grounds in Gondar. No one but Dallas could have gotten permission to be married where only Emperors and Nobles had resided for centuries. Dallas and June were legally married on the day before in the office of the municipality. Theirs was wedding license number “1.”
November 9, 1963 was a big day in Gondar in preparation for Dallas’ wedding. In my diary I wrote:
Abderheman stopped by my house promptly at 8:00 and we practiced grafting some fruit trees. Mr. Ted Weir, the Superintendent of the University of Minnesota Fruit Farm, had sent me some fresh scions which I grafted onto fruit trees around Gondar as a teaching lesson. Abderheman’s father works for the treasury department in Gondar and lives in Addis Alem, the Moslem quarter of Gondar. On the way home I stopped at Dallas’ house to pick-up a roll of film so I could film the wedding. The Debat missionaries have come to town for the ceremony. Dallas reported that a crazy lady who lived in the neighborhood chased them down the street. As I was walking back to my house I passed an Ethiopian woman carrying a fair haired baby. She said in broken English, “He is your brother. His father is an American.” I replied, “How nice.” She probably was from Asmara. In Asmara is the large American base, Kagnew Station.
At 12:00 it rained and rained. It was quite a sight at the castle to see all the wedding guests standing around with black umbrellas as taped organ music played from a recorder hidden under a bush. (Dallas’ organ professor from the University of Wisconsin had supplied the tapes which only arrived the day before). The wedding was scheduled for 3:30 but it did not begin until 4:00 when both the Governor and the sun appeared at the same time. Dr. Shafa gave June away and the Reverend Payne presented the Church of England service. (It wasn’t clear who would preside but Rev. Payne just happened to be visiting Gondar). Rev. Payne took advantage of the captive audience to deliver a very long sermon. Aba Gebre Meskel gave a lengthy benediction so the reception didn’t start until 5:00.
Some of the guest chairs were located over an ant colony so occasionally a guest would jump up and dance about frantically. Ato Yoseph (Provincial Education Minister) of course arrived late and our student ushers had the good humor to seat him directly over the ant hill. When Jeff and June turned around to walk back down the aisle about half the audience arose to take pictures.
Miss Garst and the other USAID nurses had been assigned the job of baking a wedding cake. Because of the altitude they ordered American cake mixes to be flown in via the diplomatic pouch. Each quadrant of the cake had a different flavor because it was made with a different cake mix. Andrea Wright had the honor of cutting the cake and serving the guests. After slicing each piece she was observed scraping off the excess frosting from the knife and savoring it as she licked the confection off her fingers. The highlight of the day occurred when a stork landed on the top of the castle. Hebe and Larry Marsdon literally started jumping up and down pointing at the stork while shouting, “It’s an ALBATROSS!”
A perk for attending the wedding was that I could wander the castle grounds and see the Governor’s lion, the sum total of the “Gondar Zoo.” After the reception the wedding party went to Doctor Shafa’s for dinner. The Marsdons, Marty, Gayle and I had dinner at the Ethiopian Hotel followed by a brief stop at the teg bets (bars) and the wedding dance at the Fascilidas Bath. Col. Aziz Admasu had his police band play, Sarah Van Buskirk brought the nurses in training from the health college, and all Jeff’s students were present. John Davis and John Stockton were the bouncers who kept out shepherds and uninvited students.
Larry and Hebe arrived in Gondar at the same time as the twelve of us, September 1962. The previous year they had taught in Harar, Ethiopia. Through their socializing with Ato Yoseph they were initially given a nice Italian apartment overlooking the Asmara road. However, only a few months later they moved to a delightful cottage located in the peach orchard on the Emperor’s farm, Abu Samuel. Abu Samuel was a farm with a fine Holstein dairy herd managed by Senior Piga from Sardinia. On a number of occasions, Marty Benjamin (my housemate) and I were invited to participate in Hebe’s and Larry’s adventures.
Many of the Marsdon’s best stories came from their friendship with Col. Aziz who was the head of police in the province. On April 25 1963 I wrote in my diary:
Hebe related her recent conversation with Col. Aziz. He is a great friend of the Marsdons probably because he is an Anglophile. His worship of things British may stem from his claiming to have been a spy for the British during WWII. Hebe related that she and Larry had recently run into a roadblock on their drive to Asmara. Col. Aziz told Hebe that it wasn’t shiftas (bandits) because he was following the Marsdon’s car and arrested several small boys and put them in jail for two days for the prank.
He then told her about his respect for the intelligence system of the shiftas. He said that the police know that there is someone in Gondar who phones ahead whenever there is anyone with money leaving Gondar. He claims the code is something like; from Gondar “I want to buy some sheep,” and from the other end “How will you pay the money?” The Gondar informant will then say “The money is coming at 10:00.” If the car going to Asmara is a police car or someone who should not be stopped there is also a code for that. Col. Aziz told Hebe “Of course our system of keeping personal files is the same as the British police system of files.” He claims to have a file in his office on every foreigner in the province. Part of his job is to send in a monthly report to Addis on everything we do including whether or not we wear anything which offends the local people.
On March 21 I witnessed an example of what Col. Aziz described: In the morning there was an incident relating to Dallas’ wearing a burnos (Black, Wool Cape). It seems that a number of Ethiopians were offended because it is worn usually only by noblemen on very special occasions. When Dallas was informed of this by Col. Aziz, Dallas became quite agitated and demanded to know, “Who lets Ethiopians wear western clothes?”
On April 12, 1963 I recorded the local police report courtesy of the Marsdon’s:
Wednesday was a day of violence in the area as a man was shot in a family feud along the nearby Oaha River. Another man was killed in an outlying village by Shiftas. A third man was blown-up by a hand grenade thrown by another man. The latter death was a real loss to Ethiopia as the dead man was one of only four trained Ethiopian highway engineers. He was killed by an employee he laid off on the Bahar Dar to Adi Zeman road. Col. Aziz told the Marsdon’s that the killer will probably be hanged from the judgment tree near the market and he will get us seats for the event. Ethiopian hangings are supposed to be by hoisting rather that a swift drop to break the neck. There are stories of family members of the killer hanging onto his feet in order to speed his death. (Fortunately we heard no more about the hanging so we did not need to respond to the invitation).
Later on April 12th I wrote:
John Stockton and I went to one of the churches behind the castles to see the grave of the British Counsel who died during Victoria’s time. The grave stones have been moved and reassembled so the words are all out of order. The only other grave with any marker is that of a woman. Worku tells us that she was one of the wealthiest and most ruthless prostitutes in town. Now she lies under a very imposing Italian marker.
On Sunday, June 7, 1964 I had a lot to record in my diary:
We learned that Abdelkerim’s father was killed by shiftas as he was coming to Gondar to get Abdelkerim. The bus had just crossed the Takeze River when shiftas opened fire on the driver to force him to stop. Two foreigners sitting near the driver were wounded and had to be taken back to Asmara. Several passengers were armed so they drove the shiftas away and the bus arrived in Gondar. Last week Marty and I received a printed invitation from “Col. Aziz Admasu and Madame” to attend a party in honor of his recent promotion. The party was in the hall at the police camp. In his latest list of promotions HIM Haile Selassie has promoted Aziz from a Lt. Col. to a full Col. Ethiopians had to pay $5 to attend but we were admitted free. Marty and I rode in the back of the Marsdons’ VW Beetle. By 8:00 everyone in town was present. The police band played all evening. Col. Aziz’s wife made all the Teg (mead) which was absolutely delicious.
We all sat at tables of eight places. In the middle of each table were six one liter bottles of teg. At about 9:00 we circled the buffet table. By around 10:00 everyone was quite happy as most of the teg was gone. Waizero Assefrash now retired from her past “profession” has married a police officer. She was wearing a striking dress covered with silver circles. Hebe remarked that she looked like a Christmas tree. We were surprised to see several nurses come from the college. Their presence was a thrill for the many young unattached police officers. We all danced for hours. After midnight somehow I managed to pour myself into the back of the VW and Larry set off for our house. I vaguely remember the policemen saluting him as he pulled out of the compound. He did an amazing job of driving because he had to remember that as of midnight Ethiopia switched from driving on left side of the road to the right side.
I did not wake up until about four the next afternoon. There standing at the foot of my bed were four of my thoughtful students carrying flowers for me they had picked in the school gardens. I didn’t have the heart to tell them why their teacher missed school.
On May 17, 1963 Marty and I hiked up the mountain to see Vertigo which was playing at the local cinema. Prior to the show we stood on the piazza in hopes of spotting Astronaut Cooper as he passed over Africa. After the show we met the Marsdons and their friend Houlgalen who is a Dutch/Indonesian engineer hired by the Ethiopian government to build stone bridges on the Adi Zeman to Bahir Dar road (east side of Lake Tana). Like many of Marsdon’s friends he is a colorful character having been interred in a Japanese camp during the war and then thrown out of Indonesia by the Sukarno government. He was in Gondar to visit his mistress Stadia whom he had set up in a teg bet business in Gondar. It apparently was done with an investment of only $500 and the business nets Stadia $300 per month. Houlgalen complained that Stadia no longer had time for him because she was so “involved” with the important officials in Gondar. Houlgalen extended an invitation to Marty and me to join the Marsdon’s tomorrow when they visit his construction camp.
On May 18, 1963 I wrote:
After lunch Marty and I rode in the Marsdon’s VW to Houlgalen’s camp. We followed his land rover which lost its clutch just outside of Ato Begasha’s camp and had to be towed about 20 k’s by a truck. At each ford the makeshift tow cable (six strands of wire twisted together) would break and we’d have to stop. The road was ungraded so there was a high center ridge that would scrape the bottom of the VW. At one point the car stopped and we had to get out and wipe the dust out of the distributor. The camp was located about 1/3 of the way to Bahir Dar. The Bahir Dar cotton factory is now in full operation employing over 900 men. All of the material is flown out because the roads are so bad.
The factory was supposed to be supplied with electricity from the new hydroelectric dam, but because it is not completed they have had to install two temporary English generators. Now they estimate that it will be more economical to use the generators instead of the dam. The Russian trade school is almost finished. A snag has developed because the Russians want to staff it with Russians and the Ethiopian government wants it staffed with Ethiopians educated in the US. The highway camp is alongside a small river over which a bridge is being built. The bridge is made entirely of stones taken from the river bed and hand fitted. It is a work of art. The camp’s buildings are constructed with corrugated tin with concrete floors. In each 4×8 sleeping room cheese cloth is stretched tightly so as to create a false ceiling. In order for us to take showers a man heated water in an oil drum and carried it in a bucket up a ladder to a drum atop the bath house. We ate dinner with the work gang. In addition to us there were five Italian stonemasons, Ato Limne, Ato Solomon, Assefrash. Hougalen and a Canadian engineer.
They tried so hard to please us by putting sheets on the table and rounding up all the miscellaneous dishes they could. Their cook was very good. We had soup, beef, stew and salad followed by lots of stracchino cheese for dessert. After dinner the plan was to play cards for money. Normally, I thoroughly enjoy winning at cards. However, after watching the five Sicilians, one of whom had just spent two days in the Gondar jail and had his passport taken away, snap open their stiletto knives in order to stab the cheese I reconsidered my need to be so competitive. We played poker and 7 ½ until 1:00 in the morning. I won $3 at 7 ½. The poker game was played for high stakes but in the end the winner gave the losers back all their money except for five dollars. The murder last month at Ato Begasha’s Camp was discussed. The workers there have petitioned Addis to hold the hanging of the assassin at their camp.
On October 28, 1963 Larry Marsdon and Dan Harrell arranged to go hunting. Larry was very proud of the magnificent Belgium shotgun he had acquired from an Ethiopian soldier who had returned from the Congo as part of the United Nations’ force. At 5:00 in the morning Larry walked down to the main road in front of his house to wait for Dan. In his right hand he had his torch and his shotgun and in his left his thermos. Larry could see lights of a car coming over the mountain from Gondar so he stepped out in the road assuming it was Dan. The car stopped before it got to Larry and then there was a strange silence. Then Larry realized it was not Dan’s Land Rover but a VW bus bound for Azozo from Gondar. At that point the passengers inside the bus started to scream “shifta, shifta” and the driver gunned the engine and spun past Larry kicking up stones as they fled to Azozo. Larry, not wanting to make the same mistake again, hid in a tree until Dan arrived.
What students wore to school said a lot about their station in life. Those subsisting on only the small $15 a month subsidy from the government often had no shoes and wore a pair of threadbare shorts and a worn tee shirt. However, most were better off and wore shoes and long pants. I was so proud of my homeroom students when, on their own during the heat of the dry season, all came to school wearing shorts so that no one would feel different.
November 22, 1963 I wrote this story about what happened in Larry’s classroom on the day students were being interviewed about renewing their stipends for the new school year.
The 9th Graders were individually interviewed in the school office by Melaku, Shifferew, Getachew, Aba Gebre Meskel and Maorie in order to determine if they should be awarded a stipend. In classroom 9A near the office Larry told the students with long pants they had better take them off before going in for the interview. One pair of ragged worn shorts was passed from student to student as each would go in for the interview. Others left their shoes in the classroom or at least took off their socks and put them in their pockets.
I left Gondar in July of 1964. Larry and Hebe remained at the school. I last heard from them when Larry sent me a long letter from New Zealand in January, 1968. Their lives in Ethiopia changed radically following an upheaval in the school which involved a strike against the headmaster. Students were shot and Gondar was placed under a curfew. Larry, in the process of trying to straighten out the school suffered a stroke due to the stress and he and Hebe were flown back to New Zealand.