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Culture & Religion

Archive | Culture & Religion

Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 10

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Women pounding Gesho leaves

As I write this I am listening to a 16 minute “bootleg tape,” now a CD, of the concert Martin Benjamin and I performed on March 9, 1963 (49 years ago) in a talla bet (beer house) in the arada (market) of Gondar, Ethiopia.

Women pounding Gesho leaves

Marty was the lead on the guitar and I just did my best to follow along. I doubt either of us would be described today as a couple of aging rockers. The flavor of the concert was Kingston Trio, aka “Gondar Duo.”

At the time talla was made by women and sold in their houses. Walking around the market I would observe the green gesho leaves drying on mats in front of the talla bets. The mats were also covered with a mixture of wheat and barley which was wetted and was allowed to sprout. The pounded gesho leaves and wheat/barley were then placed in large (5 gallon) clay jars filled with water where the mixture was allowed to ferment. The resulting beer had a taste somewhat like the smell of silage. However, having grown-up on a farm I was familiar with the smell and enjoyed the beer. We generally felt secure drinking what had been either boiled or fermented.

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Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 9

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Yimer Mekonnen

Days after our arrival in Gondar we were approached by numerous students asking for employment in our house in exchange for a place to stay and a small stipend. While, as I’ve indicated in a previous chapter, we were reluctant to admit we needed help we were impressed by the story of one tenth grade student, Yimer Mekonnen.

Yimer Mekonnen

In exchange for Yimer’s help with laundry and market purchases we converted a “summer kitchen” off of the porch into his room. Like most students Yimer was from a small farming village far away in the province. In my, “Peace Corps Diary: Ethiopia 1962-1964 Part 2,” I wrote of our cross country walk from Lalibela to Debre Tabor. We walked within sight of Yimer’s village, however, although we offered, he declined to visit.

Yimer was fortunate to have family, an aunt and uncle living in Gondar. Most students were living away from their villages for the first time and were subsisting entirely on a small monthly stipend ($15 Eth.) from the Ministry of Education. When the time came for Yimer to leave his village to attend secondary school in Gondar, his local priest took him aside for a heart to heart talk. The priest warned Yimer that moving to a big place like Gondar meant that he might begin to not observe the fasts of the Orthodox Church and then he would begin to have religious problems and finally, worst of all, he might start to eat pork.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Our Wonderful Cook, Aragash Haile

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Ato Ghile Berhane’s “Ghile’s Store”

Marty Benjamin, John Stockton, Dallas Smith and I who shared a house in Gondar had the naïve notion that we were going to be self sufficient and live without servants.

Ato Ghile Berhane’s “Ghile’s Store”

Little did we realize that in Gondar servants had servants. It took us several months to put aside the quaint notion of complete independence and hire much needed help. The fact that of the four of us only Dallas liked to cook should have been a red flag from the start. Within a week we opened a charge account at Ato Ghile Berhane’s “Ghile’s Store”.

It was a wide glass fronted store just around the corner on the Asmara road from the post office. Behind a tall counter were two engaging young men who would retrieve what we wanted from the floor to ceiling shelves. Our bulk purchases like rice and pasta were poured into cones formed from used Swedish newspapers. We were intrigued by the sight of several boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on the top shelf off to the left side of the store. We never asked who requested them and the cereal was still there two years later. Each item we purchased was written down in our account book and once a month Marty, who acted as our household “minister of finance”, would settle the account.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: My Gondar House is Now a School

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Richard Lyman's house in Gondar, Ethiopia

When we arrived in Gondar, Ethiopia on September 21, 1962 we were assigned to houses rented by the Peace Corps office in Addis.

Richard Lyman’s house in Gondar, Ethiopia

John Stockton, Dallas Smith, Marty Benjamin and I were given a house on a hillside surrounded by several acres of fields across from the school. The house was enchantingly reminiscent of a Joseph Conrad novel. It was of frame construction set on a massive elevated stone foundation. Each of the four rooms had louvered doors opening onto a veranda which surrounded the entire house. The metal roof added more to the mystique, especially during the rainy season when the sound of the intense rains made being heard difficult.

The house had been built by an Italian engineer for his own use during the period of Italian occupation of Gondar (1935-1941). By 1962 the ownership of the house was murky at best. A man who called himself the “landlord” would appear at our door but we suspected that he was an agent for some important person or government body that had taken ownership after the war.

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When Free Speech and Islam Collide

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Internet café in Saudi Arabia. Kami ArabianEye/Redux

Demands for religious and speech freedoms in Saudi Arabia have taken a heightened tone of urgency in the Western media following Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari’s ill-advised tweets allegedly denigrating God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Internet café in Saudi Arabia. Kami ArabianEye/Redux

Imaginary conversations with the Prophet, deemed an insult in Islam, landed Kashgari in jail pending trial for blasphemy. Kashgari’s remarks have sparked outrage in the West over how a man’s seemingly crisis of faith could lead to a death sentence. Yet there is little to debate in Saudi Arabia: Blasphemous statements require harsh punishment.

Kashgari had the poor judgment to tweet imaginary conservations with the Prophet with statements that included, “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.” The reaction on Twitter was instantaneous with 30,000 people condemning his remarks. Many called for his death. Some Saudis created a Facebook page titled “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari” with a membership of more than 13,000 people. Kashgari attempted to seek asylum in New Zealand, but was detained in Malaysia and returned to Saudi Arabia where he awaits trial.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: The Gondar Saturday Market

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A salt seller with blocks and bulk salt from the Danikel region of Ethiopia. He is wearing his grey coat from the Second World War

During our Peace Corps stay Gondar was an important market town for much of Begemedir Province.

A salt seller with blocks and bulk salt from the Danikel region of Ethiopia. He is wearing his grey coat from the Second World War

The overwhelming majority of residents of the town and countryside met their daily needs by participating in the weekly Saturday market. The market was attended by thousands of people and took place on a large stony field about two miles from our house.

On Saturdays when I wasn’t busy supervising students tending their gardens at the school I would enjoy visiting the market. I was there often enough so vendors knew me and were comfortable with my photographing them at work. Early each Saturday morning farmers and their families from the south and west of Gondar would pass our house with donkeys laden with grain sacks made from sheep skins. One photograph is of a group of farmers passing the tomb of Zobel, the favorite horse of Emperor Fasilides the Great (1632-1667). This monument, located only a few hundred yards from our house, was my favorite of all the historic buildings of Gondar.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Passover with the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia

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Richard Lyman on the outskirts of Gondar's airport with a wrecked military plane

In the early 1960’s from north of Gondar in the Simien Mountains to south of Gondar in Ambover there lived thousands of Falasha Jewish Ethiopians.

Richard Lyman on the outskirts of Gondar’s airport with a wrecked military plane

The name “Falasha” is not politically correct today, however, it was the only name we ever heard used. Since the 1980’s over 80,000 Ethiopian Jews have been permitted to “return” to Israel. Within our school in Gondar we were told that there were three Falasha students, however, no one was ever identified. Once in my classroom I broke up a severe teasing episode where one of my students was being accused of being a Falasha.

A number of times I visited the tiny Falasha village located only a couple of kilometers north of Gondar on the Asmara road. It was close enough to Gondar to be a pleasant walk. I never heard a name for the place. It was situated on a knoll around which the road swung. There were just a few round, wood post houses, plastered with mud with straw roofs.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: 300 Gondar School Gardens

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Garden maintained by 7th graders in Gondar, Ethiopia

The “Gondar 12,” Madelyn Engvall, Jack Prebis, Charlie Callahan, Frank Mason, Andrea Wright, Patricia Martin-Jenkins, Peggy and John Davis, Martin Benjamin, John Stockton, Dallas Smith and I, arrived on the flight from Addis.

Garden maintained by 7th graders in Gondar, Ethiopia

Gondar is in the historic, traditional and remote Begemedir Province which stretches from north of the Siemien Mountains to the south of Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile).

We were assigned to the only secondary school, Haile Selassie I Secondary School (HS1SS), in the vast province.

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Anna Hazare and India’s Graft

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Indian activist Anna Hazare.  Photo: Deepankar Raj

Anna Hazare began his three-day fast at the MMRDA ground in Mumbai to promote his never-ending fight against corruption, the Indian Parliament began debate on the contentious “Lokpal” bill being considered before lawmakers. After consulting with his doctors he was advised to end his fast. However, he continues to pressure the government to make changes to current legislation.

Indian activist Anna Hazare. Photo: Deepankar Raj

Anna had temporarily called off his August Revolution, as its come to be known, on the clear assurance by the government that they would consider his list of demands. Pent up anger against a perceived governance-deficit against all ruling political parties has found an outlet in the protest movement led by Anna Hazare, the crusader-in-chief for instituting a Jan Lokpal (Ombudsman). These protests against corruption across India, brings to mind the period before Indian independence, when Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India, used to attract huge crowds from all walks of life by his call for non-violent demonstrations in the years leading up to Indian independence.

Indian dissatisfaction directed towards Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recalls when another revolutionary, Jayaprakash Narayan (1902-1979), successfully organized his movement of total revolution against Indira Gandhi, when she refused to resign from office despite being found guilty by the Allahabad High Court. Earlier this week, the “Lokpal” bill, or one part of it, having been divided into three bills, was passed by the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament).

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Meeting Emperor Haile Selassie

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Richard Lyman with Emperor Haile Selassie’s pet cheetah at his private zoo

As with my two previous posts I am drawing stories from the diary I kept while a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in Gondar, Ethiopia.

Richard Lyman with Emperor Haile Selassie’s pet cheetah at his private zoo

In Amharic the word “tarik” has the meaning of both “story” and “history” so this is my “tarik.” I’ve told my son, John Lyman, that I will try each month to provide a new “tarik” until I exhaust the material. There will be no chronology to the stories. My daily diary entries are essentially a verbal record. There were no newspapers and radio was limited to the BBC, VOA and a few eastern block stations. News in the government newspapers printed in Addis usually revolved around which factory HIM (His Imperial Majesty) visited.

My information was gleaned from conversations with students, colleagues, the citizens of Gondar, other foreigners working in Gondar and occasional visitors to Gondar who would bring news and rumors of happenings in the capital. My spelling of names and places is based on what I heard and is not taken from any official documents or memos. Amharic has its own alphabet so when I transposed Ethiopian names into English there was a great deal of spelling flexibility. I landed in Ethiopia on September 6, 1962 and stayed in Addis for two weeks until September 21, 1962 at which time eleven of us were flown to our new home in Gondar. The purpose of the two weeks stay was officially called an “orientation” period. However, we suspected it was to give the Peace Corps time to sort out where we were assigned and to make final housing arrangements for us. During the two weeks in Addis we were treated to several wonderful events.

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Lalibela and a Mule Journey across Ethiopia

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Richard Lyman with John Stockton and Jeff (Dallas) Smith

The Easter week break in our teaching schedule at Haile Selassie Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia afforded us time to pursue our fantasy of visiting the historic carved churches of Lalibela.

Richard Lyman with John Stockton and Jeff (Dallas) Smith

There were some complications, however, as there was no scheduled airline service nor roads leading to Lalibela. I urge you to Google “Lalibela” to see for yourself why UNESCO includes Lalibela on its list of World Heritage Sites. In the mountain village of Lalibela there are eleven large orthodox churches carved out of the volcanic rock. They are three stories high, carved on the inside as complete churches and are linked with passageways and tunnels carved from the rock. The origin of the churches is thought to be from the 14th. Century Reign of King Lalibela. Miss Marjorie Paul, a veteran USAID nurse/educator at the Gondar Public Health College used her connections to convince Ethiopian Airlines to fly us from Gondar to Lalibela. Miss Paul and three of us Peace Corps teachers who had saved enough money from our small monthly cost of living stipend from the Peace Corps to pay for only one way tickets.

John Stockton, Jeff (Dallas) Smith and I shared the expense with Miss Paul. The airline agreed to let us bring along four additional passengers. We immediately asked Aba Gebre Meskel (the respected orthodox priest/morals teacher at our school) to join us. I intend in a future article to tell more about Aba Gebre Meskel. Three reliable students, Yimer Mekonnen, Kassahun Negussie and Ayalneh, rounded out our party of eight. The opportunity to see the churches of Lalibela was a lifetime thrill, but the journey to and from Lalibela was worthy of Canterbury Tales. I make no claim to being a Chaucer, however, what follows will be my diary account of our “Journey to Lalibela.”

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Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Zewale Zegeye

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Richard Lyman with Zewale Zegeye and Alemu Berihune in Gondar, Ethiopia

It was better than any college or high school reunion to see old friends and colleagues with whom 49 years ago I shared an adventure and life changing experience.

Richard Lyman with Zewale Zegeye and Alemu Berihune in Gondar, Ethiopia

On September 13th, The Embassy of Ethiopia, in honor of the fiftieth year anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, hosted a reception and delicious Ethiopian buffet for Peace Corps volunteers who served in Ethiopia from 1962 through the start of the turmoil in the 70’s. It was my honor to be a member of “Ethiopia I,” among the first 280+ Peace Corps teachers invited to Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962. At the time the secondary schools of Ethiopia were a bottleneck through which too few students were able to graduate and pass on for additional training and/or attendance in the University. Twelve of us were sent to Haile Selassie Secondary School in Gondar. It was the only secondary school in the large historic province of Begemeder in N W Ethiopia.

Students came from hundreds of miles from remote villages and farms to attend the school. If they had no family in Gondar they lived in improvised shelters and subsisted on an extremely modest government stipend. It was many a night that we would see students doing their homework while seated under the faint glow of the few streetlights in the town. Five years ago my son, John, the editor of this Journal, persuaded me that it was time to revisit Ethiopia. At the time, John was studying in Paris so I “picked him up” and off we went to Ethiopia. In the back of my mind was a wish to reconnect with former students and to be able to write about their lives then and now and how they survived famine and the chaotic revolutionary decade of the 70’s. For the “then” part I have my detailed six volumes of diaries I kept while teaching. From my Mother I inherited a tendency to save everything so I even brought home a vast archive of student essays and papers.

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