Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary
Editor’s note: As the author adds more diary entries this post will be amended.
Part 1. Zewale Zegeye
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.
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.
Gondar is no longer a sleepy provincial capital. It now has a population of over 100,000 plus a university and even a modern beer plant. My expectation of reconnecting with former students was not met. John and I did, however, make wonderful new friends. My old school is still a big part of the community, however, now it is named Facilidas School after the ancient emperor whose palaces and public works abound in Gondar. The house where I lived surrounded by a five-acre field is now almost hidden by numerous houses. The house itself has been added onto and is now a school for over five hundred Montessori students. John and I had a tour of each of the thirteen classrooms where in each one the students performed a song or recitation in our honor.
In one classroom we listened to an anti-corruption song. One of the many former students I hoped to see again was Zewale Zegeye with whom I had corresponded with into the 1970’s. At that time, I quit writing to him for his own safety as I thought with the revolutionary chaos the last thing he needed was to be accused of receiving letters from America. Zewale was a natural leader. He was the leader of the Scouting troop in Gondar started by Mr. Ward, the former British headmaster of our school, and was student body president in his senior year. Zewale loved to write plays, which we might view as being in a “Bollywood” genre. In my diary notation for May 18, 1963 I wrote of Zewale coming to my house late in the day because for the twelfth time he had to go to the local Ethiopian Government Ministry of Interior office where the officials had deleted lines from a play he wrote and planned to direct.
He was extremely upset and asked me “In America do you have to have your plays approved?” I replied “no” and then asked him a question whether in his lifetime he could remember when there could be no plays at all. He admitted that he could. We discussed the fact that small progress might give him hope for greater freedom in the future. I was reminded of my favorite Ethiopian proverb “Cus b cus inculal begaru ye hidal” (Little by little an egg gets legs and slowly walks away.” Zewale went on after high school to work in the office of the City Council in Addis.
This is an excerpt from the last letter I received from him in August 1970:
…Last year I ran for the parliamentary election to represent the town of Gondar, but I failed. The purpose of my competing was to awaken the people by telling them what I know and what should be done. I gave lectures for over ten times at the Haile Selassie 1st. Square in the Piazza of Gondar, under the big oak tree south of the Facilidas Castle on the way to the arada (market) if you remember it. I saw thousands of clapping hands during my lectures, but unfortunately those who were registered and who had most of the cards were those who know nothing about lecture and those who did not know what a parliament can do. Even most of the candidates were the same to them.
What I have seen is money electing people not people electing people. Anyway nothing can be finished unless it is started, so I will try again and again hoping to be a member one day, even though there are many obstacles which I should walk over.
I wish happiness, good health and good fortune to you and yours.
I learned while revisiting Gondar that sometime after that letter was written Zewale served as an administrator of a district north of Gondar near Dabat. While there he came to the attention of the military strongman in Gondar who assassinated Zewale by dragging him to his death behind a vehicle.
Part 2. Lalibela and a Mule Journey across Ethiopia
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.
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.”
On Saturday April 13, 1963 I wrote:
As we prepared to leave for the Gondar Airport, two priests who carried embroidered umbrellas and large silver crosses arrived at our house chanting and asking for money. After we complied they gave each of us a reed cross to be worn around our heads. The airport is about eight miles south of Gondar and four times a week a plane arrives there from either Addis or Asmara. The DC3 from Asmara landed on its way to Addis. The airline informed the through passengers and those waiting to board for the flight to Addis that they would have wait for a few hours in Gondar while we were flown to Lalibela. The land between Gondar and Lalibela to the east is crisscrossed by numerous river valleys. As we approached Lalibela which is situated on a high plateau, the pilot buzzed the village to let them know someone was coming. At some distance down the mountain was the landing field which had been plowed and harvested since the last flight the year before. Shepherd boys were herding cattle and sheep on the field. The pilot made several passes over the field in order to chase the cattle away. It was a safe although somewhat bumpy landing. We were met by about thirty people. Most of the men were dressed in skins. They brought mules for us to use to haul our 350 pounds of baggage (water jugs, sleeping bags, Miss Paul’s tent, clothes, food and primus stove). We haggled for half and hour before we hired enough men and mules to haul our gear to the top of the mountain. The trip up the mountain to Lalibela took us three hours. We found people washing their clothes in the streams which we forded in preparation for the Easter feast. Most of the people wore reeds on their heads. We could see Lalibela perched on a plateau in the distance, always several valleys further on.
We reached Lalibela just before the rains began. Ato Affework, Director of the Lalibela Health Clinic and Ato Berhanu let us camp in the storeroom of the clinic. The building was constructed of mud walls, a steel roof and a dirt floor.
After eating wat and ingera and drinking talla (beer) and teg (mead), Aba took us to the church called Lalibela. We crawled around in dark passage ways and sensed we were in the catacombs. After gaining permission to enter the church (it was given only because we happened to bring along a small green card we were given in Addis telling Ethiopians everywhere that we were to be “well treated” and signed and sealed by some important unknown official) we took off our shoes and entered Lalibela Church. The inside had a high vaulted ceiling with a series of carved pillars that gave the appearance of supporting the ceiling. In the first room women were seated on the floor in front of paintings of St. George with His Majesty Haile Selassie and another painting of Christ on the Cross. In one corner of the latter painting was a small image of the devil who was painted as a black man. All of the other images were painted with light skin. We then entered the second room where men were reading from holy books in Geez (the liturgical language) by light provided by burning twisted leather tapers. In the room was the grave of King Lalibela. The head priest seemed quite upset by our visit so we retreated to the Health Clinic to spend the night.
The sanitarian at the Health Clinic is responsible for collecting census data for the village of Lalibela which he shared with me. He tallied the Lalibela’s population as 1405 (900 female and 505 male). He further broke down the population by age groups, family size and occupation. I copied all the information into my diary. The most interesting set of data which I will repeat here relates to occupation.
Talla sellers: Females 298
Housewives: Females 205
Farmers: Males 115
Tailors: Males 23
Students: Males 63 Females 4
Priests: Males 44
Weavers: Males 14
Merchants: Males 44 Females 1
Monks: Males 4
Nuns: Females 50
Teachers: Males 2
Servants: Males 18 Females 49
Others: Males 189 Females 282
The one school in the village goes through the fourth grade. After that the students must go to a larger town in order to attend school.
Altogether, we visited nine of the stone churches. Two more are located some distance from Lalibela. Children followed us around all day. Every time we reached a wonza tree they would climb it to pick the yellow berries. The berries are extremely sticky when broken open. One form of celebration on Easter in addition to feasting is the hanging of rawhide swings from trees for the children to use.
The boys and girls had separate swings. The little boys brought us interesting crystals they found in the hills around Lalibela. On a hill above Emannuel church was a bell made from a large piece of basalt hanging from two wires. When struck with another stone it made a wonderful ringing sound. In most of the churches were electric wires with a few green light bulbs. I was told that Lalibela does not have electricity but when His Majesty visited several years ago a portable generator was brought in. In carved niches in passage walls were the bones of monks and priests. The bones were often exposed and at times were just lying around in dirty corners. From the ceiling of some of the churches wooden doves were hanging.
On Monday, April 15, 1963 I wrote:
We got up at 5:00 to visit several churches while services were in progress . We chose to attend during the service so we could avoid the demands of the priests for money. After breakfast as we were waiting for our mules to arrive for our journey back to Gondar a number of priests came to the Health Clinic compound asking for money. Our mules were delayed because the Health Clinic sebana (guard) was trying to charge us $13 Eth/mule while the going price was only $10Eth/mule ($4US) for the trip to the next village of Gergera. Because we could not afford to have the DC3 return for us we planned to travel overland for five days in order to reach the city of Debre Tabor where we could take a bus the final 100+ miles back to Gondar. We had no map and there was no road so we had to rely on the mule men to guide us from village to village.
As we waited for the mules to be assembled we watched several men slaughter a calf at the edge of the market. By 12:15 we had two pack mules and three riding mules and we set off for Gergera. With us were three mule drivers. We retraced our route to the landing site before heading to the Tekeze River. Because it was the end of the dry season all the rivers we encountered were easily forded. Most of the way we journeyed down to a lower elevation. Around the Tekeze and the Abebe Rivers there was no human activity. About 4:00 we began to look for a village in which to spend the night. We journeyed on until 8:30 (two hours after dark) and finally told our mule men to unload the packs and we camped for the night in a plowed field.
On Tuesday, April 16, 1963 I wrote:
We arose at 5:30 and were ready to leave by 7:30. For breakfast we ate oatmeal/teff porridge and tea. In the distance we could see Gergera perched atop a plateau. We crossed quite a wide plain cut by several streams from which we quenched our thirst.
Overhead we could see the Ethiopian Airlines jets on their way to Addis from Europe. Although we didn’t see any, we noted evidence of hyenas from their white stools. Two of the river valleys we had to cross were the Deremo and the Twota Bahir. After crossing the Twota Bahir River we began to climb upward to the Gergera plateau. On the way we rested outside the Degas Mariam Church. Walking with us were several Ethiopian wood carriers on their way to Gergera. Wood carriers are often extremely poor older women who are bent over from bearing large bundles of wood on their backs. Once we climbed onto the plateau we discovered that there was still another one we had to climb in order to reach Gergera. Our mules couldn’t negotiate the final climb so we all had to dismount and lead them up the mountain.
In addition to the usual volcanic rocks there appeared to be a chalky sandstone material. All of the villages are concentrated in the highland regions because of the fear of malaria. On the way up the cliff we passed 100’s of monkeys which live undisturbed on the slopes. When we reached the top we rested outside of St. George Church. All the mule men devoutly went to the wall and kissed it. Gergera itself is run by a priest while the neighboring village of Feleka has a sub-district governor.
The whole plateau was green as the rains had already come. After stopping for Teg and Talla in Gergera we carried our belongings to Feleka where we met the sub-district governor. We were assisted by a young Air Force officer who was returning to Feleka for a 21 day visit with his family. The sub-district governor whose name and title is Fitarare Tefere Yimer invited us in for teg, talla, araque (distilled spirits – strong!!) and wat and ingera. Because it was dusk he prepared a camping place for us on the edge of his compound by spreading rugs and putting up a canvas awning. Ato Negussie, the director of the school, invited us to inspect the school and have dinner at his house. The school goes through the fifth grade, after which the students go to Dessie to school. As we prepared for sleep Fitarare Tefere checked to see that we were comfortable. He left six guards to look after us all night. Ato Zewdu Tekle, the secretary to the governor, brought out a five gallon earthen jug of Talla for us to consume during the night.
On Wednesday, April 17, 1963 I wrote:
By 8:00 we were ready to leave, that was until the governor invited us in for tea, araqua and alecha and lamb wat. The governor had three young boys as servants. The governor’s wife sat in one corner on a straw mat while he sat on sort of a low couch.
As is the custom Aba delivered a prayer at the conclusion of the meal. The region is quite cold so there are small fireplaces in most homes. We followed the governor’s example and threw our bones on the floor. We finally left at 9:30 after taking the governor’s picture. He conferred the title of fitarare upon us. Fitarare is a noble honorific title reserved for those who are “up in the front” or we might say generals in the army. The four mules we rented included one of the governor’s which was so spirited that Dallas fell off of it by 10:30. Dallas became ill in Lalibela so he rode most of the way to Debra Tabor. Miss Paul also was a frequent mule rider. The rest of us found the mule saddles so uncomfortable that we walked the distance.
Although it was Wednesday we were served meat. After the Easter fast there is an equal period of no fasting – not even on Friday or Wednesday. As we crossed the Debre Zebit plain we could see Mount Guna in the distance. Often when men riding mules would pass us they would get down from their mules to greet us. As is the custom, several mule riders offered those of us who were walking the use of their mules. That was even the case if it meant that they would have to journey with us back to where they came from. We politely thanked them and declined their offers.
On the plain which is poorly drained and not cultivated were hundreds of head of grazing cattle. Most cattle herds were small consisting of eight to twelve head. Each small herd was watched by boys who were wearing skins if they had on any clothes at all. They may have never seen foreigners because they ran away when we approached them. After ten miles we reached the end of the plain and descended onto the remains of an old Italian road. The road wound around the mountains and is little used except by mules and people on foot. The road was constructed of large stones placed closely together. Near the end of the trail as we approached the village of Nafas Moche we saw many acacia trees. At one point we rested near some brushy trees and Kassahun broke a branch off the shinshina tree and presented me with a piece to use as a tooth brush. Nefas Moche is atop another plateau and we were told the name relates to its windy nature. We slept on the concrete floor of the school house. Aba and John walked into the town and ate at an Ethiopian hotel. In the hotel people were gambling with dice which greatly interested Aba.
On Thursday, April 18. 1963 I wrote:
We arose at 6:00 for our usual breakfast of oatmeal/teff/raisin porridge and tea. Our water cans were filled from the river and treated with iodine tablets at the rate of 1/pint. At 8:00 the secretary to the governor invited us to his house for alecha wat, talla, teg, beef steaks and quantro (strips of dried beef which are fried). The trail out of Nefas Moche was very poor, badly eroded and full of boulders. About an hour out of Nefas Moche we came to a wooded waterfall with monkeys all around. The trail doesn’t follow the old Italian road instead it follows a telephone line which we assume is the most direct route. Along the way many people passed us en-route to Nefas Mocha for a feast given by the governor.
Several times we were overtaken by government couriers. They were dashing young men dressed in white riding the finest mules. They rode straight in the saddle with the help of their big toes through the stirrups. They would dash off over the next hill in a cloud of dust with red tassels flapping from the raw hide harnesses across the back of the mule. At one point the expected happened and our pack mule threw off its load thus tearing Dallas’ sleeping bag. John, Aba and I walked on while the two mule men fixed the pack. We were joined by two lean, weathered country men who were walking from Dessie to Gondar. They each carried a long wooden staff upon which at one end they had secured their goods and food for the journey. When country men walk with such a staff they frequently place it across their shoulders behind the head.
Then they walk along with their wrists draped over the staff on each side of their head. The two men stopped and shared with us a taste of their lunch of dabbo kola, little balls of dough cooked with roasted grains inside.
The dabbo kola was somewhat spicy because berberi had been added to the dough prior to its being formed around the grain. We were walking on the south rim of a large valley when we saw several miles away on the north side of the valley a large encampment of mules and merchant traders. For safety reasons we decided it best to avoid them and not make them aware that we were traveling without an armed escort. Hours later we could see a small settlement off to our north. Yemir told us it was his village. We asked if he wished to stop to see his family since he had not been home for years. He declined saying “The visit would be too short that it was better to not stop at all.” Late in the day we came to the village of Kemer Dingay (pile of rocks) where we spent the night. We were joined by a thirty year old judge from Nefas Moche who was traveling with his wife and young son to Debre Tabor for a feast at his brother-in-law’s. We arranged to sleep in the house of the local chief. The house had a radius of about ten feet and in the center next to the main pole was a fire pit.
Although the outside walls weren’t plastered the inside walls were plastered in mud. The door was a mat of woven split bamboo. The local governor brought us eggs, chickens and talla. The judge’s wife prepared the food. She cleaned the chickens in a very unusual fashion. After they were killed and picked she removed the legs and the wings. Then she made a slit in the back and broke the chicken in half thus removing the insides. Our old mule drive came into the house looking for food and drink. Aba and Ato Mulugeta (the judge) sent him away by insisting he check on the mules. The old man was from the Feleka governor’s court. We discovered that he was something of a court jester with plenty of songs and jokes. We sat around on the dirt floor to eat our meal. Prior to being served a servant surprised us by bringing a basin and pitcher of warm water with which to wash our feet, a truly Biblical experience. A man from the village approached Ato Mulugeta about a parcel of land in another province that had been taken away from him.
He had spent a year in Addis trying to get it back from the government. The government had finally given him a gasha of land in the Southwest that was taken from the Gallas. Land reform in Ethiopia thus far seems to mean taking land from the Gallas and giving it to Amaharas. The man estimated that he can earn $1,000 Eth. /year ($400 US) from the gasha (100 acres). During the night we heard a religious fanatic yelling around the village.
On Friday, April 19, 1963 I wrote:
We got up at 6:00 with the rest of the village. The chickens were the alarm clock. We slept quite comfortably on the floor of the house in our sleeping bags. Once or twice during the night a small rat came out of the wall to visit us but never stayed long. We did, however, find the chicken bones on the floor somewhat bothersome. During the meal the bones had been cracked open by our student travelers to extract all the marrow. The rather wild mule got away from the old mule man so we got a late start. It didn’t matter as it was only five hours to Debre Tabor over relatively gentle land.
We sojourned on led by the wife of Judge Mulugeta who rode first carrying the child who held the most beautiful red flower I had ever seen. With her was one gun bearer. The judge followed on another mule followed by a second gun bearer. Judge Mulugeta’s father is a district governor.
The Judge related to us that he had gone to Addis to find his beautiful wife at the Ghion Hotel. We entered the town of Debre Tabor which is surrounded by huge eucalyptus trees. We stopped at the Seventh Day Adventist Mission and were warmly received by the Andersens from Denmark. He is the director of the school which runs through the eighth grade. After that the students go on to our school in Gondar. The mission was started in 1932 and operated during the Italian occupation. There is also an affiliated hospital run by Dr. Hoganva from Norway. He has designed and is supervising the building of a lovely new clinic. We were met at the mission by some of our students who took us into the center of the town. Prior to the Italian build-up of Gondar, Debre Tabor was the principle city of the province. In one of the tea houses we drank sweet tea and were amazed to be served Parker House rolls. We learned that the tea house is owned by the father of one of our students and that he learned to make the rolls while living in Addis.
The Andersens eat no meat so they have huge gardens containing tomatoes, ground cherries, passion fruit and all kinds of greens and flowers. They served us a superb meal with many kinds of cheeses and pastries. During the day we learned that a dead man had been brought to the hospital by an excited crowd of people who claimed that the man had caught a hyena in a trap and that as he killed the animal it breathed into his face thus causing his death. As we were finishing our meal the bell rang for the Friday night religious service which we attended. The auditorium was quite large with rows of backless benches. It had all been freshly scrubbed in the afternoon by the students. All the boys sat on the right side with the girls filling the middle and the left side. The hymnals were in Amharic and English but most of the songs were belted out in Amharic. We slept the night on the floor of Dr. Hoganva’s house.
On Saturday, April 20, 1963 I wrote:
We were ready to leave at 6:00 when the bus to Gondar arrived on the mission compound. We had made arrangements the day before but never dreamed that it would be on time. The 100+ mile trip to Gondar usually takes seven to eight hours. The bus was mounted on the back of a Fiat truck. When it was fully loaded it contained about 40 people. Between Debre Tabor and Adi Zemen we had to ford twelve streams because the bridge timbers had been removed from the old Italian bridges. The road itself is seldom repaired and is barely passible in the dry season.
The trip to Adi Zemen took five hours. All along the way we stopped to pick up passengers including two of our students who were patiently waiting beside the road to catch the bus to return to school in Gondar. On one mountain stretch we came upon a Mercedes truck loaded with kerosene drums headed in our direction. We parked on one side of the narrow road and the truck passed us on the other with one to two inches to spare between the vehicles. The five most interesting people on the bus were seated in the front seat facing backwards. On the left was a two star army officer who was so heavy he couldn’t get his jacket buttoned. He wore an open yellow shirt covered with a green sweater. Around his neck was the familiar red string showing he was a Christian. Next to him was a student with a shirt from England which proclaimed in splashy letters “Elizabeth,” “Africa,” “Ghana.”
He carried a liter bottle of araque but it soon was broken by the rough ride. The liquid flowed under all the seats and was so strong that some passengers threw their shamas over their faces. Next to the student was a farmer with the fiercest eyes and expression which mellowed when he got sick and dove for a window. He wore a peppermint stripped string around his neck. In addition he wore a khaki jacket and shorts with a shama and finally an ordinary bath size towel. The last two people were a ras (local village leader) and his young wife who was sick most of the trip. The ras wore the usual khaki slacks and jacket, a British army wool overcoat and then a shama. We were warm in just our tee shirts and shorts. We were very touched by the concern he showed for his wife. At Adi Zemen we met the bus going to Addis. Our intended one hour rest stop stretched into two hours when our driver was hauled before a local judge. He was accused by someone of carrying chickens on the bus on a prior trip. There are rules against hauling livestock and passengers together (thank God). Also there is another rule that berberi cannot be transported on a bus.
From Adi Zemen the American built road to Bahir Dar is almost completed and while only gravel it is like a freeway. On the final leg of our journey from Adi Zemen to Gondar a wizard boarded the bus and promptly became bus sick. He had mud caked hair, rings on every fingers and strings and strings of charms around his neck. Late, late in the day we arrived home in Gondar and fortunately because our house was directly on the north/south highway we were dropped off exhausted and dirty at our front door.
Special note: Lalibela is a magical place so please Google it.
Part 3. Meeting Emperor Haile Selassie
As with my two previous posts I am drawing stories from the diary I kept while a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in Gondar, Ethiopia.
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.
On September 8, 1962 I wrote:
It was Saint Johannes day so we were transported in Italian buses to St. Johannes church over narrow roads clogged with pilgrims. The buses nearly hit several cars, horse drawn wagons, beggars and pilgrims. We were next taken to Africa Hall which was built by Haile Selassie at a cost of $6 million(Eth.) to house the Organization of African Unity. The front of the building contains a striking stained glass image several stories high. Africa Hall is across from HIM’s Jubilee Palace which was built in 1955. Haile Selassie has many titles. Among them: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Haile Selassie 1, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia and Keeper of the Seven Umbrellas. Someone obtained permission for us to visit HIM’s private zoo and formal Japanese garden on the grounds behind the palace. We were told His Majesty’s cheetahs were tame so I entered the cage to pet one. Everything went very well until some fellow standing outside the cage dropped his umbrella and startled the animal. There was a brief period of uncertainty as I hastily exited the cage. I did, however, have a friend on the outside who captured for posterity the event on film. We emerged from the back of the palace in time to witness HIM leaving the grounds in his maroon Rolls-Royce surrounded by his machine gun armed body guard. (On a rare visit to Addis the next year I was driving a Jeep when HIM approached from the opposite direction. As everyone else does, either through custom or law, I got out of the Jeep and bowed as he passed. The act of bowing did not offend my democratic sensibilities as I had great respect for what HIM was attempting to acomplish in Ethiopia).
On September 11, 1962 I wrote:
Today is New Years Day in the Ethiopian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar consists of twelve months of 30 days and a thirteenth month (Pagume) consisting of the remaining five or six days, depending on whether it is leap year. To celebrate New Years day we were honored to be invited to the homes of hundreds of Ethiopian officials. George Parish, John Stockton and I went by VW to the home of Ato Mulugeta Gebrewold who is with the Development Bank of Ethiopia. He is unmarried and lives with his two sisters and aunt in her home which sits right on the street a short distance down the hill from the Piazza. His mother lives in the provinces and we were told that his older brother and father had been killed. The celebration began with glasses of home brewed talla beer (growing up on a farm it reminded me of burned barley). Then followed glasses of teg (mead/fermented honey). The meal was served on a two and a half foot tall elaborate woven basket table. Layers of ingera were spread on the top of the basket. (Ingera is a flat bread made from teff flour. Teff is a fine seed grown in Ethiopia which, unlike our wheat, contains no gluten. Thus, when teff flour is mixed with water and allowed to stand carbon dioxide bubbles off instead of the dough rising. The flat ingera has the appearance of tripe and has a wonderful slightly sour taste).
On top of the ingera were about ten different wats (spicy sauces). We were shown how to break off pieces of ingera with our right hand and dip it into the sauce of our choice. We made note of the location of the raw ground beef wat and did our best to avoid it. Ato Mulgeta’s Aunt was a most gracious hostess and she introduced us to the custom of “gosha.” (My sons tell me that Ethiopian food and “gosha” have now entered our popular culture because the “Simpsons” have recently been shown enjoying it while eating in an Ethiopian restaurant). I was seated next to our hostess so she repeatedly reached into the common table and gathered up large handfuls of wat and ingera which she plunged into my mouth.
In the spirit of the day and being a good guest I ate and ate. Only when she gathered a large handful of raw beef and fed it to me did I make a decorous retreat to the WC. In addition to the many wats. at the end of the meal we ate dabbo (a type of bread soaked in something so it was like cheese cake). After the meal we were served demitasses of coffee with a spoonfull of sugar in each and tea made with cloves. We then talked and played cards (a form of rummy called conquer). While we were drinking more teg, a dozen neighbor children came by singing songs celebrating the end of the rainy season. After Ato Mulugeta gave them several dollars they sang a final song of thanks in which they wished that the host’s house would have one more child when they came next year.
On September 20, 1962 I wrote:
At 4:00 HIM invited all of us to return to the Jubilee Palace for a reception. We entered through the front doors which were guarded by His Majesty’s two cheetahs. I greeted the one as an old friend. The reception room contained three huge chandeliers. We were served champagne from his finest crystal goblets. In my TWA bag I smuggled in my small Philips tape recorder so I was able to record a “bootleg tape” of Harris Wofford’s introductory remarks and HIM’s welcoming speech. (Harris Wofford was living in Addis and serving as Peace Corps African Director. It was a pleasure to work with Harris.)
When HIM is driven through the streets his two small papillon dogs accompany him. During the reception they were very active at his feet. (A “tarik” we heard later while teaching in Gondar was that Ethiopian government ministers when received by HIM were sniffed by the dogs. If the dogs registered disapproval of the minister, that person might find his standing with HIM impacted.) My tape captured several moments when the two dogs barked as HIM was speaking and he responded by verbally reprimanding them. Following the remarks of HIM we were each invited to step forward and shake his Majesty’s hand and then back away from the throne.
A few years ago when Dallas Smith was at my home for dinner he and I entertained family and friends with our stories of life in Ethiopia in the 60’s. Dallas felt duty bound to add a footnote to our story of meeting HIM at the palace by revealing to everyone that when I stepped back after shaking HIM’s hand I stepped on one of the royal dogs. I had neglected to mention the incident in my diary.
Part 4. 300 Gondar School Gardens
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.
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.
On September 21, 1962 I wrote:
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. 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. Gondar was established as the center of the Empire by Emperor Fasilides in 1635. He and subsequent kings built fine castles and churches there for the next two hundred years. Emperor Tewodros moved the capital to Magdala in the mid 19th Century.
We knew Gondar was remote from the fact that HIM (Haile Selassie), when he had a problem with a student leader at University College in Addis, would send the student off into exile as a teacher at our school in Gondar. One such story I recorded in my diary:
Ato Gebeyehu came over to our house for lunch. He is really a bright fellow having been educated for a year in Oslo and traveled widely in Europe. He claims to have a PPE scholarship to Oxford but the Ethiopian government won’t let him leave the country again. For the first two terms of this school year he was exiled to Debre Berhan near Addis but this term he has been sent to Gondar as it is further away. His problem with the government stems from the fact that he is so articulate and was president of the University College student body last year. When the students protested the refusal of the government to reopen the closed dormitories, he was forced to leave University College. The students threatened further strikes unless he could return so he is supposed to be re-admitted for his senior year next fall. The dormitories were closed because they were becoming a center for student exchange of ideas and thus the government is now trying to disperse the university students throughout Addis.
My best estimate for the number of students at HS1SS was under 1,000. I base this on my experience helping the Gondar Health College vaccinate the students for smallpox. That day I sat at the table and checked off 900+ names as the students bravely approached. The health workers would then swab their arm with alcohol, apply a few drops of vaccine and then punch it in through the skin using large dull needles. I would then collect the needles in a small tin and as needed pour in alcohol and light it to sterilize them.
In the Empire national examinations were given to students completing the eighth and twelfth grades. Only three of the previous year’s twenty-four seniors passed the exam. To go on for further education students needed to pass those tests. That first year the twelve of us from the Peace Corps had very little contact with the twenty seniors and small number of eleventh grade students. That was because there were five contract teachers from India who had seniority and only taught one subject,either English, Mathematics or History. We thus were assigned what was left over.
Other staff were: Ato Kettema Kifle, the director, Mr. Ooman, his very capable assistant from India, a British couple under contract, Larry and Pamela (Hebe) Marston, a school secretary Ato Shiffera (the son of the District Governor of Chilga), Aba Gebre Meskel, the school priest and morals teacher, and about a dozen Ethiopian teachers.
The first Ethiopian teacher I got to know was Ato Demussie. He expressed his frustration with the passivity of some of the students by saying “They want us to take knowledge and hang it around their ears like bells.”
Classes began on October 1 after all the assignments were worked out and the students registered. All instruction was in English. This was the first exposure to the English language for the seventh graders. The school day began at 8:20 with the ringing of a bell made from an empty WWII shell and ended at 4:45. There was, however, a two hour break for lunch.
Over the two years I taught 10th grade math to night school students (policemen and students at the Health College), 7th grade science, 8th grade math, 9th grade geography, 10th grade Math, 9th and 10th grade agriculture and 200+ 7th grade students gardening.
As it does today, the school (bearing the new name of Fasilides School) sprawled for about 1/3rd of a mile along the road from the Bath of Fasilides (a unique 17th century castle standing on pillars in a pool) towards the center of town. I was asked to be the garden master over a fertile area just opposite the Bath. On the site was this mysterious small round stone structure which was locked-up and for which no one seemed to have a key. It had a small high window through which I boosted one of the small seventh graders and he opened the door from the inside. It turned out to be an abandoned well house built during the Italian occupation. I replaced the lock with one of my own and used the building as storage for all the tools (sickles, pick-axes, shovels, watering cans and hoes) which the children would need.
Each school in the Empire had a storekeeper who was personally responsible for all books, tools, and materials. Our storekeeper tried his best to be helpful. He, however, was personally financially liable for all materials.
Therefore, we had to sign for everything we checked out of his storeroom with the knowledge that in order to leave the Empire in two years we would have to have a signed paper from him stating that everything was returned. I had been warned that a previous garden master had had 11 sickles and 14 pick-axes walk off the school ground. Elsewhere in the Empire some other Peace Corps teachers reported that their storekeepers protected themselves by simply not allowing books and materials to leave the storeroom. On the back wall of the storeroom I discovered a map from the ‘30’s showing Ethiopia as a part of Italian East Africa.
There were very few textbooks and those we had were often of limited help. I recall that the seventh grade science books had chapters titled: “Birds of the Moorlands” and “Twigs in Winter.” We had to create our own books by standing at the blackboard and writing and writing and the students would copy and copy it all into their copy books.
At Carleton College we were required to wear coats and ties to dinner so, somewhat out of defiance, I purchased a denim blazer on which I sewed the college badge. That was my standard uniform in Gondar. The two large pockets were always filled with many pieces of chalk. Only after several weeks of teaching did it dawn on us that we were talking too fast and the students were having trouble understanding our American English. In five of the schools in the Empire, the Ministry of Education was experimenting with the teaching of agriculture. Ours was one of those and I, along with John Davis, team taught agriculture. There was no curriculum, no funding and no materials.
USAID shipped two dozen new typewriters to our school but they could not find a dozen leghorn chickens in the Empire to send me. I decided that my 50 eager students were unlikely to return to the farms of their fathers. However, because they might become teachers or possibly work with farmers, I believed that they should thoroughly understand the science of growing things. Thus, I spent a great deal of time teaching them how plants and animals, including humans, utilize nutrition, minerals etc. The students often shared their common folklore with me about such things. All the salt in the province was excavated in the Danikal depression and was sold as blocks or in bulk in the Saturday market. It was not iodized and because of the leached out soils in the area, goiters were a big problem.
After a lesson teaching about the body’s need for iodine, a student, Abderman, came up to me after class and gestured with his hand around his neck to indicate where a goiter could develop and then asked, ”Sir, you mean if I sleep with a woman with this I will not get it?”
When the new USAID typewriters arrived at the school all the students wanted to learn to type. Having the typing skill was viewed as a pathway to a comfortable government job in Addis. Dallas Smith was asked to teach typing. He wrote a list of “rules” for taking typing in order to maintain decorum and the equipment. Some of the rules related to having clean hands and trimmed fingernails. The latter requirement posed a cultural conflict because Begemedir was the heartland of Amhara tradition and one of the local traditions observed by many was to grow a long nail on the little finger of one hand thus showing that one did no manual work. The desire to learn typing trumped tradition for almost everyone. On the first day of typing class Dallas stood in the doorway with nail clippers at the ready.
I spent time with the students in the gardens after school and on Saturday mornings. They took great pride in their small plots. On December 11th I observed some of the 7th graders proudly marching around the school compound showing off the radishes they had grown. There were many instances when students invited me to their houses and proudly showed off the gardens they had planted for their families. All but one student, the son of a minor local nobleman who regularly sent his servant to weed his garden, received a very high grade in the class.
Each of the 200+ students tore a page from his/her copy book and wrote an essay about his/her garden. I brought all the essays home and in reading them for this article I noted that many of the students, in addition to furnishing their homes with vegetables, sold several dollars worth of produce in order to buy pens and copy books. They wrote very eloquently in spite of their limited exposure to English.
Genet, a seventh grade girl had this to say (I made a few edits):
Our school garden is very powerful because it has many uses. Some uses are as follows. It gives energy or force. It protects from some diseases. I have very good plant in our school. I liked Cabbage, Salade, Costa, Tomato, Carrot, Beet Root and so on I planted in the school some seed and it will became big I take from our garden place to my house and give for my mother. At that time my mother happy by some plant because she know the uses of plant and she thank a lot me.
Considering the turmoil that Ethiopia has experienced over the past fifty years, I believe that the simple skills I taught about growing one’s own food may have been the most useful survival skill I offered my students from whom I learned so much.
Part 5. Passover with the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia
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. 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.
The men were primarily employed making steel farm implements while the women were potters. The Falasha of Ethiopia were not allowed to own land so this particular village did not appear to be heavily involved in agriculture, although there were chickens, sheep and cattle wandering around, occasionally into the houses. In a future article I intend to describe the difficult land ownership situation in Northwest Ethiopia at the time I lived there.
Miss Marjorie Paul, one of the USAID nurse/instructors at the Gondar Health College took an active interest in the Falasha. She confided to me that shortly before we, the Peace Corps, came to Gondar she had encouraged and shown the Falasha women potters how to make small animal sculptures to sell to tourists who regularly visited Gondar.
Following my last visit to the village on April 19, 1964, I made this entry in my diary:
I walked out to the Falasha village to buy some pottery to take home in July. On the way I joined two men who were carrying a large steel beam that they were planning to use to make plow points. The steel beam was left from WWII so they were truly going to “pound swords into plow shears.” Once in the village the men assembled under a tree where they had a charcoal fire burning which they enhanced by working two sheep bladder bellows by hand. Once the fire was hot enough they pounded the red hot portion of the beam in order to work it into plow points. Seated near by on a little camp stool was a large Israeli artist who was sloshing oil paint onto a canvas, seeking to capture the essence of the Falasha men working. Like myself, the ironworkers appeared to be very amused by his creation.
I purchased pottery from Ester Kebede, the chief woman potter. She proudly told me that she had just started signing her name to her pots. She sold me several clay figures including a scarab like figure, and one of her trademark pots for cooking wat. She sent her little boy, Mellesot, back to town with me to carry my purchases. About half way home I thanked Mellesot, gave him five cents and sent him back to the village. At the edge of Gondar I met two students, Zerai and Alemu Asres. Throughout our two years in Gondar, students would not let us carry anything so they walked the rest of the way with me to my house, carrying my pottery.
My diary noted the arrival in 1963 of Dr. Daniel Harel and his wife Vered. They came to Gondar to work with the Falasha living around Ambover, a village south of Gondar. Vered was responsible for the establishment of a school and Daniel a health clinic in Ambover. Vered made Falasha handicraft items available to the large foreign community in Gondar in order to help finance the Ambover school. Later a man named David Zefrone (spelling?) came to Gondar to assist Vered with the school.
On June 5, 1964 I recorded this example of David Zefrone’s encounter with the Ethiopian Bureaucracy:
David Zefrone returned to Gondar, sputtering, after an exasperating week in Addis. He’s working for an international Jewish organization that is based in Geneva and he was invited to go to Geneva to report on what he’s been doing among the Falasha. He flew to Addis and asked for an exit visa at the Interior Ministry. They asked him for a paper from his employer in Ethiopia. He said he didn’t have any employer in Ethiopia. The Ministry then replied that he had to have an employer and then asked him what he did. He told them he taught the Falashas near Gondar. The Interior Ministry then said you must thus be working for the Ministry of Education and should bring a paper from Ato Yoseph in Gondar. He said he did not work for Ato Yoseph or the Ministry of Education. They then told him to go back to Gondar and bring a paper from the Governor saying that it is all right for him to leave. The Israeli Embassy even tried to intervene as his guarantor by guaranteeing his return to Ethiopia if he’d done anything unacceptable while in Ethiopia. The Ministry of Interior said no, so David returned to Gondar.
On March 26, 1964 I was invited to spend an evening with Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, at the Gondar Health College. Fortunately Toynbee delayed his visit a few days so I was able to accept the Harels’ kind invitation to attend Passover at Ambover:
At 5:30 Dan Harel stopped at our house to pick-up my housemate, Martin Benjamin and me. Dan then made a stop at the airport in an attempt to locate a package that was supposed to have arrived in Gondar. About five kilometers south of the airport, just past the bombed out Italian bridge, we turned north off the main Gondar/Bahir Dar road. The turn off point is a little sub-district village that contains an open air mill and about twenty huts scattered around a small market field. The women who live in the huts are all talla (beer) sellers. We then drove over a dirt track about 12 kilometers to the village of Ambover. Dan says that the first time he visited Ambover last year there wasn’t even a path and the trip took him four hours. Since then the villagers have cleared a path so the journey now takes only half an hour.
The Falasha who live near Ambover all rent the land they farm. The village is quite new as it was started only about 20 to 25 years ago when a large group of Falasha moved down from the Simien Mountains in order to avoid the Italians. The only buildings in the village are the health clinic, a school, a synagogue and a few steel roofed houses for teachers. The 3500 Falashas are scattered around on the nearby hills. We arrived in the village at about 7:00 so we quickly were shown about the school and clinic before it was completely dark. The school has been built by masons from Gondar and has been paid for by the Harels and their organization in Israel. David had a major hand in building the door frames, doors, windows, etc. Some students tried to carry a desk out of a classroom to take to the synagogue but they couldn’t because the desk was placed in the room before the door was installed.
Dan’s clinic was in a newly built building with woven reed mats on the dirt floor. He had an eye chart on the wall that was designed for those who cannot read. The chart was of limited use because the residents of Ambover do not recognize chairs, tables, stairs, etc. Dan’s assistant (Getachun) is a Falasha dresser (health worker) who Dan was fortunate to locate in Addis. The man was willing to return to Ambover where he built himself a house and married a local woman. Near the clinic is a large hole in the ground that Dan hopes will shortly become a well. Now the residents must bring water from a spring fed stream at the base of the mountain. The synagogue is just a small square building. When the Harels arrived the synagogue was roofless with an ostrich egg (a common Christian symbol) affixed to the top of the frame. The Harels paid for a new roof complete with a Star of David.
As the sun was setting beyond Lake Tana seven old priests stood inside the synagogue and chanted in Geez (the liturgical language for Christians and Jews). There are seven teachers in the village school. Because several have been educated in Israel they spoke with the Harels in Hebrew. Hebrew is taught to all the 250 students in the school. The request for permission to teach Hebrew was based on the same reasoning that Ethiopian Moslems use to teach Arabic in their schools. The Ministry of Education would probably not allow instruction in Hebrew to be taught if it were not a necessary part of the religion. The villagers have been drinking only water this past week. They have also only eaten newly prepared foods for each meal and have avoided the normal fermented injera.
Far in the distance we could see fires burning in huts. We sat on the ground and watched Venus appear in the southwest and the moon come-up over the mountain behind us. After the priests had chanted for an hour we all went into the synagogue where the Israeli educated youth read and chanted the Hebrew service. At first they were a little confused and were reading aloud the directions on how the table should be prepared, etc. Vered quickly straightened that out. The synagogue was lighted by two tiny locally made kerosene lamps. On one wall behind the priests was hung a long strip of colorful cloth. There must have been 300 people seated on the floor. Most of them seemed to be able to follow the Hebrew.
I recorded the service. However, several years ago I loaned the tape to a doctor in Chicago to enjoy for Passover and it was never returned:
Sometime after 9:00 we all left the building and sat on the ground outside. Over a dozen injera baskets of matzo were brought by children. The bread was blessed in Geez and Hebrew. It tasted like the usual “dabbo” (wheat bread) except it was flat like injera. The Geez prayers that are chanted are from the Falasha Book of Prayer. It is said that there remains only one copy of the book and it is in Simien. The school children next sang a number of Israeli folk songs. The priests repeated some more Geez prayers that were translated into Hebrew for the benefit of the Harels.
We were impressed with how clean the children were. The children did not have flies around their eyes. Dan said that is probably due to the Monday morning inspections held at the school each week. The cleanest student always gets a special bar of soap. On the drive back to Gondar, Dan talked about the problem of the old religious leaders not being replaced. Their children who would normally take on the responsibility, now want to become teachers. I asked Dan if any of the Falasha ever have contact with the Debra Tabor or Dabat Christian missions. He said it is something of a joke among the Falasha. Some may use the mission for a while and then go back to being a Falasha. In his twenty or so years in Ethiopia Rev. Payne has succeeded in converting one Falasha religious leader to Christianity at the mission. Dan said that Payne keeps the man around the Dabat mission like a trophy. The Falasha refer to Passover as Fasika (Easter in Amharic).
As a footnote to this short “tarik” about the Falasha I’d like to relate my conversations with Sister Lena who was a German Anglican nun at one of the two missions. The missions were started in the 19th. century to convert the Falasha to Christianity. About four times during my two years in Gondar I met Sister Lena while she was visiting Gondar. Our longest conversation occurred on June 19, 1964 on the plane from Gondar to Addis. It was the start of her final flight back to Germany where she planned to retire and for me and sixty other Peace Corps volunteers it was a summons to meet with Ambassador Edward Korry at the Embassy for an update on American activities in Ethiopia. Sister Lena first came to Ethiopia in 1932. She said it took her six weeks by mule to reach Gondar from the coast.
At that time Gondar consisted of ruined castles and mud houses. In November 1935, with the Italians approaching, Sister Lena and the others at the mission fled by mule to the Sudan and there they took the train to Port Sudan in order to board a ship to England.
They all contracted malaria while crossing the lowlands between Gondar and the Sudan. Sister Lena returned to Ethiopia in 1952. She acknowledged that the Falasha couples who live at the Debat mission continue to maintain their unique Falasha traditions.
Part 6. The Gondar Market
During our Peace Corps stay Gondar was an important market town for much of Begemedir Province. 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.
Another photo shows a woman on her way to market balancing an empty sheepskin sack on her head (she probably intended to fill it with gesho leaves which she would use to make talla beer). On her back is a baby in a carrier. In her left hand is a colorful chicken which she was selling and in her right hand was the ever present black umbrella.
On March 30, 1963 I wrote the following after visiting the market:
One of the most unusual items for sale in the market is the Ankalaba, a large tanned leather sheet which women use to carry children on their backs. Men always buy one for the child’s mother. However, they wait a few weeks after the child’s birth to determine if the child will live. The price for an ankalaba is 4 shillings or $2 Eth.
Many sheepskin bags full of gesho leaves for talla making were on sale. Gesho is the dried green leaf which acts as would hops in beer making. A large leather sack full of gesho (about a bushel) cost $1 Eth.
On a high place in the market under the worku tree were hobbled hundreds of donkeys. Some had open sores on their backs. With the mother donkeys were their young who had followed along on the market journey.
John Stockton was with me as we worked our way through the market buying limes and eggs. We’ve always felt very comfortable and safe in the market. As we were standing near the berberi (pepper) saleswomen a young man tried to pick John’s pocket. John punched him hard enough to knock him to the ground. The young man jumped up and took off running. All around us we heard the Ethiopian startled response of “aarah, aarah” followed by shouts of approval of John’s bold action.
In the afternoon several of us borrowed some of the school’s new American baseball equipment and had a pick-up game of baseball on the sports field next to the Zobel monument. Soon there was a crowd of about 100 watching, including two priests sitting out in left field near the monument. Every once in a while we had to stop the game to let a train of donkeys pass on their way home from the market.
Very late in the afternoon Mr. Ooman (Assistant Headmaster) asked Marty Benjamin and me to join him and go to Azozo (the army base a few miles south of Gondar). The purpose of the trip was to measure the heights of students in preparation for the upcoming sports competition. We were chosen to help because we had no vested interest in the outcome of the sports competition. It would be impossible to group students according to age because their birth date in often unknown. In the Azozo school yard were several hundred little squirming students we had to stand up against a wall and group according to height. The Azozo school is quite good as most of the parents are with the army. We’ve heard that about half of the Azozo troops are now serving with the U.N. in the Congo.
On April 27, 1963 Andrea Wright invited all of the other eleven Peace Corps Volunteers to her birthday party. The twelve of us lived in three separate houses. John and Peggy Davis had their own house next to the school. Martin Benjamin, John Stockton, Dallas Smith and I shared a house across from the school. Jack Prebis, Charlie Callahan, Frank Mason, Andrea Wright, Trish Martin-Jenkins and Madelyn Engvall had a compound about a half mile away from the school:
Andrea served anchovies, cream cheese, shrimp hors d’oeuvres and Scotch, teg (honey mead) and soda. For dinner we had hamburgers, salad, zucchini and cake with ice cream. After dinner we all sat around and talked for the first time in many months. The three women have a mini farm behind their house with a chicken house full of multi-colored chickens, a pig, a baby donkey, a ewe with a lamb, two horses and a cat. The best story of the evening was about the acquisition of the donkey. Andrea and her housemates asked several students to go to the Saturday market to buy a baby donkey. At the market the students were confronted by very suspicious farmers who did not understand why foreigners would want to buy a baby donkey. The creative students improvised a story that these women were part of the Peace Corps (Salaam Guad) and were trying to show that all these animals are able to live in peace and thus so should people. The students were very convincing because the returned with a donkey.
Of the twelve of us Dallas Smith was the only one who had inherited the “bargaining gene.” If I ever needed to buy something important in one of the shops near the market I would enlist Dallas’ help and then stand back and watch his performance with awe. Dallas would approach the merchant with all the proper friendly greetings and respect. After asking the price of the object, which was always too high, Dallas would begin to flap his arms and shout “Leba! Leba!” (thief, thief) and threaten to leave.
Within minutes the merchant and Dallas would have agreed on a price and Dallas would be found seated with the merchant behind the counter drinking tiny cups of very strong black coffee. Dallas’ bargaining skills were on display in other ways. At 6:00 P.M. on the days the airplane landed in Gondar, the mail sacks would be opened on the Post Office counter. Across the counter from the clerks sorting the mail, noisy rude foreigners would clamor for their mail.
Dallas had cultivated the postal clerks and treated them with respect, even, at times, bringing them coffee, so they would take special care with our mail. That even carried over to sending packages home. If Dallas mailed our packages the cost was always reasonable.
During the Orthodox Easter fast of 1964 there was no meat available in Gondar for six weeks. Cattle were not for sale and no animals were slaughtered. Somehow, Dallas arranged for a cow to be killed in his yard in the approved Orthodox manner and had the meat divided among seven households.
Dallas captured the whole bloody event with his movie camera. Because he always sent his film home for his mother to develop and show to her friends he could imagine the scene in Winslow, Illinois when the ladies were innocently shown the movie.
At the end of the Saturday market day the farmers would pass my house on their journey home. I enjoyed sitting on my porch watching the parade. Sometimes the young men would sing bawdy songs as they walked along and if they had had a very good day at the market and maybe enjoyed too much talla in a talla bet (beer house) they would playfully foot race their donkeys past Zobel’s monument.
Part 7. My Home in Gondar is Now a School
When we arrived in Gondar, Ethiopia on September 21, 1962 we were assigned to houses rented by the Peace Corps office in Addis. 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.
The Peace Corps paid the $110Eth./month rent ($44 dollars) directly so we never knew who received the money. However, we were summoned into court throughout the two year period over numerous ownership disputes. We sensed that there was a badge of honor attached to an Ethiopian for bringing a matter before the court.
Originally the house had a bathroom, so as part of the lease the “landlord” was charged with restoring it. In the rafters of the house were two large concrete tanks which were regulated by floats and stored water which flowed through the town water pipes. Throughout October we battled with the landlord to complete the work.
The workmen he sent confided in us that he had a history of not paying his workers and not finishing jobs. We got his attention on October 6 when he came to inspect the leaky sink, loose/leaking toilet bowl and bathtub that was not hooked into the sewer line to the septic tank. He was standing close to the toilet when John reached up and pulled the chain on the toilet flush tank. As we anticipated, the leaking toilet poured water over his fancy Italian shoes. Ultimately we gave up and paid the plumber from the hospital to moonlight for a few hours to do the job right.
A small white dog appeared at our house, as if asking for a place to stay. Because she was so pregnant one of our students named her Sintayu (I have seen too much). We adopted her and although she was friendly she would bark at visitors in a non threatening way. We developed the impression that she might be a racist because she only barked at our Ethiopian visitors . However, Marty put forth a very plausible theory to explain Sintayu’s behavior. Marty observed that Sintayu only barked at visitors who were not wearing shoes.
As the dry season intensified there was an influx of rats seeking water and a source of food. Out bathroom was the focus of their attention. They would climb down the pipes from the attic and crawl up other pipes from the basement. As we were working on our lessons and papers we would hear the clanging of the steel traps we had scattered around on the floor. On December 12, 1963 my diary noted that in one trap we caught “two rats at one time.”
Late in the dry season during the months of March and April, at the start of the small rains, we were accosted by an invasion of moths and unique flying worms. The worms were large and numerous and were attracted by our study lights. We became very practiced snatching them out of the air.
Water was brought to our house through the town water system. Because the pipes were often above ground and subject to leaking we did not drink the water without first boiling it. As the dry season ended and the small rains began, the water would be shut off for days at a time. Before the rains started we would try to take the precaution of having out bathtub full of water. Once the rains began we could catch enough water from the roof to meet our needs.
Many residents of Gondar could not afford to get their water from the town system. They depended upon women to deliver water which they would carry in heavy earthen jars on their backs. The water carriers would fill their jars from the nearby Oaha River. As the dry season continued the river would almost dry up. As the women took a short cut walking through our compound passing our front door, we would listen to the musical sound created by the floating metal cans used for dipping as they clanged against the sides of the earthen jars. By hiding my tape recorder near my front gate I captured a recording of the water carriers’ symphony.
Dr. Rossa, the American director of the Gondar Hospital stopped at the house on October 14, 1962 and invited us on an inspection tour of the Gondar water collection system located in the mountains about 10 km. north of Gondar. There pipes ran from several small mountain streams and then the water was collected at a central little stone building from which it was sent through a larger pipe to Gondar. There was a large unopened bag of chemicals in the building but there was no evidence that the water was treated in a systematic way. Near the water system was the road to the Sudan which is passable (barely) in the dry season. Dr. Rossa related that herds of elephants and hippos in the lowlands between Gondar’s 8,000 foot elevation and the Sudan can be seen only during the rainy season.
After touring the water works, Dr. Rossa took us to his favorite swimming hole in one of the mountain streams. Because no one lived in the area he expressed confidence that the risk from shistosomiasis/bilharzia (liver flukes) was minimal. He did, however, advise us to never swim near the shore in Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, because infected snails inhabit shallow water.
The swimming hole was a delightful refreshing pool trapped beneath where the mountain stream formed a waterfall. As we were enjoying ourselves a puzzled Ethiopian farmer walked by and peered down at us.
Six years ago my son, John, accompanied me on my first return visit to Gondar. Of course, I wanted to show him my old house. The formerly spacious field around it is now filled with countless new houses, but my old house still stands. It and a building constructed next to it now house the Rekebnaha Kindergarten and Primary School, a 600+ student private school. The Headmistress of the school, Rekebnaha Geremew, welcomed us to the school and we toured each of the classrooms. The dirt basement has been excavated and is now a resource center with computers.
It was very touching to see the 50 eager young students studying in my old room. Close to 100 of the students in Rekebnaha School are orphans who attend without paying school fees. The school can be contacted at:
Rekebnaha Kindergarten and Primary School
P. O. Box 111
After touring the school I was reminded of a comment made by one of my students, Teshale Berihune. On July 20, 1963 Teshale visited my house in order to borrow several books from our Peace Corps footlocker library. At the time only Marty Benjamin and I were living in the house. Teshale commented on how strange it was for just two people to live in such a large four room house. He said: “Mr. Lyman, this is a house, not a village.”
Today my old house, hosting hundreds of students, has indeed become Teshale’s “village.”
Part 8. Our Wonderful Cook, Aragash Haile
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. 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.
I saved the two account books from those two years in Gondar and suspect that someday an anthropologist studying the eating habits of Peace Corps volunteers will find it a gold mine of information.
The Peace Corps supplied us with a kerosene refrigerator and a kerosene stove. A problem was that frequently there was a lengthy shortage of kerosene. The two sources were Besse & Co., an Empire wide trading company, and the local AGIIP station. Whenever a supply would arrive by lorry from Asmara word would quickly spread and we would buy a number of tins.
At first we ate a lot of sardines and canned corned beef. I have not in fifty years been tempted to eat another sardine. Because Dallas began to feel that we were taking advantage of him, which we were, word was spread in the Gondar hospital community that we were in need of a cook. Betty Petti, a USAID nurse/instructor at the Hospital/Health College came to our aid. Because of her roots in Massachusetts she spoke Italian and knew all the Italian families still living in Gondar. One family was in the process of returning to Italy and they had a wonderful cook named Aragash Haile. Betty arranged an interview with Aragash and we hired her on the spot.
Aragash’s father died in the early 1950’s and her mother still lived in Asmara. Aragash spoke Italian, Amharic and Tigreanean. Living with Aragash in Gondar were her sister who was the cook for Signor Pigga, the Italian manager of HIM’s farm on the outskirts of Gondar and her brother who was a student in our school. The two daughters supported their mother and brother. Aragash prepared our meals five and a half days a week and was paid monthly.
Every morning on her way down from the piazza she would bring fresh hard rolls for our breakfast and we would enjoy them with jam and pots of sweet tea. The other meals were left to Aragash’s creative talents. We thoroughly enjoyed her low fat/ low sugar Italian menu. Occasionally, when I passed the small Ethiopian Airlines storefront office near the Piazza I would step on their freight scale. Shortly before returning home I weighed in at 156 pounds. I attribute my excellent health during my two years in Gondar to Aragash’s fine care.
The American AID nurses at the Health College (Marjorie Paul, Berry Petti, Miss Van Buskirk and Miss Garst) staged a party in our honor towards the end of our two years. They flew in all manner of cake mixes in the diplomatic pouch in order to treat us to a dessert night. We were so used to not eating sugar that we could only nibble small portions of their largess.
We discovered that if we especially praised one of Aragash’s meals it would reappear regularly on the weekly menu rotation. Every Wednesday we ate dorro (chicken) wat and ingera and Saturday for lunch Aragash would prepare a large bowl of her famous sherro (chickpeas and spice) wat with ingera which would last through the weekend. Of all the Ethiopian Restaurants I’ve visited over the last fifty years I have not tasted sherro that could match Aragash’s. Aragash used our account at Ghile’s Store plus her own sources for our food. For vegetables she had access to Signor Pigga’s small store front shop down the street from Ghile’s.
Ingera was delivered to our house by a young man in the morning. I have no idea where Aragash bought meat. Marty provided Aragash with funds for all these miscellaneous purchases. Dorro wat is a multi-spice sauce cooked for hours with usually a hard boiled egg and a chicken drumstick in it. We knew it was good when our eyes would water, our lips would burn and our noses would run. Because Aragash bought our ingera delivered fresh I had to go to our neighbor Mulgeta’s house to observe how it was cooked.
I happened to be there one Sunday helping him with his garden when I wrote the following:
After helping Mulugeta with his garden I was treated to glasses of teg (honey mead) followed by gonfo a wheat dough with a nest of milk and berberi spice in it. That was followed by warm milk and spoons of honey with the comb still in it. We spit the beeswax on the floor. They were cooking ingera so I watched the technique. Three days before they had mixed water and teff flour in a jar and let it sit. When they were ready to cook the ingera they poured off the excess water then poured the teff batter onto a clay griddle. The griddle had been greased by rubbing six cabbage seeds on it. The ingera was allowed to cook on the griddle underneath a lid for three minutes. Ingera has the appearance of tripe. Because teff grain has no gluten, the dough does not rise like wheat bread. Instead it just bubbles and forms a flat honeycombed structure.
On April 5, 1963 I wrote the following:
We had a grand episode about Abebe who cooks for John and Peggy Davis. The new Canadian doctor associated with the Health College attempted to hire her away from the Davises by offering Abebe more money. This of course broke the unwritten law in Gondar that no foreigner hires away another’s servant. John and Peggy fought back with an offer of more money and English lessons. In addition they called upon Abebe’s uncle and cousin to intercede. The fury of the counterattack took the Canadians by surprise so they gave up the fight.
Shaken by the struggle with the Canadians over Abebe we decided it was high time to buy Aragash the new dress that is customarily given to all new servants. We and the Davises took Abebe and Aragash to the arada (market) where the two chose material. We then accompanied them to a tailor who showed them an American catalog from which they selected the picture of the style they liked. Within days the tailor produced two very attractive dresses.
In September Meskel is celebrated to commemorate the finding of the true cross. A large stick cross is erected near the Judgement tree which is on the way to the market. Both years we were invited to watch the two day event from places of honor underneath the spreading tree. Priests, officials, and everyday people parade around the cross which is decorated with the yellow Meskel flowers. There is a lot of chanting and singing. Finally on the second day the cross is lighted on fire. There are local superstitions that if it falls in a certain direction good fortune will come to those farming and living in that direction. The first year the cross was slow to fall so it was given a gentle nudge in the right direction. Because gifts are given on this occasion we bought Aragash a new red sweater.
We could predict when Aragash was pleased because four days after giving her the sweater she served us one of her trademark “dolce” cakes. It was a pound cake shaped like one of our angel food cakes. To bake it she used a special Italian pan that circulated the heat on top of the kerosene stove so that it would bake without the use of an oven. When I asked for her recipe she had her brother write it down for me.
I added a few interpretive notes but I must confess I’ve never had the courage to try the recipe. Here’s hoping that an alert reader will perfect the recipe. (To read the recipe follow this link.)
At Easter during our final year Aragash surprised Marty and me by giving each of us a sampler she had embroidered. Between two sprigs of flowers it reads in Amharic “Exhabier qu ante gar yehun.” The translation is “God go with you.” It was a very touching gift.
Knowing we would be leaving Ethiopia in July 1964 we worked hard to find Aragash a new position. A German doctor desperately wanted her as his cook, however, Aragash had grown to like the American work schedule of Saturday afternoon and Sunday off plus paid time off when we were gone during school breaks at Christmas, Easter and the summer. She thus chose to cook for Gayle Bradshaw who arrived with the second Peace Corps group.
As we were loading up to leave for the airport for the last time we said our sad farewells to students, friends and Aragash. We presented her with a new shama (dress and shawl). Back in Minnesota as winter was approaching I received a brief note from Aragash written by her brother. In it she asked specifically about my Mother’s health. I sent Aragash back a picture of my Mother and Father (Richard B. and Mary Frances Lyman) and myself proudly holding “Aragash’s sampler.”
Part 9. 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.
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 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.
To leave one’s village was a big deal. Students frequently would refer to it as “going to another country.” Rereading Yimer’s comments about leaving his village reminded me of my own family’s reaction to my announcement that I was going to Africa with the Peace Corps. I got to share the comments with others while in training at Georgetown University during the summer of 1962. The Peace Corps psychologist conducted small group sessions to judge our suitability for participation in the program. I remember in one session the question was asked whether we had thought of being homesick while abroad.
It gave me an excuse to tell the group the story of my Grandmother, Evelyn Brackett Lyman’s, reaction to the news that I was going to Africa. She was the matriarch of the family and I was the only grandson so she pulled me aside one day to ask “How can you go to Ethiopia? I won’t see you again.” My reply to her was “We both know you are too stubborn to die!” Sure enough she was there two years later at the Minneapolis/St Paul Airport when I stepped off the plane. My diary entries for February 1964 often mention listening to reports on the BBC, VOA and Ethiopian radio of the fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia.
On Sunday Feb. 9 I wrote:
The Ethiopian government has taken responsibility for the Somalia border area out of the Ministry of Interior and reassigned it to the Ministry of Defense. Ethiopian Radio claims that Somali casualties are at the rate of 4 to 5 per Ethiopians killed. In the afternoon the school lost its soccer game with the army 2 to 1. We watched the game from the high bank overlooking the end of the Zobel field so that we would be out of rock throwing range. Yimer’s uncle, brother and cousin came to Gondar this morning. They’d been walking for four days from their village near Debre Tabor. They came to our house and Yimer introduced us. They showed great respect for us by bowing and shifting their shammas off of their shoulders. Yimer proudly showed them his room, bed, books, watch and clothes. They came to Gondar because someone in their village tried to bomb the uncle and they needed to report the incident to the provincial officials because the brother had witnessed the incident.
On February 10 I wrote:
Somali radio claims to have blown up an Ethiopian ammunition depot and killed 350 Ethiopians. Yimer took the day off from school to take his relatives to the court. He says it was a good thing he did because ‘they are just country people and would have been run over by cars.’ Every time a car came towards them they would panic. In the court they were so awed they forgot their own names. Yimer says they are very anxious to leave tomorrow and get back to the safety of their village.
Yimer, was a wonderful source of folklore and culture. He was able to help us understand what was happening around us. He started life as a shepherd boy in his village. He related that at times when there was frost on the ground he and the other shepherds would tie leave from the false banana plant to their bare feet. We never asked the ages of our students for two reasons. First, they might not really know and secondly, they might in all likelihood ask our ages. I assumed that Yimer and many of my other students had been shepherds and had started school at an older age and they well might be older than I.
Scattered throughout my six volumes of diaries are many quotes from Yimer:
Solomon Abate wore a deflated soccer ball to school in the afternoon. It makes a swell rain hat. His father Ato Abate is a judge and is also the fattest man in Gondar. Yimer says that Ato Abate once tried to ride in a horse drawn garry and broke it. Yimer bought me a policeman’s raincoat (zenab libs) for $8.50. Policemen were given two coats a year so if they have a spare they sell it.
Yimer told us that the former mayor of Gondar (the one who paved the streets) has died in Addis and there will be a ceremony of public mourning tomorrow morning under the big tree near the market. Yimer said it will be a traditional ceremony with ‘the slaves carrying empty talla jars on their backs.
Yimer told Marty why Ethiopians want so many children. They believe that success comes only through luck so if they have seven children the chances are greater that one child will be lucky and will thus be able to support the whole family.
Yimer and I went to the arada (market). He showed me the different kinds of sheep. Those from North of Gondar, near Dabat, have short tails while those from south of Gondar, near Debre Tabor have fat tails. A number of women were selling butter which they took out of a gourd and melted over a charcoal fire. This was cooking butter. The hair butter is sold in a little solid pat between two fresh leaves.
About once a month Yimer would gather up all our empty bottles and tins and recycle them by selling them in the Saturday market. When my son, John, and I were in Gondar six years ago empty bottles were still sought after. A stone mason working to restore the wall at the Bath of King Fasil very politely asked if he could have the empty water bottle I was carrying.
On 19 June 1963 I wrote:
Today is Wodaja which is a pagan celebration that occurs three times a year. People believe they must kill a multi-colored chicken in their houses. As a result the price of chickens has been very high this week. In addition there is a great deal of dancing. We could hear the drums during the night. Yimer tells me that Wodaja is an appeal to the pagan deity Zaff for mercy in case of illness in the coming year.
I took the photograph below of Yimer’s Aunt and Uncle standing in the doorway of their house. I regret that I never wrote down their names and after fifty years I cannot remember them. If records of the Gondar Health College sanitarian department still exist from the period when the sanitarians took the census and assigned each house a number then their house number would answer the question. They were a handsome couple and extremely gracious. They often included us in neighborhood and family gatherings.
Pinned to the wall of their house was a photograph of the uncle proudly posing as a dashing young man in his Italian police uniform. On a number of occasions during visits to the homes of students I met uncles, fathers or grandfathers who had worked for the Italians during the occupation. I guess that would be expected because Gondar had been the center of the Italian occupation and contained upwards of 20,000 Italians. In spite of stories of Italian atrocities I did not hear of reprisals against those Ethiopians who had served them.
Once an Ethiopian teacher whispered a joke in my ear:
Who were the two most foolish men in the world? First was Mussolini for wanting Ethiopia. Second was Haile Selassie for taking it back before the Italians had finished building it.
On weekends I would often be invited by students to take walks with them and explore their favorite places in Gondar. Frequently we spent time at their families’ and friends’ houses drinking talla and tea and eating ingera. I was always honored to be invited into their homes.
One Saturday Yimer and Mulattu took me on a round about journey to the Falasha village north of Gondar. It wasn’t the usual route of going through the Piazza and turning left onto the Asmara road.
On the walk, Yimer (with no embarrassment) pointed out the house where his aunt lived as the mistress of an Italian soldier during the occupation.
Here is what I wrote on that April 1964 day:
The area then had its own hospital, cinema and was full of barracks buildings. Tukul Hill which towers up behind the Post Office was called Tigre Mecha because centuries ago when the Emperor lived in Gondar the Tigres from the north would come to see him and always camp on the mountain side.
Mulattu’s father was an officer in the Italian army. From Mullatu’s comments it sounded as if he commanded some Italian troops. After the war his father quietly switched sides and joined the Ethiopian police. When we crossed a bridge on the Asmara road near the Incode (Israeli) meat packing plant Mulattu recalled when it was built ten years ago because at that time he used to watch his father’s cattle on a nearby hill.
After visiting the Falasha village we returned to Gondar through the Megech River valley. An eleventh grade student was rounding up his father’s donkeys in order to take some grain into Gondar. Along the River there are the ruins of Italian block houses and irrigation works. Big pipes still lead into some fields but the pumps are now gone. We climbed the mountain behind the Roman Catholic Church. On the way we passed more ruined forts and the foundations of the little round huts where the Ethiopian Italian troops were housed.
We stopped at the house of a mentor to Yimer whom he referred to as ‘his brother.’ There we had tea and ingera with a glob of pepper paste on it. The family was preparing to go to a celebration of the marriage of an eight year old girl. Two families were concerned about keeping their adjoining land in the family so they are marrying two of their eight year olds. Up the street there was a tent set-up and the people under it were wailing because Mekuria (a ninth grade student last year) had died in Addis. Mekuria’s father was a policeman and had been transferred to Addis last year. While in Addis Mekuria had been sick most of the year.
On 27 April 1964 I wrote:
Yimer invited me to his aunt’s for lunch. She served miser (lentil) and sherro (chickpea) wats and lots of talla. The aunt and uncle have a new servant girl (Abebe) who appears to have caught Yimer’s eye. Abebe recently divorced her husband in Yimer’s village and moved to the big city. The area of Gondar where the aunt lives is called ‘Shameye Seffer’ after the man who came from Dessie with his followers during the war. It is only half a mile from our house. An Ethiopian soldier who served with the UN in the Congo is building a $5,000 house in the neighborhood. He plans to rent it out. Yimer says even a common soldier returned from the Congo with over $1,500. The roof of the aunt’s house has been used five different times. It’s Italian roofing steel and is worth the same as the thin Japanese sheets that are now sold. On the walk back to our house on the shady lane, a neighborhood talla seller told Yimer that she would like to marry me.
On 1 March 1964 I recorded another event:
Yimer invited us over to his aunt’s for an afternoon party. Every year just before the Easter fast she has a celebration for the neighbors and people who attend a certain church. The people who live far away come for the afternoon while the near neighbors wait for the evening performance. At the side of her rectangular chika (mud) walled house she created a flat topped little hut for the party. The corners had posts dug into the ground and walls and ceiling were made out of branches and blankets. The dirt floor was covered with eucalyptus leaves. We sat on woven mats placed along the side walls. Many of the afternoon guests had come to Gondar during the occupation. They had accompanied a Ras (leader) and when he died they remained in Gondar. All of us were given glasses that were kept full of talla. Two servants tended the talla jugs which were as large as beer kegs. It was all two men could do to lift a full one into place.
Two priests sat along one side. A servant to one man sat in the center of the floor by himself. After a while one of the priests stood up and delivered a prayer. The other priest then got up and said it was a happy time that everyone could be present. He then quoted an Ethiopian proverb to the effect that when everyone else is present at a gathering, white men will come.
Yimer estimated that his aunt spent $25 for the teff for the injera and $50 for the dagussa and barley for the talla beer. The ingera was served with a paste made out of water, beriberi and perhaps sesame seed oil.
On the way back to our house we passed a wedding party on the road in front of the Davises’ house. The bride and groom were on one mule and another man followed them on a second mule. The bride was wrapped in a shamma and she appeared to be no older than fourteen. All around the two mules six other young men danced, sang and just jumped about. They periodically raced each other down the road as they returned to their village in the mountains.
This brief “Part 9” from my Ethiopian Diary celebrates the contributions Yimer Mekonnen and his family made toward enriching my two years in Gondar.
Part 10. Talla Bets
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. 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.
The talla bets were very popular with our students. I suspect that the drinking of talla was an important source of calories and vitamins in their diets. In my Part 2 in which I describe our trip to visit Lalibela I printed census data for Lalibela in which of 900 females living in Lalibela at that time, 298 were employed as talla bet operators. Selling beer was one of the few occupations available for women. Women from small farming settlements who had divorced their husbands moved to a larger market town where they could open a talla bet and offer beer and at times other services to male customers.
We were infrequent visitors to the Gondar talla bets. Word was passed to us from Ato Yoseph, the Provincial head of Education, that as teachers we had a status to maintain and thus should only drink scotch in the uptown National Bar which was located near the Piazza. Rarely did we go to the National Bar and when we did we only had a small glass of Mellotti Cognac. We enjoyed the Cinema Bar, a cavernous Italian relic, where we could enjoy little dishes of Italian ice cream.
On three occasions I describe in my diary visits to talla bets:
John Stockton and I visited another talla bet in the market. The woman who operates it must be in her 60’s. Everyone sat on grass mats placed on the four inch high dirt platform which circles the room. The old woman had lived in Asmara which she greatly admires. The only English words she knows are ‘hello’ and ‘sleep.’ In the center of the rectangular room was the common charcoal stove made out of a kerosene tin. On it a pot of wat was cooking. Next to the fire was the woman’s cat. She related that Ethiopian cats don’t eat rats so at night she wraps tightly in her blanket to keep the rats away. In a corner of the room sat a young Ethiopian farmer and his two sons who sat very straight and stared with wide eyes. It would be a great picture to sketch as the room was lit by two tiny homemade kerosene lamps which outlined the old woman and her dignified brother who must have been at least as old as she.
After another visit I wrote:
Saturday night we went to three talla bets in the market. In the first we were entertained with dancing to the beat of a dish pan. In the second a mysenko (stringed instrument played with a bow) was being played. In the final bet a Besse & Co. employee bought talla for us. During that visit a student whispered in my ear that the scruffy man leaving the talla bet was a member of the secret police. After he left he was replaced by a young policeman who sat and listed to what was being said.
March 9, 1963 was the night of our big concert. Marty and I walked to one of the talla bets with an entourage of students including Worku. The students had scouted out the place to be certain that our music would not be viewed as intrusive. The ritual of a talla bet was the same wherever we went. The beer was ladled out of large earthen jars into battered metal tea kettles. For 25 cents (10 cents US) we each bought a large metal tea kettle. Before setting the tea kettle on the dirt floor in front of us the server poured a small amount of the talla from the kettle into her hand. She then tasted the beer to prove it was not poisoned.
The server then poured some into our “birillis.” Birillis were round glass drinking vessels with narrow necks. The birilli was the worst possible glass vessel in terms of cleaning, however, for talla its shape was perfect. After filling our birilli from the tea kettle it was placed on the floor in front of us for a few minutes. During that time the straw and chaff from the talla would rise to the top of the narrow neck. Then in a ritualized manner we picked-up our birillis and with a flick of the wrist the chaff and debris would fly onto the floor. Objects that were brought to Ethiopia after the war were often given descriptive names or names that reflected their manufacturer.
For example our students called an ink pen a “scripto,” blue denim pants were “wranglers,” and a vehicle or even a sewing machine was a “mechina.” The birilli I assume was named for the Italian skittles/bowling pin which duplicates its shape.
Marty brought his guitar with him to Ethiopia. The wooden walls of our house were thin so often as I was grading papers or reading I would hear him playing and singing his favorite old Weavers’ song “Two Brothers.”
To record our concert I brought my small Phillips reel to reel recorder in a TWA flight bag which I discretely set to one side in the talla bet. The only light in the room came from a small locally made kerosene lamp. A tinsmith in Gondar had cut out the sides of a small tin can bending them to form a two inch high container out of which protruded a burning wick. It created a smoky “coffee house” ambiance.
Marty led the way as we worked our way through his repertoire of folk songs interspersed with talk from the audience and several impromptu Ethiopian songs. Several years ago when Marty mentioned that he was teaching his grandson to play the guitar I sent him a copy of the concert on a CD. Marty had forgotten all about it.
Please enjoy our 16 minutes of entertainment history.
Part 11. Aba Gebre Meskel
Aba Gebre Meskel was the morals teacher/orthodox priest assigned to our Haile Selassie 1 Secondary School in Gondar, Ethiopia. My sense was that he arrived at about the same time as the twelve of us. Even without his turban he was very tall. As our nearest neighbor we saw a lot of him and gained a deep respect for his views and good works. While on our Easter visit to the ancient churches of Lalibela he shared his opinions on the state of the Orthodox Church. Government agencies and programs would recruit workers through secondary schools like ours.
On one occasion a two year long program in Addis to train better educated students to become school morals teachers came to Gondar to recruit participants from among our 11th graders. Every morning after the school bell rang our students would line-up in the courtyard of the first compound and Aba would address them for ten to fifteen minutes. He would follow announcements with a moral lesson for the day. On May 18, 1964 the lecture concerned students taking chalk from the school and writing “dirty things” on the blacktop streets of the town. It was our understanding that in schools in areas of the Empire where there was a majority Moslem population the morals teacher would be of that faith.
Aba was concerned about the many students who, even though they were receiving a monthly stipend from the government (usually it was $15 Eth. or $6 US), were not able to afford to buy enough food. By March 19, 1963 he and a committee of students were putting the thatched roof on a “tea house” on the school grounds where students could at least each day get some very sweet tea and a hard roll to eat. He and the committee solicited and raised money from students, faculty and town’s people which was entrusted to Aba. He expressed great concern about what to do to safeguard the fund.
The logical thing to do would have been to open an account at the State Bank of Ethiopia but Aba was convinced that if he did, some person would accuse him of taking the money. I teasingly suggested to him that he carry it around in his turban. I’m not convinced that that isn’t what he did.
March 19, 1964 many of the Ethiopian teachers in Gondar met to form a Teachers’ Association. The stated purpose was the creation of a benevolent society to help each other out financially in case of sickness, etc. The concern of the teachers was that the government would view it as a union and see it as a threat. To avoid that perception Aba agreed to be appointed the chairman of the group.
It was through an incident with Aba that we learned a great cultural lesson. On a number of occasions we invited Ethiopian teachers and friends to share a meal at our house and they would agree to come at a certain time and date. Too often they would simply not appear and gave no excuse or explanation.
On January 26, 1964 I wrote:
At about 8:00 am Marty and I walked up the mountain to visit Debre Birhan Church which is supposed to be 300 years old. We waited outside the church while the priest finished his sermon in Geez (the liturgical language). There were a few Ethiopians walking in and out. The walls and ceiling are covered with colorful paintings of angels and Biblical scenes. Women would remove their children from their backs before entering the church. There was a great amount of stone kissing.
When we were returning home we passed Aba’s house. Aba was sitting in a corner of the courtyard and a number of Ethiopians were sitting around on chairs. Yimer told us that Aba had just heard that his mother died. We expressed our condolences and then asked: When did she die? Yimer told us that she died five years ago. Aba’s mother lived in Gojam province which is about 200 miles away. Although Aba’s servant girl in Gondar from the same village, had known of her death for several years she did not share the news with Aba because she did not want him to be sad. However, Aba had just recently fired her and out of spite she told him about the death.
Demissie and other Ethiopians in Gondar knew about the death but did not tell Aba. We asked Yimer why this is done and he told us what happened when his own father died. Yimer did not learn of his father’s death for a year. Although it happened six years ago in the case of Yimer’s father, Yimer still has not told his aunt about her brother’s death. This is in spite of the fact that every day Yimer sees his aunt when he eats at her house. According to Yimer the reason is that the news would make his aunt unhappy and no Ethiopian wants to do that to anyone.
As we had done previously when we heard of the death of our School Director, Ato Ketema’s mother, we went to Aba’s house and quietly sat with him. This incident with Aba helped us understand why our invited guests didn’t appear. They avoided telling us directly what they felt would make us unhappy even though they had no intention of coming in the first place. In an historical footnote we had Ethiopian colleagues in Gondar who claimed that Ethiopian tarik (history and/or story) is full of stories of kings dying and the people not being told of the death for years.
At the 50th Peace Corps celebration at the Ethiopian Embassy in September Dallas Smith and I discussed with Ato Wahide Belay Abitew and Ato Tebege Berhe what should be done with all the photographs, recordings and other items we aging Peace Corps veterans brought back. Many historical and cultural records and data were no doubt lost during the Ethiopian Revolution and we may have retained items of important historical interest to Ethiopia. In many instances our children have no particular interest in our collections.
Dallas as a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in music was particularly interested in the sacred music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Aba Gebrel Meskel was very helpful to Dallas in gaining permission to record and understand the high holy orthodox masses (kaduses) of the historic churches of Gondar. The masses often lasted throughout the night and participants would stand the whole time, at times leaning on a long cane held under the pit of the arm. Aba’s grace lives on in the 20 seven inch reels that Dallas recorded and has now donated to the Harvard University Music Department.
Part 12. Road Trip
Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia we were not allowed to own private vehicles. That at least was the rule, however, not so in practice.
Only days after landing in Gondar one of our twelve fellow volunteers purchased a very used VW bug for $300 Eth. On September 24th my diary noted that the driver had tried to avoid hitting a cow and as a result the car had ended up in a ditch. When the volunteer went back the next day to retrieve the car it had disappeared. That was the end of that vehicle story. The only other private Peace Corps owned motor vehicle in Gondar was a well used European motorcycle bought by Jack. It was forever in need of spare parts and repair but while running it gave Jack a certain jaunty air.
In Addis and Asmara there was a heightened sense that private vehicles would be helpful. We being country folk in the provinces of Gondar only heard joking references to Volunteers owning cars in Addis and registering them in their servant’s name. They were euphemistically referred to as “sebanas (watchmen) cars.”
During our first year in Gondar we were administered out of the Peace Corps office in Addis. The second year, after the forced amalgamation of Eritrea with Ethiopia, we were looked after by the Asmara Peace Corps office. The Peace Corps supplied us with several shared bicycles and a motor vehicle. In the course of the two years we received a number of different vehicles. For a while we had a Land Rover such as you would see in a 50’s African safari movie. Most often we had a blue multi passenger Jeep. In between were a number of pick-ups and other trucks. The general rule was that the Gondar Peace Corps group was the “lost tribe” and we got whatever vehicle was not needed elsewhere in the Empire.
At one point we had a truck returned to us that we had used the previous year. It, however, after being taken away from us had been rolled over elsewhere in the Empire and was a bit worse for wear. At our organizational meeting of the Gondar Peace Corps 12 John Davis was chosen as chairman and I was designated as the “Minister of Transportation.”
That honor meant that I had the keys to the vehicle and the $2,000 Eth. in Peace Corps vouchers for fuel and repairs. Not unrelated to my achieving the post was the fact that our house was the only one with a metal shed in which the vehicle could be parked.
Every two months the Peace Corps would pay for one of our number to fly to Addis in order to keep in touch. We would rotate that honor which carried with it a lot of responsibilities. The designee had to carry out a number of duties on behalf of our whole group. He/she was not to return without:
First buying a number of jars of peanut butter, a Time Magazine, going to the Mercato (the largest market in Africa) and buying items (books, tools, supplies, etc.) that we would need to return to the school store keeper to replace items our students lost and which we were personally liable for and collecting all the latest rumors, stories and news from the capital.
On one of the visits to Addis, Andrea was so loaded down with items for the rest of us that she had to send them air freight. Jack returned from an April 1963 Addis visit with the interesting tidbit of information that in seven months Ethiopian Peace Corps Volunteers had racked-up 18 insurance claims related to vehicles. We were fortunate in Gondar to have a mechanic, Petros, who worked at the local Agip Gas station on the Piazza between the Cinema Bar and the castle compound.
Petros could keep any neglected Peace Corps vehicle running. Travel from Gondar was really only possible in one direction, towards Asmara to the North. During our first year the road south around the east side of Lake Tana was slowly transformed from a muddy dirt track into a proper gravel highway. As for travel west to The Sudan, that was only a thing of dreams. Doctors at the Gondar hospital had made the trip during the dry season and shared stories of the adventure which will be a part of another day’s diary post.
In September 1963 His Majesty left Ethiopia on a state visit to the United States. Because an attempted coup had taken place on a previous occasion when he was out of the country there was concern about history repeating itself. Among ourselves we strategized, in passing, how all 12 of us could fit into the Land Rover and drive to the Sudan. Mr. Ooman who was assistant school director related that the last time when there was unrest in the capital policemen were sent to the homes of every foreigner in Gondar to stand guard. We felt absolutely secure and only in passing made note of where the trail to the Sudan began. Our plan was a fantasy because it was still the rainy season so the trail would be mud and we’d never all fit in the vehicle along with enough gasoline for the trip.
Driving on the left we quickly learned required great concentration. The few roads were paths for farmers to reach market with their livestock and produce. Overtaking a pedestrian was an iffy proposition. Often walkers would not be expecting a motor vehicle so there would be a startled response and they would take off in unexpected directions. Ethiopian men sometimes would be seen walking down the road holding hands. In one instance when I drove up behind two such men I witnessed the one on the right run towards the left and the one walking hand in hand on the left run towards the right. The resulting cross over sent them both to the ground. Fortunately I was able to stop.
My students claimed the incidence of some Ethiopians running in front of a vehicle, just barely averting being hit, was not because of being startled but was related to their belief in evil spirits. If the person running across in front of the vehicle felt he/she was being followed by an evil spirit then the evil spirit might be killed by the vehicle. We used our vehicle sparingly because most of the time we walked or rode our bicycles. On several occasions we helped the Provincial Ministry of Education deliver books and supplies to outlying schools.
Several of these photographs and the following diary entry were made on October 4, 1963 when Marty and I made such a delivery:
Marty and I were at Asfaw’s (the assistant provincial Education official) house at 6:00 in order to start the book delivery. The middle seat of the Land Rover was piled full of books. The labels on some of the packages read “sience.” I just hope the books didn’t use the same spelling. The climb to Amba Giorgis was quite a strain on the vehicle. Most of the way I had to drive in second gear. At Amba Giorgis we dug out six packages of books from the bottom of the pile. The village is atop a hill and is really little more than a collection of leaning chika (mud) houses with tin roofs.
The Debat school is in an old Italian building. The stable out back is used for a number of classes. The school’s water supply is used by many of the town’s people. Many students meet outside as there is an enrollment of 500. Compared with Gondar the outlining schools are really shabby and poorly equipped. However, Gondar schools are certainly inferior to those Addis. It’s a case of over centralization which keeps the funds in the capital city.
Asfaw is an Amhara from Shoa (Addis) who has never been north of Debark and could only talk at length about the night life in Addis. The director of the Debat school counted out his 16 packages of books and then took us to a bar. We had 8:00 AM tea with a hefty shot of cognac. Then we were off for Debark. There we had difficulty locating the school as no one we asked seemed to have heard of it. We finally found it at the end of a lane which ran into a stream that was crossed by a wobbly footbridge.
The Simien District Education officer counted out his 6 packages of books and then climbed into the Land Rover for the trip to Adi Archi and points north. He added one package of books and two powdered milk boxes full of chalk to our remaining packages of books. He brought along his WWII British rifle and a cartridge belt full of ammunition. As we were driving down the Welkefit Pass (from Debark to the Tekeze River the road descends from the mountain heights through elaborate switch backs built by the Italians during the occupation) we were surprised to see Ato Asfaw take off his sports coat and reveal his shoulder holster and revolver. The Amharas are scared to death of the shifta (bandits) who frequently appear along this stretch of road. The shiftas usually only stop and rob drivers, however, there is a political element to their activities which is a threat to Amharas.
Half the way down from the pass we had to stop so Ato Asfaw could take a shot at a monkey. At the base of the pass we delivered one package of books to a school in a dilapidated Italian building. It was in a beautiful setting as the road was lined with eucalyptus trees. At Adi Archi we delivered our last two packages of books. The school is in an old Italian house which is being eaten away by termites. With each passing year the back walls of the house are settling so that now the doors are only about four feet high. In some rooms the students reach the outside by just walking through gaping holes in the walls. There was an absence of any sort of repair or maintenance. The school well was about 15 meters deep and had stone steps winding down into it. We ate at the local hotel. Marty and I had meat wat but Ato Asfaw said he couldn’t have any meat as he didn’t know whether the Simien District official would report him for eating meat on a fast day.
We then set out for a tiny place 25 kilometers from the Tekeze River where we delivered our chalk. The school had one room in which the two teachers lived and taught. All the houses were built right up to the road and the place was hot, dirty and full of flies. On the way back Ato Asfaw said he saw a tiger. Fortunately he did not get a shot at whatever it was. We arrived home tired and dusty at 7:00.
As a totally unrelated item I’d like to mention that an early 1964 The New Yorker Magazine issue mentioned the unique telephone listing for the Palace in Addis. On April 6, 1964 I borrowed the Addis phone book from the school office and checked. Sure enough there was a phone number listed for the “Palace Chariot and Vehicle Department.”
January 1964 Ambassador Edward Korry and his wife drove down from Asmara for a few days in Gondar. He met with us at the hotel in Gondar and gave us a lengthy briefing on Ethiopian/American affairs. Because he was planning to fly back to Addis from Bahir Dar and we had a few Ethiopian Christmas vacation days off we asked him to let us ride in his official car when it returned to Asmara. He graciously agreed to have his driver Ato Jacob drive us there on January 4.
This is what I wrote on January 4, 1964:
We were up at 6:00. Marty, Trish, Madelyn and Yimer drove to Bahir Dar. I left money for Aragash to pay our bread bill and then went up to the hotel to wait for the return of Ato Jacob from Gorgora, a village on the north side of Lake Tana. It was from Gorgora that Ambassador and Mrs. Korry took a ferry to Bahir Dar in order to catch a plane to Addis. Ato Jacob arrived at 10:30 after spending an hour saying good by to his Tigrenean friends in Gondar. Some had given him letters to give to friends in Asmara. The car was a new Chevrolet. The road was extremely dusty so we were soon covered in dust.
Because Ethiopian Christmas is next week the roads were full of people coming and going to market. There were big market days in Debat, Adi Archi and Endi Selassie. At Adi Archi we stopped for a coke at the hotel/bar. At one end of the market square is a Coptic Church which has taken over the old Italian Roman Catholic Church building. Endi Selassie was a mandatory stop for petrol from the hand cranked pump.
At Selik-Lika, which is one third of the way from Endi Selassie to Axum we were stopped about half a kilometer out of town by a crowd of perhaps 200 people. They were all Tigreneans who were on their way home from market. The men all had tears in their eyes and some of the women were hysterical. Under a pile of branches was the body of a 20 year old, only son, of one of the women. She was screaming and half a dozen other women had to restrain her by holding onto her hair and covering her with their dresses.
The man lying in the road had just been killed by a car driven by a foreigner who drove on. The people stopped us thinking that if the other car contained our friends it would have to return for us. Ato Jacob got out and talked with the people while insisting we stay in the car. They were very careful not to touch the car as it had diplomatic plates plus Ato Jacob had made it very clear His Majesty would not approve. After about 40 minutes a Land Rover came from the other direction loaded with policemen. The driver was a Peace Corps Volunteer who had come with the second Peace Corps group who were largely working with expanding a University Extension program. The man’s original assignment was in Harar but he had gotten himself reassigned to work on a manpower survey of Ethiopia.
The only second year volunteers (Ethiopia II) we had met were those who were assigned to Gondar. Three of the newcomers (Gayle, June and Alan) pitched right in to help alleviate the terrible teacher shortage we had in our secondary school. A fourth one named Helen announced upon her September 1963 arrival in Gondar that she had come to be a secretary. Harris Wofford had privately asked us to try to convince all of them to stay. Helen soon returned home. The remaining two volunteers had very light night school teaching schedules but they refused to help by teaching classes in our school during the day.
The two Americans in the Land Rover were on their way to deliver a lecture in Asmara when they hit the young man. Instead of staying at the scene and possibly facing an angry mob they drove on 20 km. to get the police in the next village. As we were waiting for the matter to be sorted out several buses stopped and the passengers had to get out and look. Finally the body was lifted into the Land Rover and the police chief climbed into the car with us and we set off for Axum where the district government is. Not far out of Axum Ato Jacob pointed out the place where the American Consul was stopped by shiftas last year.
The heads of the Asmara AID office and USIS were also along. They had driven three vehicles with no Ethiopians along as drivers. Before leaving Asmara they asked Ato Jacob what to do to be certain not to encounter shiftas. He told them not to tell anyone in Axum they were going on to Gondar and to not leave Axum for Gondar until at least 8:00 AM. They started out from Axum much earlier than that with Campbell from the Consulate in the lead vehicle. He was followed by Gail from AID and Kent from USIS in a third vehicle. Gail saw Campbell being stopped by shiftas so he spun his car around in the road and headed back. As he passed Kent he yelled that shiftas were ahead, but Kent (an idiot) said he wanted to see what they looked like. The shiftas then stopped Kent too and took everything out of his car. They told him to take off his prescription sunglasses too and when he refused they clouted him on the head.
We got to Axum at about 7:00 and checked into the touring hotel. The Shaffas (an Iranian doctor and his wife) were there as they were on their way back to Gondar after a vacation in Massawa, Eritrea. At about 9:00 the driver and passenger in the Land Rover checked into the hotel.
January 5 I wrote:
Ato Jacob went to arrange a bond for the driver of the Land Rover so we walked around Axum. The tourist organization wants to know how many tourists come through Axum so we had to grudgingly check in at the police station. The town is not as dirty as it was a year ago because some of the worst buildings have been cleared away from around the obelisks and churches. After exhausting the tourism possibilities of Axum we went back to the hotel and played crazy 8’s until 2:30 when everything was ready for us to leave for Asmara. Ato Jacob posted a bond of $1,000Eth. and bought the police captain a drink at the hotel. The trial is to be in Makele, the capital of Tigre Province, later this month. Just a short distance from Axum, Ato Jacob almost hit a woman who darted across in front of us. Only 20 km. from Asmara a tire blew. We were glad to arrive in the city.
It is only 350 miles from Gondar to Asmara but that trip was an eternity. As an aftermath to the accident I recorded these comments from Andy Bell who was the Peace Corps administrator in Asmara. He flew down to Gondar to check on us after he had settled the unfortunate accident in Tigre.
January 20, 1964 I wrote:
It was quite late at night when we met with him (Andy Bell). He’s most efficient and helpful but is totally lacking in any sense of humor. We asked if he had had a chance to meet Ato Yoseph (our Provincial Head of the Ministry of Education). He rather reluctantly said “Yes, but he was somewhat incoherent.”
Yoseph had been in a bar and was quite drunk and abusive towards Bell. We were rather relieved that now one Peace Corps Official had met the “real Ato Yoseph”:
Bell has been settling the accident claim in Tigre Province. He said it was one of the most difficult things he’s been asked to do while in Ethiopia. He said that the family of the dead man asked for $1,000 Eth. but he told them he wanted to receive the same treatment as would an Ethiopian so they settled for $700 Eth. ($280) as a death payment. He said they didn’t seem very upset and were very friendly towards him. Their only complaint was about the one foreigner who laughed while at the scene of the accident.
On June 8, 1964 Ethiopia switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. We expected chaos but everything went smoothly. When I first got back home in late summer to Minnesota I found that I was quite ambivalent as to which side I drove on. On more than one occasion I found myself sliding into the driver’s seat on the wrong side of the car. In general I would orient myself by envisioning which side of the road our rural mailbox was on.
Part 13. Censorship
I don’t recall the issue of censorship being discussed in our Peace Corps training program at Georgetown University during the summer of 1962. Our means of communicating with home were very basic and primitive when compared to the instant internet communications of today. My weekly letter home was anticipated and shared with family members and friends. Among my parents’ generation there was a great reservoir of good will towards Ethiopia and His Majesty Haile Selassie. They remembered with great emotion his 1936 appearance before the League of Nations where he appealed to the world to take collective action against the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia and their horrific killing of civilians.
Some Peace Corps volunteers became aware that their letters were being published by their families in local newspapers. In my Part 6 I describe how Dallas sent home his motion picture films with the knowledge that his mother was showing them to her friends. He took great delight in imagining their reaction to the particularly gruesome film of the butchering of a cow at Easter.
Because I sent home each of my diaries as completed I indulged in a bit of coding. For example, I may not have wanted Mother and Grandmother to have known that their “Richy” missed a day of school because he drank too much delicious cold homemade teg (honey/mead) at the local Gondar celebration of His Majesty’s birthday.
In my diary I attributed my absence to illness. I did, however, write about waking up late the next day when four of my concerned students appeared at the end of my bed holding flowers they had picked in the school gardens.
In re-reading my diary for these articles I have come across several choice stories which I so carefully coded that even I can’t recall what they were about. For us Time Magazine was an important source of information about the outside world. Harris Wofford once confided to us that he never imagined that he would actually look forward to reading Time.
Early in our stay in Ethiopia, Time Magazine was banned for a brief period of weeks. The story we were told was that a Time article insulted Ethiopian censors by referring to the band that greeted foreign heads of states as “tootling.” Twice in two years I used the telephone which was located in the school office. To be heard in Addis or Asmara one had to shout. During the Ethiopian Christmas break which fell in January 1963, the Peace Corps brought all volunteers in the Empire to Asmara for a ten day training session.
After four months in Gondar a visit to Asmara was like a vacation in Italy. At the time Asmara still had a large Italian population and many wonderful restaurants. The first thing I did when we arrived in Asmara was to go to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and book the use of the telephone line to call home at noon Minnesota time on January 17, 1963. I then wrote home and told them that I would be calling at noon on that day. On January 17th I presented myself at the telephone office and was terribly disappointed to be told “His Majesty Haile Selassie has come to Asmara and has reserved the line because he is expecting an important call from London.”
Being bumped by the Emperor seemed like a plausible excuse.
In early September 1963 I was at the agricultural college in Eastern Ethiopia learning more about farming in Ethiopia to help me with my classes in Gondar. I took the train back to Addis from Dire Dawa. On September 8 I wrote:
We were late getting to the train so all the second class cars were filled with people, some sitting on the floor. By the middle of the night a young State Bank employee named Ato Tilahun found us a place to sit. On one bench was a wide eyed young man of about 20. He was wrapped up in a Somali blue piece of cloth. Around his wrists was a padlocked chain. The other end of the chain was held by an old Galla woman we assumed to be his mother. She had a reed basket out of which she brought some chat branches which the young man eagerly chewed. She then gave him several hard rolls which he attacked like a hungry dog. Next she gave him a drink of milk out of a tea kettle. After that she said something to him and he hopped off the bench and curled up on the floor. A Moslem merchant seated on the bench across from the couple opened his suitcase at one point. In it was a bundle of bills.
The State Bank of Ethiopia wrapper said $5,000. During the night a man sleeping under our bench broke open a sack of Harar coffee. In the morning he emerged covered with ground coffee. He was not amused when I joked about “sine buna” (a cup of coffee). Between Awash and Nazareth three Nottingham University students got on the train and slept on the floor. At one stop an old Italian casually tossed a banana peel out the window and hit a policeman on the face. The latter just glared at us. Arriving in Addis I went to eat at our favorite China Bar. I knew it was time to go to the Peace Corps transit house for a nap when I dozed off during lunch and my head drooped into my wonton soup.
While I was in Addis waiting a flight back to Gondar Harris Wofford asked me to contact volunteer Richard Lipez who was thought to be visiting in Gondar on his return from his summer break. The Peace Corps office wanted him to immediately return to Addis without speaking to anyone. I saved the September 4, 1963 issue of the Voice of Ethiopia newspaper which contained a vitriolic attack on Richard. It seems that his family had been publishing his letters in a hometown newspaper. His playful joking to his family about all the different ingredients Ethiopians use to make the wat (stew) they eat with their ingera (bread) had traveled back to the ears of Ethiopian censors.
The Voice of Ethiopia had just been freed from prior censorship by the “Patriots Association” and was adjusting to the notion of self censorship. The paper in a front page article attacked Richard for allegedly saying that “Ethiopians eat Fat Pussy Cats.” On the second page Editor Yacob Wolde-Mariam ended his editorial titled “Damned Bad Lies!” with the statement: “Tales of ‘Jokes’ cannot fool us. The choice for Lipez is between confession of ‘damned lies’ and that of leaving this proud land. The infected eye must be plucked out!”
The incident was immediately forgotten but it did re-enforce the need to exercise caution in our letters and to publish the best stories fifty years after the fact.
Part 14. The Bath of Fasiledes
The Bath of Fasiledes has now been restored with the help of funding from the Government of Norway. When my son, John, and I visited Gondar, Ethiopia in 2006 the work was still in progress with stone masons rebuilding walls.
This fascinating structure was created during the reign of Emperor Fasiledes (1632-1667). It is a stone walled compound within which there is a giant rectangular pool. Situated within the pool is a three story castle. The Bath was only a short walk from my house. In fact, it was across the road from the third compound of our school where all the school gardens were located. Between my house and the Bath was the sports field which contained the charming monument to Zobel, Fasiledes’ favorite horse. The celebration of Timket is held on January 19 or January 20 if it is leap year.
Timket is one of the two major public celebrations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The other is Meskel which is held in September to commemorate the finding of the true cross. Timket commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Bath was filled in early January by routing water from the nearby river through an ancient irrigation ditch.
Because the hospital sanitarians told us they had chemically treated the water in the Bath, John Stockton and I took an early swim in the Bath on January 4, 1963. In my diary I noted that it was “as cold as swimming in Lake Superior in August.”
On January 19, 1963 I wrote:
At 7:30 I went to the Bath of Fasiledes to watch Timket. The compound was crowded with priests, officials, soldiers and people. The priests paraded out of the castle where the religious relics were stored. They stood along one edge of the pool and chanted, sang, rang bells, beat drums and swayed in time to the rhythm of their hand held sistrums (a small metal object on the end of a handle which contains metal disks which slide back and forth as the hand is moved). The Bishop then took his cross over to the Governor who kissed it and several candles were lighted at the water’s edge and the Bishop bent down to bless the water. Then all the officials came over to where the Bishop was standing and the Bishop proceeded to literally throw a cup of water on them. At that point the crowd went wild and dove for the water. Some jumped in while most were content to splash and throw water on others.
Some soldiers stripped off their uniforms and jumped in. One fellow nearly drowned and had to be pulled to the edge of the pool. As a second ceremony the priests lined up at a tent outside the compound for more chanting and rhythmic dancing. Some men solicited funds from the audience for a new church. After about half an hour a religious procession formed with the cross bearers, arc carriers, crown wearers, Bishop, priests and government officials. They paraded about a mile up the mountain to the central square where there was more singing and dancing.
The next day I noted that someone had drowned in the pool and five boys were killed during the week when an Italian shell exploded while they were knocking it against some rocks.
I also wrote on January 20, 1963:
I was honored to be invited to a feast at the home of the Provincial Bishop. Peggy and John Davis, John, Dallas and I were included along with Aba Gebre Meskel , Ato Kettema and several others. Hosting were the Provincial Bishop (Metropolitan Peter) and the Gondar Bishop. Bishop Peter is a charming person who speaks English quite well. The table was lined with bottles of teg, talla, beer, wine and charged water. As a first course we had a lasagna. That was followed with a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and eggs. As the first wat (stew) we were served lamb stomach and liver. Then came a chicken wat followed by beef wat. Allecha was the last wat. It is very mild being made of vegetables, spices and mashed ingera. One of the seasonal treats at Timket is shimbera (chickpeas). People walk around carrying stems laiden with peas which they munch on. One of the popular songs of the country people is about a country boy eating shimbera.
In my diary I wrote:
Just as last year many church delegations paraded past our house on the way to the Bath. There they sang and danced and made ready for the ceremony. Most of them ignored the priests and sat and stood around the pool watching the swimmers. (In my first posting, “Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Zewale Zegeye” I paid tribute to my student and friend Zewale Zegeye who was assassinated in the 1970’s). Patrolling the edge of the pool was Zewale Zegeye who, out of a sense of duty, was prepared to rescue anyone who entered the water and did not know how to swim. On several occasions someone would go under and spectators would react with laughter until the person was rescued.
Usually found on the piazza was a beggar who could not walk and yet was always friendly. He navigated on his back by holding two wooden blocks in his hands and moving on all fours like a spider. It must have taken him hours to reach the Bath from the piazza which was a mile away up the mountain. There he was on the edge of the pool. He took off all his clothes, tied them around his neck and tumbled into the pool. Once in the water he was the equal of any man. I cannot do justice in describing the joyful expression on his face as he was blessed on this one day of the year, Timket. He swam across the pool and two policemen lifted him out of the water. He put his clothes back on and crawled off.
In 1964, a leap year, the ceremony was held on the 20th.
Part 15. Senveten in Gondar
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. 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.
Part 16. Gondar’s Piazza
Fifty years ago Gondar was a very different town. We understood that it had a population of a little over 10,000 and was compact enough so almost everyone, ourselves included, could easily walk on most errands.
There were the Italian occupation buildings centered on the hill near and above the Piazza and many ancient castles and churches. Weeks after arriving there in September 1962, several of my students agreed to take me on a walking tour to some of the businesses in the town. Early one Saturday morning we met on the Piazza in front of the Foto Prince Makonnen Shop across from the Cinema Bar so I could buy a roll of high speed black and white film. As I look at the photos I took that day, I can recall memories of my interactions with the shop owners and the bustling of daily life around Gondar.
The Foto shop where I bought my film was owned by a marketing genius whose technique made him the paparazzi of Gondar; there was not an event in Gondar at which he wouldn’t materialize and take candid shots of all the participants. He would then race back to his shop and print the photos as post cards and hang them in his shop window. In the early evening following the event we would often see numerous students laughing as they stood in front of the window. There would be our images, sometimes looking silly, so of course, we would have to buy all of our post cards.
Our first stop on the tour was Ato Mesfin’s shoe shop. It was across from Giles store on the Asmara road which led up the hill to the right of the post office. For two years Ato Mesfin repaired my shoes and even made for me a pair of leather sandals with toes that curled up like something out of the Arabian Nights. I remember when he drew an outline of my foot, he was amazed by the size, saying, it was “the largest in Gondar.” I knew there were several others in Gondar with big feet, but they—unfortunately–suffered from elephantiasis. Ato Mesfin was a very likable guy and quite worldly, having served on merchant ships during the war.
Deep in the market area of Gondar was a small factory that pressed neug seeds in order to extract the oil for cooking purposes. I never saw neug growing near the town; it was often grown in the lowlands off towards the Sudan. Occasionally I would see heavily loaded old Bedford trucks with many quintal (100 kilo) sacks of neug seeds. The factory consisted of a few barrels and an ancient machine which pressed the seeds. His press was able to extract about a third of that weight in oil and the leftover residue was called “neug cake.” I was interested in the neug cake, which I guessed was equivalent to soybean meal as an animal feed. I planned to mix it with grain as feed for chickens whenever we had them at the school. The man running the plant told me that he paid between 18 -21 Eth. dollars per quintal for the seeds, but because there was very little demand for the neug cake, he sold it for only 7 Eth. /100 kilograms.
Tucked away in the market area were weavers who, using homemade looms, wove large shammas. Shammas were a universal item of clothing– a blanket-like cloth about eight feet long and about three to four feet wide, made using homespun cotton. There was great ritual associated with its wearing and how it was wrapped around a person. For example, if one used it to cover their head during a cold Gondar night, and was approached by a person of rank, the shamma would be removed from the head. It was not unlike a Victorian gentleman doffing his hat. The weaver’s room had a dirt floor in which a pit was dug to accommodate the foot controls of the loom. I commissioned him to weave a shamma for me, giving him a small deposit for the materials. He was to deliver a shamma within a month, but a few months went by, and he did not appear with my commission. I revisited him and reminded him of my order, telling him that I had his picture and would be willing to share it with Col. Assis, the local police chief.
In the market area was a small factory with two milling machines where women would bring small quantities of teff and wheat to be ground into flour. Each batch was done separately. Teff is a tiny, extremely fine black seed that is a staple grain used to make the flat spongy ingera eaten with every meal. (Ingera is somewhat sour-tasting which complements the spicy watts (sauces) eaten with it.) Teff is the perfect ingredient to keep ingera’s flat shape because it contains no gluten, so as the teff flour is mixed with water, the fermentation process causes it to bubble instead of sticking together and rising like our wheat breads. In the picture you can see the workers, customers and a few of my students posing with the two teff-grinding machines. An important part of the milling ritual was for the customer to stand at the front of the machine as her flour was coming out the bottom of the mill and slap the machine to assure that all her flour came loose. Over the years, those thousands of hand slaps had removed the paint from the mill.
Next, we visited the bakery, which produced crusty five inch bread loaves that were pointed at each end. Those loaves with some butter and marmalade paired with a cup of hot sweet tea were a breakfast staple. The bakery owner was very kind and allowed some of my students who were living far from their homes to sleep in the warm bakery at night.
Our final stop was at one of the two silversmiths in Gondar. The silversmith proudly posed with a large silver processional cross he had just completed for one of Gondar’s churches. He sat behind a tall counter under which he had a wonderful small wooden box where he kept old silver pieces that were waiting to be recycled. Next to him, seated on the dirt floor were his two young sons who were compressing bellows made from sheep bladders. The bellows fanned the intense charcoal fire which was under the small crucible of molten silver. In my two years in Gondar I visited this shop probably only three times. Each time the silversmith permitted me to rummage through his recycling bin to find and buy discarded silver treasures. I kept in mind that I had been sent to Ethiopia by the Peace Corps to teach, and not be an acquirer of artifacts.
Some men wore a small silver ear picker on a string around their necks. After thousands of usages the little silver cup would wear away or the circular clasp would almost wear through from bouncing on the string. They would then trade the item into the silversmith for a new one. I’ve always wished I knew a metallurgist who could estimate for me how many years of hanging on a cotton string it takes to wear away the silver. While I never asked the silversmith where the silver came from, my assumption is that most of the pieces were made from the old Maria Theresa Thalers which at one time circulated in North Africa and the Middle East.
Many Christian women wore a small silver cross on a string around their necks. As with the ear picks, the clasp on silver crosses would wear away as it rubbed against the soft string. In time, women would recycle their old crosses for new ones made by the silversmith. Other pieces in the recycling bin were unique. On one visit, I found the brass cane top of a nun who died. Orthodox masses lasted many hours and there were no chairs or benches, so participants had a pole fitted with a cross top that would fit under the armpit for resting.
The item I most treasure from the recycling bin is the silver signet of an important official who had died. It says “Dejazmatch Alemayahu Bitew.” I have never been able to find out anything about him. My interpretation of the images which surround his name may not be correct, however, it would appear that there is an angel on either side of his name. Above his name is a happy face which I assume is God. Below his name is a sad angry face which could well represent the devil.
Gondar of fifty years ago was small enough so that in a few hours we were able to explore these important little businesses which helped make it the trading center for the whole province. But there was much more to Gondar than what I was able to visit in just this one day. There were numerous traders and merchants from Asmara and several elderly Italians and Greeks who had stayed on after the occupation to run businesses. During out time in Gondar the foreigners were for the most part leaving for their homelands. In future posts, I hope to share stories of other interesting residents and visitors to Gondar.
Part 17. Unity Day, Ethiopia and Eritrea
November 18, 1962 was a day of public celebration in Gondar. Our Peace Corps director, Harris Wofford, arrived from Asmara and accompanied us to the “Unity Day – Ethiopia and Eritrea” celebration on Tukul Hill.
There gathered were many hundreds of local nobles and officials from throughout the province. The Governor and other high officials were sheltered in a large army tent where a crush of men tried to sit as close to the Governor as possible. The celebration was held in recognition of the Eritrean assembly vote which dissolved the Federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia and allowed Eritrea to be annexed to Ethiopia.
A week after the event I spoke with a Tigryean merchant from Asmara who told me that the Emperor got the approval of the Eritrean Assembly by sending army trucks throughout Eritrea rounding up all the Assembly members and hauling them to Asmara at gun point.
He went on to relate that the Ethiopian government would not let any of the American or European Counsels near the Assembly members on the day of the voting. A year later while I was learning more about Ethiopian agriculture during a two weeks’ stay at Alamaya Agricultural College, a student whose father had been a member of the Eritrean Assembly corroborated what the merchant had reported.
Two menus were offered at the Unity celebration. One. roasted lamb and other cooked wats, was served under a thatched roof tukul (a picnic type shelter) which was constructed on the mountain summit. Today, on the site of the tukul the very nice Ghion Hotel where John and I stayed on our visit to Gondar six years ago now stands. We and other foreigners were ushered into the tukul to eat with all the priests of the area. The other menu which was for the hundreds of men seated along the path leading up the mountain consisted of large hunks of raw beef served with lots of talla and teg. The large metal trays of still warm (straight from the cow) beef were carried on the shoulders of dozens of smartly dressed soldiers.
Upon our arrival in Addis, Ethiopia we had been served chopped pieces of raw beef but we never encountered half pound size hunks of raw beef. It was most intriguing to watch the guests holding the hunks of beef in one hand as their other hand cut the beef by slashing downward between their fingers using very sharp knives. I cringed imagining the potential damage to a hand had the knife slipped. The smaller piece of beef was then dipped into an extremely spicy pepper sauce before it was eaten.
My interest in eating customs was in part the result of my having read Alan Moorehead’s Blue Nile which had just been published in 1962. My mother had sent me a copy which I loved reading because so much of it was drawn from James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768…1773. During that time Bruce lived in Gondar and recorded five volumes of observations on life in the Kingdom. Upon the publication of Bruce’s Journals in 1790, Moorehead related that there was skepticism in England about some of the customs like eating raw meat that Bruce reported. Moorehead’s account of the British incursion into Ethiopia in the mid 19th century was particularly vivid because our provincial governor still had the shotgun that Emperor Teodros used to take his life rather than be captured by the British.
We avoided eating raw meat because of the prevalence of tapeworms. In my second diary posting I related our journey to visit the ancient churches of Lalibela and our five day return journey by mule to Gondar. On our last day in Lalibela, after the Easter fast, some men killed a cow. At the time I had a conversation with Kassahun, one of the students who accompanied us to Lalibela, about the hazards of eating raw beef. He ate it anyway and some months later asked me to accompany him to the hospital to get medicine to purge the tapeworm he had acquired.
I so enjoyed Moorehead’s book and his frequent references to Bruce’s Journals that on my journey home in 1964 I stopped in London and inquired in an antiquarian bookshop about the availability of a set of the Journals. By chance the shop had just acquired a set when they purchased the library from an old estate. I remember the bookseller telling me “But, they are in the basement and you won’t want them because they have broken bindings.” On the spot I bought all five volumes of the 1790 first edition for only $40. They were a delight to read because the set had been owned by an old empire loyalist who had penciled numerous opinions and comments along the margins.
In rereading Moorehead’s Blue Nile I find no reference to the mapmaking of the Italian, Vincenzo Coronelli. In recent years I have been collecting old maps and one that intrigues me was published by Coronelli in 1690 in his Atlante Veneto. Coronelli’s map of the source of the Blue Nile shows a small river entering the west side of Lake Tana which is south of Gondar and the Blue Nile emerging from the Southeast corner of that vast lake. Coronelli’s sources were several 16th century Portuguese Jesuits who roamed about present day Ethiopia and whose hand drawn maps and journals were available to Coronelli
The Coronelli map does not mention Gondar by name. However, it shows a large city in the mountains a short distance northeast of Lake Tana. I find it hard to believe that Bruce did not have access to Coronelli’s Atlanta Veneto and its wonderfully detailed map of the Lake Tana/Nile area. Coronelli’s map could have been a “Rand McNally” map for Bruce to follow. Bruce’s legacy is his detailed account of the flora and fauna and life in Ethiopia in the mid 18th century. However, despite all his hardships and adventures in making the journey I find it doubtful that he “discovered” anything, let alone the source of the Nile.
Part 18. 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 Part 11 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.
Part 19. The Day Kennedy was Assassinated, Gondar, Ethiopia
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.”
Part 20. Adventures with Larry and Hebe
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.
Part 21. The Port of Massawa
Preparing for teaching my classes at Haile Selassie Secondary School required a lot of reading. Most of my students did not have textbooks nor did I have a syllabus to follow. Marty Benjamin, my housemate, and I compared notes and discovered that between the two of us we were asked to teach every subject except home economics, physical education, Amharic and morals because our Indian colleagues refused to teach more than one subject area. We were responsible for all the other classes.
Early on in my stay in Gondar I discovered that the only things family and friends could send me that would not be “lost” in the Ethiopian postal system were books. My mother kept me well supplied with books for teaching and recreational reading. In a previous entry “Adventures with Larry and Hebe” I discussed how I enjoyed Alan Morehead’s Blue Nile. Reading another book she sent, Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, made me feel like a young child who was reading some illicit work under the covers at night with the aid of a flashlight. That was because I was led to believe that it was banned in Ethiopia because of its scathing satirical portrayal of a mythical progressive African leader, Seth.
When I returned home and went to my local Post Office, I was in awe that I could mail a letter or package and not only know that it would arrive, but I did not have to stand there and watch the postmaster cancel the stamps so that I would know the postage would not be stolen. In my diary I relate the frustration I felt when I tried to help one of my favorite students who was stranded in Addis and needed bus fare to get back to Gondar. I sent him money from Gondar three times before he finally received it.
The Peace Corps office in Addis supplied us with a mimeograph machine, a set of encyclopedias and four footlockers of books. We initially kept the machine and the encyclopedias at the Davis house because it was close to the school. However, my diary notes that as a group, on December 7, 1962 we voted to move the items to a safer location because we were all afraid of the Davis’s mean dog, Kasitch. A major breakthrough in providing access to books for us and our students occurred in August 1963. At that time, after six months of planning, the U.S. Information Service in Asmara opened a library/reading room in two of our classrooms in Gondar. On Sept, 15, 1963 I noted in my diary:
At the USIS library I have library card #289. The opening day in early August was quite an event. The only book that was stolen was the Bible in English. The Governor cut the ribbon as all the other local officials looked on. There was a near riot when Ato Assefa (the librarian) started to hand out free magazines. Aba Gebre Meskel got in the middle of the brawl to hand out magazines to his friends. Most of the police officials were there scrapping too. The rooms are equipped with padded chairs and even table lamps. It is really well done.
One out of print book that Mother sent me was Under the Red Sea Sun by Commander Edward Ellsberg. Commander Ellsberg was famous for having raised sunken U S naval vessels. In 1925 he raised sub S-51 off of Block Island, in 1928 S-4 off Cape Cod and in 1939 the Squalas off Portsmouth, NH. He wrote several books highlighting his success. The account in Under the Red Sea Sun took place after the April 1941 surrender of Italian Admiral Bonnetti and the port of Massawa to a combined force of Free French and British Colonial soldiers. Italian forces in Gondar did not surrender until November 1941. Prior to his surrender the Allies tried to convince Admiral Bonnetti that the Port of Massawa was critical to the resupply of the 40,000 Italian dependents living only 100 km away in the City of Asmara. The Admiral instead turned his workers loose on a destructive rampage. They blew holes in 16 ships and two floating dry docks to block access to the harbors.
In addition, they tried to destroy all the shop tools, equipment and cranes to prevent their reuse by the Allies.
Prior to his surrender Admiral Bonnetti sought to break his sword over his knee. It, however, only bent and he ended up with a sore knee. Meanwhile the British in Egypt were panicked that the Germans were going to overrun Cairo and they would be without a naval base to service their small fleet of remaining ships. The British called upon the US Navy to send Commander Ellsberg to Massawa to restore the port to some usefulness. Ellsberg arrived in Massawa in March of 1942. Immediately he and his cadre of six American supervisors and legions of workers from Eritrea and a multitude of other countries, including Italian prisoners, set to work salvaging what they could to get the shops running again.
The British found a floating dock in Iran that had not been paid for so they claimed it as a spoil of war and floated it to Massawa. It was maneuvered into place past the rows of sunken Italian ships and thus Massawa was able to start refitting transport and warships in the Red Sea. The British officials who would not leave the comfort of Asmara which sits at 7500 feet above Massawa, set the rules and pay rates for workers. Eritrean workers were paid only 25 cents per day. Ellsberg despaired at their slow pace of scraping and repainting ships. He devised a scheme of incentive pay which circumvented the pay rules set by those sitting up in comfortable Asmara. He wrote:
I had hoped for and expected a better performance than that of the first day – never should I have believed those emaciated Eritreans capable of what they were now doing. If ever I had had any doubts to the value of incentive pay in getting production, they vanished that day in that steaming, stinking dry dock in Massawa.
…No dry dock in the world in war or peace has, I believe, ever equaled the record made that year by that one dock in Massawa in taking full-sized ships. We not only ran the whole Mediterranean fleet of supply ships over that dry dock, doubling their speed at sea, but some of the faster ones we took again after a few months to keep them up to topnotch efficiency. And all of it was done by the worst labor in the world under the worst conditions anywhere in the world. The Eritreans in Massawa did their bit to win the war – it should not be forgotten when someday around some table the United Nations delegates meet to decide the fate of Eritrea.
The work force pushed one ship through the dry dock every 1½ days.
In his book, Ellsberg describes the work involved raising several of the scuttled ships, the harbor’s two dry docks and the cranes that had been toppled over. One of the ships that was raised contained an unexploded mine which had to be removed from the hull. In November 1942 Field Marshal Montgomery smashed Field Marshal Rommel at El Alamein and the threat to Egypt ended. At that point the British lost interest in Massawa and Commander Ellsberg was ordered to report to General Eisenhower in North Africa. His book ends there.
Our visit to Massawa occurred in January 1963. At that time during our Ethiopian Christmas break the Peace Corps ordered all of us to fly to Asmara for a conference. Several of us from Gondar looked up two American soldiers stationed at Kagnew whom we had helped out when their vehicles broke down near Gondar. They reciprocated by treating us to hamburgers and malts at the Kagnew snack bar and rounding up some scuba gear and sleeping bags for us to use in Massawa. Kagnew was a large American communications base situated where it was because, at 7500 feet, messages could be sent all around the world. During the Korean War it was responsible for one half of all communications. Within Ethiopia there were nationalists who objected to the large US military presence in the north of their country. In my diary I noted one day that some of my students came to me with a rumor they heard that the Americans from Kagnew were digging a secret tunnel from Asmara to Gondar.
Aside from a minor dental problem I never had to use the Kagnew medical facilities. However, I was grateful that they existed because during our two year stay in Gondar, four members of our Peace Corps group had to be flown from Gondar to the hospital at Kagnew. The only other reference to the Kagnew base in my six Gondar diaries was on June 20, 1964. At that time I and fifty other Peace Corps teachers were brought to the American Embassy for a briefing by Ambassador Korry on American involvement in the Empire of Ethiopia. Korry presented a detailed listing of all the different civilian and military programs funded and staffed by the United States. After he completed his lecture and had exhausted all our questions he just casually mentioned as a footnote that HIM had his bread for the Jubilee Palace flown in daily from Kagnew.
At the conclusion of the weeklong conference several of us decided to go to Massawa. If you walked to the eastern edge of Asmara you could literally look down 100 km towards Massawa. On January 15, 1963 I wrote:
Got up just in time to catch the 7:00 Litterina (one car sleek streetcar like train) to Massawa. It was built by Fiat in 1935 and is run by two diesel motors. On board were five armed guards. The trip took four hours to cover the 110 km to Massawa. The journey passed through 27 tunnels. Alongside the railroad were the pylons and dangling cables of the Italian cableway system built in 1938 to haul 30 tons of freight per hour from Massawa to Asmara. Originally there were 13 stations on the cableway, each with a diesel engine. After the British secured Massawa they hauled the diesel engines off to Kenya and made off with other components of the port. The Japanese are now in the process of salvaging the cables. For much of the trip we passed through clouds.
The hillsides were in some places terraced and many Italian houses and farms along the way are now in ruins. Ten Peace Corps volunteers were waiting in Massawa to catch a freighter to the Port of Assab from which they will catch a bus into Dessie. A Swedish ship arrived in port today which they will sail on tomorrow. The trip will cost them only $30 Eth. each. At the Chow Hotel (run by the army for Kagnew) we hired local fishermen to row us across the coral beds to Sheik Said Island. Snorkeling off the island only a short distance from the shore we witnessed an unbelievable underwater world. Never seen anything like it before. It was magnificent.
On the 17th we caught the 6:00 am Litterina for Asmara. During the wait for the train at the station I watched the sunrise over the Red Sea. I was anxious to get back to Asmara because I had to gather our supplies to take back to Gondar, including several bags of chemical fertilizer to use on the school gardens. The Peace Corps was supplying the jeep for our use in Gondar. I wrote:
…Then I set out in search of the road to Gondar. There are no maps so I frequently had to ask directions. When I finally found the road I stopped at a new French textile factory where HIM was scheduled to appear. The road was lined for a mile with police. Inside the factory compound hundreds of employees chanted, sang and waved flags for over an hour. The French ambassador wearing a frock coat and his wife were there. HIM arrived in his Rolls Royce, proceeded by several trucks of soldiers, about ten cars, half a dozen motor cycles and five jeeps full of body guards with machine guns. In his Rolls with him were his two tiny dogs, the ones who made so much noise at the palace when we met HIM in September.
On the way back from the textile factory I had the Jeep commandeered by six Eritrean policemen who needed a ride downtown. They seem to be everywhere and are well trained and well disciplined. Their hats are extremely distinctive being like safari hats with the Lion of Judah medallion on the upturned brim. Getting back to Asmara I went to the Ministry of Telecommunications where I had reserved the phone line for a call home at 4:00 pm. I was very disappointed to be told that HIM had the line reserved for a call to London and I was not able to use the phone.
Our return drive began the next day at 4:15 am. The early start meant that we would not be driving after dark in the areas known for shiftas. Before night fell we were safely at home in Gondar. Eritrea is now an independent nation having won its struggle for independence from Ethiopia. It is good to know that after the destruction of its war with Ethiopia, Eritrea was able to restore the unique and charming litterina service from Asmara to Massawa.
Rereading my diary and Under the Red Sea Sun I am struck by the similarities of our western nations’ reaction to Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and to Mussolini’s attempt to colonize Ethiopia. At the start of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, America and the European powers applied a mild League of Nations sanction regimen against Italy which didn’t include oil. The massive amount of war material and 400,000 people Mussolini moved into Ethiopia would seem to have never have been possible if Britain and France who controlled Suez had denied Mussolini the use of the canal.
If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via email@example.com