I’m pleased to share these two videos of the keynote address I delivered at the third General Assembly of the Tafari Makonnen Alumni Association of North America on May 29: “Remembering Tafari Makonnen.” I was truly honored to be invited to speak by Bisrat Aklilu and his TMSAANA Board colleagues, but, to be honest, I was very reluctant to accept the invitation, in light of the many distinguished Ethiopian graduates of Tafari Makonnen School more worthy of the honor than I.
However, I am certainly glad that I did accept the invitation to reflect on my experience as a TMS teacher from 1964 to 1967. Not only did the keynote afford me the pleasure of reuniting with several former students and meeting other members of the extended TMS family that I’m proud to be part of, I found preparing my comments to be a path to rediscovering my love for TMS and for the students whose lives had become entwined with mine during my three years at what was then Ethiopia’s premier secondary institution. I didn’t anticipate the emotion I’d feel as I worked on my keynote, searching for the right words to describe my experience as a twenty-something thousands of miles from home a half-century ago, and I certainly didn’t expect the intense joy that frequently engulfed me as I rehearsed the words I’d speak on May 29.
Allow me to tell a story I forgot to share at the General Assembly. In the summer of 1966, after my first two years at TMS, I returned to the States to spend a few weeks with my parents, who were then living in Pocatello, Idaho, where Dad, who’d sold his business in Illinois, was a university freshman. It was great to be with my parents and three of my siblings again, and to hear about Dad’s exciting educational journey, but as my visit drew to a close, I woke up one night thinking, “I’m really ready to get back home to Addis.” And as my plane landed in Addis a few days later, it did, indeed, feel like arriving back home.
How wonderful to have the opportunity – in spirit at least – to travel back home with you on May 29! I deeply appreciate your making me feel so much a part of the TMS family at the General Assembly, and I hope these video recordings of my keynote address will enrich your memory of our day together. By the way, I’m sorry about the two brief interruptions in the first video – resulting from a faulty camera battery – but the record of my comments is 99 percent complete.
Please do share your thoughts by commenting on this post.
I’m pleased to share this fascinating podcast featuring distinguished Tafari Makonnen alumnus Petros Aklilu, who discusses his experience at TMS and in the States as an American Field Service student, reflects on TMS’s tremendous contribution to Ethiopia and to the many students it shaped and nurtured, and on Emperor Haile Selassie I’s legacy – especially in the field of education.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1948, Petros joined TMS in the fourth grade, after three years at Patriot School. Selected for the American Field Service Program in 1965, Petros spent the 1965-66 school year in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he graduated from high school. Having spent a year at Haile Selassie I University, Petros joined his brother Tesfaye at Oklahoma State University, where he was awarded the BS degree in economics, and went on to earn his MS degree in agricultural economics from the University of Massachusetts. After spending two years as an economist at the Awash Valley Authority and completing his Ph.D. course requirements at Cambridge University, Petros began his illustrious 31-year career at the World Bank, retiring in 2007.
“Retirement” isn’t an accurate description of Petros’ post-World Bank life. He founded a nonprofit, “Community Development and Oral History,” dedicated to helping rural communities realize their dreams and have access to primary education and clean drinking water. And Petros was instrumental in creating the Tafari Makonnen Alumni Association of North America, serving a three-year term as its first President.
As you’ll learn from the podcast, Petros – like so many other TMS graduates – feels tremendous respect and affection for TMS, which not only shaped him intellectually, superbly preparing him for his postsecondary education and highly successful career at the World Bank, but also profoundly influenced his character. Indeed, as Petros describes his TMS experience in this podcast, Tafari Makonnen School offered its students a “well-rounded” education in the highest sense of that term.
Like many other TMS alumni I’ve talked with over the years, Petros gives full credit to Emperor Haile Selassie I for fostering education in Ethiopia in the face of significant resistance, but regrets the absence of serious reform in other areas that might have averted the reign of terror following His Imperial Majesty’s overthrow. The photograph above, showing Petros with the Emperor, was taken in 1967 during HIM’s visit to Haile Selassie I University, where Petros was a first year student. As I mentioned to Petros in a recent email thanking him for sharing this wonderful photograph, when I see photographs of HIM, I often feel a jolt of emotion – I think because as a 22 year-old American teacher at TMS, the Emperor symbolized – to me – the spirit of the ancient kingdom. He was, to me, a distinguished and romantic figure, whatever his flaws. And, of course, can you imagine anyone looking more regal than HIM? For a man of small physical stature, he certainly loomed large!
On my visit to Ethiopia in 2012, I saw the bust of Ras Tafari Makonnen that Petros talks about in his podcast, which has been rightfully restored to its central location in the foyer of the former TMS Administration Building. I thought you’d like to see it.
I deeply appreciate the time Petros dedicated to recording these reminiscences despite the hectic life he leads in what is erroneously called “retirement.” His contribution makes Entwinedlives.com an even richer resource for readers interested in Ethiopia and in the proud history of the distinguished educational institution that was so close to His Imperial Majesty’s heart. Enjoy Petros’ podcast, and please do share your comments!
In this fascinating podcast, Randall Sword, MD, who recently retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, after a highly successful career as a physician in the Los Angeles metro area, talks about why he joined the Peace Corps back in 1964 and about his experience as a Peace Corps trainee at UCLA that summer and as a teacher at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from fall 1964 through spring 1966. I shared a house with Randy, as his friends know him, only a couple of blocks from Tafari Makonnen, across from what was then Itege Menen School – along with Garber Davidson our first year in Ethiopia and Dave Karro our second.
In addition to being a great housemate – good humored, easy going, and really fun to spend time with – Randy was an excellent teacher who worked tremendously hard at his new profession and was very popular with the boys in his science classes. We both taught all of the ninth grade classes in the academic section – Randy biology and I ancient history – and no matter how hard I worked to bring those long-ago times to life for my ninth graders, once Randy added a sex ed component to his biology curriculum, I couldn’t hope to compete on the popularity front.
Randy and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend together at my and Barbara’s home in Tampa Bay last February, getting reacquainted and reminiscing about our teaching days at Tafari Makonnen. For the first time I realized what a life changing experience the Peace Corps had been for Randy. As he recounts in this podcast, by the time his two-year tour of duty at TMS was drawing to a close in spring 1966, Randy knew he was meant to be a physician, and the self-confidence he’d acquired as a Peace Corps Volunteer without question stood him in good stead as he went about translating his new vision into reality when he got back to the States.
When my former Addis Ababa housemate and fellow teacher at Tafari Makonnen School, Garber Davidson, told me that a former TMS student of ours, Abebe (now known as “Abe”) Abraham, would be coming with him and his wife Sally to the reunion lunch of our Peace Corps “Ethi III” group in September 2011 in Washington, Abebe’s face came immediately to mind. He’d made an indelible impression in my tenth grade English class at TMS – not only as a serious-minded and hard-working scholar at the top of his class, but also as a tremendously outgoing, socially adept young man who made friends easily. There was no question in my mind that, God willing, Abebe would succeed at whatever professional path he chose, and I was delighted to learn when we reunited in 2011 that he’d founded a highly successful firm in 1989, CMI, whose mission is “to provide management and support services utilizing innovation, technology, and knowledge-sharing to improve performance and reduce operational costs.” He, as President & CEO, and his wife Azzi, as Chief Operating Officer, work closely together at the helm of CMI, which has been featured in the Black Enterprise “Top 100” list for three consecutive years.
It gives me great pleasure to publish Abebe Abraham’s fascinating audio memoir at entwinedlives.com. Over the course of a half-hour, Abebe describes his experience as a TMS student, reflects on Emperor Haile Selassie’s place in Ethiopian and world history, talks about the life he has built in the United States, and shares his thinking about Ethiopia’s future.
I am pleased and honored to share with you this memoir and recorded reminiscences of another highly distinguished TMS alumnus, Dr. Moges Gebremariam, M.D., who graduated from Tafari Makonnen School in 1965 and received his M.D. from Haile Selassie University in 1972. He maintains a private practice in internal medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He was kind enough to contribute the following memoir to Entwinedlives.com, and also to record a podcast that reflects on his TMS experience, life in the United States, and Emperor Haile Selassie’s leadership. I am indebted to Dr. Moges’ son, Eyasu Moges, who spent several hours assembling and transmitting the photographs that enrich both the following memoir and the podcast
MOGES GEBREMARIAM, M.D.
My father used to tease me by saying that I enrolled in TMS because of a natural disaster. The disaster was my voice. It sounded so bad to him it shattered his lifelong dream of proudly presenting me to Yeneta Afework, his old teacher, and to Head Priest Melake Hayl Tedla of Intoto Raguel. I still remember those painful contortions of disgust and disappointment that used to form on my father’s face every time he made me practice the songs of the Holy Mass. After two years of rigorous and often desperate coaching, he gave up on me and realized the inevitable. His first born son was not blessed to serve the Lord as a deacon. It just was not meant to be. So he took me to TMS to try my luck with the “Ferenji” education. Fortunately, all of the drilling and discipline I endured during my father’s coaching helped to make me a good student at TMS. I always stood first, second, or third in my class. I was also blessed with inspiring and nurturing teachers like Ato Abebe Techan, Abba Meaza and “Ato Aseffa the scientist”, who always captivated me and opened new worlds of imagination in my little mind.
I used to look up to the senior students and always wondered if I would ever grow up to be like them. They were giants in my mind, whose alleged talents and exploits were exaggerated beyond belief. …….. Ferocious fighterslike Mebrahtu, Cheffikey and Tigabu; great runners like Makonnan Dori and Seyid Moussa; boxers like Girma Drsom, Debebe Eshetu, and Haile-Michael Demisse; and sports heroes like Itana, Iyasou, Tezerra and Tesfaye Gelagai.
High school was full of happy days. The teachers were not like those grade school teachers such as Seife and Akalou, who surely would have been jailed for child abuse had they been teaching in this century. There was no more corporal punishment by Ato Sebhat and Ato Fresenbet, not to mention Ato Birru, whose full-time job was to administer beatings and lashes to unfortunate students day in and day out in Mr. Gagnon’s office. Some afternoons as he walked back to his home, he used to complain to us of his tired arms from too much work! Yes, from dishing out too many lashes for too many bad students!
I was immersed in the Boy Scouts at TMS. I prided myself on earning and collecting merit badges. I enjoyed the campfires, hikes, trips to nearby places like Tinsis, Washa-Mickael, and Akaki’s AZ pool (named for Alemayehu Zegeye), Mennagesha, as well as far away places like Awassa, Langano, Chercher and Harar. Our scout master Father Beaudry’s devotion to us was unparalleled. Every opportunity he got, in groups large and small, or individually, he never tired of counseling us. He convinced me to become a doctor. “Healing the sick, caring for the poor is a noble profession pioneered by St. Luke and Christ himself,” he used to repeat to me. I, therefore, abandoned my favorite subject, geography, and Father Turenne, my geography teacher, to join the Faculty of Science at Haile Selassie University.
In 1965 the Arat Kilo campus was almost like a foreign land to me. The faculty, the students and the whole political atmosphere felt strange and hostile. By the next year even some of my own alumni from TMS shocked me by their new-found iconoclastic views: contempt and condemnation for everything we had held dear in our hearts – for Ethiopia, America, the Emperor, God, our Church, our history and our culture, etc. Street demonstrations, agitation, condemnations and class boycotts became common events.
By the time I graduated and went to Bahr Dar as a junior doctor, the political mood of the country had changed so much that revolution was imminent. For two years, Bahr Dar became my little heaven. I had everything I needed: a lakeside bungalow, a second-hand Volkswagen and a small rubber boat to take me to my own private island in Lake Tana – a small uninhabited island near Kibran Gabriel, where I spent weekends alone or with a few select buddies.
At the airport in June 1974, as I boarded a plane to the USA for four years of training so I could return home to become a famous specialist, I remember thinking about a book called “Montezuma’s Daughter” by Rider Haggard. In the book, the narrator, leaving England for the Americas to avenge his mother’s murder, bids farewell to a villager by saying, “So long.” Upon returning home after twenty long years of unexpected adventure, when he met the same villager, he remembered that and observed, “I never thought how long ‘so long’ was.” In my case “so long” lasted thirty-one long years before I returned to Ethiopia in 2005.
Ethiopia exploded in 1974, three months after I left. The Emperor was deposed. So many high officials were executed! So many students, so many innocent citizens were massacred! So many perished for nothing ! The Red Terror was in full swing. In 1978 when my own mother pleaded with me not to return home I knew things were really bad in Ethiopia. It also put me in a dilemma. I had to adjust my status here in America. The thought of applying for immigrant status felt so shameful and degrading for a proud Ethiopian like me that it almost paralyzed me with fear. But one day, after my friend, Dr. Ahmad Moen, assured me that to apply for a “Green Card” was neither an act of treason nor a stigma, I did it, and became an immigrant! Only a year later started the flood of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to every corner of the earth; all of them including my own brothers and sisters, vying and dying to get the lifesaver called ‘the Green Card’. How foolish I must have been only a year earlier!
Years came and years went by so fast: residency, fellowship, moonlighting, private practice, CME, children, marriage, mortgages and meetings – meeting after meeting. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years flew by fast. After every long day of hard work when my body hit the bed, I would always find myself still half a day behind: things to do, bills to pay, projects to finish, deadlines to meet, promises to keep, and, yes, as Robert Frost said, “still miles to go, and miles to go before I sleep.” Multiply that one day by forty years and it gives you the whole story of my life in the United States.
Time has flown by so fast that now they tell me I am a senior citizen! Me a senior citizen? Me a grandfather? I can’t believe it. No way, I still cling to my youth, my TMS, and my Ethiopia. I have been fortunate in my life to have a wonderful wife, Abebayehu, three loving children, Eyasu, Lydia, and Joseph, and a granddaughter, Eden. I have been blessed by so many dedicated friends and family members, who make life worth living, as well as many saintly Americans who went above and beyond to make me feel welcome and become successful. Yes, I am the beneficiary of so much kindness from so many people who themselves have so little. This world is full of good people. I will always be indebted to America, my people, my school and my country.
Our duty to God and country is to make this world just a little better place for those who are less fortunate than us. I hope TMSAANA will continue to provide us the vehicle. I want to commend TMSAANA and encourage the Board to keep up the good work.
It is both a pleasure and distinct honor to present this memoir by distinguished Tafari Makonnen School alumnus Dr. Aklilu Habte, who recorded it expressly for Entwined Lives. When another distinguished TMS graduate, Bisrat Aklilu, suggested several weeks ago that I contact Dr. Aklilu, whom I hadn’t met, about recording his reflections and reminiscences, I was, frankly, skeptical that he would be willing to spend the time. I was aware that he was in the midst of an ambitious writing project – a history of the development of higher education in Ethiopia – and couldn’t imagine he would welcome the distraction. But, thank heaven, Bisrat was insistent, so I telephoned Dr. Aklilu, who, to my delighted surprise, readily agreed to do the recording. Before providing you with an overview of Dr. Aklilu’s illustrious career, I want to thank his son, Ameha Aklilu, who took time from his tremendously demanding schedule as a senior IBM executive to assemble a treasure trove of photographs that you’ll see as you listen to the podcast.
Dr. Aklilu received his baccalaureate degree with distinction from the University College of Addis Ababa (later Haile Selassie I University) in 1954, the Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Manitoba (Canada) in 1955, and the Master of Education and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio State University in 1956 and 1958, respectively. From 1958 to 1969, Dr. Aklilu served as Head of the Education Department, Dean of the Faculties of Arts and Education, and Associate Academic Vice President of Haile Selassie I University, and he was the University’s President from 1969 to 1974. From 1974 to 1977, Dr. Aklilu served as Minister of Culture, Sports, and Youth Affairs in the Government of Ethiopia.
Dr. Aklilu’s long and illustrious career has also included serving as Director of the Education and Training Department at the World Bank and Chief of the Education Division and Special Advisor to the Executive Director of UNICEF.
You might recall that in one of my early posts at entwinedlives.com, I wrote that when I got an email from Berhane Mogese not long after learning in March 2011 that the long-lost Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu was alive and well and living in Addis Ababa, I knew for sure that I had to return to Ethiopia for the first time in almost 50 years. I’d met Berhane my first week in Addis Ababa in September 1964 – at the Peace Corps office, where he was working over the summer, if I recall correctly. He wasn’t a student of mine at Tafari Makonnen School, but he dropped by my home several times on visits to Addis. A charming, extremely bright, well-spoken young man, Berhane, who was always good company and a welcome guest, clearly had a bright future ahead.
After returning from the United States, where Berhane had spent a year in Ohio as an American Field Service student, living with an American family and attending high school, Berhane earned his law degree at Haile Selassie University and began a highly successful legal career, including service as Presiding Judge of the High Court of Ethiopia. As the years passed, and Haile Selassie’s overthrow was followed by the Red Terror under the dictatorship of the Derg’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, I lost track of Berhane, assuming he – along with hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians – had most likely perished. So reading his email in March 2011 was a joyful experience.
Berhane was a wonderful host on my return visit to Ethiopia in May 2012, driving me and Tesfagiorgis all over Addis Ababa in his car and hosting us in his home. You would have to experience the traffic in Addis yourself to appreciate how indebted I am to Berhane! He kindly agreed to spend an hour in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel in Addis, recording this video, in which he talks about confronting American culture as an American Field Service student in Ohio.
A little over a year ago, I returned from my first visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia since I’d returned to the States in June 1967 after my three years there as a Peace Corps teacher at Tafari Makonnen School. During my two-week stay in Addis, Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, the former Tafari Makonnen student who’d lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates for 2 ½ years, spent several hours with me in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel, talking about his “dark days” under the military regime – the Derg – that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. If you’ve read my earlier blog posts about Tesfagiorgis, you already know about the extremely risky and stressful period he went through when he lived two lives: holding an official position with the Derg while secretly working against it. You also know that during the two years he later spent in prison, Tesfagiorgis had come within a hair of being executed.
While we sat in easy chairs facing each other in my room at the Jupiter Hotel in May 2012, I videoed around an hour of Tesfagiorgis describing his dark days. After I got back to the States, I roughly edited the video into a clip of almost 36 minutes, which I posted privately on YouTube since I wasn’t sure about the most appropriate way to share it with a wider audience at that point. This morning, thinking about my next post at Entwinedlives.com, I recalled the clip, and realized that the time had come to make it public. By the way, today Tesfagiorgis is just as much of a perfectionist as he was almost 50 years ago as a Tafari Makonnen student, and so when he saw the video after I posted it privately almost a year ago, he found a minor factual error (the name of a musical instrument, I believe) and a couple of rough spots he thought needed smoothing out. I must confess that what you’ll be watching is the original, unimproved version, but I trust that you will find it as moving as I did when I viewed it again this morning.
My February 20 post, “A Time of Political Madness,” tells the harrowing true story of my dear Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu’s two years in prison under the Derg, the military regime that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie and presided over a reign of terror in Ethiopia until 1991. Despite the disruption of his life, his suffering in prison, and his near-execution, Tesfagiorgis was able to resume his career at the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency and eventually marry and have a family. It gave me great pleasure during my return visit to Addis Ababa almost a year ago to see Tesfagiorgis and his wife Almaz enjoying a happy life together in their comfortable home in Addis. The following excerpts from Tesfagiorgis’ recent letter to me tell about his post-prison journey to a fulfilling personal life.
After my release from prison in February 1981, people who wished me well advised me to get married before it was too late. However, it took me almost 10 years to actually get married. In 1986 I went to Italy for short-term training in public service management. There were about 20 trainees who had come from India, Indonesia, Morocco, Madagascar, Ghana, and the Philippines. The majority were younger than me. Many introduced themselves in class as a father or a mother of one or more children. I really felt bad admitting that I was single. Moreover, when we went shopping, many were buying things for their children and their wives or husbands. I was not very clear what to buy and for whom. Feeling somewhat purposeless and empty, I bought some clothes for myself and some gift articles for some friends.
After I returned from Italy, I completed the small stucco house that I had started building before going to Italy and began for the first time to live in my own house. I knew some of my close neighbors, and all were married with children, making me feel sort of out of place in the neighborhood. One of my neighbors had in fact been a student at Haile Selassie I University when I was there. It wasn’t long before we began to talk candidly with each other. We are around the same age. He had three children – a boy and two daughters. One day in the evening while I was watering the small trees I had planted outside the fence of my house, he came up and asked why I am watering them. I replied “to help them grow”. He said “Tesfa, we are mortal. You may not live long enough to see them fully grown. You need to have someone very close to you to own the plants and your house and the piece of land with you and share your life “ And he added, “Otherwise it is better to live anywhere in a small rented house”. Furthermore, with many of my friends getting married I felt more and more lonely. My growing unhappiness finally led me to decide to get married. My criteria for my future wife were simple. In addition to being a Christian, slim and at least as tall as I was, she had to be committed to marriage.
The younger brother of my old TMS friend is a distant relative of my wife Almaz. He told me about her family and her life and arranged for our meeting. And one day he came to my house with Almaz and introduced me to her. The three of us had lunch together and exchanged our telephone numbers and I walked them home. Then both of them visited my home until Almaz felt comfortable enough to come alone.
My wife Almaz was born in Addis Ababa very close to Tafari Makonnen School. Almaz’s father, who was an officer in the army during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, retired not very long after the Derg came to power. Her mother was a house wife. Almaz had completed her elementary and secondary education at Etege Mennen School (named after Emperor Haile Selassie’s Empress). Itege Mennen was the best known girls’ school in the country. The school, now named Yekatit 12 Secondary High School, is located very close to TMS and in front of the house where we used to live, Doug. She is an Orthodox Christian and a regular church goer.
I regularly gave her calls and met her at my home and out in coffee houses and restaurants. We talked about different things including the village and the people we knew around TMS, those who were married and about their lives after marriage, and our school lives. After around six months of getting to know each other, I felt pretty certain that Almaz was the right woman for me. In addition to her family background, I loved the way she carried herself, her self- confidence, and her beautiful long black hair.
One fine day, when we were about to say goodbye to each other, I said “Almaz, now we know each other so well, we need to talk”. And she looked serious and smiled and said, “Talk about what?” I immediately read her positive feeling inside and replied, “About marriage,” adding “Think about it and say something tomorrow. Ok?” That night I felt I had really accomplished something and was very excited.
The next afternoon she came to my house and after lunch and some soft drinks, I raised the marriage issue again. Talking quietly for a while, we looked at each other with love and agreed on our marriage. Thenwe felt lots of anxiety about what to do next. According to tradition, I sent three elderly people to her parents to request their daughter, Almaz, for marriage. Her parents accepted my elderly representatives, listened to them, asked them about my work, education, habits and the like and finally told them that they would consider the request and give them the reply after a week. This is the tradition.
My elderly representatives went to her parents’ house a week later and were warmly received and told that the request was accepted. This was soon followed by a small feast prepared for the occasion. This was the first important step on the way to our marriage. The marriage ceremony included two phases. The first was the church ceremony held in Miskaye Hizinan Medhane Alem Church (very close to TMS) on December 5, 1990. Twenty-six days later, on January 1, 1991, another ceremony was held at the Addis Ababa Municipality. The municipal marriage was followed by joyful celebrations, first at her parents’ house and then at our home, with lots of eating, drinking, singing and dancing.
The first two or three years of our marriage were particularly challenging. I was smoking and spending lots of time after work drinking beer with friends. Almaz repeatedly told me to quit smoking even before marriage. I promised but found it difficult to do. I was smoking in hiding from her parents. In our tradition, as you know, you don’t only shake hands with a friend or close relative but also kiss each others’ cheeks to show true affection. I avoided meeting some of Almaz’s close relatives because they would smell smoke on my breath when I kissed their cheeks and would know I was smoking. I felt the pressure and I tried to seriously quit smoking two times – one month the first time and over three months the second. I asked myself “What is wrong with me?” and thought hard what to do. I knew that in both cases I started smoking again while I was drinking beer and chatting with my friends in a bar. The third time I quit not only smoking but also drinking beer and meeting friends in bars. The first few months were terrible. I got easily irritated and was often negative to Almaz and my office colleagues. I was restless and aggressive. I was going to bed early but could not sleep. But this time I succeeded – a huge change in my life that I know resulted from my marriage. Now I was financially better off, spent more time with my family, and was able to be with Almaz’s relatives without worrying.
Our daughter, Bersabel, was born on 2 June 1991 and our son, Natnael was born on 26 February 1993. Celebrating the birthdays of our children were special occasions for both of us and relatives and friends. Birthday gifts like new clothes and shoes sent by Almaz’s relatives in the US were longed for and highly appreciated. In the midst of all of this happiness, I sometimes remember my dark days under the Derg, when I would talk with close friends about our dream of being married some day – a dream we didn’t think would come true.
One thing I did to the best of my ability was to help my children avoid suffering from the problems I had when I was a child, that is, being unable to speak up, lacking the confidence to have and express their own views, being afraid of making mistakes. I encouraged them to speak freely and loudly and never to worry about making mistakes, but instead to learn from them.
You know, I don’t know how to swim, and there were times over the years when I was embarrassed at having to stand by the side of the swimming pool or on the beach, watching swimmers enjoy themselves. So I was firmly committed to making sure my children learned valuable skills when they are very young. For example, I helped them learn tae kwon do (they both are red belt holders). Both learned to swim at the Ghion Hotel pool, and to play musical instruments: Bersabel the guitar and Natnael traditional and religious string instruments – the Begena (David’s Harp) and Kirar, another traditional musical instrument. They are now socially active and doing very well. I feel I have greatly contributed to that and I am proud of it.
One of the things I will never forget is something that Bersabel did when she was a baby. We were teaching her to use the potty, and we repeatedly said “potty,” “potty,” “potty” to her and helped her to sit down on, and get up from, the potty. One Sunday when I got home from visiting a neighbor, I found Bersabel sitting in the middle of our living room. As soon as she saw me she smiled and for the first time uttered the words “potty”. I was very happy and said “bravo, my daughter.” Then she stretched her two hands to me to help her get up from the potty. That’s when I saw that she was sitting on my lunch box! This is something I always enjoy talking about and will never forget.
The second time I went to Italy I had, unlike my previous visit, a clear purpose for my shopping trips: buying gifts for my wife and children. And when I later visited the US, I was again thinking about what to buy for my wife and children and how to save money to build extra rooms for our house. My wife and children made my trips purposeful and lovely.
It is now 22 years and 4 months since we got married. Bersabel, our daughter, now lives in Boston, USA. She is a second year student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Natnael, our son, is a second year engineering student at Gonder University. We now live a happy and peaceful life looking forward to seeing our children complete their education, start work and stand on their own feet.
My former student Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu and Tesfamichael Tekle, a highly articulate and gregarious fellow with a bright smile and affable manner, have been close friends since their students days at Haile Selassie University. They were professional colleagues at the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency (now the Civil Service Commission), and they both spent time in prison under the military dictatorship – the Derg – that succeeded Emperor Haile Selassie. The following excerpts are from the written account that Tesfamichael sent me of his experience prior to and under the Derg.
The Beginning of My Radicalization
My radicalization started way back in high school during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. The clash of college students with the police at the Arat Kilo Science Faculty spilled over, causing major disturbances at my nearby high school, Menelik II. I was beaten along with other high school and college students by police who had jumped into our school compound chasing students, and I was taken to Police Station #1 for detention when I was a tenth grader. If I recall correctly, this happened in 1965.
My joining college students in protests against the feudal regime of the Emperor (“land to the tiller” and freedom of speech, etc.) was understandable when you consider my background. As tenants living on the land of an Addis Ababa landlord, my poor parents, who lived in constant fear of eviction, were subjected to harsh oppression. For example, my parents were forced to plant trees on the landlord’s empty land, which he was preparing for the construction of rental houses. The landlord’s continuous and abrupt threats to evict us are imprinted in my mind, and are the source of my bitter hatred of the then-system and of my rebellious attitude. When he was almost blinded, which he believed was due to my father’s curse, the landlord came to my father to ask for forgiveness for all the mental suffering that he’d inflicted on my parents, but it was too late to make any difference; the old regime was collapsing.
Why I Opposed the Derg
Although the Derg did solve the land to the tiller issue that we students were fighting for, it was clear early-on that the military junta would never bring about the freedom of speech, press, and assembly that we passionately desired. This was all too obvious when the Derg killed around 60 former high ranking government officials without a fair trial to consolidate its power. Arbitrary arrests and detention soon grew common, so many of us students joined the EPRP (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party) and went underground. Many of my colleagues involved in the movement were brutally killed in the streets of Addis Ababa, including close friends.
The sound of gun shots was common in Addis Ababa. It was customary to see the corpses of victims in the morning when going to work – a horrible, but very common sight. You can imagine the mental suffering we endured, never knowing what would happen to us in those terrible times.
My Prison Experience
From January to July, 1978 I was an inmate at Higher 18 Prison in the eastern part of Addis Ababa. I’d been taken away from my office one morning, having been surrounded by camouflaged “revolutionary guards” armed with machine guns. Immediately upon arrival, I was seriously warned time and again during my interrogation that I’d be in serious danger if I concealed facts that were later uncovered. Thanks to the absence of modern technology, like the computer, it was extremely difficult to cross-check or verify the results of interrogations. Had they been able to, they would have found lots of discrepancies that would have led to further interrogation and torture and more executions.
At the time I entered Higher 18, there were over 1000 prisoners. We all slept in a corrugated iron building on mattresses in rows on the floor. As the heat intensified, it was suffocating. I heard the crying of tortured people practically every night for more than a week until they moved us to other smaller rooms. The torture, of course, continued the same way even after we were moved. In the mornings when I woke up, I used to see tortured people unable to move because of their severe wounds.
I’ll never forget how horrifying it was to wake up one night to see armed men (who when they saw me signaled that I should remain quiet in bed) searching for a fellow sleeping only three or four prisoners from me, whom they took out and executed. We were told the next morning that the fellow I’d seen taken out was one of twelve prison mates who had been executed that night.
My Feelings About the Derg Period
Those days were really terrible to me and my generation. It disturbs me even now to think about that time under the Derg, when I lost a brother and close friends. Remembering those days sickens me, so I try to avoid thinking about that time and substitute more positive thoughts. One thing that sticks in my mind vividly is the reflection of the early morning sun in the blood of executed people. They used to leave the corpses lying in the open for hours as a way of intimidating people. What a government! I am very bitter about it. As I said, I try to keep memories of those terrible times out of my thoughts. Even writing this down brings back the horror and is really painful.