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.
It’s strange that I can remember what I was teaching that morning in my ninth grade history class almost a half-century ago: Roman General Varus’ loss of his three legions – and his life – in Germania. In those days, you found the ninth grade classrooms in the academic section at Tafari Makonnen School lined up in a row in a single-story stucco-faced building behind the main administration building. TMS teachers were itinerant, traveling the sprawling campus from class to class, while the students stayed together all day. I think I was in 9-C that morning. Anyway, the angry voices from the classroom next door that have been distracting my students for the past ten minutes or so have turned into a real ruckus that I can’t ignore any longer, so I stop lecturing and walk over to the window to find out what’s going on next door. I’m flabbergasted by an extraordinary sight: students actually pushing a fellow Peace Corps teacher out the door of their classroom. “Oh my God,” I think, “there’s some kind of revolt going on. What if it spreads?” Several of my students have jumped up to join me at the window, and I’m standing there wondering what I can possibly do when, thank heaven, one of the Jesuit administrators arrives on the scene, and order is restored. Back to Rome in the time of Augustus.
A DEADLY SERIOUS BUSINESS
It turns out that my Peace Corps friend and colleague, in good naïve American fashion, had violated some cardinal rules of the Ethiopian classroom: be formal, keep your distance, take a business-like approach to teaching, and for God’s sake, don’t try to turn your students into your friends. You see, education was no casual matter to our students at TMS, and, so far as I could tell, all over Ethiopia. We aren’t talking about blasé, mildly bored American students here. Education was THE key to a better life in a desperately poor country, and our students came to the classroom – many after a long trek from the provinces, and some even barefoot when arriving in the capital city – with sky-high expectations. To their mind, education was a terribly serious business, and we teachers were very important people in their lives. Their passionate commitment and high expectations were a major reason why teaching in Ethiopia in the 1960s was so satisfying. You couldn’t help but feel what you were doing in the classroom was making a real difference. But woe unto you if you broke the unwritten contract with your students and appeared not fully in command or the least bit frivolous in the classroom, as my friend learned to his acute embarrassment. By the way, this little story has a happy ending. My friend, having learned his painful lesson, bounced back and become a very in-command, popular teacher.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
On reflection, it’s surprising that not more of us Peace Corps teachers at TMS ran into problems in the classroom, in light of our pretty skimpy preparation. The great majority of my group – the “Ethi IIIs” – didn’t come from education colleges in the States or draw on real-life teaching experience, aside from a brief stint of student teaching in LA schools as part of the Peace Corps training program at UCLA. And the orientation I received from the TMS headmaster, Maurice Richer, a week or so before the fall semester began in 1964 couldn’t have been briefer: I was given my teaching schedule of seven or eight different classes of eighth and ninth grade ancient history and tenth grade English and told where I could pick up my copies of the textbooks for my classes. That was it, except for some handy tips on classroom procedure, such as asking students to be seated after the silent prayer that opened every class, expecting students to stand when reciting, and the like. Nothing else. You were basically on your own, learning on the job.
MY PETITE CRISIS
On top of our lack of professional education courses and extensive classroom experience, many of us Peace Corps teachers at TMS found ourselves saddled with badly outdated textbooks, which meant having to create supplemental materials while also learning the teaching ropes. My own crisis was less dramatic than my buddy’s being run out of class, but extremely stressful nonetheless. I vividly recall waking up in the wee hours for four or five days in a row around a month into my first semester at TMS, feeling totally overwhelmed and frightened. I’d been faithfully going through the 19th century English literature text that’d been assigned to my tenth graders (Does George Eliot’s “Mill on the Floss” bring back happy memories, or even ring a bell?), having my students read passages aloud, explaining a culture long gone and trying to clarify abstruse phrases. The weekly quizzes I’d been giving indicated that some relatively unimportant facts were being learned (such as the names of characters and locations), but few of the truly important concepts you’d expect to glean from good literature. Worse, their brief essays were for the most part incoherent. My students were growing more frustrated by the day, as was I, and I really did fear I might be facing a revolt if things didn’t change in the very near future. As I lay awake in bed one night, it finally hit me (I admit that I’m not fastest learner in the world) that I couldn’t win at this particular game; rather, I had to begin a new one with new rules. My students had to tackle first things first: learn to speak and write correct English, starting with the simplest declarative sentences, and working their way up to more complex constructions, and they weren’t going to learn how – not in this lifetime – by plowing through Victorian literature. The solution? Write my own “textbook,” in the form of page after page of practical real-life exercises, involving for the most part filling in the blanks. To give you a sense of the pace of technological change over the past half-century, I hand-wrote these exercises, which were then typed on what were called stencils, and, using the stencils, copies were run off on the mimeograph machine (You can probably find one at the Smithsonian if you’re curious). After three years, I was pleased to hand my “book” to an incoming Peace Corps teacher who was saved from the anxiety I’d experienced. This was probably a pretty typical Peace Corps teaching experience, so I don’t deserve any special credit for ingenuity.
Did we Peace Corps Volunteers at TMS during my time there consciously see ourselves as ambassadors of the United States? Speaking only for myself, I’d answer “yes,” but definitely not in the sense of being a formal part of the American diplomatic establishment in Addis or being passionate defenders of the democratic or capitalistic faith, either in the classroom or outside. I can recall only one visit to the American Embassy during my three years in Ethiopia – to spend a memorable evening with New York Senator Bobby Kennedy, who, as you’d expect, was a strong advocate for the Peace Corps. And evangelical patriotic fervor would without question have boomeranged, doing far more harm than good. I think most of my TMS colleagues would agree that our most effective friend-making for the good old US of A resulted from doing our utmost in the classroom – letting good works speak for themselves. But, looking back, I’m pretty sure that informal interaction outside of the classroom was a pretty effective tool for teaching – without preaching – about America. Over the course of many Saturday open houses for our students at our home just two blocks from TMS, directly across from the main gate of Empress Menen School, sitting around the living room munching popcorn and cookies, we shared details of our lives and answered questions about our country that would’ve been inappropriate in the classroom.
When I shared some of my own story one Saturday afternoon – a small town baker’s son whose mother went to college in her forties, with five of us six kids still at home, and who was able to go to the University of Illinois on the way to building a new life for himself – I could tell from the expressions of the students sitting around the living room that I’d conveyed something really essential about America as the land of opportunity. I think it helped, by the way, that we went out of our way to be candid, and not defensive, about obvious national shortcomings. Yes, we readily admitted, millions of African Americans had lived in slavery a mere hundred years before my Ethi III contingent arrived in Addis Ababa, and a tremendous battle for equal rights was still being waged under the leadership of Dr. King and others while we were teaching at TMS. And, yes, we acknowledged, there were ghettos in cities like, Cleveland, and Detroit teeming with Americans not fully living the American dream . These were facts; we didn’t deny them. But we could honestly point to significant progress on that front, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A FAVORABLE TIME
I must acknowledge that our indirect ambassadorial role was made much easier by the times we were living and working in. We were only 20 years removed from World War II, and President Kennedy, a hero throughout Africa, had been killed less than a year before we arrived in Addis. And, of course, Viet Nam wasn’t yet a full-blown war, and Iraq was years in the future. We didn’t really have a lot to defend in those days. Our students’ appetite for information about JFK was insatiable, by the way. When I told how I’d stood on the street in Washington on November 25, 1963, watching Emperor Haile Selassie walk by with other world leaders in President Kennedy’s funeral procession, they were enthralled.
A CLOSING WORD ON THE JESUITS AT TMS
Tafari Makonnen was a public, non-sectarian school, but at the special invitation of the Emperor, French Canadian Jesuit Fathers administered TMS and taught several upper-level classes. It was easy to forget they were Roman Catholic priests since they wore normal business attire, were addressed as “Mr.”, and never discussed their Roman Catholic faith in the classroom at TMS. But early in my three-year tour of duty at TMS, it was obvious to me that these were men of God on a single-minded mission: to contribute future Ethiopian leaders to the country they so passionately loved who were not only superbly educated, but also imbued with a strong sense of public spiritedness. Looking over my TMS files this morning in my study, I came across the June, 1967 issue of the Tafari Makonnen School Ensign. In the opening pages, the TMS Director, Maurice Richer, one of the Jesuit Fathers, beautifully defines for the graduating seniors what being educated means:
Your intelligence may be in your hands and in your fingers; in your memories or in your imaginations; in your powers of abstraction or in your powers of concentration; in your quick minds or in your logical powers of reasoning; in your hearts and intuition or in your sharp analysis of facts; in a scholarly life spent within the four walls of a library or in the active life with the boundless horizon as a limit.
You may have one or many of these traits; but if you don’t live and think for others and in terms of others, if you don’t use your gifts to make others happy, if you always set yourselves as the norms of all things, if you think that you have everything to give, but nothing to receive, to me you will never be able to claim that you are intelligent persons.
I grew especially close to Fr. Paul Beaudry, beloved French teacher and Scoutmaster, who presided over the annual two-week Scout camp at beautiful Lake Langano, around 200 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, where we Scouts and teachers gathered every evening by the campfire for songs and traditional dances. I fondly recall nightly sitting with other teachers at the entrance to Fr. Beaudry’s tent, enjoying post-campfire cigars and sherry and musing about the future of our students and their country.
In December 1974 – a time of upheaval in Ethiopia – a Christmas letter arrived at my then-home in Columbus, Ohio, from the last Jesuit Father left in the administration at TMS, Marcel Gareau, who had been an invaluable mentor to this fledgling history teacher in the 1960s. It closes with this Christmas wish:
From a land where so much is changing nowadays, and where so much remains to be done, we ask that your prayers obtain for all concerned the selflessness we are taught in the birth of the Lord, without which we cannot achieve the peace and order we yearn for.
Sadly, that peace and order would be long in coming.
Prisoners were physically and morally abused; there were no charges, no witnesses, no defense, no appeal, no complaints, no accountability for torturing and killing people on grounds of suspicion and for executing prisoners who had surrendered themselves to authorities. It was a time of political madness.
– Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, August 2012
My Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu – who, as you might recall, lived with me and my Peace Corps house mates for 2 ½ years in Addis Ababa while he studied and we taught at Tafari Makonnen School – is talking about his two years in prison in the late 1970s under the military regime – the Derg – that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie I. You might also recall that after graduating from Tafari Makonnen and Haile Selassie University, Tesfagiorgis began his career at the national government’s Central Personnel Agency. In my last blog, I talked about the incredible double life Tesfagiorgis lived before he was arrested and imprisoned in February 1978: serving as head of his kebele (a Derg governmental unit also known as an urban dwellers association) while also working against the Derg as a member of EPRP (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party). In this blog, I tell more about Tesfagiorgis’ prison experience and then share my own thoughts and feelings about that dark time.
SADNESS, DESPERATION, TENSION AND FEAR
Tesfagiorgis’ two years in Addis Ababa’s Higher 16 (the title of one of the Derg’s sub-cities, a local government unit encompassing kebeles) Prison was a searing experience – as he says, a time of “sadness, desperation, tension and fear.” Over 1,000 male and female prisoners – almost all quite young – were crammed into small cells (he recalls over fifty male prisoners sleeping in each of five 10’ by 10’ cells infested with fleas and lice). The first few months in Higher 16 were especially trying. “We were closely guarded and not allowed to talk to visitors, and visitors could only rarely see prisoners from a distance. We were shouted at, intimidated, and threatened. Every morning and evening we were made to stand in line and be counted in groups before being escorted to the latrine. Hearing the beatings and cries of individuals from the torture chamber was frightening. No one from outside could come to our aid in this time of stress, desperation and helplessness.”
Prisoners depended on friends and relatives for their food and clean clothes, although after around a year, “prison cell masters” were selected and allowed to collect money from prisoners to go outside and buy fuel, bread, tea, and sugar for breakfast. Visitors had to line up outside and wait until the prison gate was opened, and guards would receive and inspect the incoming food and other items and hand them over to selected prisoners who were allowed close to the gate. These prisoners would then call the names of their fellows to receive their lunch boxes and thermos flasks. Empty lunch boxes and dirty clothes were sent back home in the same way. “In the beginning,” Tesfagiorgis says, “there were so many prisoners, tensions were so high, the guards were so rough, and things were so disorganized that it took hours for relatives and friends to provide us with essentials. It was so time consuming, tiresome, and boring for visitors that many began to come only every other day.”
Tesfagiorgis recalls that most of his fellow prisoners had surrendered to the sub-city authorities themselves, but “there were a few who’d refused to surrender, but were pressured to by their parents, with the hope that they could survive the Derg’s campaign of terror if they confessed and were detained for some time. Some of these young men and women ended up being executed, leaving their well-meaning parents feeling betrayed, bitter, and regretful for the rest of their lives.”
THE SOLACE OF FRIENDSHIP
As you can imagine, friendship helped mitigate the harshness of life in Higher 16 Prison. Tesfagiorgis describes mealtimes as a bonding experience. “We used to eat in groups in our prison cell sitting on the edges of our mattresses. Deciding which dishes to save for dinner and which ones to eat for lunch and putting the food of different prisoners on a common tray and sitting around it and eating together strengthened our friendship and created a strong sense of friendship.” Tesfagiorgis recalls making six new close friends in prison: a high school geography teacher and father, who was executed; four high school students, one of whom was executed, one – now dead – who became a higher school teacher; and two who became government administrators; and a government manager who later worked in private business.
Humor, as you’d expect, fostered friendship while making prison life more bearable. In a recent letter, Tesfagiorgis tells three jokes that he can remember prisoners telling in Higher 16. He calls the one I found funniest “The Wonderful Conclusion.”
“There was a person who wanted to do some research on insects. He caught a flea and removed one of its legs and put it on a white bed sheet and said “jump,” and the flea started jumping. He caught it again and removed another leg and said “jump,” and the flea jumped again. The person caught the flea for the third time and still removed another leg and said “jump.” This time the flea couldn’t move. This researcher’s conclusion? “If three legs of a flea are amputated, then the flea stops listening.”
A LIFE RESUMED
Tesfagiorgis’ two years in Higher 16 Prison came at a high price, as he pointed out in a recent letter: “My political involvement and imprisonment diverted my attention from advancing my career and improving my personal life. I lost my work and income during my two-year stay in prison and endured lots of worry and mental torture. I might have gotten married early enough to have become a grandfather by now.” However, I think it’s fair to say that Tesfagiorgis is nonetheless fortunate and, as he’s said, blessed. After all, thousands of Ethiopian of his generation were brutally tortured under the Derg, and he wasn’t, and thousands died while he lived – to resume his career at the Central Personnel Agency, marry Almaz Aklog, and with her have two children, Bersabel and Natnael.
In many long conversations with Tesfagiorgis during my visit to Ethiopia last May, and in our subsequent correspondence, I’ve been struck by his lack of bitterness at the price he – and Ethiopia – paid under the Derg. He – and other Ethiopians I talked with during my visit, including Tesfagiorgis’ friends Berhane Mogese and Tesfamichael Tekle – don’t have any desire to dwell on past wrongs, preferring instead to look to the future with what you might call guarded optimism. Here’s Tesfagiorgis on the future: “My attitude towards the future is positive. Future generations have the opportunity to learn from the political events that took place after Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign ended, and they can also use technology to learn more about the world and their own country.” In the same letter, to my surprise, Tesfagiorgis also enumerated what he saw as some of the accomplishments of the Derg, including the destruction of the feudal system – “one of the most popular and fundamental demands of the people” – a “commendable job” of reducing illiteracy, and the absence of corruption.
It will be interesting as others from Tesfagiorgis’ generation weigh in to have their assessment of this dark time in Ethiopian history.
FROM MY PERSPECTIVE
Tesfagiorgis and I spent six to seven hours over the course of two days in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel during my visit to Addis Ababa last May. We sat in facing easy chairs as I filmed him telling about the double life he’d led as chair of his kebele and his imprisonment under the Derg. Sitting across from Tesfagiorgis, I could see the 17 year old boy I’d said goodbye to in 1967, when I returned to the States after my three-year stint as a Peace Corps teacher, in the face of the 62 year old man facing me. It really hit me then that I’d loved that boy – and now this man – like a little brother, and that I was truly blessed to reunite with him 45 years after our parting and some 38 years after losing touch completely.
As we talked in my hotel room, on our travels around the capital city, and over many meals of injera and wat – painting in the canvasses of our lives for each other – I was often roiling with emotion: deeply sad at times and viscerally angry at others. Sad and angry that someone I love had suffered so much so needlessly, that this fundamentally good-hearted, gentle, highly moral human being had been treated so hideously. Also sad and angry over the unfulfilled promise and thwarted dreams, not only of Tesfagiorgis but also of his generation of Ethiopians. He and his compatriots had been educated to lead Ethiopia’s development in the post-Haile Selassie era – at least that’s how I and many of my Peace Corps colleagues at Tafari Makonnen School and other secondary schools around the country saw our work in the classroom. Our former students were the elite, desperately needed few who’d graduated from secondary schools and gone on to earn university degrees. Freshly minted degrees in hand, they’d entered the adult world with bright promise and high hopes for their country and their lives, only to have their dreams dashed in less than a decade. Even though many, like Tesfagiorgis, managed to survive the Derg and build productive careers and rich personal lives, they, it seems to me, were in a real sense a lost generation that, in their prime, missed the opportunity to lead Ethiopia’s transition in the two decades after Haile Selassie’s overthrow. God knows, their loss was equally Ethiopia’s – a huge price for such a poor country to pay.
Could the United States, have done more to pave the way for an orderly transition from Haile Selassie’s feudal monarchy to a more modern, more or less democratic government? That question has nagged at me over the years. It seems inconceivable that the violent overthrow of the Emperor could have come as a surprise to our State Department; after all, the regime had been tottering for years. My Peace Corps house mates and I certainly hoped that we’d be safely back in the States before the Emperor died or was overthrown since the potential for chaos and widespread violence seemed such a clear and present danger. But whether the US Government could have played a stronger role in shaping events isn’t clear. After all, our experience in the years since World War II has proved that nation building is an extremely complex, high-risk game easily lost despite the best of intentions. I’d certainly like to hear from anyone reading this who’d like to weigh in on the question.
“I stayed as chairman of the kebele until my arrest, and I am proud of working in the kebele and hopefully being remembered for withstanding the pressures from all angles and contributing to saving lives from red-terror executions in our kebele.” ~ Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu in a letter to the author; October 1, 2012
TESFAGIORGIS’ DANGEROUS DOUBLE LIFE
In this blog post, I return to the story of my dear Ethiopian friend, Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, who lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates for 2 ½ years in the mid- 1960s in Addis Ababa, while he was studying and we were teaching at Ethiopia’s most prestigious public school, Tafari Makonnen. If you’ve read my fourth “Entwined Lives” blog post – “Tesfagiorgis’ Story: The Dark Days” (August 9, 2012) – you know that I hadn’t been in touch with Tesfagiorgis for almost 40 years when, with the help of another Ethiopian student who’d lived with me in Addis, Tariku Belay, I reunited with Tesfagiorgis by phone in March 2011, and in person at Bole Airport in Addis last May, on my first visit to Ethiopia since returning to the States in 1967. Reuniting with Tesfagiorgis, along with another recently discovered Ethiopian friend from almost 50 years ago, Berhane Mogese, last May packed an especially powerful emotional punch because I’d thought they, along with many former students, had most likely been executed under the brutal military regime that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. Our re-uniting after so many years was, as Tesfagiorgis aptly observed, a real miracle when you consider those dark days Berhane and Tesfagiorgis had lived through.
You might also recall from my “Dark Days” blog post that after his graduation from Haile Selassie I University in the mid-1970s, Tesfagiorgis joined the Ethiopian Government’s Central Personnel Agency as a mid-manager and began to lead a dangerous double life: serving as Chairman of one of the 283 urban dwellers associations – known as “kebeles” – that the Derg had created, while also actively working undercover against the Derg as a member of the opposition Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP). This extremely stressful double life came to an end early in the morning on February 3, 1978, when Tesfagiorgis was arrested and taken to Higher 16 Prison in Addis, where he spent most of the next two years. In this and my next blog post, I’ll tell you about some of Tesfagiorgis’ experiences as a kebele chairman, and then you’ll learn more about Tesfagiorgis’ two years in prison.
AN AFFABLE BULL
Preparing for my trip to Ethiopia last May, I found a copy of the June 1967 issue of the Tafari Makonnen School Ensign in my files. Thumbing through it, I found this profile of twelfth grader Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu: “Short, but strong as a bull. Don’t stand in his way when you play football with him! But his good temper makes up for his roughness.” That’s my extraordinary Ethiopian friend in a nutshell: tremendously hard working and tenacious, but at the same time even-tempered, affable and good humored – one of those extroverted people-centered persons who naturally attract friends. It’s not surprising that, despite those traumatic dark days under the Derg, Tesfagiorgis was able to work his way up to an executive position in the Central Personnel Agency before his retirement after a 28-year career: Head of the Planning, Policy Analysis and Review Department. And these traits, along with a generous dollop of good luck, undoubtedly explain how Tesfagiorgis was able to survive for so long as chair of his kebele while secretly working against the Derg.
Heading one of the kebeles in Addis Ababa didn’t give Tesfagiorgis immunity from the Red Terror, which could strike at any time without warning, catching victims up in a net from which thousands didn’t escape. As a couple of Tesfagiorgis’ real-life stories attest, his life more than once hung by just a thread despite his leadership position.
AN UNPLANNED VISIT TO THE NOTORIOUS DERG INVESTIGATION BUREAU
One of Tesfagiorgis’ close neighbors in the kebele was Beza Geberkidan, who owned a small traditional hotel near Arat Kilo (a prominent roundabout four kilometers north of the Addis city center) and a small shop selling soft drinks, cigarettes and the like in Tesfagiorgis’ kebele. One evening, Beza joined Tesfagiorgis at his home for a game of chess. Twenty minutes into the game, a bayonet on an automatic rifle was thrust through the open window near where they were sitting. Here, in Tesfagiorgis’ own words, is what happened:
As it was dark outside, I couldn’t properly see the soldier at the window. The door was violently opened and two soldiers pointing their machine guns entered the house one after the other. We stayed seated. The first shouted “Stand up and hands up”. We obeyed fast. The second rushed into the other room of my house. We were searched and told to stay outside. The second shouted “There is one more in here”. I did not know that my friend Gebrehiwot was sleeping in the other room of my house. He came out wearing his eye glasses and holding his hands up. Two young neighbors who were working in public companies joined us outside. There were 9 of us out in the compound, along with 8 or 9 soldiers. The women were told to return to their homes, and the remaining five of us were led out of the compound and taken to a military truck parked in front of Beza’s shop.
Three people were already on the truck. One was the wife of Ato Yewlchaf, who was later killed in the Merkato area of Addis (a huge open air market) by security forces. One of the two men seemed to have been taken out of bed and not given time to dress himself and was shivering. The third was sitting in one of the front corners of the truck with his head down. We joined them.
Then the truck was driven fast in the direction of Entoto Mountain, nearly reaching the foot of the mountain. I thought, as often happened, we were going to be summarily executed and buried there. But the truck turned around and came back via the American Embassy to Arat Kilo and entered the Grand Palace. That was where the notorious Derg’s Investigation Bureau was located. We had no idea why the truck had made such a meandering trip.
We were then told to get down from the truck and join others who’d been arrested. We were all commanded to stand in line and taken some distance and then ordered to get into a narrow and very dark ditch almost as deep as my height.
It was about 10:00 p.m. and very dark. We didn’t know where the ditch would take us or what we were stepping on. We were simply following one another and slowly moving forward.
At the end of the ditch there was a kind of stairway. As soon as a suspect came out of the ditch, he was told to stand on a podium about five meters away from the mouth of the ditch. A very powerful beam of light was then put on the face of the suspect and it was very difficult for the suspect to open his eyes and see and identify the persons in front of him.
Each suspect on the podium was ordered to stand straight, to turn his face left and right, to tell his name, age, work, kebele etc. and finally told to go to group A or group B and sit on the ground.
Beza was in front, Gebrrehiwot was next and I was third in our group. Beza was on the podium and questioned and told to join group A. I knew Beza was older than all of us and was head of a large family. I assumed he wasn’t involved in politics. Also, he was very likely known by some of our captors who’d eaten in his small hotel close the Palace. So I said to myself that it would be better to go to join Beza’s group and waited for my chance.
Then Gebrehiwot came out of the ditch and stood on the podium. The beam of light was on his face. He was ordered to remove his eye glasses and did all the rest and was sent to group A. My turn came and I did the same and according to my guess work I was luckily told to join group A. All the suspects went through almost the same process and were divided into the two groups.
It was about midnight. The chief investigator came to our group and made a threatening speech and gave a stern warning that if anyone of us told anyone about what’d happened to us that night, he would certainly be brought back to the same place. Then we were put on a truck and dropped off at our kebele at about 1:30 a.m. The woman prisoner in our group was unfortunately dropped at a police station on our way home.
Group B prisoners were not fortunate. Some were thrown into prison and left there for years.
THE FASIKA HOTEL BRUSH WITH DEATH
One Saturday afternoon Tesfagiorgis met a friend of his, Tesfaye Ayele, the youngest brother of an old friend from Tafari Mekonnen School. They ate lunch together and sat talking and drinking beer until about 9:00 p.m. at the Fasika Hotel. Worn out, they decided to spend the night at the Fasika. Tesfagiorgis had been asleep for a few hours when another harrowing adventure began. Here’s the story in his words.
It was about 1:00 a.m. I felt something very cold on my forehead. I woke up and saw a tall man in uniform standing by the side of my bed and aiming at my head with a hand gun. It was the gun that I’d felt on my forehead. He told me to dress fast and get out of the room. I did. It was very cold outside. Everyone spending the night at the hotel were out there in the compound of the hotel. I joined them. The light in the compound was very dim. Each and every one of us was searched and ID cards checked. Many were told to go back to their rooms including my friend Tesfaye Ayele.
A young man who was claiming to be a relative of the owner of the hotel and myself were taken by 3 armed revolutionary guards to a nearby kebele and thrown into a small room possibly three by three meters. The room was so dark we couldn’t see each other, nor could we tell if anyone else was in the room. Using my hand as a guide and touching the wall to my right, I found the corner and leaned back in silence. But my roommate was moving here and there and stumbling on something. He was shouting and complaining. I was really worried that someone would hear the noise and come to question us, or worse, but nothing happened for the rest of the night.
At dawn, some light began to come in through a small window close to the ceiling of the room. The room had brick walls. There was only one wooden bench and a chair in the middle of the room. The walls to the right and to the left, the bench and particularly the floor were stained with blood. We were almost certainly sitting in a torture chamber. Those who’d been tortured were either dead and disposed of or taken away for execution.
Then early in the morning I heard an announcement by megaphone of a meeting of all kebele residents to be held at the kebele office at 8 a.m. Kebele meetings were normally held on Sunday mornings and lasted for hours. My roommate began shouting louder to make our presence known and hopefully get us released before the meeting began.
Not only was the torture chamber a terrible place to wait, we were also terribly anxious about being confronted by guards who’d been brutalizing suspects the night before. Someone opened the door about 4:00 p.m. and asked us why we were there and who’d locked us in. We told him the story, but couldn’t identify our captors. . He locked the door again and walked away. This time I was really worried and frightened, ready to start shouting like my roommate had. Some thirty minutes later the man came back, handed us our ID cards, and explained that we’d been detained because our names on our ID cards couldn’t clearly be read in the dark last night. Then we were released.
Hearing his stories, I realized that it truly was nothing short of a miracle that Tesfagiorgis lived to participate in our reunion in Addis Ababa in May 2012!
The woman sitting on the aisle is a grandmother in her sixties, and the young man on my right in the window seat must be 17 or 18. I can’t see their faces clearly at this point, a little over 48 years later, but we’re having a great time gettingto know each other on the TWA flight from St. Louis to Los Angeles that June day in 1964. Not being experienced travelers, we haven’t yet learned, like Macon Leary in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, to open a book or feign napping to keep talkative seatmates at bay. We don’t want to be insulated from each other! We’ve got to talk about what an exhilarating experience it is to fly for the first time. We’re still all revved up from that monster machine miraculously getting off the ground in the first place. What makes our conversation so memorable isn’t what we said, which I can’t recall so many years later; it’s that you can’t hear a word we’re saying. You see, the young man on my right is deaf, so my sixty-something seatmate has pulled a pad and pencil out of her purse, which we’re passing back and forth, having a ball. Although I can’t remember anything we said – wrote – I dorecall that we had a lot to say since our conversation carried us most of the way to LA. What did the grandmother do with the pad we filled? Is it sitting in a box with other relics in an attic somewhere? Where is that young man now? Has he lived a happy, productive life? I find myself these days now and then wondering what’s happened to someone I’ve crossed paths with over the course my six decades. I guess it’s a function of age since I can’t recall such musings until fairly recently. Strange to say, I really would like to know how these stories have turned out, maybe because I’ve been thinking – and writing – lately about my own story.
Is it possible I was ever so young and naïve? As we taxi to our gate at LAX, I pull out the Peace Corps instruction sheet that’d arrived at 313 South First Street in Vandalia, Illinois the week before. It recommends that I arrange to take a “limousine” from the airport to my new summer home at UCLA in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, wherever that is. Yes, dear reader, there was a time – a long, long time – when you couldn’t just Google “westwood” to find out in a jiffy where and what it is. So I’m thinking to myself as we taxi down the runway, “Limousine?” That sounds really extravagant, so I’d better take a cab instead. What would Mom and Dad think if they found out I’d laid out hard-earned money for a limousine ride? The cabbie gave me a strange look when I got in and told him where I was going, but I didn’t understand why until I paid the $50 plus tab 45 minutes or so later. That’s 1964 dollars, by the way.
WE WHO GATHERED AT UCLA
We were 323 strong, the group that arrived at UCLA in June 1964, according to the “Training Program for Secondary School Teachers” directory that I’ve carried around from city to city over the decades since that memorable summer in LA. We came from all over the United States. Among us were Sandra Beherrell, 22, from Lynnfield, MA; David Levine, 20, Brooklyn, NY; Beryl Cochran, 21, New London, Connecticut; Mark Brecker, 21, West Orange, NJ; Michael Altman, 22, Providence, RI; David Karro, 22, Washington, D.C.; Sally Bushong, 25, Danville, VA; Randall Sword, 22, Springfield, PA; LaVerle Berry, 22, Perrysville, OH; Alice Gosak, 22, Argo, IL; Eula Persons, 22, Birmingham, AL; Thurman Ragar, 22, Pine Bluff, AR; Lawrence Gallatin, 22, St. Paul, MN; June Goodwin, 22, Tulsa, OK; John Cohen, 25, Denver, CO; Garber Davidson, 25, Long Beach, CA; and Judith Woods, 22, Darrington, WA. We were graduates of every size and shape of institution. Looking over the first couple of pages in the directory, I see Lowell Technical Institute, Brown University; Western Reserve University; Yale University; University of Minnesota; Bard College; University of Wyoming; Providence College; University of Detroit; and Dartmouth College. We were for the most part young and inexperienced; 281of the 323 of us were 25 years or younger, the great majority just out of college. The directory indicates that two of us were in our 40s, six in our 50s, two in our 60s, and, at 70, Pearl Ziegler of Duluth, MN, was our most senior volunteer.
THANK HEAVEN FOR ADRENALIN!
Thank heaven for esprit de corps and adrenalin! We needed both, believe me. Whoever designed the UCLA Ethiopia training program followed a simple rule: More is better, so cram it in! Twelve-hour days were the norm. In a letter to Mom and Dad dated July 20, 1964, I write: “Today was one of those exhausting days, with twelve hours in class (8 a.m. to 10 p.m.), which leave us in little condition to study, since the next day will come all too soon.” We sat for hours in large auditoriums, listening to lectures on African and Ethiopian history, culture, and politics, the Amharic language (which we practiced speaking in small group sessions), and – what I remember as our least favorite course: “Cultural, Psychological and Curricular Foundations of Effective Instruction.” How do I happen to remember the title? Going through my files last week, I came across my “University of California Extension Credit Certificate,” documenting that I earned an “A” that summer in “Educ. X 330.03,” so I must have stayed awake at least some of the time in that excruciatingly boring class. I haven’t saved my lecture notes from that summer, and much of the content has faded from my mind, but I do remember learning something about the kind of super-serious students who studied at Oberlin College. In my memory, I’m sitting in class right before lunch – stomach rumbling and attention turning to the buffet waiting for us (We were fed well at UCLA), when just before the bell ends the lecture, a distinguished Oberlin graduate asks his inevitable long, convoluted question that hunger makes it hard for me to follow. Again, for the umpteenth time, we’ll be late for lunch. Well, in Dave Karro’s defense, he did Oberlin proud: in the classroom at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa, followed by a distinguished legal career. And David and I even became good friends and eventually housemates, despite the minor league suffering he inflicted at lunch time.
FINDING MY PASSION IN THE CLASSROOM
At the serious end of the spectrum that summer, the highlight, to me anyway, was student teaching. I was in the group that was bussed to Alexander Hamilton High School for three or four weeks to get some practical classroom experience before our trial by fire in the Ethiopian educational system. I remember finding my passion in the classroom that summer in LA, and my letters home indicate that was, indeed, the case. By the way, keep in mind that our students that summer were forced to be in the classroom to make up classes they’d failed during the prior academic year so they weren’t what you’d call avid consumers of whatever wisdom we had to offer! Here’s what I wrote to Mom and Dad on August 1:
The big thing happening around here is the student teaching. For a week now, I’ve been teaching world history and English in a nearby high school. The English is not very interesting, but I’m enjoying history. My supervisor has turned the African and Chinese units over to me completely, to prepare the lectures and give the tests. I’ll take the liberty to tell you of a minor success which seemed to break through in my history class. I was finishing the lecture on Chinese Communist government and politics Friday morning. . . .I told the students that I was a Chinese Communist leader, holding the real Truth, and that they would be shot if they couldn’t explain in clear, rational terms why I, who know more facts than they do, should not force my truth on them. In other words, that they had to defend democratic gov’t, without using terms like “good” and “God-given.” This woke them up, and for the next hour the kids had their hands in the air, getting excited and even irritated as I attacked every vague argument that they offered. . . I felt pretty good when the kids broke out in applause after I ended the discussion. With work, I think I can be a pretty good teacher.
PLEASE TELL ME I’M NORMAL!
Whoever designed our training program definitely believed that we should be a well-rounded crew – physically fit as well as knowledgeable. I think it was a core element of Peace Corps philosophy then; I’m not certain about now. Anyway, silly as it now seems, we had to pass a swimming test and learn to play soccer (then, as now, the most played sport in the world, including in Ethiopia), and we were even required to do a one-mile run. I’m proud to report that, despite the two packs a day of unfiltered Camels I was then smoking, I was the winner of the one-mile run in my PE group. Thinking back, I wonder if I’d been put in some kind of remedial group because of my nasty habit, which accounts for my improbable victory. We were relieved that, at least, we weren’t forced to swing on vines from tree to tree to uphold the Peace Corps image. The powers that be were also tremendously concerned that that those of us heading to Ethiopia be “normal” representatives of our country, whatever that means, so we were subjected to a battery of psychological tests to weed out the emotionally unhealthy among us. Since I wasn’t at all sure what normal was, I worried quite a bit about choosing the “right” multiple choice answers (suspecting that it might be discovered I was less normal than I thought). We also had one-on-one conferences with a staff psychologist during training, and several of us agreed that our counselor was one of the strangest people we’d ever met – a deeply troubled, clearly neurotic fellow who sorely needed help himself. One of the darkest memories from that summer at UCLA was an incident that occurred one day when we were in a large auditorium, suffering through one of our psychological tests. Midway through the test, a piercing scream sent chills down my spine. It turned out that the test had triggered a seizure, ending the Peace Corps career of a very likeable trainee and her husband.
LOVING LA – ON A BUDGET
It wasn’t all work and no play that summer, of course. It’s fashionable these days, especially if you live east of the Mississippi River, to speak ill of the City of Angels, what with that pall of smog hanging over the city so much of the time, the 24/7 rush hour traffic that’s all too often moving at a snail’s pace along an incredibly confusing network of freeways, and the absence of a city center to help you orient yourself in this sprawling metropolis that just seems to ooze into the suburbs without any apparent rhyme or reason. But to me, Los Angeles was a great place to be that summer of ‘64. I just plain loved everything about the city: the lushly landscaped UCLA campus – situated in the lovely Westwood neighborhood and blessed with so many architecturally interesting buildings, the exotic palm trees lining the boulevards, the wonderfully cool evenings (so unlike summer in Southern Illinois), the fragrant eucalyptus trees, which I’d never seen before, the beautiful drives through the Palos Verdes hills and along the Pacific coast. I loved the Hollywood Bowl, where one evening we enjoyed the LA Philharmonic playing Gershwin. I even loved Disneyland, although, now a much more sophisticated man, I might be tempted to deny it. Here’s what I wrote to Mom and Dad after my first trip there. “Yesterday several of us went to Disneyland. It’s really an amazing amusement park. I had lots of fun taking the African cruise, riding on real mules through hills and a very realistic desert, etc. I wish you all could see this fantastic place – both kids and parents love it.” In my defense, I was pretty un-traveled at that point in life. And the occasional touch of Hollywood was the cherry on the sundae. I’m positive I remember Jimmy Stewart shooting a film on the UCLA campus while we were there. Fortunately, our extracurricular recreation didn’t come at a steep price. Here’s what I wrote to Mom and Dad on July 4 about my financial condition: “By the way, my money situation is excellent. I’m worth $60 in cash (now) – with two P.C. checks having been received. So think not a moment about this. There is really not much to spend money on other than normal incidentals. We get $14 every week – plenty!” If I recall correctly, my Camels cost 30 cents a pack then.
LBJ VS BARRY GOLDWATER
We might have been up to our eyeballs the summer of 64 listening to lectures, practicing our Amharic, student teaching and seeing the LA sights on weekends, but we couldn’t help but pay pretty close attention to the national political scene. That was an exciting time that got our political antennae really quivering. President Lyndon Johnson, despite a Southern drawl and occasional lapse into Texas braggadocio that irritated so many of us, especially by comparison with his far more eloquent and elegant predecessor, was turning out to be a highly effective, and at times inspiring, Chief Executive and a worthy successor to JFK. The monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not only passed on his watch – on July 2 – it was also the direct, tangible product of his aggressive leadership. That summer also saw the GOP convention nominate a presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who appeared to be a right-wing radical more than willing to get us involved in a hot war against the Soviets, so we’d have a clear choice when we voted – many of us for the first time, by absentee ballot in Ethiopia – that coming November. The US was involved in Viet Nam that summer, but we looked to Lyndon Johnson to keep us from all-out war, which in retrospect is more than a trifle ironic.
THE TIES THAT BIND
Finally, it really hit me at the Peace Corps Fiftieth Anniversary festivities in Washington this past September that what above all else made that summer of 1964 in Los Angeles so magical were the gals and guys I’d spent virtually every waking hour with for three months. I’d never before, and never have since, felt so at home with any group of people. As I marched with old “Ethi III” friends (we were the third Ethiopian Peace Corps contingent) from the amphitheater at Arlington Cemetery behind the Ethiopian flag, across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial that Sunday in September 2011, I realized that the ties binding us together – the practical, can-do idealism, the respect for public service, and, yes, the sense of adventure – weren’t all that frayed despite the wear and tear of nearly a half-century. And I thought to myself what a fortunate fellow I am to have shared that magical summer so long ago with such a wonderful group of people. I was blessed, and I am forever grateful.
Over the past couple of months, writing about my Peace Corps teaching days at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa in the 1960s and about my Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis’ dark days under the brutal military regime that succeeded Haile Selassie has got me thinking about how I’d made it to Addis in the first place in 1964. It was a true life changer for me, but, as is probably often the case with dramatic course shifts in life, it was hardly the result of a methodical planning process. Indeed, on reflection, it was probably a classic case of serendipity at work. Here’s the first part of my back story.
Early afternoon, December 1963. Walking through the Illini Union at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, half-way through my senior year, I pass a table where a couple of Peace Corps recruiters are chatting with a cluster of students. Heading out the door, on my way back to my place to do some reading for tomorrow’s Russian history class, I stop and think a minute, then turn around and walk back to the table. When one of the recruiters is free, I ask if the Peace Corps has any use for a guy like me – a liberal arts major without any technical skills. “Absolutely,” I recall her replying, “We’re placing teachers all over the world.” She suggests that I come back to the Illini Union that evening to take an aptitude test. I return and take the test, even though I’m not at all certain why I’m doing it. I don’t remember a single question I answered, but I do recall feeling that something really momentous is getting underway. It feels exciting, but also unsettling and even a bit dangerous.
You see, my course had already been set – firmly – by the time I happened upon those Peace Corps recruiters at the Illini Union. I’d been admitted to the University of Illinois Law School for the coming fall, and other than getting through the last semester of my senior year, my only serious concern was where I’d live and what I’d do that coming summer. I truly don’t recall having thought for a single minute – at least not seriously – about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer before that fateful afternoon at the Illini Union. Oh, I was very familiar with the Peace Corps; I’d thought it was a great idea when President John F. Kennedy launched it in 1961, putting his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver in charge, but I just never imagined myself setting off for a distant “third world” country as an ambassador of the New Frontier. Just getting to the University of Illinois had been a giant leap for me – and my family – and becoming an attorney appeared to be a very sensible next step – a tried and true path to a financially secure, upper middle class future. I might not have been excited at the thought of law school, but, hey, it would be quite an accomplishment, when you considered where I started, which wasn’t very far up the middle class ladder (If she were alive, Mother would be quite irate at my saying that, but it’s true). Let me take you on a detour so you have a sense of where I came from.
GROWING UP IN VANDALIA, ILLINOIS
We six kids were raised in Vandalia, Illinois, a town of just over 5,000 in soy bean and corn country, around 60 miles east of St. Louis at the northern tip of Little Egypt, as Southern Illinois was known. Dad owned Eadie’s Bakery (“William C. Eadie, proprietor”) on the main street, Gallatin, which back then was a bustling commercial strip dividing the north and south sides of town, especially on Saturdays when farmers from all over Fayette County drove to town to “do their trading,” as my Grandmother Crawford used to say. I remember three hotels, including the Evans, which at five stories was Vandalia’s only skyscraper, a Sears appliance store, Grandfield’s Jewelers, two “five and dime” stores, a small A & P grocery and eventually a Kroger’s Supermarket about the time I left for U of I, Uncle Don and Aunt Hazel’s camera shop and studio, a busy Walgreen’s with a real soda fountain where we’d sit drinking the cherry cokes we loved, Harry Coats’ barber shop (where you could get a shoe shine and, believe it or not, play a game of checkers), a couple of restaurants, and three or four clothing stores, including Denny’s, which is where you could buy Hart Schaffner Marx suits and Florsheim shoes. Our family doctor, Miller Greer, and his brother Mark had offices in the second story of one of the downtown buildings. I vividly recall something most of you reading this blog won’t relate to: Dr. Miller’s arriving at our house at 313 South First Street at night several times over the years, usually to give one of us six kids the all-purpose penicillin shot. The Fayette County Courthouse still sits atop a hill overlooking downtown at the west end of Gallatin, and several blocks to the east is the handsomely restored Statehouse (Abraham Lincoln attended meetings of the Illinois General Assembly in Vandalia, which was Illinois’ second capital, from 1819 to 1837).
It was a pretty big event in my family when my sister Kay Sue graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1958 – a real first, since neither my grandparents nor any of their nine children or several grandchildren had earned a college degree before Kay graduated. My mother’s mother, Fannie Matilda, didn’t even finish high school since she married my grandfather, Charles Crawford, at 14; I recall seeing a photo of her about that time, standing barefoot in front of their farm house outside of Vandalia. My mother, Ina Mae Crawford Eadie, was the second college graduate in the family, starting with correspondence courses from Indiana University in Bloomington while I was in junior high school, long before there were community colleges for nontraditional students like her, and earning her degree from Greenville College, around 20 miles’ drive from Vandalia, when I was a high school sophomore. She explained the ordeal of going to college with five of us kids still at home as necessary to earn enough to send us all to college, but, knowing Mother, pride and ambition had a lot to do with it. I remember many nights getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night (one bathroom in our three-bedroom house for the eight of us!) and finding Mother studying at the dining room table. By the way, she became a very fine teacher, and the extra money was a godsend to Dad, who was already working seven days a week at the bakery, where all six of us kids did our stints as window washers, walk sweepers, donut glazers, machine cleaners, and – for my three lucky sisters – sales ladies in the “front end.” (Years later, during my second year in Ethiopia, Mother convinced Dad, then 50, to sell the bakery. They moved to Pocatello, Idaho, where Dad enrolled as a freshman at Idaho State University; he graduated from Portland State University after they moved to Portland, Oregon three years later.) I was the third family trail blazer when I left for the University of Illinois in September 1960. I don’t remember college being a choice, at least so far as Mother was concerned; it was our sure-fire path to a better life, she told us over and over as we were growing up. At over 30,000 students on the main campus in those days, with freshman lecture classes of 200 and more, you can imagine what a culture shock U of I was to 18 year old Doug Eadie, whose senior class at Vandalia Community High School numbered 120.
WHERE EXACTLY IS ETHIOPIA?
So you see, attending college wasn’t something to take lightly in my family, as my five brothers and sisters and I – in the great American tradition – climbed the middle class ladder. It was a very big deal, and not going on to law school was a dramatic course deviation for me. But, as I said earlier, I did go back to take the aptitude test that evening of the day I stopped at the Peace Corps recruiting table at the Illini Union, and when I received a letter from Peace Corps headquarters three or four weeks later, saying I had been “pre-selected” but not yet assigned a country, I was hooked; law school was history – a path not taken. My pre-selection notification asked if I had a country preference. I answered, “anywhere in Africa.” Not that I knew a great deal about what was still to many Americans in those days the “dark continent;” in fact, I don’t think there was even an African history course at U of I while I was there. But it seemed so exotic and romantic (Don’t forget, in my impressionable early teens, I was tutored by films like “King Solomon’s Mines,” “Mogambo,” and the more artistically respectable “The African Queen,” and – Saturday after Saturday as a second and third grader – by former Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller in his post-Tarzan incarnation, Jungle Jim). More seriously, as an avid reader of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later, at Illinois, the Chicago Daily News, if not from classwork, I was well aware that Africa was a tremendously exciting place – a continent in ferment as colony after colony overthrew their European rulers on the way to nationhood, and also a Cold War battleground, where the United States and the Soviet Union jousted for influence with Africa’s new indigenous governors.
Anyway, off went my acceptance letter to Peace Corps headquarters, and a month or so later came another letter, telling me that in June I’d be joining over 300 other trainees in Los Angeles at UCLA, as part of the Ethiopia III teacher training program. Ethiopia? I wasn’t sure exactly where it was, but as I wrote in an earlier blog in this series, what came immediately to my mind was the diminutive but oh so regal Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia walking with other world leaders in President Kennedy’s funeral procession on November 25, 1963, as I stood on the street that terribly sad day in Washington with friends from the University of Illinois Young Democrats Club. We’d driven all night from Urbana to pay homage to a man who’d so inspired us and whose assassination had left us devastated.
I’d never been in an airplane; the only other person in the family who had was Kay Sue, who’d done a stint as a TWA “hostess,” as they were called in those days. So I was both excited and a wee bit anxious (not fear of death, but worse, of being embarrassed by not knowing what to do once I boarded the plane) when I said goodbye to my parents at St. Louis’ Lambert Field and boarded my TWA flight to Los Angeles that June day in 1964, when a new phase of my life journey got underway. In future blogs, I’ll tell about Peace Corps training at UCLA and about my three years in Ethiopia, but I’d like to conclude by telling you why I think I’d set such a dramatic new course instead of going on to law school as planned.
THE SIREN SONG OF ADVENTURE AND ROMANCE
I wish I could tell you that my decision to join the Peace Corps was just a case of altruism at work, but I’d be stretching the truth. What I recall thinking when I stopped on my way out of the Illini Union that day after passing the recruiters went something like this: “Doug, my man, you’ve never done anything really passionate, daring or exciting, you’ve never even traveled farther than Chicago; you’ve been busting your butt studying for four years in the middle of nowhere, and now you’re staying in the middle of the corn fields for three more years to study something you don’t even feel excited about. Enough already! Go for it!” Now, that obviously isn’t literally what I said to myself, but I assure you it’s what I felt – powerfully. Thinking back, I’m sure the desire for adventure and romance was an important reason I veered off the law school track and headed for Los Angeles in June 1964. It’s a yearning I’d often felt lying in bed at night in Vandalia, hearing the whistle of the Illinois Central and Pennsylvania trains passing through. I’d wonder where in the wide, wonderful world the passengers were headed and whether some day I’d be traveling to interesting destinations myself.
THOSE WERE VERY DIFFERENT DAYS
But the desire for adventure alone probably wouldn’t have carried the day. A pretty large dollop of altruism and even patriotism played an important part in my decision to jettison law school and become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Without the sense of higher purpose these feelings provided, I doubt I would have veered off the law school course I’d set. If you’re a few years younger than me, you need to keep in mind that those were very different times in the early 1960s. I and the Peace Corps trainees I joined at UCLA in 1964 had come of age in the shadow of World War Two – the “good” war that few questioned, a war waged against what had seemed to be unalloyed evil, a war from which America emerged as the richest, economically most productive, and militarily most powerful country on earth. We also emerged as the undisputed leader of the democracies making up the “Free World,” and you didn’t have to be a super-patriot of the John Birch Society ilk in those Cold War years, seeing Communist conspirators under every rock, to feel a powerful sense of national mission. You should also keep in mind that, by comparison with today, those were much more trusting times, when, even if you didn’t agree with the policies of the administration in power in Washington, you didn’t fundamentally distrust your nation’s leaders or impugn their motives. Dwight Eisenhower was no hero as president to the Stevenson Democrats living at 313 South First Street in Vandalia, Illinois, but nobody in my family would ever have questioned his patriotism or character.
JFK’S CALL TO A HIGHER PURPOSE
And then came John Fitzgerald Kennedy! Now there was a hero for many in my generation, certainly for me. What a contrast to the seemingly complacent, avuncular Dwight Eisenhower, who exuded authority and calm but ignited little passion. Anyway, Ike always seemed to be whiling away an inordinate amount of time on the links, signaling, I guess, that all was well with the world so it was alright to relax – at length. A legitimate war hero, handsome, sophisticated, glamorous, a master of the English language, driven by a palpable sense of vision and exuding tremendous urgency, Kennedy made me and millions of other young Americans not only proud, but excited, to be American. JFK called us to a higher purpose beyond the mundane day-to-day concerns of building a career and earning money. There is more, so much more, he seemed to say. Don’t just sit back and miss the opportunity to make a real difference! Today, many of you who are much younger than me reading President Kennedy’s inaugural address, would probably smile cynically and perhaps even wince occasionally at the high-flown rhetoric. Not I, nor millions like me. We felt JFK was speaking directly to us when he said that the “torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed . . .” We welcomed his challenge: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Sad to say, those idealistic words would seem quaint, even hollow, to many today, but you’d better believe that they stirred the hearts of millions on January 20, 1961.
You know, it’s strange how much emotion the thought of JFK can still conjure up, years after his assassination when he’s become ancient history to younger generations. A few years ago I was invited to a meeting at the county government administration building in downtown Dallas, where I’d never been. As my taxi wended its way through downtown, I began to feel an ominous sense of dread that I couldn’t figure out. Apprehensive and anxious, I was actually tingling by the time I saw that familiar grassy knoll on my right, and I realized we’d reached infamous Dealey Plaza. It turns out that the Texas Schoolbook Depository, unbeknownst to me, had been turned into the county administration building, and on my way there I was traveling the route of President Kennedy’s cavalcade on November 22, 1963.
Well, I don’t know if this account of what motivated my decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer way back then is very inspiring or not. I’m sure I was motivated to some degree by the moral imperative to help those less fortunate, but, in all honesty, that was a pretty abstract, philosophical kind of motivation that probably wouldn’t have led me to UCLA in 1964. The opportunity to make a real difference in the world, spreading our country’s message of hope and freedom abroad, and having lots of romance and adventure, too – that’s what I think, on reflection, compelled me to choose a different road in winter 1963…
“I am living now at peace – of course, doing everything I can to forget my dark days.”
These are Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu’s closing words in the video we’d just filmed in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel in Addis Ababa the last morning of my ten-day return visit to Ethiopia this past May. Sitting across from Tesfagiorgis, keeping my eye on the camera as he tells the story of his experience in the late 1970s under the military group – the Derg – that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie, I now understand fully how terribly dark those days were for my Ethiopian friend. And I realize what a miracle it is that Tesfagiorgis is alive and well – happily married to Almaz with two beautiful children, Bersabel and Natnael – and that we are together again 45 years after saying goodbye when I returned to the States from Ethiopia.
AT HOME IN ADDIS ABABA FOR 2 ½ YEARS
I’d grown very close to Tesfagiorgis during the 2 ½ years he’d lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates while he studied and we taught at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa. By the time I headed back to the States for graduate school in June 1967, Tesfagiorgis had become, I realize looking back, very much my kid brother. A very serious, hard working student, Tesfagiorigis also had an easy going manner, a beautiful smile that we saw often, and an infectious sense of humor. He was the perfect companion for our long Sunday walks around Addis and into the Entoto hills overlooking the capital city. He was also blessed with that pride and sensitivity that characterize Ethiopians and make them such attractive friends.
My last few weeks in Ethiopia the summer of 1967 were so busy I didn’t really think much about the impact my leaving might have on Tesfagiorgis and the other Tafari Makonnen student living with us then, Tariku Belay. There were final examination papers to mark, graduate school arrangements to make, travel plans to finalize, packing to do – so much in so little time. Anyway, Tesfagiorgis and Tariku, soon to graduate from one of Ethiopia’s finest secondary schools, were seemingly on their way to a promising future. I needn’t worry, I thought; they were well launched. Finally, June 8 arrived, and I left for Bole Airport around 7 a.m. after hugging Tesfagiorgis and Tariku goodbye, carrying the letter the boys had handed me as I walked out the door of the house we’d shared for over two years. Not long after my Ethiopian Airlines flight took off, I opened the boys’ letter. I was moved to tears reading their parting words. I had to laugh, though, as I’m sure they knew I would – in light of my having taught English at Tafari Makonnen – when I read these words: “Whenever we are in a trouble, in the future, we will have a dream about something impossible. We will make conditional sentences such as: If Mr. Eadie were here, we would tell him this and he would do that . . . If Mr. Eadie were here we would go to the mountains . . .” By the way, it gave me great pleasure to email a copy of this letter, which I’d saved for 45 years, to Tesfagiorgis and Tariku shortly before returning to Ethiopia. They never imagined they’d see it again.
LOST AND MIRACULOUSLY FOUND
So the years passed quickly; life went on as it’s wont to do. Tesfagiorgis and I corresponded now and then as he completed his undergraduate work at what was then Haile Selassie I University and began his career in public administration at the Ethiopian government’s Central Personnel Agency. In the meantime, I completed my graduate work, launched a career in nonprofit management, and eventually married and started a family. Sometime in 1974, after Emperor Haile Selassie’s overthrow by the Derg, Tesfagiorgis and I fell out of touch. As I followed events in Ethiopia in the New York Times in the mid to late 1970s, I realized that attempting to contact Tesfagiorgis might actually put his life in danger. I stopped writing, and no more letters from Tesfagiorgis arrived. Thus did our physical separation become a complete break. By the time the new century arrived, I assumed Tesfagiorgis and Tariku had very likely died under the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. It was clear that thousands of young educated Ethiopians had been imprisoned, tortured and executed by 1991, when Mengistu was driven out of Ethiopia, and not one of the many Ethiopians I had met in the States over the years could tell me anything about Tesfagiorgis or Tariku.
Now it’s November 2008, not long before Thanksgiving, and I’m settling into my hotel room in Seattle, where I’ll be speaking at a conference the next day. Calling in for my voice mail, I’m bowled over by the first message, from a man whose voice I immediately know: “If you are the Douglas Eadie who taught at Tafari Makonnen School in the 1960s, I am your former student, Tariku Belay.” He left his number, which I called right away and left a message. We finally talked when I got back home to Tampa Bay, and it turned out he was teaching in a high school in Minneapolis. He’s been in prison under the Derg, had escaped and lived as a refugee in the Sudan before coming to the States. He couldn’t tell me anything about Tesfagiorgis. Staying in touch by phone and email, Tariku and I finally arrange to meet in Minneapolis in March 2011, the day before I am to speak at a conference. The afternoon before leaving for Minneapolis, Tariku calls with exciting news. He’s discovered that Tesfagiorgis is alive and well, retired and living with his wife in Addis Ababa. His daughter is studying in the States, in Boston. He gives me Tesfagiorgis’s telephone number, which I call right after we hang up. Tesfagiorgis is home and answers the phone. We are both soon in tears. “This is a miracle,” he says. I wholeheartedly agree.
RETURNING TO ETHIOPIA AFTER ALMOST 50 YEARS
I began to think seriously about returning to Ethiopia after my 45-year absence that fall at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps in Washington, where I reunited with a former Tafari Makonnen student, Abebe (now known as “Abe”) Abraham and with former Addis Ababa housemates Garber Davidson, David Karro, and Mike Altman. Meanwhile, Tesfagiorgis and I had been carrying on a robust email correspondence, and the more I learned about his life after my departure back in 1967, the more miraculous our discovering each other seemed. My wife, Barbara, and my kids, Jenny and Will, strongly encouraged me to make the return trip, pointing out that I wasn’t getting any younger and might some day terribly regret missing this wonderful opportunity. What sealed the deal was getting an email early in 2012 from an Ethiopian named Berhane Mogese, who was practicing law in Addis Ababa. “I do not think you remember me,” he wrote, but his face came immediately to mind. I’d met Berhane, then a high school student, my first week in Addis Ababa in September 1964, and although he hadn’t studied at Tafari Makonnen, we’d seen each other several times during my three-year stay in Addis. In fact, right after seeing his name on the email, I walked down the hall to our storage room and dug a folder of old photos out of my files; there was the photo that Berhane had sent me on July 7, 1967. His inscription on the back said, “We may see each other some time in life. I shall miss you.” OK, that was it. Could anyone be more strongly called to do something, I thought, and I started to map out my return trip.
Now let me tell you some of what I learned about Tesfagiogis’s experience under the Derg as we sat across from each other in my hotel room in Addis Ababa last May, filming the video clip, and I think you’ll agree that our reuniting is, indeed, a miracle.
TESFAGIORGIS’ DANGEROUS DOUBLE LIFE UNDER THE DERG
I don’t recall that Tesfagiorgis and I spent much time chatting about Ethiopian politics while he was living with me and my Peace Corps housemates, but his political awakening wasn’t long in coming after his graduation from Tafari Makonnen and enrollment in Haile Selassie I University. These were heady and hopeful times, as students throughout Ethiopia, sensing that the old feudal order that Emperor Haile Selassie represented was near death, saw a wonderful opportunity to play a leading role in creating a new, presumably more democratic, Ethiopia. Tesfagiorgis certainly jumped in with both feet, for example, participating in demonstrations against the Ian Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia and the government’s banning of the Ethiopian University Students Union and passing out leaflets protesting the murder of a student movement leader. Indeed, Tesfagiorgis was one of a small number of fourth year students at the University suspended for a full year because of their refusal to stop boycotting classes until imprisoned student leaders were released.
The “dark days” that Tesfagiorgis so fervently hopes to forget began not long after the group of military officers known as the Derg overthrew the tottering regime of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. As the revolt against the Emperor was gaining momentum, Tesfagiorgis received his bachelor’s degree from the University and began his public administration career at the government’s Central Personnel Agency. He continued to be politically active, joining one of the new political parties that emerged in these tumultuous times: the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which eventually became passionately and violently opposed to the Derg. He also assumed leadership roles in the new political structure established by the Derg, being elected chairman of one of the 283 local urban dwellers associations known as “kebeles,” and also of the political discussion forum that had been created in the Central Personnel Agency. When the Derg declared all-out war on EPRP, empowering kebeles to arrest, torture, and execute Ethiopians suspected of being EPRP supporters, Tesfagiorgis found himself leading an extremely stressful and highly dangerous double life that eventually resulted in his imprisonment and near-execution.
THE STORY OF GONDERIT’S ESCAPE AND EXECUTION
One of the dramatic stories Tesfagiorgis told me about his double life concerned a female kebele colleague, Gonderit Girmaye. One day an official of the security arm of the Ministry of the Interior walked into Tesfagiorgis’s office at the kebele and asked that Gonderit be summoned. When she appeared, she was informed she was needed for urgent work at the Ministry. Agreeing to accompany the officer to the Ministry, Gonderit excused herself to straighten up her desk and lock her drawers while Tesfagiorgis and the official had tea. When she didn’t return and couldn’t be found anywhere in the kebele office, the irate officer and Tesfagiorgis began to search the kebele compound. Here’s the rest of the story in Tesfagiorgis’s own words:
At the back of the building, there was a big metal structure supporting a water tank. At the foot of the metal structure I saw a pair of female shoes and I knew he saw them too. But the security officer immediately turned his face in the opposite direction and continued shouting “Where is she?” It was logical to suspect that she could have climbed the metal structure, which was very close to the stone fence of the compound, jumped over and escaped. I wondered if the security officer might himself be a member or a sympathizer of EPRP. I was shocked and confused.
Then all of us kebele workers got together in a room and talked about what had happened until around 6 that afternoon, but we didn’t get anywhere. The security officer warned us to conduct our own investigation into Gonderit’s disappearance and submit our findings to the Ministry of Interior security unit the next morning, along with our passport size pictures. My kebele colleagues and I continued to talk until about 3 a.m., wearing ourselves out and getting nowhere. Finally, we compiled our report and attached our pictures and submitted them to the security unit. We were told we’d be called later and that we’d suffer the consequences for Gonderit’s escape. Fortunately, this never happened. I later learned that Gonderit had broken her leg jumping over the fence and was forced to take refuge in a relative’s house not very far from the kebele. Arrangements were made for her escape, but, I’m sorry to say, Gonderit was caught, tortured and executed. She was a very nice and strong lady that I and all my kebele colleagues cannot forget.
WITNESSING A HORRIFYING TORTURE SESSION
Another story that Tesfagiorgis told as we shot the video clip in my hotel room had to do with an invitation to his kebele from a neighboring kebele to participate in the interrogation of some suspected EPRP supporters. Because Tesfagiorgis’s kebele was suspected of disloyalty, the invitation to participate couldn’t safely be refused, so he and his close friend and reliable kebele colleague, Gebrehiwot Asfaw, along with some other kebele colleagues went to the neighboring kebele late one evening. What Tesfagiorgis witnessed that evening left him shaken and fearful, knowing that he could all too easily become a victim himself. Watching two or three of the suspects being suspended between two tables and having the soles of their bare feet viciously beaten with sticks and cables was horrifying enough. But he couldn’t have imagined what would happen next. One young prisoner from Tesfagiorgis’s kebele was told to take off his jacket and shirt and lie down on a table, to which his hands and feet were tied. One of the guards then put gasoline-soaked papers on the young man’s bare chest and set them afire. Crying and begging for mercy, the young man soon lost consciousness, was untied and thrown on the floor. As Tesfagiorgis observed, “I started to seriously think about myself and knew something worse was hovering over my head.”
SURVIVING TWO YEARS IN PRISON
Things grew ever more dangerous and nerve wracking for Tesfagiorgis, who as chairman of his kebele was forced to participate in door to door searches for EPRP supporters. “Arrests and killings were widespread,” according to Tesfagiorgis, “and survival was a daily worry of the young and their parents and relatives. Seeing bodies of people killed and thrown in the streets became more and more common. In those days, smoking a lot, drinking a lot and sleeplessness were daily routines. If you asked the people why they were doing that they would jokingly tell you that they were not willing to give away their healthy lungs and livers to the Derg.” Tesfagiorgis’s exhausting and frightening double life came to an end when he was arrested early in 1978. After being interrogated and forced to make a videoed public confession on a stage at the Central Personnel Agency, Tesfagiorgis served two years in prison. One of his most horrifying memories from his two years in prison was when at 4 a.m. one day, 12 of his fellow inmates, including two newly made friends, were taken – hands tied – out of the cell and executed, their bodies thrown in the street and left there for a half day for the public to see. By the way, Tesfagiorgis later found out from a former official now imprisoned with him that “whenever he saw me I reminded him of a miracle, and the miracle was my survival. He told me that I survived that bloody night by one single vote in my favor. I could have been the 13th person to be executed. That made things fresh in my mind and made me sleepless again for some days. I never knew who voted for and against my life.”
A HAPPY ENDING
Tesfagiorgis’s dark days came to an end, as you know. He suffered terribly, but he is keenly aware how fortunate he was to have survived, when hundreds of thousands did not. He is grateful to have been able to return to the Central Personnel Agency (which became the Civil Service Commission), where he spent his whole career, and he feels blessed to be happily married and the father of two wonderful young people. In future blogs, I’ll tell more about Tesfagiorgis’ years in prison under the Derg and his post-prison life.
I’d loved teaching at Tafari Makonnen School, so it was a must stop during my visit to Addis Ababa last May. My Ethiopian friend Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu had graduated from Tafari Makonnen, known these days as the Entoto Technical and Vocational Training College, in 1967, so he was able to arrange for a guided tour of the campus on the second day of my visit. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’d taught English and ancient history from 1964 to 1967 at Tafari Makonnen, which in those days was widely regarded as Ethiopia’s premier secondary school. Named after Ras Tafari Makonnen – Haile Selassie before his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 – Tafari Madonnen School was, if I recall correctly, the first secondary institution re-opened after the Italian occupation during World War II. The Emperor, deeply concerned about his namesake, personally invited a group of French Canadian Jesuits to administer the re-opened institution, whose subsequent stellar academic performance proved the wisdom of his decision. When I arrived at Tafari Makonnen in September 1964 – a 22 year-old with a newly minted BA degree from the University of Illinois, a couple of months of teacher training and absolutely no teaching experience – I was, indeed, fortunate to be taken under the wings of the headmaster, Maurice Richer, and a number of superb mentors among the Jesuit fathers, most notably Marcel Gareau, a masterful history teacher who taught me how to bring the subject to life in the classroom.
EDUCATING FUTURE LEADERS OF ETHIOPIA
Teaching at Tafari Makonnen School was an immensely satisfying experience for a number of reasons. Not only was teaching a close fit with my skills and temperament, it was also a heady experience to be part of a tremendously important, high-stakes enterprise: educating the future leaders of Ethiopia. Tafari Makonnen was an elite public school with an extraordinary record of sending its graduates on to higher education in a country that so desperately needed university-trained citizens, and we TMS teachers were keenly aware that our students would lead their country into a new era after the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. Furthermore, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the students I taught at Tafari Makonnen School took education very, very seriously, as their preeminent path to a rewarding professional career and a life of economic security – neither within the reach of the great majority of Ethiopians – inspired us to even greater effort in the classroom. I don’t think any of us TMS faculty members in those days questioned the importance of our work to our students’ future lives and to Ethiopia’s future development.
SURFACE IMPRESSIONS OF TMS TODAY
Based on a mere hour-long guided tour of the Entoto campus over the lunch break, which didn’t include observing any classrooms in session, I’m not qualified to comment on what’s happening educationally at this latter-day incarnation of the Tafari Makonnen that I knew almost fifty years ago. The campus looked pretty familiar in terms of physical configuration – with most of the buildings from my days there still in use – but the pervasive aura of physical neglect saddened us as we walked around campus. Not surprising, we saw little evidence that money was being invested in physical maintenance. Probably the most dramatic surface change I noticed from my days at Tafari Makonnen in the 1960s, beyond the physical deterioration, was social: boys and girls holding hands and strolling arm in arm, something I never saw at on the Tafari Makonnen campus I knew. So cultural change marches on, at least in the capital city.
As Berhane Mogese, Tesfagiorgis, and I strolled around the campus of what had been Tafari Makonnen School, my mind was flooded with vivid memories of my teaching days there. I’ll share three of my trips back to the past with you.
A RADICAL EDUCATIONAL EXPERIMENT PAYS OFF
Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I enter the handsome stone-faced building that you see straight ahead as you drive down the road leading to the campus, just past the flag pole where students in my day assembled for the ceremonial raising of the Ethiopian flag every morning before filing into their classrooms. When I was teaching at TMS, this building housed the headmaster’s office and, I think, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classrooms of what was then known as the school’s Academic Section. We’re standing by the newly re-installed bust of Ras Tafari Makonnen at the foot of the stairs leading to what was in my day the teachers’ second floor common room, where we faculty members prepared lessons and marked papers between classes. Standing there with my friends at the bottom of the stairs, I’m suddenly transported back almost fifty years. In my mind’s eye, it’s late morning in October or November 1966, and I’m sitting at my desk near the door to the common room, correcting student copybooks, when I hear “Psst: Mr. Eadie.” Wondering what’s going on, I get up, go to the door, and find my whole 11th grade girls’ Commercial Section English class lined up single file on the stairs. Standing at the head, the class prefect, Konjit, I think her name was, says: “We’ve had a meeting, Mr. Eadie, and we decided to come and ask you to return to class. We promise to work very hard from this point on.” Thus ended on a positive note an audacious educational experiment that might have caused me real problems with the TMS administration, had they been aware of it, and, in the States, would probably have cost me my teaching position. Looking back, I’m amazed at the temerity (ignorance?) of my 24 year-old self.
So what’d led my 11th graders to march almost a quarter-mile across campus from what was then the Commercial Building to find me in the teachers’ room? Well, earlier that morning in that 11th grade girls’ English class my growing frustration with the girls’ lackadaisical work came to a head when, once again, the majority weren’t prepared for class. I was convinced they were a bright group of students who could perform academically as well as the boys in the Academic Section if they only believed in themselves and really tried, but they clearly didn’t think so. With absolutely no forethought, much less planning, I announced to the girls, who sat there mouths agape, stunned: “That’s it. I work too hard to put up with this laziness, ladies. I know you can do good work, if you only cared, but you don’t, and so I don’t anymore. I’m leaving class now, and I’m not sure when I’ll return, if I ever do. Konjit, please make sure the class is quiet for the rest of the period. Goodbye!” Then I walked out and headed across campus to the teachers’ room. Now, after the girls have made the effort to come find me and invite me back to class, what can I do but agree to return? So I walk down the stairs and back to class with my 11th graders that morning, and I’m pleased to report that they became an exemplary English class, eager to learn and always prepared for class for the rest of the year. How’s that for meticulously planned educational reform? Who knows? Maybe my lack of good common sense at 24 was in some ways an asset.
After returning to the states, I’d think every now and then about my radical educational experiment at Tafari Makonnen School, and I’d wonder about its long-term impact. Then one day in the early 1990s, my answering service called to say that they had a message from the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, asking me to call. Curious, I immediately punched in the number that’d been left, which connected me to the office of the Minister of Education. When I announced who I was, I was immediately put through to the Minister, who turned out to be one of my former students from that 11th grade girls’ English class, Genet Zewde. I’m obviously not reporting the results of a scientific survey, but I was gratified to hear from Genet, who is now Ethiopia’s ambassador to India, that she’d recently spoken at a women’s conference, where she told the story of a young Peace Corps teacher who by walking out of class one day taught her a powerful lesson about the importance of setting high expectations and meeting them.
MAKING AMENDS TO MY 10TH ENGLISH GRADE CLASS
A few minutes later, Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I have moved through the foyer of the same building to the classrooms circling a courtyard. We’re standing at the door of a classroom that belonged during my TMS teaching days to my 10-C boys’ English class in the Academic Section; again I’m transported back almost a half-century. As a 22-year-old,
one of my many flaws was, and I must confess continues to be, a tendency to exercise my caustic sense of humor without thinking about the consequences. I can see my 10-C students sitting there almost a half-century ago, as I return corrected copybooks. I see myself make a sarcastic comment about the class’ performance; I don’t remember exactly what I said. Anyway, I can tell that I’d offended many in the class, but I don’t give the matter another thought before returning to class the next day. I’d dumbly discounted one of the traits I most admired about my Ethiopian students: their tremendous pride and sense of dignity. I see myself walking into 10-C the next morning, and no one stands. They just sit there, glowering at me. Now, you should know that students at Tafari Makonnen, and probably at all schools around the Empire, in those days stood when the teacher entered class and also when reciting or answering questions. So there I am facing my 10-C boys. Their not standing is an unambiguous insult, and as I stand there, my heart’s thumping and I can feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. A minute or so passes as we face each other. Then the class prefect stands and announces: “Mr. Eadie, you insulted us in class yesterday, and we want an apology.” Thank heaven, I’m able to swallow my pride and apologize. The class then stands, I invite them to sit, and we get back to work on that notoriously hard-to-explain
subjunctive tense. I’d learned an invaluable lesson from the class, one that I took to heart: No matter how diligently you prepare or how well you acquit yourself in the classroom, you never earn the right to treat your students with less than full respect. Believe me, for the rest of my days at Tafari Makonnen, my tongue was under better control, and I have the dignity and pride of my 10-C English class to thank for that important lesson. By the way, the boys in 10-C were unfailingly polite for the rest of our year together.
BRINGING SEX ED TO ANCIENT HISTORY
And as we stroll by the row of what had been 9th grade classrooms behind the administration building, I suddenly find myself smiling as I recall an incident in one of my 9th grade ancient history classes. I walk through the door, business-like and solemn as usual, that morning, and, inviting the class to be seated, I turn to open the two hinged blackboard sections that had been folded over the center section, so I can outline today’s lecture – if I recall correctly, about the Code of Hammurabi. I notice several students smiling as I turn, but don’t think much about it since they’re usually in a good mood after my Peace Corps housemate Randy Sword’s biology class. In addition to being an excellent teacher, Randy, now a very successful physician in the Los Angeles metro area, was also a fun-loving guy who managed to entertain while getting his points across. So, opening the blackboard, I’m struck speechless as I confront Randy’s large, vividly colored drawings from the sex ed class he’d taught immediately before mine. I stand there dumbfounded while the 9th grade boys are convulsed with laughter. But I soon join in the laughter before getting to the considerably drier world of ancient Babylonia. I did and do subscribe to the notion that all work and no play…….
WHAT DIFFERENCE DID OUR TEACHING MAKE?
On a more somber note, over the decades that have passed since my Peace Corps teaching days at Tafari Makonnen School almost a half-century ago, I’ve pondered a very complex question that has no easy answer: What difference did my and my Peace Corps teaching colleagues’ efforts in the classroom ultimately make in terms of the long-run economic and political development of Ethiopia? Over the years, it’s been gratifying to hear from former students who believe that in some modest way my teaching has helped them build successful careers in medicine, law, education, social services, etc., but to be honest, the great majority of success stories I’ve heard about have to do with Ethiopians living in the United States. That’s not at all surprising when you consider that the dark period under the Derg and Mengistu Haile Mariam – when even being a high school or university graduate made you a prime target for imprisonment, torture, and execution – lasted for 17 years, until 1991. However, there are former students like Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, Berhane Mogese, Tesfamichael Tekle, and Genet Zewde who have managed to build productive careers and satisfying personal lives while remaining in Ethiopia, despite the challenging, often dangerous times they’ve lived through.
But these are individual success stories that tell little about the long-term impact of our work in the classroom so long ago. I’ll address this question in a future blog as part of my Addis Ababa Homecoming series.