I’m pleased to share these two videos of the keynote address I delivered at the third General Assembly of the Tafari Makonnen Alumni Association of North America on May 29: “Remembering Tafari Makonnen.” I was truly honored to be invited to speak by Bisrat Aklilu and his TMSAANA Board colleagues, but, to be honest, I was very reluctant to accept the invitation, in light of the many distinguished Ethiopian graduates of Tafari Makonnen School more worthy of the honor than I.
However, I am certainly glad that I did accept the invitation to reflect on my experience as a TMS teacher from 1964 to 1967. Not only did the keynote afford me the pleasure of reuniting with several former students and meeting other members of the extended TMS family that I’m proud to be part of, I found preparing my comments to be a path to rediscovering my love for TMS and for the students whose lives had become entwined with mine during my three years at what was then Ethiopia’s premier secondary institution. I didn’t anticipate the emotion I’d feel as I worked on my keynote, searching for the right words to describe my experience as a twenty-something thousands of miles from home a half-century ago, and I certainly didn’t expect the intense joy that frequently engulfed me as I rehearsed the words I’d speak on May 29.
Allow me to tell a story I forgot to share at the General Assembly. In the summer of 1966, after my first two years at TMS, I returned to the States to spend a few weeks with my parents, who were then living in Pocatello, Idaho, where Dad, who’d sold his business in Illinois, was a university freshman. It was great to be with my parents and three of my siblings again, and to hear about Dad’s exciting educational journey, but as my visit drew to a close, I woke up one night thinking, “I’m really ready to get back home to Addis.” And as my plane landed in Addis a few days later, it did, indeed, feel like arriving back home.
How wonderful to have the opportunity – in spirit at least – to travel back home with you on May 29! I deeply appreciate your making me feel so much a part of the TMS family at the General Assembly, and I hope these video recordings of my keynote address will enrich your memory of our day together. By the way, I’m sorry about the two brief interruptions in the first video – resulting from a faulty camera battery – but the record of my comments is 99 percent complete.
Please do share your thoughts by commenting on this post.
I’m pleased to share this fascinating podcast featuring distinguished Tafari Makonnen alumnus Petros Aklilu, who discusses his experience at TMS and in the States as an American Field Service student, reflects on TMS’s tremendous contribution to Ethiopia and to the many students it shaped and nurtured, and on Emperor Haile Selassie I’s legacy – especially in the field of education.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1948, Petros joined TMS in the fourth grade, after three years at Patriot School. Selected for the American Field Service Program in 1965, Petros spent the 1965-66 school year in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he graduated from high school. Having spent a year at Haile Selassie I University, Petros joined his brother Tesfaye at Oklahoma State University, where he was awarded the BS degree in economics, and went on to earn his MS degree in agricultural economics from the University of Massachusetts. After spending two years as an economist at the Awash Valley Authority and completing his Ph.D. course requirements at Cambridge University, Petros began his illustrious 31-year career at the World Bank, retiring in 2007.
“Retirement” isn’t an accurate description of Petros’ post-World Bank life. He founded a nonprofit, “Community Development and Oral History,” dedicated to helping rural communities realize their dreams and have access to primary education and clean drinking water. And Petros was instrumental in creating the Tafari Makonnen Alumni Association of North America, serving a three-year term as its first President.
As you’ll learn from the podcast, Petros – like so many other TMS graduates – feels tremendous respect and affection for TMS, which not only shaped him intellectually, superbly preparing him for his postsecondary education and highly successful career at the World Bank, but also profoundly influenced his character. Indeed, as Petros describes his TMS experience in this podcast, Tafari Makonnen School offered its students a “well-rounded” education in the highest sense of that term.
Like many other TMS alumni I’ve talked with over the years, Petros gives full credit to Emperor Haile Selassie I for fostering education in Ethiopia in the face of significant resistance, but regrets the absence of serious reform in other areas that might have averted the reign of terror following His Imperial Majesty’s overthrow. The photograph above, showing Petros with the Emperor, was taken in 1967 during HIM’s visit to Haile Selassie I University, where Petros was a first year student. As I mentioned to Petros in a recent email thanking him for sharing this wonderful photograph, when I see photographs of HIM, I often feel a jolt of emotion – I think because as a 22 year-old American teacher at TMS, the Emperor symbolized – to me – the spirit of the ancient kingdom. He was, to me, a distinguished and romantic figure, whatever his flaws. And, of course, can you imagine anyone looking more regal than HIM? For a man of small physical stature, he certainly loomed large!
On my visit to Ethiopia in 2012, I saw the bust of Ras Tafari Makonnen that Petros talks about in his podcast, which has been rightfully restored to its central location in the foyer of the former TMS Administration Building. I thought you’d like to see it.
I deeply appreciate the time Petros dedicated to recording these reminiscences despite the hectic life he leads in what is erroneously called “retirement.” His contribution makes Entwinedlives.com an even richer resource for readers interested in Ethiopia and in the proud history of the distinguished educational institution that was so close to His Imperial Majesty’s heart. Enjoy Petros’ podcast, and please do share your comments!
I am pleased and honored to share with you this memoir and recorded reminiscences of another highly distinguished TMS alumnus, Dr. Moges Gebremariam, M.D., who graduated from Tafari Makonnen School in 1965 and received his M.D. from Haile Selassie University in 1972. He maintains a private practice in internal medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He was kind enough to contribute the following memoir to Entwinedlives.com, and also to record a podcast that reflects on his TMS experience, life in the United States, and Emperor Haile Selassie’s leadership. I am indebted to Dr. Moges’ son, Eyasu Moges, who spent several hours assembling and transmitting the photographs that enrich both the following memoir and the podcast
MOGES GEBREMARIAM, M.D.
My father used to tease me by saying that I enrolled in TMS because of a natural disaster. The disaster was my voice. It sounded so bad to him it shattered his lifelong dream of proudly presenting me to Yeneta Afework, his old teacher, and to Head Priest Melake Hayl Tedla of Intoto Raguel. I still remember those painful contortions of disgust and disappointment that used to form on my father’s face every time he made me practice the songs of the Holy Mass. After two years of rigorous and often desperate coaching, he gave up on me and realized the inevitable. His first born son was not blessed to serve the Lord as a deacon. It just was not meant to be. So he took me to TMS to try my luck with the “Ferenji” education. Fortunately, all of the drilling and discipline I endured during my father’s coaching helped to make me a good student at TMS. I always stood first, second, or third in my class. I was also blessed with inspiring and nurturing teachers like Ato Abebe Techan, Abba Meaza and “Ato Aseffa the scientist”, who always captivated me and opened new worlds of imagination in my little mind.
I used to look up to the senior students and always wondered if I would ever grow up to be like them. They were giants in my mind, whose alleged talents and exploits were exaggerated beyond belief. …….. Ferocious fighterslike Mebrahtu, Cheffikey and Tigabu; great runners like Makonnan Dori and Seyid Moussa; boxers like Girma Drsom, Debebe Eshetu, and Haile-Michael Demisse; and sports heroes like Itana, Iyasou, Tezerra and Tesfaye Gelagai.
High school was full of happy days. The teachers were not like those grade school teachers such as Seife and Akalou, who surely would have been jailed for child abuse had they been teaching in this century. There was no more corporal punishment by Ato Sebhat and Ato Fresenbet, not to mention Ato Birru, whose full-time job was to administer beatings and lashes to unfortunate students day in and day out in Mr. Gagnon’s office. Some afternoons as he walked back to his home, he used to complain to us of his tired arms from too much work! Yes, from dishing out too many lashes for too many bad students!
I was immersed in the Boy Scouts at TMS. I prided myself on earning and collecting merit badges. I enjoyed the campfires, hikes, trips to nearby places like Tinsis, Washa-Mickael, and Akaki’s AZ pool (named for Alemayehu Zegeye), Mennagesha, as well as far away places like Awassa, Langano, Chercher and Harar. Our scout master Father Beaudry’s devotion to us was unparalleled. Every opportunity he got, in groups large and small, or individually, he never tired of counseling us. He convinced me to become a doctor. “Healing the sick, caring for the poor is a noble profession pioneered by St. Luke and Christ himself,” he used to repeat to me. I, therefore, abandoned my favorite subject, geography, and Father Turenne, my geography teacher, to join the Faculty of Science at Haile Selassie University.
In 1965 the Arat Kilo campus was almost like a foreign land to me. The faculty, the students and the whole political atmosphere felt strange and hostile. By the next year even some of my own alumni from TMS shocked me by their new-found iconoclastic views: contempt and condemnation for everything we had held dear in our hearts – for Ethiopia, America, the Emperor, God, our Church, our history and our culture, etc. Street demonstrations, agitation, condemnations and class boycotts became common events.
By the time I graduated and went to Bahr Dar as a junior doctor, the political mood of the country had changed so much that revolution was imminent. For two years, Bahr Dar became my little heaven. I had everything I needed: a lakeside bungalow, a second-hand Volkswagen and a small rubber boat to take me to my own private island in Lake Tana – a small uninhabited island near Kibran Gabriel, where I spent weekends alone or with a few select buddies.
At the airport in June 1974, as I boarded a plane to the USA for four years of training so I could return home to become a famous specialist, I remember thinking about a book called “Montezuma’s Daughter” by Rider Haggard. In the book, the narrator, leaving England for the Americas to avenge his mother’s murder, bids farewell to a villager by saying, “So long.” Upon returning home after twenty long years of unexpected adventure, when he met the same villager, he remembered that and observed, “I never thought how long ‘so long’ was.” In my case “so long” lasted thirty-one long years before I returned to Ethiopia in 2005.
Ethiopia exploded in 1974, three months after I left. The Emperor was deposed. So many high officials were executed! So many students, so many innocent citizens were massacred! So many perished for nothing ! The Red Terror was in full swing. In 1978 when my own mother pleaded with me not to return home I knew things were really bad in Ethiopia. It also put me in a dilemma. I had to adjust my status here in America. The thought of applying for immigrant status felt so shameful and degrading for a proud Ethiopian like me that it almost paralyzed me with fear. But one day, after my friend, Dr. Ahmad Moen, assured me that to apply for a “Green Card” was neither an act of treason nor a stigma, I did it, and became an immigrant! Only a year later started the flood of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to every corner of the earth; all of them including my own brothers and sisters, vying and dying to get the lifesaver called ‘the Green Card’. How foolish I must have been only a year earlier!
Years came and years went by so fast: residency, fellowship, moonlighting, private practice, CME, children, marriage, mortgages and meetings – meeting after meeting. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years flew by fast. After every long day of hard work when my body hit the bed, I would always find myself still half a day behind: things to do, bills to pay, projects to finish, deadlines to meet, promises to keep, and, yes, as Robert Frost said, “still miles to go, and miles to go before I sleep.” Multiply that one day by forty years and it gives you the whole story of my life in the United States.
Time has flown by so fast that now they tell me I am a senior citizen! Me a senior citizen? Me a grandfather? I can’t believe it. No way, I still cling to my youth, my TMS, and my Ethiopia. I have been fortunate in my life to have a wonderful wife, Abebayehu, three loving children, Eyasu, Lydia, and Joseph, and a granddaughter, Eden. I have been blessed by so many dedicated friends and family members, who make life worth living, as well as many saintly Americans who went above and beyond to make me feel welcome and become successful. Yes, I am the beneficiary of so much kindness from so many people who themselves have so little. This world is full of good people. I will always be indebted to America, my people, my school and my country.
Our duty to God and country is to make this world just a little better place for those who are less fortunate than us. I hope TMSAANA will continue to provide us the vehicle. I want to commend TMSAANA and encourage the Board to keep up the good work.
It is both a pleasure and distinct honor to present this memoir by distinguished Tafari Makonnen School alumnus Dr. Aklilu Habte, who recorded it expressly for Entwined Lives. When another distinguished TMS graduate, Bisrat Aklilu, suggested several weeks ago that I contact Dr. Aklilu, whom I hadn’t met, about recording his reflections and reminiscences, I was, frankly, skeptical that he would be willing to spend the time. I was aware that he was in the midst of an ambitious writing project – a history of the development of higher education in Ethiopia – and couldn’t imagine he would welcome the distraction. But, thank heaven, Bisrat was insistent, so I telephoned Dr. Aklilu, who, to my delighted surprise, readily agreed to do the recording. Before providing you with an overview of Dr. Aklilu’s illustrious career, I want to thank his son, Ameha Aklilu, who took time from his tremendously demanding schedule as a senior IBM executive to assemble a treasure trove of photographs that you’ll see as you listen to the podcast.
Dr. Aklilu received his baccalaureate degree with distinction from the University College of Addis Ababa (later Haile Selassie I University) in 1954, the Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Manitoba (Canada) in 1955, and the Master of Education and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio State University in 1956 and 1958, respectively. From 1958 to 1969, Dr. Aklilu served as Head of the Education Department, Dean of the Faculties of Arts and Education, and Associate Academic Vice President of Haile Selassie I University, and he was the University’s President from 1969 to 1974. From 1974 to 1977, Dr. Aklilu served as Minister of Culture, Sports, and Youth Affairs in the Government of Ethiopia.
Dr. Aklilu’s long and illustrious career has also included serving as Director of the Education and Training Department at the World Bank and Chief of the Education Division and Special Advisor to the Executive Director of UNICEF.
You might recall that in one of my early posts at entwinedlives.com, I wrote that when I got an email from Berhane Mogese not long after learning in March 2011 that the long-lost Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu was alive and well and living in Addis Ababa, I knew for sure that I had to return to Ethiopia for the first time in almost 50 years. I’d met Berhane my first week in Addis Ababa in September 1964 – at the Peace Corps office, where he was working over the summer, if I recall correctly. He wasn’t a student of mine at Tafari Makonnen School, but he dropped by my home several times on visits to Addis. A charming, extremely bright, well-spoken young man, Berhane, who was always good company and a welcome guest, clearly had a bright future ahead.
After returning from the United States, where Berhane had spent a year in Ohio as an American Field Service student, living with an American family and attending high school, Berhane earned his law degree at Haile Selassie University and began a highly successful legal career, including service as Presiding Judge of the High Court of Ethiopia. As the years passed, and Haile Selassie’s overthrow was followed by the Red Terror under the dictatorship of the Derg’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, I lost track of Berhane, assuming he – along with hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians – had most likely perished. So reading his email in March 2011 was a joyful experience.
Berhane was a wonderful host on my return visit to Ethiopia in May 2012, driving me and Tesfagiorgis all over Addis Ababa in his car and hosting us in his home. You would have to experience the traffic in Addis yourself to appreciate how indebted I am to Berhane! He kindly agreed to spend an hour in my room at the Jupiter International Hotel in Addis, recording this video, in which he talks about confronting American culture as an American Field Service student in Ohio.
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.