1966 The Year of Tragic PCV Deaths (Ethiopia)

Eyelids Of Morning

In that Peace Corps year of 1966 there was another tragic death of a Volunteer in East Africa, this time in Ethiopia. I was a bystander to this tragedy, having been a PCV in the Empire, I was back in-country as an APCD. In many ways, this death of the PCV, Bill Olson, keeps coming back to me and is just as riveting and sad today as it was when we were all a lot younger and our lives were yet to be lived and anyone’s passing was far away on a distant horizon.

The tragic death of Bill Olson killed by a crocodile in the Baro River in Gambella, Ethiopia is told in Alistair Graham and Peter Beard’s book, Eyelids of Morning, published in 1972 by New York Graphic Society. This is a book that documents the crocodile’s profound influence on the people of Africa as reflected in their myths, symbols, and everyday lives–and the devastating impact that host country nationals, as well as hunters, explorers, and travelers to Africa experienced.

Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962-64) met Bill at Cornell. Wayne had returned home from Addis Ababa where he was a PCV teacher and was a graduate student at Cornell. Bill was an undergraduate who had been selected for what would be known at Ethiopia VI. After his death, Wayne wrote about Bill for our Ethiopia & Eritrea Newsletter. Bill had sought out Wayne, and other RPCVs at the university, when he got his Peace Corps invitation. “I found Bill to be a gregarious, enthusiastic person,” Wayne wrote. “A nice guy. Unassuming. Non-threatening. Searching. A degree at hand, but what purpose? This last feeling I’m sure many of us shared as we wondered about volunteering for the Peace Corps in our own time. He was from the Finger Lakes region of upper New York state near Ithaca. He had a mother and father, salt of the earth kind of people who lived middle-class unassuming lives in a nice ranch house in the woods.”

Bill would write Wayne a series of letters during Training at UCLA and over the course of his first months in Africa. Bill was assigned with another male PCV to a small village of Udi Ugri, Eritrea, population 15,000 at the time, and 52 kilometers south of Asmara. He would write Wayne early in his tour, “I am well settled now and am an old experienced teacher. I have 160 10th grade science students and 50 books only with no lab. It is tough sometimes. So far I have enjoyed myself immensely.”

Bill spent his weekends and school breaks traveling. Shortly before the Spring Break and his trip to Jimma and Gambella and the Baro River in the west of Ethiopia. He would write, “Out of the 11 of the towns I have been in, I still think Adi Ugri is the most pleasant place I have been. I am still reading like a fiend. I have read 27 novels, and have studied some history and science. I am not teaching physics to my students, something I know absolutely nothing about. Since we have no books I am busy typing up sheets and running them off for the students. I practically have to write my own books.”

Wayne sums up his article about Bill Olson, writing:

Searching, seeking, happy. So many dreams. Wonderful adventure planned for the future. The Easter vacation got him to Jimma and Gambella. In Ithaca, at Cornell, we heard the news on the radio of Bill’s tragic death and later read of it in Time magazine.

Wayne would be asked by Bill’s parents to be a pallbearer at his funeral. “It was a blustery spring day in 1966. His grave is in a wonderful old cemetery on the hills overlooking Cayuga Lake. Later Bill would learn in December 1966 that Bill’s houseboy was in the States and that Bill’s parents had plans to have him visit them. Wayne sums up. “The rest is history.”

One of the PCVs in Gambella that Easter week in 1966 with Bill Olson was the awarding winning short story writer Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-66). She would write her parents about what had happened, after learning that PC/HQ had contacted them. In her letter to her mother, she describes what took place in the Baro River.

April 24, 1966
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Dear Mother:

I was very surprised to learn that the PC called you about the accident. I had no idea they would do that —I don’t think it was necessary because, as far as I know, none of our names have been released officially, and there was no danger of your knowing I was on the trip through the press.

In my last letter, I didn’t give you many details because I didn’t want to unduly alarm you, but it seems the PC has already done that so I’ll tell you just how it happened. But, before I do, and I don’t want to preach, I just want to say don’t worry about me. Also, I, too, keep thinking about Bill’s parents. I know this must be unbearable for them, but he loved the Peace Corps and he was doing something he felt was good and worthwhile. His death was tragic but he didn’t die without accomplishing something.

It bothered me that you said life wouldn’t be worth living if something happened to me. Nothing is going to happen to me, but, of course, you can’t always be sure, but I could also be run over by a car in Atlanta, Georgia. Here I am happy. I feel I am doing some good, and even if anything did happen to me at least I’ve done something for somebody before I die. I’m not being morbid, just realistic. So don’t worry about me and I won’t worry about you. I would hate to think that I am making your nervous for two years.

As I told you before, B and I took the bus from Addis to Jimma on the Monday after Easter. On Wednesday we caught the plane from Jimma to Gambella. Ralph B, whom we know quite well, his roommate Jim B, Lyle C, a boy stationed in Debre Sina and Bill Olson were already on the plane. They had boarded in Jimma. The first three boys had come together, Bill was traveling alone. I had met Bill at Christmas, but I didn’t know him well. We were the only PCV’s on the plane, and we naturally became a group of six. B and I were glad to have somebody to go with.

At the airstrip in Gambella, we met 9 other PCV’s who were leaving Gambella on our plane. They told us it was a great place, etc., etc. Also at the airstrip, we met a Dutch Catholic priest, Father Jack. His mission is near Dembidolla, a six-hour walk away and he was staying in Gambella for a vacation. He told us that some of us could stay at the house he was staying in and the rest could stay at the hotel (which had only 6 beds, 4 of which were already occupied).

We walked into town, which was about a kilometer away. We met Jane W, a PCV from Gore, in town. It was terribly hot and she said she had just been in the river and it felt great. We left our stuff at Father Jack’s and went to the hotel. We had a cold beer (the only available beverage) and B and I had brought food so the six of us had a picnic lunch. Then we decided to go swimming immediately. B and I had brought shorts, so we went to change. The boys went to the market to buy shorts, they changed, and we all went swimming in the Baro River.

The water was cool and nice. The river was pretty wide but so shallow that you could walk almost all the way across. We waded out to a huge rock about two-thirds of the way across. We could stand up, the water was about chest high, but the current was very swift, and we had trouble keeping our balance. We splashed around, floated on our backs to another rock about 200 yards downstream.

The current was so swift that it required no effort and we could touch bottom whenever we felt like it. The bottom was very rocky, no mud, but the water was not clear and you could only see about six inches down. B and I got tired and we waded out and sat on the shore for a while.

We watched the boys swim and splash each other in the water. About twenty yards past the rock where we had been was a long sandbar and Jim swam over there and walked around on it. The sandbar was about another twenty yards from the far shore. After a while, Ralph, Jim, and Bill floated down to the other rock.

I was ready to go back in so I swam out to the first rock and sat and talked with Lyle for a while. Lyle and I decided to join the other three on the other rock but just then they all left the water and went to where B was sitting on the shore. Then Jim, and two minutes later, Bill, swam out to the rock Lyle and I were sitting on. The four of us talked about swimming across to the sandbar and then floating down to the second rock. We decided to do it and we planned to go one by one.

In order to get to the sandbar, you had to get in the water, swim as hard as you could towards it and the current would bring you down to the end of it where you stood up and walked up on the bar. Bill went first.

He got in the water, we watched him swim for the sandbar, the current carried him to the end as we had expected, he stood up, and then he disappeared. We saw the tip of the nose of the crocodile, it looked like Bill said something, and then he was gone. There was no struggle; he never knew what hit him.

The three of us stood on the rock, stunned; it took us about ten seconds before we realized that something had happened to him, that it was a crocodile, and that there was nothing we could do.

We shouted to Ralph and Barbara who were wading near the shore to get a boat and we explained what had happened. There were a lot of local people around and after 10 or 12 agonizing minutes Ralph finally got two canoes sent out. About 5 minutes after it happened we saw an arm above the water. It stayed there for maybe 30 seconds and then disappeared. That was the last we saw of Bill.

The local people looked for the crocodile until it got dark (it happened about 3:45 in the afternoon). We went to telecommunications to call Addis but they were closed. We went to the police radio and they were able to get a message to Gore, but Gore couldn’t transmit it to Addis until the next morning. Back at the river, the crocodile was sighted a couple of times and the natives shot at it, but I don’t think they hit it. We stayed at the river until it was too dark to see, had some injera and wat, and went to bed.

The next morning we went back to telecommunications and set a wire to the PC office in Addis. We went down to the river and they killed the crocodile about 9:00. In order to get to the place where the crocodile finally ended up we had to wade through waist-deep water for about twenty feet in two different places. Of course, we were fully dressed, but boys had on jeans and they were pretty uncomfortable. The crocodile was big and ugly, about four meters the natives said, which is about 13 feet long. Barbara and I looked at it and left, she went back to the house and I went to telecommunications to wait for an answer to our cable. The rest is pretty gruesome. 

The crocodile had eaten the body, the natives were afraid to cut it open, so Ralph took a knife from one of them, cut the body of the crocodile open and put the remains of the body in a box. There wasn’t much left. B and I didn’t know all of this until the five of us had to tell the story to the Peace Corps back in Addis.

About 12 o’clock the boys appeared at telecommunications. We had still had no answer to our first wire; we didn’t know if anyone had received it, so Ralph sent another one to PC saying we had recovered the body and a third one to the American Embassy in case the PC wasn’t getting our cables. The whole thing was pretty grim — we didn’t know if anybody was getting our wires and we just didn’t know what to do. The natives made us tea, brought us water, gave us bananas and mangoes, and we still had some tuna left so we bought bread and had lunch. We sat around until three o’clock — there was nothing else to do — until someone told us there was a plane at the airstrip.

Planes only come into Gambella on Wednesday and Saturday so we figured it must be the Peace Corps Cessna. We hopped in a Landrover and went out to the strip. There was a plane there. It was an EAL [Ethiopian Airlines] plane from Dembidolla that the Peace Corps had rerouted to Gambella to pick us up. We raced back to town, got our things, and boarded the plane with the box containing the body.

The plane was a C-47, unpressurized and unbearably hot. Even my skirt was sopping wet from the heat. But it cooled off after we were in the air for a while. The trip back to Addis was long and rough. We got there about 6:00. There were several staff members waiting for us at the airport, and we were all rushed to the PC office where we had to go through the whole story from the time we landed in Gambella to the time we left Gambella. The whole thing was like a dream, we were all pretty dazed, I guess, and having to tell the story at the PC office was like relating a dream. Jane C offered B and me dinner, but we just wanted to go home. Someone brought us home. Jane came over later, and we talked for a while. Later on Mrs. Narin, the assistant director’s wife called to make sure we were all right. We were. The PC had also sent a Cessna with two staff members to Gambella and on Sat. morning those two staff members came over and asked B and me lots of questions again. Saturday afternoon there was a very nice memorial service for Bill at the Lutheran church. All in all, it was a pretty terrible experience, but B and I came out of it all right. Ralph made us come over to his house Friday for lunch, B stayed there for supper, and Denny took me out to one of the more luxurious restaurants. Vernon was waiting at our house when I got back from Ralph’s on Friday — he had been there all afternoon — he came as soon as he heard. He and three other boys picked us up Saturday for the service and took us out to dinner afterward. Sunday, Denny had B, Ralph and I over for cards in the afternoon and dinner at night. So we were well taken care of, we didn’t have to eat alone or be alone and it was all right.

I think I told you we wrote to Bill’s parents. We heard later that they requested that all of his clothes and books be given away to students. If you tell anybody about it, it isn’t necessary to tell all the horrible details. A tragic thing happened, and a boy was killed. People tend to sensationalize something like that and talk about the crocodile instead of Bill. The Ethiopian Herald’s headlines were “Peace Corps Volunteer Eaten by Crocodile”— true, but the very poor taste and completely unnecessary. I thought Time’s thing was good.

Well, there’s not much else I can say. I hope the PC man didn’t scare you too much. Don’t tell Kay and Dad — I don’t think they’ll ever hear about it. It was a horrible thing, but it was just an accident like any accident anywhere else, and Africa is not to be blamed for it. This experience certainly has made me more cautious. There were local people there bathing and washing clothes in the river and we assumed that it was safe. We found out later that the crocodile had gotten a woman washing clothes two weeks earlier. It’s not wise to make assumptions anywhere about anything that you are not informed on. I am sadder but wiser and I will be careful. Don’t worry.

Love,

Kathy

This article was written by Steve Buff (Ethiopia 1965-66) following the publication in PeaceCorpsWriters.org, November 2000 of “A Letter from Ethiopia” by Kathleen Coskran. Years later, Steve would be a Management Analyst in the Office of Inspector General at the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C.

During our spring vacation from school in 1966, close to our scheduled departure from Ethiopia, my wife-to-be, Evelyn Ashkenaze, and I flew to Gambella to see a very different Ethiopia from the one we knew in Shoa province. This was not the Ethiopia of cool highlands and white flowing traditional dress, but Nilotic Africa, in the blazing southwestern lowlands near the Sudanese border. The people were semi-nomadic, extremely tall and blue-black; the villagers barely clothed in the heat and the women adorned with elaborate wide, high necklaces. This was much closer to our childhood National Geographic images of Africa than any place we’d seen before in Ethiopia.

Within minutes of arriving in Gambella, we met an interesting young man named George Christodoulos, a friendly Greek-Ethiopian, also visiting from Addis Ababa, who had traveled there by Jeep. With an assortment of relatives and friends, he was visiting a cousin. We quickly became friends and he invited us to stay with all of them across the Baro River. The town was small, the muddy river no more than 50 yards across. We spent a few days trekking around the area, seeing the sights and meeting the local people, known to us then as the Anuak and Nuer.

One afternoon, as George and I were enjoying ourselves paddling around the river in a dugout canoe, we became aware of a group of folks swimming in the river. They had arrived in Gambella that day and I assumed that they were Peace Corps Volunteers. (I remember being displeased that there was such a large contingent of them because we would no longer have this remote, wondrous place virtually to ourselves.) We then heard alarmed shouts coming from the group and immediately paddled toward the PCVs, who were across the river and downstream from us. They yelled that one of their companions, whom we later learned was William Olson, had just disappeared while swimming off a sandbar in the middle of the river. It soon appeared likely that he had been pulled down by a crocodile. He never resurfaced.

Villagers gathered at the riverbank and there was much agitation and discussion. They were joined by an American army colonel named Dow. who was on safari with a Swiss guide, Karl Luthy. They were traveling with powerful rifles intended for the big game. We learned from Luthy and from several other people that this group of PCVs (or at least some members of the group) had been warned repeatedly not to go into the river, that a large crocodile lived in a bank nearby, and had “taken” a woman only recently. Luthy makes this clear in his account of the tragedy, which appears in the book Eyelids of Morning.

George and I and others paddled back and forth along the river until dusk searching for any sign of the crocodile or Bill Olson. In the evening, many groups, including Dow and Luthy, continued searching. George, his cousin, Evelyn and I scanned the river and its banks with searchlights from George’s Jeep. There was no sign of the crocodile.

The search resumed early the next morning. Before long, the crocodile surfaced and, after several attempts, it was killed by Colonel Dow. (We still have one of the shells.) The thing was so huge and heavy that it was a struggle for several men to pull it through shallow water and onto a sandy low part of the shore. Townspeople were rejoicing. It was a victory, after all, over a dragon, a historic enemy of the Anuak and Nuer, a monster whose kind had pulled down and fed on children and adults on river shores for as long as anyone could remember.

There it lay, facing the river, fluid dribbling out of its closed jaws, broad, tall, enormous, a nightmarish alien species, more like a dinosaur than anything else. Luthy was anxious to cut open the crocodile’s belly. Evelyn stepped a few feet away and turned in the opposite direction. Luthy, with considerable insensitivity, said, “Let’s see what’s in here” and cut the crocodile open with a large hunter’s knife. Gelatinous stuff billowed out of its mouth. There was no longer any doubt about Olson’s end.

Without speaking, I helped one of the other PCVs extract Bill Olson’s remains and put them in a box. His other companions, whom we had barely seen, watched from a distance, presumably traumatized. Grisly as this task was, it was made somewhat less wrenching by our having never met Olson. We’d never even seen him — he was in a different Volunteer training group from ours. Yet, he was one of us, an American and a fellow PCV, a young man killed by a monster, and I was numb. I moved the box a short distance and it was later taken back to Addis Ababa by Olson’s companions on a small plane diverted to Gambella for this purpose.

Evelyn and I have carried these memories with us for all our lives. But there is one image that remains even more vivid and constant than the rest. After I had finished my solemn task by the carcass of the crocodile, I looked up and saw Evelyn, sitting on a log a short distance away, weeping. Sitting opposite and facing her was an elderly villager, also silently weeping, possibly for relatives he had lost, for himself, or out of sympathy. There was no doubt that he was weeping in concert with her. In that most exotic setting by the Baro River, with people so distant from us in history and culture, those mutual tears that finally brought home to me the tragic death of our colleague, had a profound and lasting effect on both of us.

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