When I was in the Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia years ago, I lived in a square stone house on Churchill Road, a main artery in Addis Ababa, with four other PCVs. That house, like most in Addis, had a tin roof and it was pleasant to wake at six in the morning on school days during the long rainy season and hear the heavy, amplified rain on the roof. At times during the rainy season it was so loud that we were forced to shout at each other over the breakfast table just to be heard.
The rainy season brought cold weather to this mountain capital city and in the evenings we would start a fire of eucalyptus wood in the living room fireplace to keep warm. And in the early mornings when we woke we would need to build a fire in the hot water heater for showers and to shave. Still, of all the memories I have of Africa waking in the dark to hear the rain on the tin roof of our house on Churchill Road is one recollection that I remember most fondly, and it reminds me the most of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa.
There were four bedrooms in the house and my room like the others was big, twelve-by-twelve, with a high ceiling, walls made of chika (mud) and painted a pale hideous blue. There were two shuttered windows that kept the room dark and cool in the mid-day heat, a wooden floor, and two doors - one that opened onto a narrow front porch and into an enclosed garden where we had fruit trees and thick bougainvilleas bushes, where orchids grew wild and lush and in abundance against the compound walls that encased the garden and this house of ours that fronted on Churchill Road.
One wall of our compound we shared with the private French elementary and secondary school. Behind the house was the backyard where we stacked out fire wood. There were several smaller sheds and a yard large enough to park several Land Rovers. We didn’t have vehicles so the space was used by our houseboy to hang out our laundry to dry, and by us to park our Peace Corps-issued bikes that we seldom used. We walked to school or took small blue and white Fiat “1000’s or “600’s” taxis that cruised the city.
We were the first PCVs to go to Ethiopia, arriving in-country in early September of 1962 at the end of the rainy season. Addis Ababa, at 7,600 feet has one of the finest climates to be found in the world. It is also a ramshackled city that years and years before the travel writer John Gunther described as looking as if someone had tossed scraps of metal on the slopes of the Entoto mountain range. True enough. It was all those tin roofs reflecting the equatorial sun.
Stepping from my bedroom into the cold morning of Addis, I would always smell the strong antiseptic odors of thousands of burning eucalyptus fires as the city woke and fires were made for coffee and breakfast. I’m told that since my years in Ethiopia those eucalyptus forests have been cut down for fuel and the expanding population that has spread the city up the hillside of Entoto.
But this is not a travel piece about the sites of Ethiopia, nor for that matter is it about the wonders of our garden where we would safely sit in the late afternoon and correct our students’ composition books while hearing the rush of traffic noise from the other side of the compound wall, the sounds of people passing by on foot, and farmers from the provinces herding goats and sheep and donkeys up to the great Mercato located beyond the Piazza. This market, it was said when I was in Ethiopia, was the largest in Africa.
No, this is a story about what happened to me shortly after I arrived in Addis Ababa when one morning just after seven o’clock, heading off to teach English at the Commercial School on Smuts Street, I opened the heavy wooden gate of our compound and stepped out onto the sidewalk of Churchill Road.