I’m back from Ethiopia; these comments are a bit delayed.

There was a specific reason for my trip to Ethiopia.  In the 1960s I was in Ethiopa as Peace Corps staff after a few years as a lecturer in English and education at Haile Selassie I University, now Addis Ababa University, one of a lot of campuses – I don’t know how many — at least a dozen, I was told.

While supporting PCV English teachers with demonstration classes and lesson plans, I had put together a set of English lessons that combined simplified versions of Ethiopian folktales with classroom exercises.  I used them for demonstration classes and then gave them out to PCV and other English teachers.  A lot of teachers had few if any teaching materials except those they created.  Others had materials that were wildly unsuited for 12-14-year-old Ethiopian kids, with tales about snowy winter nights or knights in shining armor.

The lessons eventually came to the attention of the Ministry of Education and were collected and published as a textbook called Ethiopian Folktales.  The book was reprinted a few times, most recently in 1973.   I don’t know why it fell out of use.  Maybe the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974 had something to do with it…the publisher included a sketch of his face as the only illustration in the book.

A few years ago I started a campaign to get the book back into the schools.  First, though, it badly needed updating.  I was startled to realize how culturally biased the book was.  Changes were needed. Back then, no one noticed that I had used mostly boys’ names, that the names were almost all Christian in a country with a very big Muslim population, and that I had used almost no names from the biggest ethnic group in the country, the Oromos (whom we referred to as ‘Gallas’, without realizing that the term was offensive to them).

My attempt to outsource the book design from the US to someone in Addis led to delays and then failure.  I had the work redone before I left and brought the revised book with me to Addis on a disk, this time with black and white images.  The artist is Kebedech Tekleab, who agreed to do them on the condition that she would have complete artistic control.  She did not consider herself an ‘illustrator’, but a fine artist, which she is.  I accepted her terms, but had a condition of my own: the images had to be recognizable to Ethiopian students so they could be talked about in an English class.

Her participation is a break for me.  Kebedech now has exhibited widely, including the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, and recently sold an important piece to the Holocaust Museum that drew on her own years in a refugee camp in Somalia. Her original approach to illuminating a textbook is striking.

Having a mission is my favorite way to visit a country.  It gives me and local people something shared to deal with, and takes me out of the hotel/restaurant/taxi circuit.  I had to dump the book designer who promised a lot but delivered nearly nothing.  I talked to printers and found that for some this was their peak season…calendars and other New Year printing, start-of-school printing, etc. that provided one more reason to be late, miss appointments, make hasty estimates that were full of errors, etc.  Then came a meeting with a publisher who agreed to publish the book as part of his plan to strengthen his line of education texts.  Mission accomplished!

Spring began just as I was leaving…cool sunny days without rain.  Global warming has made Addis warmer than it was, with surprisingly hot days to come despite the altitude.  The hillsides are green and gorgeous but it was still too early for the Meskal flowers.

I was sorry to leave Addis but not sorry to escape from the terrible air, which had started to cause me problems.  I went to the Swedish Clinic, where the stunningly beautiful Norwegian Dr. Maria B. had her own impact while confirming my feeling that something was physically wrong. It was the first time I had ever had a problem with breathing in Addis. Like her father and grandfather before her, Dr. Maria, as everyone calls her, is the chief doctor at the clinic (and at 29, the same age as my daughter).