If you want to find a successful Peace Corps Volunteer and the legacy he left in-country look no further than Andrew Tadross (Ethiopia 2011-13), the co-author of three reference books on Amharic, Tigrinya, and Afan Oromo written after his tour and while he was still living in Ethiopia. Andrew is an example of the ‘new’ PCVs joining the agency in recent years. Andrew and PCVs like him are bringing new skills to this ancient land that is swiftly evolving into a significant African nation. In Andrew’s case, it is his environmental and landscape architecture background, as well as, his linguistic ability. He, and others like him, have much more to offer Ethiopia (and other Peace Corps countries) than those of us in the early years who went into the developing world fresh out of college with our BA degrees, nursing certificates, community development training, and goodwill. Today, because of technology, the needs and demands are greater and Volunteers are responding with more than a language phrase book and a cell phone in their backpacks.
Andrew, why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
I was in my mid-thirties when I decided to apply for Peace Corps, almost on a whim. My original idea was to go to Latin America, brush up on Spanish, learn to salsa dance. It didn’t turn out that way. But looking back, I am lucky it was Ethiopia.
What was your assignment in Ethiopia?
Our group had pretty loose direction in terms of what we were to do with our time. I was in a rural Tigray village called ‘Endodo’ – not far from Korem. I worked some in a tree nursery, trying to wean them off of Eucalyptus in favor of some alternative tree species. Also, I organized the construction of a water pipe/station at a local school. The people in the village were great – but I ended up getting an offer to teach Landscape Architecture at Mekele University. I spent the second year on a modern college campus.
Why Eucalyptus? I love those trees.
Eucalyptus is an environmental disaster in Ethiopia and many other countries. More than 100 years ago, Menelik II brought the tree from Australia and planted it widely to offset deforestation. While Eucalyptus grows fast and makes good poles, it sucks the water table dry and kills vegetation underneath…thereby compounding the problem of soil erosion and loss of biodiversity. It is a monumental problem, but most people aren’t aware. More needs to be done to diminish its use in Ethiopia.
What was the shift in assignments like for you?
After having endured the first year under difficult conditions, I was happy for both the professional opportunity and the availability of pizza in the “big city.” Mekele is a gem. It’s a high elevation city of nearly 300,000; has cobblestone streets with dozens of cafés, rocky escarpments, historic monuments, and friendly people. It’s a place where the currents of globalization merge with the practice of ancient customs of the region.
You taught at the University?
At Mekele University, I taught landscape architecture to fifth-year architects, Later, as an ex-pat, I taught undergrads and masters students at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction, and City Development. The EiABC started the first landscape architecture program in Ethiopia.
Teaching and learning in Africa, as you know from teaching English at the Commercial School in Addis, is an exercise in adaptation. English is a second language (or third), and students are shy about letting it be known if they don’t understand. Power failures cut lectures short. Access to books is very limited. Since Amazon does not ship to Ethiopia, PDF books are traded among faculty and students for reference. I found recorded videos on YouTube and the BBC program Around the World in 80 Gardens to be incredibly useful.
Not many PCVs, especially in the ‘old days,’ taught at the college level. How did you find your students?
My students have been intelligent, civic-minded, and ambitious. The Ethiopian instructors (as well as other nationalities) are very sociable. At times I became upset with students’ not meeting my expectations, but I know many of them have amazing potential and would do well in any environment. Several of my students have decided to pursue landscape architecture as a career. Ethiopia urgently needs an influential environmental design community.
Did you come home after your tour or stay on in-country?
I COS’d in November 2013. Then I bounced around for while – got to be a Park Ranger in the Everglades for one season. Then I was hired at a great little firm in San Antonio. The reason I went back in 2016, was to get married to an Ethiopian woman I had been dating. It took a long time to get the marriage visa. So, I ended up teaching again 2016/17, this time with a salary. And I got the language books on the market in Addis – also an interesting process.
Let’s go back in your time in Ethiopia. What was your in-country training like?
Our training was in Holeta Oromia, not far from Addis. This made for a confusing time since most of our sites were to be in Tigray. My host family couldn’t speak Tigrinya. Between a little English and basic Amharic, we understood each other. Those were some of the best times because everything seemed so new and fascinating.
Is that where you met your wife?
No, we had in-service training three months after getting to the site. She worked at the front desk of this resort in Hawassa, where she was studying. Every day I’d bring the key to the desk before going out. On the last day, I worked up the nerve to invite her out with our group. The rest is history…actually a very long story if you want to get into the details of an immigration process.
When and how and why did you decide to write your Amharic book? Did you write it while you were a PCV or years after that?
In 2012, I got my hands on the only Tigrinya reference book available on Amazon. It was published in 1978, very technical, and more useful for a missionary rather than development worker. I started making my own list of words in a spreadsheet that grew and grew. One day I met Abraham Teklu, an Ethiopian-American who had published an A-Z dictionary before, and who ran a hotel in Mekele. I thought we could collaborate to make a better Tigrinya book. And we did, about 2 years later (2015). The Essential Guide to Amharic was published 6 months after the Essential Guide to Tigrinya. I partnered with my host-father Abebe Bulto to publish Afan Oromo in 2016. FYI – PCVs are not allowed to make a profit – any business deals will have to come after service.
Based on your experience in Ethiopia, how would you change the role of the Peace Corps in the country?
Based on my experience in Mekele, I think the organization should increase placements in higher education such as universities, colleges, and technical schools. Higher education is something Americans do particularly well, but it is a relatively new area of development in Africa. By targeting these institutions, the Peace Corps would be able to help educate future designers, entrepreneurs, educators, and health professionals.
You mentioned that it was difficult to get your wife out of Ethiopia and back to the U.S. Was that a problem with the U.S. government rules or with the Ethiopian government?
The problem was on the US side. Our fiancé visa was denied by the consular officers. They weren’t convinced it was a real marriage. This was a setback, but I went back to Addis, we got married, and I enjoyed another year a half in country waiting for the marriage visa to be approved. It was a stressful process, but it worked out finally.
Where you studying Tigrinya from the first day of in-country training?
I think we had a few basic lessons in Amharic before shifting to Tigrinya (while living in Oromia!). I’m glad I learned both – when I visit Habesha restaurants in the US I meet almost as many Eritreans as Ethiopians.
What company published your two books?
I used Createspace, the self-publishing arm of Amazon. They take almost 50% of the cover price. It’s ‘print on demand’ meaning I don’t have to print any books – its only printed when someone buys online. I’m hoping to crank out a few more books, including one about landscape architecture in Ethiopia.
Did Abraham have a background in language, Amharic or Tigrinya? What is his story about getting to America?
Abraham is from Adawa, and shares time between Mekele and Las Vegas. His story of coming to the US (during the Derg) is really fascinating. He came on an education scholarship that was facilitated by an American friend. He has been a great business partner.
In this last decade, what significant changes have you seen in Ethiopia in terms of development and governing?
The main thing I’ve seen is that the government seems to be pushing out NGOs and academics, mainly by changing the rules in which they operate. All foreign salary teachers at AAU are required to have a Ph.D. That resulted in the loss of five instructors when I was teaching Addis. In my field (landscape architecture) a Ph.D. doesn’t really exist. They are also making it harder to bring in phones and electronics and blocking social media during tense periods.
On a development level, you see buildings going up everywhere you look. The light rail is done, a modern highway has been built, the train to Djibouti, the GERD project, etc. There are industrial parks being built everywhere. Ethiopian Airlines is expanding all over the place. Big things are happening. But I’m not sure if the average Ethiopian feels things are improving. It probably depends on who you ask.
It is obvious that the Chinese have overwhelmed the country with development projects. How do you see—positive or negative–their involvement in the country?
It is a controversial subject. Many Ethiopians like the fact that the Chinese come in and do their projects without demanding a lot of institutional reform. The Chinese are not trying to change Ethiopia fundamentally; they are in the business of developing infrastructure in Africa. I think collaborations between countries are great – as long as it is mutually beneficial. There are a lot of people that would claim China is taking advantage of the relationship and it will hurt Ethiopia in the long run. That is a possibility, but you could also see their influence as a source of stability. The perfect example of the paradox – China built the light rail. The rail line is definitely a benefit to Addis Ababa – but it seems Ethiopia is reliant on China to keep it operating and functional – and the performance leaves a lot to be desired. On a positive note, you can find tofu in many places.
For those of us ‘old timers’ what cities or places today would you suggest we see on a return trip to the country?
Probably the most fascinating places would be to go to your original site. Somebody will remember you. Axum has a done great work to make their streets around the monuments very beautiful and the library that is being built with help from RPCVs is definitely worth a visit. Mekele and Hawassa have really grown up – very lively at night. Harar is unchanged and beautiful. When I go back I’d like to do some trekking in the Bale or Siemen mountains. That requires a bit more time and guides.
What do you see your family future with Ethiopia and the U.S. Splitting your time between countries?
I hope I will always come back to Ethiopia. I am very close to my wife’s family and have many friends in Addis now. I would love to work on projects there. Maybe one day, we could retire in Ethiopia, the cost of living is great. I’m hoping the future is bright and peaceful.
Finally, in your experience did you see or hear any reference to the Empire and the long imperial reign of Haile Selassie? Do Ethiopians today even mention HIM’s name? Did you ever hear the expression, “Haile Selassie Mot”?
I guess times have changed. I don’t hear that phrase much. Most people don’t talk about politics or history. Atse Tewodros is popular still. It might be different in Shashemanie which has a big Rasta influence.
Andrew, many thanks for your time and your great work in Ethiopia. The best of luck to you and Haimanot.