The Headmaster at the Commercial School, Ato Seifu Felleke, was a man I deeply respected. In fact, all the PCVs who taught at the school had the greatest respect for this man. He was slight, like most Ethiopians, and underweight, like most Ethiopians, and seem to always be smoking two cigarettes at a time. Like most Ethiopians. He was not handsome in the way many Ethiopian men are, but he had a presence and a commend of situations that demanded our full attention.
He had been schooled in India, not Europe or America, and he had a wonderful no bullshit western approach that made us pay attention. He didn’t mess with our teaching, still he knew exactly how good or bad we were in the classroom, and over the years the Peace Corps administration in Ethiopia went to him for advice, to seek him out for his wise words, to ask for his help. When the Peace Corps Evaluators came to Ethiopia, they went to see Seifu to find out how good a job the Peace Corps was doing in the Empire.
Several years ago when Harris Wofford, our first director, was going back to Ethiopia for the first time in many years he called me and asked about Seifu. Where could he find him, Harris wanted to know. By now, Seifu had retired from being a Headmaster but still at the American Embassy Harris asked about Seifu and the Ethiopians found him. Many of the Embassy employees, I’m sure, were once students at the Commercial School. Everyone in Addis Ababa knew Ato Seifu. Harris was able to have breakfast with him years after being with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, and shortly before Seifu’s death in ’02.
I am sorry to hear through the Ethiopian RPCV network of his death. One story of his later years came to me through the same Ethiopian RPCV network. Seifu was not a religious man but in the long years of the Derg he had begun to attend Coptic mass on Sunday mornings. It was his silent protest to the Derg, this sudden devotion to the church. Many Ethiopians showed their displeasure in the new government by finding religion.
However, that morning in early September of ’62 in my classroom, Ato Seifu had not found religion and was headed for my classroom. He was pissed and I was scared. Here I was–the young Peace Corps teacher, coming [at least my eyes] to bring Ethiopian students kicking and screaming into the modern age–and I couldn’t keep a mad man out of my classroom.
Arriving at the classroom door, Seifu couldn’t have cared less about me. He glanced around to see that everything was in order and then addressed in Amharic the 2E class monitor, Abebe Kebede Muleta. They spoke quickly to each other, then Seifu turned and addressed the class, again in Amharic. His voice softened speaking to the students, and then he looked over at me. I had come to the front of the classroom, still clutching my composition books as if they were my only excuse for not handling this classroom drama. Seifu asked if I was okay and I must have nodded or said I was fine, or whatever, and he smiled, and then he said, and that is what we all liked him so, “Well, welcome to Africa, Mr. John.” He turned and walked out of the classroom, lighting yet another cigarette as he went on his way.
I was unable to calm the class afer this outbreak. Instead of going on with a lesson on English prepositions, and they are incredible difficult to teach. [Remember the famous story attributed to Winston Churchill about the overzealous editor attempted to rearrange one of his sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, and Churchill scribbled a single sentence in reply. “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.] I decided to dismiss the class, to let them go into the courtyard [how’s that for taking charge of the situation?] and they all agree it was a very good idea and fled the room.
I stopped Abebe Kebede Muleta before he could leave and thanked him and I asked him how he managed to get the man out of the room.
“He is a mad, sir,” Abebe said. I agreed with that. And then he said that the man thought I was the devil because of my white skin. He was embarrassed telling me that, and I asked him what he did to make the man flee. Again, the shy sweetness returned to the student’s face and glancing away he said he told the “mad” that indeed I was the devil and that he should run from me before I sent him to hell.
Well, it worked, I said, and thanked Abebe for saving the day and he bowed in the polite way of all Ethiopians and followed the other students out into the courtyard of the school.
The next morning, and for several mornings after that, when I stepped through the compound gate onto the sidewalk of Churchill Road to head down the street to the Commercial School the “mad” Rastafarian in leather skins and rags was back in the intersection battling cars. He always drew a crowd until the police arrived to chase him away. He did not, however, return to the Commercial School. Then just as suddenly as he arrived on Churchill Road he disappeared. I never saw him again in Addis Ababa. My guess is that finally the police had had enough of him and locked the poor man up.
I looked for him, however, when I returned to Ethiopia, years later, and when I went to call on Ato Seifu in his office at the Commercial School. We talked about the first Peace Corps teachers at his school and what had happened to them over the years, and also what had happened to him. [By then Seifu had been awarded a prize and a significant amount of money from the Emperor for his work as an educator.] We also talked about the time the ‘mad’ had come charging into my classroom in my first months of teaching. Seifu smiled remembering and shook his head and said, “John, I thought I might lose you that day as a Peace Corpse teacher. You were very frightened.”
“I was?” I said. “I thought I was pretty cool,” I added,trying after all these years to put a positive spin on what had happened. Seifu kept smiling and in that way he had of cutting through all our Peace Corps bullshit, added, “John, I never knew a white person could look so white.”[Part 7 End of story]