A Writer Writes
The Right Way to Grow Tomatoes
By Karen DeWitt (Ethiopia 1966-68)
I’d forgotten that I had even taken the Peace Corps recruitment test when that long-distance call came on a cold January day in 1965. Then, standing in a battered wooden telephone booth in my dormitory at Miami University of Ohio, I heard someone say, “Congratulations. You’ve been accepted.”
Suddenly graduate school, job, the ordinary future that stretched before me and my classmates disappeared, replaced by adventure, excitement, and the unknown – literally the unknown, for I hadn’t even asked what country I would be stationed in. Didn’t know, didn’t care.
Suddenly, I was to be part of an adventure for my generation. I was to become a Kennedy kid, one of those thousands of young people whom he had asked to dedicate one or two years of their lives to work in Africa, Latin America, or Asia.
It was a heady invitation, asking not what your country could do for you, but what you could do for your country. Here was something I could do.
According to the television commercials, the Peace Corps involved scrabbling up hills and swinging across ravines in Marine-style training, laughing with exotically dressed peoples, speaking in strange tongues, teaching, drilling wells, living in mud houses. Hey – now that was me!
The first letter from the Peace Corps told me I was going to Turkey. Great. I’d never been to Turkey. A second letter corrected the first; I was going to India. Cool. A third letter said East Africa – Ethiopia, to be specific. Wonderful. I found Ethiopia on a map, then sought out the sole Ethiopian student on campus. He was amused by my enthusiasm. Only a short while ago I hadn’t known he existed. Now I was fumbling around in his language, ravenous for information about his culture and customs.
The Peace Corps did a great job of training me. Eighteen months after that telephone call, with three months of living and teaching in the “culturally different” East Los Angeles barrio, and a month of in-country training under my belt, I was a teacher of English. And thanks to months of language training, I arrived in the highland village of Ghion armed with a great deal of Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language, though that never prevented me from saying the word “yellow” when I meant “only.”
I had expected, in my arrogance and ignorance, that I would give more than I got. I didn’t. And my life has been the richer for it. I learned things profound and mundane: that a real “free-range” chicken is a tough bird to fry; that you get a heap of liver from a freshly slaughtered cow; that growing tomatoes in a frame, as my students did, is far superior to staking them, as I’d always been taught; that Africa is mighty cold at 8,000 feet above sea level; that I had a gift for teaching.
As a student, I confess I was less successful. In an effort to quit smoking, I decided to learn to spin cotton. A deft Ethiopian woman named Conjeet tried for months to teach me, but never quite succeeded. Holding her spindle – which looked like an old-fashioned wooden baby rattle – in one hand, and darting it in and out of a puff of cotton, Conjeet spun threads as fine as any I’d ever pulled from a commercial spool. It looked so easy. I spun rope, I spun twine, I spun cord, I spun cable, but I never produced a thread as fine as Conjeet’s. Her friends would come night after night to watch the ferenji (foreign woman) spin, giggling at my efforts. They were sure I’d never get a husband.
“You spin like a man,” laughed Conjeet. And so, instead of the sheer white shawl worn by Ethiopian women, the village weaver made a gabi, a heavy man’s garment, from my thread. I wore it the whole time I was in Ethiopia.
I had great admiration for much that I met with in Ethiopia. But I never tried to become Ethiopian because there was always some aspect of the culture that didn’t suit me. I was an incurable American.
Shortly after my arrival in Ghion, my neighbor, Ato Getachew, an important landlord in the area, invited me for a meal and did something that horrified me. He picked among the leftover bones from the stew we had eaten, and with the hauteur of a king, offered one to his son. The boy shuffled forward, eyes lowered, his left hand politely holding the wrist of his outstretched right hand.
The boy scuttled back to his corner to gnaw on the bone like a dog. This was a perfectly acceptable way to treat a child by traditional Ethiopian standards, but it shocked me.
However, I did encounter Third World justice in a very satisfactory form on an Ethiopian bus. Buses were always crowded, and in order to make a second run back to the capital before nightfall, the buses on my route often doubled up passengers from one bus to another at a village halfway to Ghion. The little Russian-built buses had a capacity of thirty passengers, but there were often twice as many people crammed aboard. Women and children were the first to suffer. Ousted from their seats, they ended up on the floor as men jammed into their places. I’d seen this many times, but on this day I shouted to the driver that this was unjust, illegal, and unsafe. He laughed. Frustrated, I told him that he could do what he liked but the farmer who sat beside me and I were going to be the sole occupants of our seat.
At that moment, a well-filled-out man of status, a teliq saw (important man), clambered onto the bus, the last to board. He surveyed the passengers. He shoved the poor farmer against me and took his seat. I told the teliq saw he could not do that. He laughed at me. He said he was a lawyer from Addis Ababa. Using an informal Amharic reserved for children and servants, he told me to mind my own business.
I let my great granny’s Irish temper get the best of me. I told him a good many things about himself, and then I suggested he get up. He laughed again. I stabbed the tip of my umbrella into his thigh.
He got up. He stayed up. The poor farmer, far from thankful at the return of his seat, balanced nervously at its far edge, as far away from the crazy ferenji as possible.
Until the bus pulled into Ghion, the lawyer lectured the passengers on the evils of Peace Corps Volunteers, the low morals of American women, the bad examples we were to his country’s women and children, and how we had no jobs in the United States and had come to Ethiopia to eat meat every day. He was going to have me put into jail, he announced.
When the bus reached Ghion, the lawyer grabbed my arm and told me that I was going to the police station. I shook him off. He grabbed me again. Right there in the middle of Ghion’s main thoroughfare, that lawyer and I began fighting. I slashed away at him with my umbrella, like some mad black Mary Poppins. By now, it was night, the hour of the evening stroll, and we attracted a crowd, including many students from my school. Eventually we attracted the police.
Lawyer, police, crowd, and I went off to the police station. After much discussion, the police jailed the Addis lawyer. He wasn’t from the town, “our country.” I was.
The Amharic word I heard most often during my time in Ethiopia was ferenji – foreign woman. Whether spoken affectionately or harshly, the word reminded me that I was in the country but not of it. No matter that I was fluent in the local language, ate only local food, was godparent to a villager’s child, and buddy to the local moonshiner, I was still the foreigner. But that wasn’t true that night. I was the yesalem guad (Peace Corps) from Ghion. I belonged there, and the out-of-town lawyer did not.
The next day, my students wanted to know how I dared to do what I had done. I was a woman; he was a man. True, I was a teacher, a position with some status, but he was a lawyer. I lived in a little provincial village, while he was from the capital. I was young then, so I used the incident to teach a lesson in democracy, the principles of social equality, and respect for the individual within the community, regardless of status and power.
I don’t know whether I did them a favor or not. I don’t know if the experience wasn’t more valuable to me than to the local people. I don’t even know, now, if I acted with the best motives – standing up against injustice – or whether I wasn’t just an ignorant and arrogant American, annoyed at being inconvenienced.
What I do know is that the whole experience made me adventurous and eager for more. For more culture, more countries, more languages, more roads and vistas, more smells, sounds, and experiences beyond those of my own country. My years in the Peace Corps gave me a perspective from which to understand different attitudes toward time, to appreciate the slowness of a Malaysian fashion show, and to understand that there is more than one right way to do things, including growing tomatoes
Karen DeWitt (Ethiopia 1966-68) is a 30- year award-winning TV- print- radio journalist, columnist and foreign correspondent. She also led communications for a state political campaign, national nonprofits, and a major utility. She blogs at On Fallow Ground and beginning in September will be the Director of the Digital Newsroom at the School of Global Journalism and Communications at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.
A recipient of the R.W. Seton Fellow at Kansas State University (1989-90) she is also a 1995-96 Japan Society Fellow. She speaks multiple languages.