Best of Peace Corps Prose: SO THIS IS PARIS by Kathleen Johnson Coskran (Ethiopia)

This is a true story. [I say that because I keep getting emails from friends asking, “did you make that up Coyne?] So, again. This is a true story. It was written by Kathleen Johnson Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67). She taught first in Addis Ababa and later in a small town in the south. She wrote this essay when Marian Beil and I published in 1994 in our first newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers. It is entitled, “So This Is Paris.” Later I would publish it in a collection I edited for the Peace Corps titled, Peace Corps: The Great Adventure. Kathy has continued to write and continued to win awards for her fiction and non-fiction.

I am posting it now for all the readers who might have missed it in previous publications. And for everyone else, a chance to re-read it, and marvel as what a fine writer Kathy is, one of many great Peace Corps Volunteers writers. One of the reasons Marian and created the newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers and continue now with this site, is to publish such wonderful work by RPCVS. And they aren’t any better than Kathleen Coskran.kathey

So This Is Paris
by Kathleen Johnson Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)

THE YEAR DETROIT BURNED, I TAUGHT ENGLISH AND ALGEBRA IN DILLA, ETHIOPIA. THERE WERE four of us ferenjis in Dilla that year. Doug, from Michigan, saved all the clippings from The Christian Science Monitor that his mother sent him about the riots and brought them out whenever a student asked him about his country.

He would unfold the dark pictures of burning buildings and say, “This is my home.”

“He reads too much,” Dick said. Dick didn’t have time to read. He never missed a soccer, basketball, or volleyball game with the students or a chance to spend an hour at Negussie Beit, the only bar in Dilla with a refrigerator.

Our students called Claudie their mother because she stayed at school long after the sun went down to talk to them, help them with their homework, or give them advice. The day she bandaged Hamid’s arm, he asked if she had ever been a Scout.

“Yes, I was,” she said.

“I thought so, miss, because you are always prepared.”

The 75 students in 7-A, my homeroom, were proud of me because I knew their names in alphabetical order and called the roll from memory every morning. Addiswork Bekele to Zeudi Memedin.  They called us all the Peace Corps, with the emphasis on the final “p.”

We walked down to the post office after school on a clay road that sucked at our shoes in the rainy season and streaked our clothes with dust in the dry season. We passed kids shouting, ferenj foreign, as us, stepped around sheep and goats, crossing the main drag, stopped to admire the professional in a funeral procession, paused so the water man rolling his massive barrel up the hill from the river wouldn’t lose momentum. As the barrel rumbled past and the mourners took up their ululations again, a six-year-ran up, tagged Dick, and dashed back to his friends. Dick spread his arms wide and say, “So this is Paris.”

ON ST.PATRICK’S DAY I EXPLAINED MY IRISH HERITAGE TO 7-A AND THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DAY. Abraham, the biggest troublemaker in the school, raised his hand, “We should go outside, madam, to celebrate your holiday.”

“No, that’s not necessary,” I said, but the students were already moving towards the door.

“Yes, yes, good idea,” they said.

Tsegay Mekonnen, the class monitor, stood at the door to stop them. “No,” he said. “It is her holy day. We must have five minutes of silent prayer.” Not what I had in mind, but they all went back to their seats and bowed their heads.

The first time I saw Tsegay in action, he was stepping across a desk in the back of my room with a switch in his hand to hit another boy who was talking out of turn. It was my first day at Atse Dawit School.

“Hey, stop that. What do you think you’re doing?” I said.

“No, madam. It’s okay. He’s the monitor.”

Tsegay stood against the back wall with his arms laced across his blue shirt watching me advance on him. “I am monitor,” he said when I reached him.

“Who says you are monitor?” I asked. I was familiar with the monitor system of class discipline, didn’t like it, and didn’t want it in my classroom.

Tsegay shrugged and the other students again confirmed that he was the class monitor. I said the monitor should be elected by the class and proceeded to explain the democratic process, the duties of the monitor (no switches allowed), the responsibilities of the students to each other, to the monitor, and to their teachers, and then took nominations from the floors. They elected Ayelu Hailu.

Because not everybody was able to start school when they were six years old, the age range of my seventh graders was twelve to twenty-two. Avelu was a slight twelve-year-old, the smallest boy in the class, meek and overwhelmed by his sudden elevation to high office. The students snickered when I announced the election results. I insisted that they respect Ayelu, affirmed my confidence in him, and said that his word would be law regarding areas of discipline. Ayelu took a deep breath, realigned his shoulders, and strutted to the back of the room where he could keep an eye on everybody. I resumed the math lesson.

He lasted four days.

The second time around they elected Hamid. I was pleased. Most of the students had the chiseled features, slight frame, and red-brown skin of the highland Ethiopian, but Hamid’s family had emigrated from the far west. He was an imposing figure, six-feet tall and pure black. But his service as monitor was a day shorter than Ayelu’s and I didn’t understand why he was unsuccessful until much later, when I heard him called the black one, and shankalla, slave.

I told 7-A that I was furious with them for electing two successive monitors whom they refused to respect.

“Tsegay is our monitor, madam,” somebody said.

And so he was. He became an invaluable advisor for me, an inside operator. “Bekele is not sick, madam. He have woman.” Or “Kebede hates Hamid. Better move him.” When I remember my class now, Tsegay’s handsome face is always in the middle of the back row, his eyes roving over the rows of students. By the end of the year I had convinced him to give up the switch, but I noticed faint lines in his forehead and a weariness in her eyes when he confronted certain students.

WE HAD ELECTRICITY FROM 6 P.M. TO 12 MOST NIGHTS. I PLANNED LESSONS AND GRADED PAPERS when the lights were on, but I felt no obligation to my students when the lights went out at midnight. I sat up with a book pressed flat against the table, reading by candlelight in the dark kitchen. The only noise was the occasional cough of a hyena passing in the street and the sitz of insects flying into the flame. I blew the specks of their parts out of the fold as I turned the pages. I savored each word of those delicious books. I also read Time cover to cover every week, including the sports and business sections; I read the listings of books published on the flyleaf of Penguin library editions; I read the small print of ads in the English-language Ethiopian Herald weekly newspaper.

I even read The Fanny Farmer Cookbook cover to cover. I knew nothing about cooking. I was raised by a mother who claimed that packaged foods were the most profound advance of the twentieth century. She relied heavily on frozen fish sticks, chicken pot pies, and canned asparagus. All her cookbooks had the word “jiffy” in the title.

There was no processed food in Dilla. We could dependably buy only onions, bananas, and meat at the Dilla market. Sometimes there was cabbage and carrots. Once there was eggplant. We could also get rice, but there were insects in it. You had to dump it on the table and pull the rice into a bowl in your lap while killing the bugs and pushing them off to the side. Salt and spices were measured into cones of old newspaper, weighed, and sold. The egg man delivered his tiny eggs wrapped in banana leaves, thirty for a dollar Ethi. We bought oatmeal, canned margarine, tuna fish, powdered milk, and tins of vegetables when we went to Addis Ababa. The tuna fish and tinned vegetables were so precious that we allowed ourselves to eat them only on special occasions. In the end, we left two cans of beets, one of green beans, and one of corn for the next Volunteers. We wrote them a long letter, introducing them to our town, our kids, and our canned vegetables.

THERE WAS ONLY ONE FEMALE ETHIOPIAN TEACHER AT ATSE DAWIT SCHOOL. I DON’T REMEMBER her name. Claudie and I called her the Weizerite, roughly equivalent to “miss.” Once, before a staff meeting, in front of everyone, the Weizerite asked me how I expected to raise a family with such small breasts, so I didn’t like her very much, but Claudie made friends with her. Claudie told her we wanted to learn to cook Ethiopian, so she came by one afternoon with eight newspaper cones of different spices and told us to grind each spice separately, then spread it in the sun to dry, then grind each spice separately again, then spread it in the sun to dry again, then grind it again, then dry it, then grind one more time. Then we were to mix it in such and such proportions, sauté the onions for two hours until all the water was out of them, then mix in the spices. “Meanwhile…” she said and started to chop a kilo of mutton into cubes the size of her thumb nail. I stopped listening. My heritage of jiffy cooking made me inadequate to the task, but Claudie wrote it all down. We never cooked anything with the Weizerite’s spices. Our last week in Dilla, we sifted the spices into birillasthe bulb-shaped glasses used for drinking honey tej, sealed them with wax, and took them home to America. They still line the top shelf of the highest cabinet in my kitchen.

EVEN THE MOST REMOTE TOWN IN ETHIOPIA HAS ONE OR TWO ITALIAN MEN WHO MARRIED Ethiopian women after the second World War and stayed on to bake bread or make pasta. In Dilla, Montenari ran a small bar and had the only bakery. There had been a second Italian in town, who ran the generator, but he died shortly before we arrived, so Montenari was alone. One Friday, Doug and I stopped at his bar just before midnight. The place was empty, he was ready to close, but he still had coffee, so he poured us some, and himself some, and he sat with us. He spoke no English and only a little Amharic, and we spoke no Italian, so the three of us sat there in silence, this old Italian and two young Americans, drinking espresso in the middle of Ethiopia. At midnight, the lights went out. Montenari held his hand up and shook his head, insisting that we stay. He brought candles and more coffee. We sat with him a while longer and listened to the hyenas who began their eerie whoops as soon as the electricity shut off.

When we finally left Montenari alone and walked back to our houses in the dark, Doug took my hand. “Yes,” he said, “Paris is like this.”

I HAD A PARTY FOR THE 75 STUDENTS IN MY HOMEROOM THE WEEK BEFORE WE LEFT DILLA FOR good. I made popcorn and bought a stock of bananas for refreshments, but I was stumped when it came to entertainment. Music was out: Our radio reception was too poor and I had no record player. The house was small–two 12-foot by 12-foot rooms–but I thought the kids could mingle and talk, eat a banana, and extend the party out into the yard. But they wouldn’t go outside. They filled one room, two and three deep, crushed against the four walls. I tried to engage them in conversation, but they were politely monosyllabic. I distributed the popcorn and organized “Pin the Tain on the Donkey” in the other room, but the easy laughter and conversation from the classroom were silenced by the solemnity of the occasion. The party in my house had made them mute.

Finally, Tsegay said, “Madam, can we dance?”

“Yes, of course. But where and to what music?” There was a square yard of open floor at best.

“Don’t worry, miss.” Tsegay issued instructions to several of the students, took Addiswork’s scarf, and stepped to the center of the room. Yakob found an empty patch of wall and drummed the mud plaster with the fingers and heel of his hand. Tsegay began moving in small circles in the middle of the room. The girls sang. Bekele clapped his hands in counterpoint to Yakob’s drumming. Tsegay moved faster, holding the scarf taut between his hands, over his head, behind his back, then dropping an end, following it. Everybody sang, punctuating their songs with shouts and ululations.

They were of different tribes, different religions, but they knew what to do. When Tsegay finished, Addiswork took her scarf and stepped to the center of the room. Everybody sang and drummed as she began to move. My party was a success.

ON OUR LAST DAY, WE GOT UP EARLY TO TAKE THE FIRST BUS TO ADDIS ABABA. WHEN I OPENED THE back door in the predawn light to go to the outhouse, I discovered Tsegay, Hamid, Zeudi, Ayelu, Mulugetta, Nasin, Zalalen waiting in the yard. Dozens of students had gathered in the dark so they wouldn’t miss our departure. They hovered around our two houses as we packed. They trailed us down the dirt roads to Dilla for the last time. They insisted on carrying our things to the bus. Tsegay presented me with a basket his mother made. “So her name will be known in your country,” he said. We got on the bus and waved until we couldn’t see them anymore.

The road out of Dilla is a steep climb and the bus slows almost to a stop by the last switchback. There is a point where the whole town is as visible as a map–four parallel streets, up from the river, bisected by paths, with the school at the high end and the bus park where clumps of our kids still waved at the low end. The four of us craned towards the windows for a long look. “So this was Paris,” Dick said softly.

“This was better,” I said.

Kathleen Coskran taught English and math in Addis Ababa and Dilla, Ethiopia, and spent two years with her husband, Chuck, a PCV in Ethiopia, and then an APCD in Kenya. Her first book, The High Price of Everything, winner of a Minnesota Book Award in 1988, includes stories set in both Ethiopia and Kenya. “So This Is Paris” is excerpted from a longer piece by the same title.

Kathy has created a blogspot: Pocket Stories that you can find at: http://pocketstories-kcoskran.blogspot.com/2011/04/welcome.html

She writes of her blogspot: Why stories? A story is the most universal narrative, told by everybody around the world. We all lean forward when somebody says let me tell you about the time when, we wait for the and then, and we watch the story unfold in our mind’s eye. We see him crouched there, hear her voice, feel the stroke of the cat against our leg, hold our breath when the door creaks. Stories are words at their most powerful. Stories make us laugh, cry, sweat, hold our breath, fall in love, and remind us of the infinite ways we are human. Nobody is too young or too old for a story.

And we know, Kathy can tell a story.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

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  • I taught in Eritrea and Ethiopia 63 years ago with Ehi 1. This story brought back that first year in Keren like it was yesterday. Thanks for doing this John and you are right, Kathy , writes one hell of a story.

  • How curious to be able to read about Kathy’s students and the people from her little community and see, in my mind’s eye, the students I taught and the people I remember in Alto de Selva Alegre, a barrio near Arequipa, Peru. The “umbrella” experiences are the same or similar; the details differ. This phenomenon may explain why RPCVs look kindly on one another–those shared umbrella experiences. Thank you for this truthful, unassuming story.

  • Once again this brought a tear.
    Returning from Mettu last night I knew the 2019
    PCVs needed to see how timeless their experience is and feel the connection to all of us.
    Of course our keeper of the soul of peace corps John Coyne
    Knew exactly where this story was.
    Those volunteers in sw Ethiopia are now reading this amazing
    story from 52 years ago…🌍

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