PRESIDENT KENNEDY SPURRED ME to try new adventures. In 1963, Kennedy said Americans need more physical exercise – take a 50-mile hike in 20 hours – I walked twenty. Then Kennedy said, “Join the Peace Corps, serve in a foreign country.” I joined the Peace Corps.
I stepped off the plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in September 1963 with much awe and trepidation as to what I was about to begin.
A new life for me. A new beginning in the most beautiful country with the most beautiful people in the world.
I wrote in my journal that day: “What a magnificent view and what a beautiful airport we landed at! Today is the Ethiopian New Year. The women are dressed in white (off white from washing them in the dirty streams) hand woven dresses with colorful trim around the edges. I guess I’ll have to throw away my jeans – there are no women here who wear slacks. We were issued 2 blankets (wrapped in moth balls), a knife, a fork, a spoon, a saucer, a cup, a plate, 4 sheets, 2 pillowcases and 2 towels and $150 in Ethiopian money (about $60 American) as a settling-in allowance. I took a nap for 6 hours and then went for a walk around the city of Addis Ababa. Kids followed us, trying to sell us something and if we wanted to buy we had to bargain for it. The houses here are made of mud, straw and dung, but when they’re painted they look like stucco houses in the U.S. The people are friendly and impressed when we try our limited Amharic vocabulary on them.”
The Emperor, Haile Selassie, greeted us at a reception at his palace and made us feel welcome in his country.
Things are different here in this country where time had stood still for hundreds of years. The children were eager and hungry for education. Many children walked miles without shoes to come into the towns from the countryside to learn.
November 22, 1963: I was getting ready to go to bed and I turned on the Voice of America as I usually did before retiring. A voice came through the static on the radio “President Kennedy has been shot.” I thought I had heard wrong until he repeated it. No, it couldn’t be true.
The previous two and a half months flashed before my mind. The best two and a half months of my life. The next day when I went to school all of my students were in shock. The Emperor closed the schools in honor of President Kennedy and he came to the U.S. to attend Kennedy’s funeral.
I made many friends while I was in Ethiopia and still have kept in touch with some of them. My husband and I met and married while there. The son of Ethiopian friends of ours is living here with us and attending school. His father was a University Service Student when we were there and he taught at the same school that my husband and I taught.
I grew a lot in those two years in the Peace Corps and I learned to be more sensitive, more aware of problems in the world, more patient, more loving towards people with different backgrounds and cultures than my own and aware of how fortunate I was to be born in the United States.
Five years ago our Peace Corps group, or PC2’s as we called ourselves, had a reunion in Chicago. We reminisced, we cried, we laughed, we listened, and each one of us there had been changed and had become a better person by that experience in Ethiopia more than 25 years ago. We felt we had left good impressions of the U.S., but we knew those two years had helped each of us far more than we had helped anyone there. There was still that great bond between us just as there had been when the 100 of us stepped onto that plane bound for Ethiopia. And there is also a bond between the many Ethiopians that we meet each year when my husband and I celebrate our wedding anniversary at one of the many Ethiopian restaurants here in the D.C. area.
I learned another language, experienced another culture, where living conditions and traditions were quite different from ours, and I grew to be a better person. And for all this, I’m thankful to President John F. Kennedy.