Experiences in Ethiopia Enriched My Life
Jim Skelton (Ethiopia 1970-72)
It all began when, as a young boy, I was held spellbound by President John F. Kennedy’s historic inauguration speech on January 20, 1961. JFK’s incredibly inspiring words about doing something for my country made quite an impression on me, even more than I realized at the time. Less than two months later, on March 1, 1961, he signed Executive Order 10924 establishing the Peace Corps, and since then nearly a quarter of a million citizens have followed his vision by joining and serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in 133 countries around the world.
I was one of those who continued to feel drawn by that vision, and those stirring words stayed with me through high school and college until I finally understood that was how I could do something meaningful with my life. So, I applied to become a PCV in March 1970 and the adventure began soon thereafter when I was accepted into the training program for Peace Corps Ethiopia and met my fellow Group XIV trainees in Atlanta, Georgia for staging in October 1970. The group consisted of both a Rural Development and a Smallpox section, the latter of which was viewed as more important because they would work in the Smallpox Eradication Program. I was one of the RD trainees, and was assigned to be the accountant for the USAID-sponsored Food for Work Program in Mekelle, Tigray. I liked everyone I met during staging and just knew that was what I was meant to do – I felt like I belonged.
It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been over 50 years since I first stepped on the tarmac at Haile Selassie Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, not knowing what challenges I would face or how I would handle them. Those first memories associated with our arrival in Ethiopia remain quite vivid. I can still visualize some of the astonishing sights that marked the first hour of our introduction to Addis on October 30, 1970. There was the edgy lion that was kept in a large cage outside the airport terminal, the struggling women who carried huge jugs of water on their heads as they trod along the side of the road, the men urinating on the sidewalks, and the herds of sheep being directed along the busy, crowded city streets as we passed by in our bus on the way to the Plaza Hotel in the Piazza area.
That was all part of my initial exposure to culture shock Ethiopian style, which lasted longer than I thought it would. Slowly, I began to focus on the important things instead of the differences between Ethiopia’s unique culture and the USA. The establishment of friendships among the trainees was the first building block of acceptance, followed by the appreciation for and friendship with our Ethiopian language trainers. We didn’t see the Smallpox trainees very often during the 3-month language and cultural training process, but all of us were sworn in as official PCVs on February 1, 1971.
The job in Mekelle never materialized because the head of the local Ministry of Agriculture office made sure there was essentially nothing for me to do. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to the Smallpox Eradication Program (SEP) in Addis Ababa as one of the Operations Officers assigned to the headquarters office. Thus began a great opportunity to participate in a dynamic and crucial project that was part of the World Health Organization’s worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox from the face of the Earth. I dedicated myself to doing the most that I could to make the reporting and accounting for the SEP more effective, and eventually I fit in well enough to be treated like one of the regulars. Once again, I felt like I belonged! And I learned quickly that the guys working in the field, Ethiopian health workers and American PCVs alike, were heroes.
I was lucky to get to know some of the Ethiopian sanitarians and PCVs very well and developed friendships with a lot of them. I also formed a bond with Teferi Seyoum, the kind Ethiopian office manager for whom I worked, and Dr. Ciro de Quadros, the brilliant WHO Epidemiologist in charge of field operations in Ethiopia, with whom I shared an office. When I terminated in 1972 and returned to the States I hoped to stay in touch with all of my friends, and I did.
It had always been a dream of mine to go to law school and become a lawyer, and that’s what I intended to do after I got home. Due to my Peace Corps Ethiopia experience, however, my goals had changed – I wanted to be a lawyer who dealt with international transactions. Eventually, I graduated with honors from law school and earned a Master of Laws degree in International Legal Studies, and I was on my way. My practice in international energy transactions took me all over the world, including trips to many countries in Africa, but not Ethiopia, unfortunately.
Over the years, the memories of my Peace Corps experiences and friends remained extremely important to me. In an attempt to act on those memories, I organized a 10-year reunion in Atlanta in October 1980, which was attended by several RD and Smallpox RPCVs. A few years later I decided to write a memoir about volunteering in Ethiopia, and it was published in 1991. In 2011, Ciro and I organized a small reunion of Ethiopia SEP RPCVs at Ciro’s home in Washington, D.C. There were ten attendees, most of whom were from Group XIV.
In what I considered to be the ultimate way of memorializing what we accomplished in Ethiopia, I invited many of my RPCV friends to join me in writing a book about the SEP in Ethiopia, and 14 of them agreed to participate. The SEP Ethiopia book project began in May 2014 and the paperback version of the anthology, with 21 chapters, was published in December 2019 (the eBook version was published in April 2000). With that achievement, I felt like we had truly begun to fulfill what JFK said was the third goal of the Peace Corps: “strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples.” One way of accomplishing that is to bring the Peace Corps home to America in the form of a book such as ours.
Jim Skelton was the lead editor and a co-author of the anthology entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which was given the 2020 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award. Jim is semi-retired, having practiced law for over 45 years, specializing in international energy transactions in emerging markets. He served as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center from 2008 to 2016. He has published a legal textbook, a Peace Corps memoir, 25 articles for legal periodicals and books, as well as several book reviews for Peace Corps Worldwide.