Lost Letter From Maria Thomas (Ethiopia)


The Peace Corps Writers’ Maria Thomas Fiction Award is named after the novelist Maria Thomas [Roberta Worrick (Ethiopia 1971–73)] who was the author of a well-reviewed novel, Antonia Saw the Oryx First,  and two collections of short stories — Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage and African Visas — all set in Africa. Roberta and Tom Worrick were married with a young son when they went to Ethiopia as a married couple with the Peace Corps. After their tour, they continued to live and work in Liberia and again to Ethiopia. This time Tom was working for US AID.

In addition to her life as a wife, mother, and PCV, Roberta Worrick was a wonderful writer. Her stories appeared in Redbook, Story and The New Yorker. She was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and received an Overseas Press Club’s commendation for reportage in Harper’s. She was coming into her own as a literary figure when her life was cut short.

Maria Thomas

Maria Thomas

Roberta was only 47 when she was killed on August 7, 1989, in a plane crash near Gambela, in western Ethiopia. She was working as a translator and traveling with her husband, Tom Worrick, who at the time was the Deputy Director of USAID in Addis Ababa. Roberta and Tom went down in the crash that also killed Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas. They were on their way to inspect a famine distribution center.  A total of sixteen people lost their lives on that flight.

A year before her death, she wrote a letter to Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64) who was returning to Ethiopia with the late Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 1962-64). It was a long letter of advice to Dick, who she knew. Recently Dick found the letter and has kindly agreed that I might publish it on the site. The letter is valuable in that it gives a ground-view photo of what Ethiopia was like in the midst of the Derg, the short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that ruled Ethiopia 1974 to 1987. The Derg embraced communism and remained in power until 1987. It is said that during these years, the Derg executed and imprisoned tens of thousands of its opponents without trial.

February 4, 1988

Dear Richard:

A quick answer: I know what it’s like to be longing for Ethiopia.

If you come here in the guise of a tourist hoping to get material for an article/articles, it will be extremely expensive, as you will have to work through the National Tourist Organization (NTO) or you will not be able to move outside of Shoa, possibly even Addis. Sadly, it’s true: Ethiopia is a Fascist police state. Mengestu makes HIM look like the Howdy Doody Show. No one moves freely in Ethiopia. This is one of the essentials of tyranny. You must have a permit to go out of Shoa and that’s that. NTO can get you such permits, given time and money, but you will travel by plane and stay in their hotels. In fact, ferengis who do not have residence cards MUST pay their bills with NTO checks or foreign exchange and there are rates for Ethiopians and different rates for us. With NTO, you must stay in government hotel. You must also be accompanied by a minder to keep you from nosing about where you shouldn’t. This may not be what you have in mind.Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage

However, do not despair. There may be a way. I would suggest that you do some research on the Non-government Organizations (NGO’s) that are working here (like CARE, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Red Cross, Lutheran World Federation, Baptist Missions) because they are the ones who are currently distributing the US food relief. This is because the US cannot give food directly to the Ethiopian Government. It has to be with Brook Amendments. If all this sounds like news to you, I suggest you get some background though I’m not sure how. Maybe by writing to these organizations. Also Oxfam. It may be that some of these NGO’s would like a little publicity and would sponsor your visit. You would have to stay away from politics. They would not pay you anything. They would most likely only be interested in you IF you had some editors lined up or had definite newspaper connections. If you came in as their guests, they would get you the permits and would provide one of their staff as minder, maybe see to your transport. This is merely a guess on my part and the way I would approach the project. The two most active NGOs in the Gondar area (I was just there!) are Food for the Hungry International and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (because of the Falasha) although they have to call themselves American Joint Distribution Committee (my son thinks it’s hilarious, about the joints) because of politics. I am enclosing the local addresses of some of the American NGO’s for you. They also keep international headquarters but I don’t have those addresses. Willet Weeks who directs Save The Children/USA’s programs here was a Peace Corps Vol. Maybe you know him. There main office is in Connecticut. Their major work is in Shoa. CARE works in Harrage.africanvisas

If you can get some kind of sponsor so that you do not come in as a tourist, then you should have a chance. Otherwise you will not be able to travel by road at all. And the planes are tricky. You could end up in Gondar with NTO by getting off the plane, turning around and getting back on without even so much as a glimpse at a castle. It happened to the parents of a friend a few weeks ago. Because of “security.” If you think it was bad dealing with Haile Selassie’s minions in the bureaucracy, you aint seen nothing. Marxism-Leninism has proved to be fertilized for the worst traits of feudal Ethiopia — jealousy, suspicion, intrigue, procrastination. There is no simple way of bribing a driver (GOOD LORD DO YOU DARE?) No, no, I don’t advise any illegal activities in places such as this one. We just spent ten days on the road and did not see anyone that remotely resembled a tourist let alone any vehicles that were not Government, Embassy, or NGO. Ethiopians don’t get any petrol. Neither does NTO, poor sods. In fact we were stuck in Barhar Dar (where there was no beer) for a day trying to convince the commissioner of petrol to honor our diplomatic permit allowing us to buy petrol outside of Addis. You can give up any ideas you have about going into the north unless you cross over from Sudan. NO ONE is allowed there, most probably because the Ethiopians themselves are not in control. We have heard that Tigray is issuing its own passports and permit, min a min. The bridge that would get you from Gondar into Tigray is down. I know of no one except Catholic Relief Services and Oxfam that are allowed any kind of movement up there. Also, there are no “feeding centers” at this time. There may be some people gathering at Korem but rumors have it that they are being dispersed. No one knows really. Catholic Relief keeps its mouth shut in order, perhaps, to stay in good graces. But, in any case, the early warning system and the timely delivery of relief supplies has, so far, prevented a return to the situation of the “camp” such as Ibnat and Korem. At least so far.

Anyway, you should TRY to come. You will not regret it. I’m sure you must remember how frustrating Ethiopia can be. Like gursha and friendship, as the saying goes, you must suffer for it. Americans are loved. If you have been a Peace Corps teacher, well then…..I wish I could offer you some kind of logistic support but I can’t. You may not be able to get it together by May, but you shouldn’t come without laying some groundwork otherwise you will have problems.

The Iteque, by the way, is still extent, but called Taitu now and is painted but otherwise the same except that it costs more like $50 birr a day instead of (as I recall) $2.50.

Good luck,







One Comment

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  • Awesome…a must read! Thanks John, answers my question, “where would any of us be, had there never been a Peace Corps?” Bob

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