I was among about 140 Peace Corps volunteers, mainly in our early twenties and graduates of Ivy League colleges, small never heard of private schools, a few large public universities, and a small number of historic black colleges and universities, went to Ethiopia as the second group of PCV teachers in the fall of 1963.
Most of us had to examine our atlases to find Ethiopia on the map. Only one of us had ever been to Africa — Haskell Ward (Ethiopia 1963-65) a graduate of Clark Atlanta University, who had spent a summer in Kenya with Operation Crossroads Africa, a model for the Peace Corps.
We had two months of Peace Corps training at UCLA studying Ethiopian culture, history and Amharic, the Ethiopian language. Our Amharic instructors, all young graduate students studying in American universities initially assumed that I was one of them, a habersha or someone from the north of Ethiopia. They were confused about my face or fite, as I resembled many Ethiopians from that region of the Empire.
Following training, we departed for Ethiopia from New York only days after the historic August 28 March for Freedom and Jobs in Washington. After refueling in Rome and an overnight stay in Athens, we landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on September 11, 1963, Ethiopia’s New Year’s Day.
Although there were only seven or eight African Americans in the group, good luck led me to be the first Volunteer off the plane where I was met by our American Ambassador Edward Korry. He had me pose with him for a photograph.
Excited to be in Africa, even though I did not have any idea where in the vast continent were my roots. (Later, DNA analysis revealed the Mandinka areas of West Africa as well as two percent from East Africa, perhaps Ethiopia). All I knew was that at that moment that I, at age twenty-two, was HOME.
After settling into our temporary home at Haile Selassie University, I ventured into the streets to practice my limited Amharic. Spotting a fashionably dressed gentleman, I bravely said, Yik’erita, marcato yet naw? (Excuse me, where is the market?) He responded in English! The market was closed for the holiday, he told me. Then the gentleman took me to the home of his friend whose kind family provided me with my first doro wat meal (chicken stew, boiled egg and injera, a sour fermented flatbread.) The spicy dish had my forehead sweating and my nose running.
The Emperor’s Palace
A few days later we met Haile Selassie at the Imperial Palace. King of kings, Emperor of Emperors, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Small in height, but majestic in greeting us, he presented the male volunteers with cufflinks in onyx embossed with a lion image. I cannot recall the gift the women received.
Then, individually, we met the Emperor. Wanting to speak in my Amharic, I uttered Ba Ethiopia basu k’oniko zafochos alla naw (In Ethiopia, there are many beautiful trees). He replied allau (there are). I humbly said yik’erita. He softly responded turu naw (it is good). I believed he was pleased that there were some black volunteers among the new Peace Corps Volunteers.
I was assigned to teach world geography and European history at Atse Yohannes Secondary School in Mekelle in the province of Tigray near Eritrea. Mekelle was a sleepy town with one paved street, electricity from 6 PM to midnight, a few bars that played Motown songs, and no entertainment besides Peace Corps parties with invited local teachers or hospital workers. Ethiopian women did not attend our parties as dating was taboo.
Our female Volunteers were called prostitutes for going to bars and an Ethiopian female teacher at my school who came to my house for lunch, was as called that as well, but she was not from Mekelle and had little concern about public rebuke.
Mekelle was under the leadership of Ras (governor) Menghesha Seyoum and his wife Princess Aida Desta, the emperor’s granddaughter. Peace Corps Volunteers sang carols in front of their palace at Christmas, 1963. The royal couple was Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic Christians, but I doubt if they were familiar with “Frosty the Snow Man” and other secular songs. They probably knew the concept if not the words to “Away in a Manger.”
Another time they graciously invited Peace Corps volunteers to the palace for the wedding of their daughter. That night, the lights remained on until 2 AM. PCV Joe Ryan (Ethiopia 1963-65) and I arrived dressed in the Ethiopian fashion of a long-sleeved, knee-length shirt and matching pants.
On my trip to the governor’s palace, I was given ears of corn because he knew that Americans enjoyed corn on the cob. Unfortunately, boiling the corn did not produce tenderness probably because it was probably a variety meant for animal feed. At another time, I sat on the palace steps holding in my hands a lion cub like it was a sweet little kitten.
My last contact with Governor Seyoum was in 1965 when he invited me to go hunting at a lower altitude one Saturday. (Mekelle was nearly 7,000 feet above sea level.) In the typical custom of ishi negga (o.k. tomorrow), a precise time was not given. Having gone hunting before, I knew that it was about a two-hour trip to see any dik-dik (a small antelope). About three o’clock, I decided that it was too late to go that day because we would not have time to hunt and return before dark when driving was prohibited due to low visibility in the highlands, and the possibility of shiftas (bandits), so I went out for a long walk. Upon returning, an anxious and clearly perplexed student told me that the governor came looking for me. Maybe the governor was going to have us spend the night camping and hunt in the morning. I never found out as we never spoke again. For me, it was a lesson in cultural misunderstandings.
On February 7, 1965, Haile Selassie brought Queen Elisabeth and Prince Philip to Axum, the ancient capital. Axum had ancient mammoth stele (obelisks) that were a testament to ancient engineering. A 79 ft. stele had been transported to Rome in 1937, following the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Its return to Axum in 2005 was met with joyful enthusiasm.
Some volunteers, including Judy Hopkins (Ethiopia 1963-65), and I traveled the sixty-five miles from Mekele to see royalty who came to dedicate the church Mary of Zion where Ethiopians believe the Ark of Covenant is protected by a single priest.
The faithful believe that the footprints of Jesus are visible in the hills outside of Axum. Religious orthodoxy prevented women from entering churches and monasteries, but a special ruling afforded the Queen (and female volunteers) this honor. Lax security provided us with an opportunity to walk besides British magazine photographers taking photos of Her Majesty as well as the Emperor of Ethiopia.
Spotting Prince Philip, I said too loudly to Judy Hopkins, “let’s talk to the Prince.” He turned and said, “talk to my wife, she is more interesting.” Who amongst us is aware of diplomatic protocol at age twenty- three?
My next encounter with Haile Selassie was months later, about late April, when Gwen Clark (Ethiopia 1963-65) and I went to Dessie to embark on a three-day walk to Lalibela. We spent the night in Dessie with a missionary couple and their teenage daughter. They were polite but not curious about Peace Corps. In fairness, we did not ask about their missionary efforts.
The trek was difficult as it was in an arid area with an elevation as high as 11, 000 feet. We had to walk through a small stream where the knee-high water necessitated the removal of our socks and boots, much to the amusement of our guide who was wearing sandals. Initially, Gwen absolutely refused to ride on the donkey we had hired, heeding a mother’s warning to never ride on a donkey, but then, with her mother being in Florida, her weary legs, and anticipation of relief, Gwen relented, then refusing to get off the donkey for the rest of the trip despite my pleas for her to share.
On the final day of the trek, hordes of women, oblivious to the rocky terrain, walked barefoot past us to reach Lalibela with its thirteenth-century rock-carved churches, a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia.
Close to the monolithic churches, we saw a Land Rover with a lone passenger: Haile Selassie.
Lalibela had a new hotel where we had planned to spend our meager Peace Corps earnings to get separate rooms, eagerly hoping for hot water and decent food.
Alas, the rewards of royalty had no restrictions.
The entire hotel was reserved for the Emperor. Like Mary and Joseph without a child, there was no room for us in the inn! With faint memory, I recall we somehow ended up sleeping in our sleeping bags on a kind family’s floor. Gwen kept saying that I should tell them that we are not married, but not knowing the Amharic word for marriage, and fearing that the conservative hosts could not find a separate place for me, I ignored her; the kind woman cooked a chicken for us.
We did not see the emperor anymore before our departure.
By luck, Gwen saw an Ethiopian who she knew who lived in Dessie. He offered us a ride which we gladly accepted. I found our guide and paid him the agreed-upon fee. The half-day drive over 173 miles of a poorly maintained “road” was a tolerable alternative to three days walking.
Today, Lalibela is a major tourist attraction, but then it was the destination of faithful pilgrims. The trek was was potentially dangerous. Our first night out, we were in a truck stop where about a dozen men rested for the night. Both Gwen and I could have been subjected to violence and robbery, and during the trip, I thought about being attacked by hyenas with their powerful jaws, or of being left in the world with no Moses to show us the promised land.
My Peace Corps service ended in July 1965 and I believed that was the end of my encounters with Haile Selassie. I was mistaken.
In early May 1968, I received a surprise as I taxied from the airport in Thailand for Bangkok. The highway to the city was lined with Ethiopian flags for Haile Selassie, who had just ended a state visit.
While living in Mekele
The emperor had been an autocratic monarch who mixed ruthless repression with limited reforms. He was revered by many and despised in secret loathing by others. A popular expression was Haile Selassie yimuti (may Haile Selassie die if I lie.) For others in Tigray and non-Amhara areas, contempt prevailed for Amharas and the Amharic language which was taught in schools and was the country’s official language.
My face resembled Ethiopian’s and I was challenged several times in Tigray and Eritrea, which then was part of Ethiopia. I was told in Asmara, Eritrea that Amharic was a dirty language. A woman in Tessenei, at the Sudanese border angrily accosted me, Anta Amhara nuh? (Are you an Amhara?) She brightly smiled when I replied, yellum, ine Americani nenyi (No, I am an American). Walking with close friends in Mekelle, confident that I was not a CIA operative, they would mutter softly “rag” when the Ethiopian flag was lowered at dusk.
A decade after my departure from Ethiopia Haile Selassie was executed in 1975 which ended the Solomonic dynasty which traced its origin to Menelik, the son of King Solomon and Mekeda, The Queen of Sheba. He was overthrown by a Marxist-Leninist junta — the Derg (chillingly depicted in Haile Germina’s 2008 film, Teza),
After the vicious Derg was defeated in a rebellion in 1991, Tigray prospered and Tigrayians became the government. Mekelle put behind its sleepy town existence. The population rose from 20,000 in the early 1960s to over 500,000. Palm trees were imported, a soccer stadium, an expanded airport, quality hotels, bars and a law school at Mekelle University enhanced the ambiance of the metropolis.
Ousted in national elections in 2008, Tigrayians feared their loss of influence as new leadership opted to move to a centralized government over the previous federal system. War broke out in November 2020 between the central elected government and Tigray over policy differences. Tigray was attacked and Mekelle, the capital was victimized by rapes and destruction of property. Young male civilians were routinely assaulted and killed. Atrocities committed by both sides have led to destroyed bridges that prevent delivery of medicine and food and the prospect of starvation has become imminent. Recently Tigray forces took back Mekelle, and started a front against the northern regions of Amhara and Afar.
Lalibela, now a United Nations heritage site, was taken by forces from Tigray alarming many. A recent alliance between Tigray and rebellious factions in southern Ethiopia may turn the Horn of Africa into another Yugoslavia with festering ethnic tensions resulting in a weakened if not destroyed Ethiopia.
I started this essay with my remembrances of Haile Selassie. His execution not only ended the Solomonic dynasty, but also led to the scattering of his immediate family. Governor Seyoum was ordered by the Derg in 1974 to report to Addis Ababa to face charges of corruption. Instead, he fled in exile and today, at age ninety- three lives part-time in northern Virginia. His wife, Princess Aida refused to accompany him and chose to stay with her family, which resulted in her imprisonment for fourteen years. The sweet lady saw me playing with a child in the palace in Mekele and suggested that I should get married since I liked children. I was twenty-three but appreciated her interest.
Finally, because I live in New York City I meet Rastafarians (Haile Selassie which means ‘power of the trinity was known as Ras Tafari) who are in respectful awe of my photos of the emperor and know that we met. There is a room in my home set aside for Ethiopian artifacts with photos of Ethiopian children, books on Axum, Lalibela, several Coptic crosses, and religious art. But visitors are struck by several prominently displayed photos of the Lion of Judah. I see them every evening before retiring from my library for bed.
William Seraile (Ethiopia 1963-65) is from Seattle, Washington, and graduated from Central Washington University in 1963, After the Peace Corps, he attended Teachers College at Columbia University, graduating in 1967. He then served with the International Voluntary Services in Vietnam from 1967–68, and earned his Doctorate on American History, with a minor in African history, from the City University of New York in 1977. For 36 years he taught African American history and culture at Lehman College, City University of New York. The father of a daughter and son, he is the grandfather of four and lives in Harlem, New York.
While serving with International Voluntary Services in Vietnam, 1967-1968 where he witnessed close up the Tet Offensive. He taught English in a Vietnamese secondary school, but volunteered for six weeks to assist American medical staff in the operating ward of Can Tho’s regional civilian hospital. He received several Peace Corps awards as well as awards for teaching and research.
He traveled throughout Ethiopia (1963-1965) visiting ten of the then fourteen provinces, as far north as Tesseni, Asmara, and Massawa. In the south, he visited Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Harar, and Jimma. His visits in the west were to Lalibela, Gondar, and Lake Tana. This Ethiopian experience started him on a journey to research African and African American history which led to a doctorate and college teaching and publications in African American history.