It Ate One Hundred
By Bill Sugrue (Ethiopia 1969-73)
Reviewed by Phillip LeBel (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Bill Sugrue, a career Foreign Service Officer with USAID, has written a memoir of his four-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village of Wajifo, in southern Ethiopia. Covering the 1969-1973 years, his account displays the enthusiasm and frustrations of rural life in Ethiopia at a time when elsewhere in the U.S. the Vietnam war and racial conflicts were dividing the country. His account evokes the emotional attachment that so many experienced when confronting their sense of personal identity in a developing country context. It is an engaging account, full of humor, sadness, and joy that unfold through a series of events that are recounted in discrete anecdotes.
The title itself suggests the humor found in a cross-cultural experience. Local villagers, whose farming lives rarely came across motorized transport or airplanes, thought these things as alien to their experience, even endowed with spiritual power that should be guarded against. In Addis Ababa, the word “automobile” was commonplace, and when local villagers heard the word, they thought it meant meto bila, meaning “It Ate a Hundred”. When a Land Rover once brought visitors to Wajiro, locals thought it was possessed, and after forcing the driver and riders out, they stabbed, beat, and eventually forced the vehicle into a local stream. They considered this to be a good deed and told the visitors that they had helped to save them. This account is not unlike the tone found in the film The Gods Must be Crazy, when bottles of coke fall from an airplane on local villagers ina southern Africa.
Sugrue’s account displays the innocence and fragility of local villagers over episodes of crop harvests, feasts, death, and dangers from wildlife. Snakes, hippos, lions, insects, and the like can be found shaping and shaking the lives of locals and visitors alike. It also conveys moral encounters with matters of honor that cannot fail to touch an attentive reader. In the end, it shows how meaningful and transformative the Peace Corps experience has been for many, which in his case, no doubt affected his choice of a development administrator career.
Privately published in May, 2019, Sugrue’s book is a delightful and touching commentary on his experience years ago. The Epilogue shows how much has changed since then but that for friendships once established, they endure a lifetime.
Phillip LeBel (Ethiopia 1965-67) taught in the village of Emdeber, and later was a contract teacher for the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. He is an Emeritus Professor of Economics of Montclair State University, and author of A Brief Relation of the State of Delmareve and Energy Economics and Technology. As an international consultant to USAID, the U.S. State Department, UNESCO, FAO, the Ford Foundation he has travel to 30 counties in Africa, and also India, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, and Haiti. Phil is fluent in Amharic, Guraginya, French and Wolof.