Review — IT ATE ONE HUNDRED by Bill Sugrue (Ethiopia )

 

 

It Ate One Hundred
By Bill Sugrue (Ethiopia 1969-73)
Self-Published
223 pages
May 2019
$8.99 (paperback)

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.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

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  • I appreciate Phillip LeBel’s very positive comments about my book. He is clearly, from experience, conversant with the cfosscultural impact of a tour of duty in the Peace Corps. Aa a friend recently observed, “If the Peace Corps doesn’t change you, you haven’t been paying attention.”

    I would like to offer a clarification, however,. The story of the meto bila was told to me by an old man about something that happened when he was a small boy, maybe 70 or 89 years before my time in Ethiopia. And it took place, not in Wajifo,, which is located in the Rift Valley in southern Ethiopia, but in the highlands of north central Ethiopia. ‘Not very important as far as the gist of the story is concerned but it will make more sense to anyone who may happen to be familiar with topography of the area in which Wajifo is located and the degree of sophistication of the farmers whi lived there in my time.

    ‘This is a clarification, not a complaint. Please tolerate my concern with such details. And thanks again.

  • I really enjoyed this memoir and felt like I was in Bill’s shoes, having had a similar experiences living in a village nearly 50 years later. Great story telling and writing style. Congratulations on putting down all these memories in detail and with strong character depth. I have a lot of admiration for the Peace Corps volunteers who served before all the technology was available to distract us.

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