“Remembering Ethiopia” John Coyne (Ethiopia)

John writes —


The Commercial School

The only Peace Corps official to visit my classroom at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was Sargent Shriver. In November, 1962, he saw my tenth graders among other Volunteer classrooms he was visiting in his swing through East Africa. In his usual manner, he came rushing through the classroom door with his hand outstretched and bursted out, “Hi, I’m Sarge Shriver.” I flippantly replied, “No kidding?” It was uttered more in surprise than rudeness. I was thrilled by Shriver’s visit. It was the first time my students had been quiet since September.

Harris Wofford and Sarge Shriver in Addis Ababa, relaxing on the lawn of the American Embassy and talking to a small cluster of PCVs.

To rescue myself and the class, I  asked Sarge to tell my students about the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and his trip, and he told us all about seeing the Emperor, and having told His Majesty that there would be another 200 PCVs coming to the Empire the next fall. Our first group of PCVs numbered just under three hundred.

In the silence that followed Sarge’s remarks, I decided to conduct a short language drill to demonstrate the  students’ command of the English language, and also to get the students involved in  the class. And for the fun of it, I  threw in a few Amharic words for Shriver to repeat. He was game to the quiz, but I don’t know if the students really understood anything Shriver said; his eastern accent might have been too much for them.

Watching all of this was my Headmaster, Ato [Mr.] Seifu Fellake.

Teaching and teachers

Our Headmaster, Ato Seifu, was born in Harar, Ethiopia. He had studied at the Teacher Training College in Addis, and then the University of Delhi in India.

Within months of returning from India, he had become the Headmaster of the Commercial School, the only such institution in Ethiopia. Then in the summer of 1962, when our first 300  Peace Corps Volunteers were in Training at Georgetown University, Seifu was involved with the selection of PCVs for Ethiopia. Later in the decade he would visit Training sites in Cambridge and Utah. When five of us started teaching at the Commercial School in the fall of ’62 he was 33 years old and our Headmaster.

Besides myself, the other PCVs teaching at the Commercial School were: Sam Fisk, Charlotte Crawford, Neil Boyer and  Wanda Socha. We knew how lucky we were to be assigned to this school. Many people considered it the finest secondary school in Ethiopia. Certainly it had the finest Ethiopian Headmaster, Ato Seifu.

For example, when I went into Seifu’s office to complain about not being able to reach all my students, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and told me how we — the PCVs — were examples of successful  people who had achieved much in the world. We would teach these students, he said, just by being in Ethiopia, by living among them. He told me to relax, to enjoy life in Addis Ababa.

A little over a year after leaving Addis Ababa, I returned to Ethiopia on the  Peace Corps staff as an Associate Director. One of the first things I did was visit the Commercial School to see Ato Seifu. By then, he had a whole ‘set’ of new PCV teachers, that he had been involved with ‘selecting’ to teach at the school.

I asked Seifu if he had also been involved with selecting us — the first five PCV teachers —  and he nodded yes. The teachers were: Wanda Socha. (Seifu, for some reason, and always to our amusement, called her ‘Socha Wanda.’) Wanda was 50 when she went to Ethiopia. She had her degrees in marketing from Utica College and a M.S. in education from Syracuse. Her work experience was as an accountant and teaching general business and secretarial science at technical institutes.

The next oldest was Charlotte Crawford. Charlotte was 35. Her degree in business education was from NYU. Charlotte had also worked as a secretary to a school principal and taught business skills for high school students.

Neil Boyer  had a B.S. from Moravian College in Pennsylvania, and a brand new LL.B. from New York University. Neil also had taken courses in American foreign policy at the New School in New York, worked as a law clerk, and been an assistant to a New York City councilman. While in college, he was the editor of his college weekly and the New York School Journal. Neil would teach at the Commercial School for just a year, and then was moved by Harris Wofford  to work as a lawyer with the Ethiopian government.

Our youngest PCV teacher was Sam Fisk. Sam was 22, a graduate with a B.S. in political science from Brown University, who had done a year of graduate school at Columbia University before going into Training that summer of ’62. Sam had been the editor of Brown’s yearbook and a weekly newspaper in New Jersey. Besides that, at the Commercial School, he started a student’s choir. Sam loved to sing.

My undergraduate degree in English was from Saint Louis University, and my Masters from Western Michigan, where I had also taught high school juniors while I was a grad student.

Teachers everywhere learn their own techniques, and in many ways, teaching is a discovery of who we are as a person. For me teaching in Ethiopia was difficult, mostly because I was “learning on the job.”

Helping all of us was Ato Seifu, and also Harris Wofford.

Wofford sent us memos every month that had a Knute Rockne quality of half-time pep talk to the Fighting Irish football team! In the memos he would continually re-define the reasons for our being in the Peace Corps, and why we were teaching in Ethiopia. He always could, with his great stretches of imagination and literary allusions, explain how our elementary and secondary school teaching contributed directly to this developing nation’s needs. For example, he once wrote:

The classroom or school in which you are teaching should be, as much as it can be made, a model of the kind of society we and the Ethiopians want to achieve. This is an old proposition. Aristotle saw the Academy as a classic definition of what a university should be, what a school should be, what a government should be. Robert Hutchins is saying the same thing when he says that ours is the civilization of the dialogue.

What I’m suggesting is that our way of education should primarily be education by dialogue . . .. The things learned by lectures, by rote, by drill are generally inconsequential. Only self discovery is consequential. For this, listening and questioning are the special components.

True, there was a lot of questioning going on in my classrooms . . . students’ questions wanted to know why I wasn’t teaching them the same way the Indian teachers taught — lots of writing on the blackboard, lots of drilling them with facts to memorize. Teaching that way wasn’t what I did. I asked the class endless questions, not just memorizing an answer, but rather ponder what I said and debating a possible solution.

At the end of two years at the Commercial School I had no idea if I had taught anyone anything. I left Ethiopia thinking that much of what I had done in the classroom hadn’t worked at all. And the only self discovery was mine.

A Return Visit

I returned to Ethiopia in early 1971. I was on a nine-months swing through twenty-seven countries in Africa writing articles for Dispatch News Service.

During that visit I went to Dire Dawa in southeast Ethiopia. I returned there for a number of reasons, and one was to write about the Continental Hotel that Evelyn Waugh had written about in the 1930s. It was an old rundown hotel, a block south of the railway station. It had a lot of charm, and had been passed over by time.

The Dire Dawa Railway Station

Arriving in Dire Dawa by train I went into the local bank to cash an American Express check. I was waiting for the manager to approve the transaction when a guard motioned that I was to follow him upstairs to the manager’s office. This was a new bank building, small and clean and very modern, and the manager’s office was roomy, air-conditioned, and nicely appointed.

The bank manager stood up as I walked into his office and greeted me with a slight bow and took my hand with both of his, a gesture of Ethiopian respect. He was in his early-twenties and was wearing — as the custom of Ethiopian businessmen —  a white shirt, a necktie, and a dark suit. He offered me tea and a comfortable chair. He seemed absolutely delighted to have me in his office. I wasn’t sure if I was in trouble or about to win the Ethiopian lottery.

He then asked me if I remembered him.

I shook my head and guiltily smiled. It had been a half dozen years since I had been in the country, much longer since I had  last visited Dire Dawa. There wasn’t anything familiar about him.

He told me his name and I slowly shook my head again. Now I was really embarrassed.

He picked up my passport and said how shocked he had been to see my photograph, and that I was in Dire Dawa and in his bank. He kept smiling, saying that I had been his teacher in Class 2C in the Commercial School in 1962. I could not recall his face or the class.

Members of the Commercial School’s Class of 1964

He reached into his desk and pulled out a small, old black-and-white photograph that had been taken at his graduation shortly before I left Ethiopia in 1964. It was a photograph of his class taken in the school’s compound and beside a small statue of Haile Selassie.

I recognized Mabel Burton, the  British teacher, who taught shorthand, in the center of the old photograph, and he pointed out himself, a small, blurry face in the back row.

He then tossed off names of other students in the photo, some of whom I did recall, and told me what they were doing, and which one had left the country. He mentioned the other Peace Corps teachers at the Commercial School, and asked about them. He also recalled with relish the first time I had walked into his classroom and the students stood and I told them that they didn’t have to stand, that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. That never worked. They always stood whenever I–or any teacher–entered the room. And he remembered Shriver’s famous visit in the fall of ’62.

I asked him about his life and he told me how he had gone onto Haile Selassie University and earned a scholarship to Germany. Returning home, he went to work at the Ethiopian bank. He pointed to a family photograph on his desk. Four children and his wife, all dressed in their Sunday best. There was also a photo of his new red automobile. He was standing casually beside it, looking proud. And there was a photo of him in Germany. It was taken in the winter. He was standing out in the snow. I congratulated him on his life and family and successes and apologized for not recalling him. “I was not one of the best students,” he admitted.

Then he said something surprising. He thanked me for coming to Ethiopia to teach. He thanked me for helping him in school, and he gestured at his office. This what he had achieved because of the Peace Corps Volunteer teachers, he said.

I shook my head, and said no Peace Corps Volunteer could or would take credit for the success he had made on his own. He kept protesting as we went down to the main floor and he gave orders to an employee for them to exchange of money that I had requested. Then he accompanied me out onto into the hot afternoon and shook my hand again, saying goodbye, and asking where I was staying.

I told him the Ras, the only hotel at that time with a swimming pool and rooftop bar, the tallest building in Dire Dawa. It was the hotel where all the faranjoch [foreigners] stayed, but not the PCVs.




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  • John,
    It is interesting to lear the Headmasters had a choice in selecting which PCVs taught in their school.
    In Malaysia, assignments were made by the central Ministry of Education.
    Headmasters had no say. I felt sorry for my Headmasters having to find a meaningful position for me when I arrived at their door.
    It provided me with opportunities to learn and I hope my students also learned with me.

  • John, I had some similar experiences teaching in a commercial college in Moshi, Tanzania in 1996. Call Halpern with an MBA out of Pittsburgh and me with a B.A. in Marketing from Oklahoma, neither with any legitimate work experience found ourselves teaching managers of the agricultural cooperatives from all over East Africa. Carl had sold beer at Yankee Stadium, i had caddied at an upscale country club in Dayton, Ohio. Our students were not young impressionable teenagers but instead were men with careers underway, married with children. Still our teaching methodology was much more down to earth than our colleagues from England, Scotland, Germany, and Russia. We met our students in the Bamboo Bar in the evenings and discussed life, politics, religion, and more and learned from them probably more than they from us. I taught bookkeeping and statistics, a subject I had barely passed as an undergrad. Thank goodness Tanzania had gone to the decimal system with their currency after independence. I could never have balanced books with pounds, guineas, shillings, pence, half pennies, and farthings. Any lasting influence we might have had was outside the classroom. Carl became goalie for the school soccer team and wasn’t afraid to skin his elbows on the rough African playing fields. I did more work outside of school by training some local shopkeepers to run their stores with a bit more efficiency. I also coached track and field with some of the local high schools. Golf had also been a favourite pastime for me back home. There was a golf course less than a mile from my Tanzanian dwelling but I never set foot on the course in two years.

    We never were visited by the bigwigs from Washington, but the occasional embassy delegations came to see the college. We were especially happy when the Czechoslovakians came and brought a couple of cases of Pilsner with them.

    Although the cooperative movement died out over the next twenty or so years, our college evolved into a university which still exists in Moshi today.
    George Brose, Tanzania X

  • May 6, 2024


    Thanks for the memories. Rarely does a day go by that Ethiopia doesn’t come to mind.


  • John,

    Thank you for sharing your great memories of Ethiopia. The story is very interesting and reminds me of some of my experiences. You have given so much of your time and provided such a wonderful service for the Peace Corps, RPCVs and the public over these many years that there’s not an adequate way to thank you. Perhaps your membership in a Peace Corps Hall of Fame would be a good way to begin thanking you.

    All the best,

    Ethiopia, Group XIV 1970-72

    • Thanks, Jim. What Marian and I have been trying to do all these years is ‘save’ the experiences we all had. John

  • John,

    Thanks for a great story about your time in Ethiopia. I also left thinking that I had learned more than my students, so it was wonderful to hear that you had made a difference to someone. That is the greatest reward of teaching.


    Suzanne Siegel, Ethik 1

  • John
    Now that is a story. Working on my own and if it ever gets there I will send in.



  • I enjoy your stories, John, and value this forum for sharing I also want to tell story about Harris Wofford — We were together with Harris and Bill Canby in Tessenei, Eritrea in 1962. The Emperor had just “re-joined” Ethiopia and Eritrea after the two countries were separed for 70 years by Italian and British colonial rule over Eritrea. (They split apart again as independent nations 30 years later.) Our group of Americans had taken a hike over boulders that stood above a small hill behind our house on the edge of town. Suddenly, I heard a shout, and then Bill Canby called out: “Don’t worry, guys. It was just Harris Wofford, the Peace Corps Plenipotentiary for all of Africa, who took a spill” Harris emerged with a skinned elbow and a broad, sheepish grin. I felt great affection for both men. who always gave PCV’s the feeling of mutual respect that is a precious gift for any young person who is starting out in life.

  • Great story, John. Over the years, I’ve heard hundreds, if not thousands, of Peace Corps stories, and every one seems to be even better than the last, and almost as good as the next. This is a fabulous one. Thanks for sharing. You are a gifted storyteller.

  • John, you are a master at engaging readers. The opening paragraph I read with fascination and I don’t think I will ever forget the incident you describe. My stendents in Somalia always stood when I entered the classroom. They all shouted in unison “Good morning sir!” I tried many times to correct them, but gave up. I secretly liked it.

  • Thanks for sharing, John. The return visits can be insightful and rewarding. Yes, Peace Corps Volunteers make an impact of some sort; and I believe it is definitely positive.

  • John, your insightful story, particularly your return, is the experience that returned Volunteers aspire to have. Those connections mean everything. Mine didn’t happen, and when I had the chance, I chose to curtail them, and that’s the crux of my story.

    I was a Volunteer in Russia in the mid-90s. I asked for Russia. I wanted to participate in the transformation, the Peace Corps had the best program, and the business advisor project fit my background. My Russia 2 group waited almost two years for our visas. During the delay, I assisted on Rebuild LA, an outgrowth of the LA riots, and the 1994 USA World Cup, and my group left a month later.

    The 2018 World Cup in Russia was the chance to return after almost a quarter-century. From my notes, I identified the names and old addresses of the people I wanted to contact. And I made sure that two of my matches were in my Volunteer cities, Rostov-on-Don in the southwest and Nizhny Novgorod (“Gorky”) along the Volga River in the north. I told friends of my upcoming trip, and one, whom I trust, cautioned me to tread carefully.

    To many Westerners, the 1990s in Russia was a period of hope that dissipated with Putin’s ascension to the Presidency. To many Russians, it was a mixed period of initial hope and ongoing pain. Russians lost the value of their savings and pensions when the ruble collapsed, lost their safety net when, a result of the thrust for privatization, the government would no longer provide housing nor a job nor guarantee wages. The best doctors went private, and their fees made them inaccessible. The Russians did not understand volunteerism, doing something for nothing. While they had a fondness for Americans, many wondered why we were “really” there.

    When I transposed these points onto my visit, I realized that making contact might do more harm than good. People had moved on from that era, perhaps erased it from their past, and I did not want to create unforeseeable repercussions.

    While in Nizhny Novgorod for the USA-England match, I visited two places prominent with us Volunteers. The Duma, or city administration, was an active place for us daily. Yet no old timers recalled the Peace Corps. I visited the Institute (a college of specialized studies) where we had our office. It was a short walk from the apartment of dissident Andre Sakharov, which had been made into a museum. I saw through the Institute’s window our corner office, now a classroom. A long-time teacher was called to the entrance, and I asked her, in my surprisingly returning Russian, if she recalled Korpus Myra. Nyet, and she didn’t recall Americans in the building. She called a woman who had been a student there in the mid-1990s, and she had the same reply.

    Using my Russia visa, I returned twice, for the Russian winter and for spring, and I also visited Belarus (“The 2019 European Games in Minsk”). I made new friends in both countries, and we emailed back and forth until about six months ago, when I no longer received replies, and I decided that I might do them harm if I continued.

    So, John, I envy the uplifting experience that you, and so many past Volunteers, have had upon returning. I miss that, of course, and the reason why it won’t happen is part of modern Russian history.

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