Letters from a Wondrous Empire: An Epistolary Memoir
by Cynthia Nelson Mosca (Ethiopia 1967–69)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
$14.99 (paperback), $3.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by William Hershey (Ethiopia 1968-70)
It took more than 50 years and the COVID-19 Pandemic, but Cynthia Nelson Mosca has written a memoir that captures the best of what it meant to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia in the late 1960s.
Cindy didn’t spend half a century writing the book. Her life, especially directing an ESL (English as a second language) bilingual program in Cicero, Illinois, was too full and busy for that. The book is based on letters she sent home to her family while teaching at a secondary school in Woldia, a small town in northern Ethiopia, from 1967 to 1969.
Before her aunt and mother died, they gave her all the letters. Until early 2020 and the start of the pandemic, she had never read them. She found the time and made them the basis for an account of a “transformative” experience for a girl raised in rural Wisconsin who got swept up in Camelot idealism
What helps her memoir is the use of contemporary postscripts after most letters — the perspectives of a 76-year-old woman looking back at the observations of a 23- and 24-year-old young adventurer.
An early letter captures her arrival in Woldia at a “nice house made of chicka (straw and mud with a few surprises.)” She began teaching English, geography and history to students without textbooks. At home she and her housemate Lynne struggled to cope with the fleas that infested their straw mattresses.
Her letters matter-of-factly describe the transition she made from a life of American ease and convenience to roughing it Ethiopian style. There was no electricity during her first year and the power in the second year was unreliable. Running water and indoor plumbing were not available. She paid a woman to carry water from a river and used an outhouse.
The best way to keep in touch with the outside world was with Aerograms, thin prepaid mailers that folded up so that “the recipient had to be very careful to slice them open, not tear them open, or part of the letter would be lost.”
The only phone in town was associated with the post office.
Traveling outside Woldia was a chore. It took two days by bus on a dirt road to get to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Looking back in one of her postscripts, Cindy recalled that there had been moments of “disquiet and even homesickness” but also that she and Lynne were determined to keep each other’s spirits up and provide the teaching that her students deserved.
Her letters also describe the relationships she learned to navigate at her school and in town. At school there were three other Peace Corps volunteers, two teachers from India, an Indian school director and Ethiopian teachers, including university students performing a year of national service. Woldia also had a Lutheran mission.
Peace Corps teachers could either tiptoe tentatively toward cross-cultural relationships outside the classroom or plunge ahead. Cindy plunged and was glad that she did.
“I had the attitude that wherever you are, you need to get to know the community,” she observed in a postscript.
The letters show that she generously shared time and resources with her students, working in the library and providing special help with art projects in addition to teaching. But they also reveal a willingness to not only share what she had but to welcome offerings from coworkers and the Ethiopians she met in her daily life.
This showed a respect for the Ethiopians and their culture that sometimes was hard to grasp for Peace Corps volunteers focused only on doing good, with no room to learn from their hosts.
A passage in one letter about a bus trip with a friend was one of my favorites:
At noon, the bus stopped for a short while. Here the driver insisted we have a beer. Neither of us wanted a beer but you can’t refuse to drink it when it’s right in front of you.
There was a happy sequel to the beer invitation. On a later bus trip, Cindy was offered Fanta orange soda as a treat.
Cindy’s mostly cheery letters home, her fond recollections more than 50 years later and the contributions she made as a volunteer wouldn’t have been possible without a difficult decision she made during training in Salt Lake City, Utah. Here’s how she described it:
Near the end of our training, I found myself sitting across from my room, sitting on the bathroom floor, bleeding and bewildered. The man responsible was one of my instructors. What happened to me in the dormitory of the university would now be called ‘date rape,’ but at that time we had no labels.
She told no one and forged ahead.
“Nothing was going to stop me from going to Ethiopia,” she wrote.
She went, but the experience stuck with her.
“It took me years to sort this out, and it took help from a therapist. Am I done?” she wrote. “Never, I’m a work in progress.”
William Hershey was a Peace Corps teacher in Dabat, Ethiopia (1968-1970) and also a Peace Corps trainer in Nazareth, Ethiopia in 1973. He is the author of three books: Mr. Chairman: The Life and Times of Ray C. Bliss (with John C. Green) (2017);Quick & Quotable: Columns from Washington, 1985-1997 (2020) and Profiles in Achievement: The Gifts, Quirks and Foibles of Ohio’s Best Politicians (2021). He is retired from a 40-year career as a newspaper reporter.