Monday, November 21
I served with the Peace Corps as a music teacher in Ethiopia with the first group to go there, from 1962-64.
I lived in Addis Ababa with four other young women. Our house was termed “Debutante Hill” by our would-be humorous friends. My roommates included Mo, the daughter of a Chicago Irish policeman, Sylvia, an Italian-American, who when asked one day how she was, said, “Oh, so and so,” Peggy who was in seven Land-Rover accidents during her two-year stint (no one wanted to fly home on the same plane with her), and Stephanie who laughed on a perfect C- scale, always us. My roommates were fresh out of college; I was 25 – an older woman. I probably should have been wiser for my extra four years of living, but my real education had only begun.
It began the day I received the invitation to join the Peace Corps. My assignment was Ethiopia, and after I registered my enormous pleasure at having been accepted, I was overcome with disappointment because I had requested Africa, and here I was assigned to Ethiopia. My real life education began with the moment I took out the atlas.
It continued when I went to training at Georgetown University. One night all 300 of us trainees went to the Olney Theater, and having arrived a bit early, went next door to the Inn for drinks. The manager refused service to the blacks among us, not knowing he had grabbed a den of lions plus Harris Wofford by the tail. Geography, civil rights, and a few words of Amharic began this brand of experimental education that served me so well – and all before I even got to Africa.
I flew to Addis Ababa with musical dreams in my idealistic head of the Ethiopian children singing four-part Bach chorales. I settled a few months later for the students at Haile Selassie High School getting through all the verses of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in unison. But the Peace Corps education took over when I began finding ways to teach them their own music.
Geography, civil rights, music – all those forms of education seemed trivial when I began to understand some of the essences of time. I stood in line at a bank for 15 minutes to get change for a dollar so I could put money in the parking meter. When I got to the front of the so-called line, I was informed they only changed bills for bills at that counter, and I would have to go there, pointing to another extremely long, amorphous line, to get loose change for my dollar bill. After enough of this kind of incident I began to wonder about the real value of efficiency anyway, what was I going to do with the time saved if I had been in the right line, and what could I do with the time I had to spend waiting again. Everyone else was talking to one another. No one was grumbling about inefficiency. It was a community of people being together while waiting for Godot, or at least for a few quarters.
Time. I bought some wooden prayer beads from a shepherd in the Axum mountains. He wanted them for the next religious holiday, however, and did not want to give them to me right then. Somehow we negotiated that he would get them to the American Embassy in Addis and I would pick them up there. I forgot about the beads and the few dollars I had given the shepherd for them, when one day the Embassy left a message for me to pick up my package. The shepherd had waited for a bus going to Addis, hailed the bus, and given the beads wrapped in a newspaper with my name on it to the driver. How long he waited for the bus I’ll never know. I do know that his honesty and commitment were more powerful than his need to get on with the next job.
An old man was walking the streets of Addis, asking if anyone had seen his nephew Tadessa. Most people could not help him for they knew no Tadessa, but some asked for the last name, and asked where he was from, and asked where he was supposed to meet his nephew, and he said simply in Addis. When asked when the uncle had last seen his nephew, he said, “Fifteen years ago,” but they had promised to meet one day again. The Washington Post last week said we answer the question, “Who are you,” by identifying what we do. Would the man say I am the man looking for his nephew, or would we simply look into his eyes and see the belief and peace that transcends time, and momentarily join this man on his journey.
For all the time I spent longing for the richnesses and delights of home, when I got there I found I was thrilled by three things besides family and friends: chocolate ice cream, enormous supermarkets, and the fact that people got out of the way of ambulances and fire trucks, instead of thronging into the streets to see what was going on.
In exchange for the deprivation of these three aspects of life, I got educated. My idealism had soared, then plunged, and then leveled off as I understood the third, and perhaps most important point of the Peace Corps – to return home to educate our own natives, or indigenous population, a 60s term to refer delicately to “those people.” “Those people” are my own, and I have worked for the last 25 years to pay homage to what Ethiopia and the Peace Corps taught me.