When I have related my Peace Corps experiences to Ethiopians,
they have always advised that I should write them all down
and let others read. As those events are important to me and
in many ways aids in my development and maturity, I had thought
of writing about the Ethiopian experience and then discovered
that George Schulyer had stolen the title of my intended book
"Ethiopian Stories". So, I had let these memories lay fallow for
a number of years - until invited to write for this web site.
What a grand opportunity!
"Harar". This word evokes many emotions, experiences and positive
feeling about my Peace Corps years which were without a doubt,
all positive. Even this many years later, now more than 30,
I find that on occasion I still dream about Harar.
Harar has many beginnings and as yet, no end for me.
I had thought that when I retire I would return to Harar
either to teach again or to farm a small piece of land.
And, Harar would become my resting place, under a large
spreading tree located at the bend in the road on the way to
It is under that tree that I could view the old city of Harar
and watch the people as they journeyed to and from the markets.
It was for me, a place of peace. For those curious, as you leave
Harar and travel past the hospitals and Military Academy towards
Jijigga, sitting on the left hand side of the road is a large
tree situated in such a way that you can see the minarets of the
mosque in the old city and yet have a view of the traffic going
and coming from the east.
At the time that I was there, Ato Joseph was behind the counter
at the Post Office, dutifully screening our mail and magazines
for us. There was no water to be had in Harar except from the
backs of donkeys carrying four, heavy metal containers. There
was water from the wells of Besidemo but that is another story.
It was Mr. Antonacchi behind the counter at his restaurant
offering up spaghetti for lunch. It was the bakery near the Post
Office with its delicious odors for freshly baked dabo. It was
the tej and buna bets on the street behind Mr. Antonacci's
restaurant that were the source of some dancing, carousing and
good times. It was also there ( as suspected much later ) that
Mengistu Haile-Mariam, the officer from the Academy played the
part of trouble maker even then in the middle 60's.
It was Ato Alemsegged as principal at Medhane Alem, freshly
returned from the United States where he had studied for his
Masters in Education. It was a wonderful student from the old
city, Hanim, whose mother, affectionately called 'Basket Mary",
sold the most beautiful baskets in all Harar. It was the windy
paths in the old city that were always intriguing and a source
of exploration and delight.
The Harar story begins with a trip up the mountainside in a
diesel bus with a driver who understood that these 'ferengoch'
have never traveled from Dire Dawa to Harar and drove the bus up
the escarpment through the first corner at an amazing speed,
waiting until the last moment to make the turn keeping us from
an unpleasant death on the ravine side of the road! But a few of
us, having restored our breathe looked in his rear-view mirror
to see that he is enjoying his joke with a big smile on his face! At the time, I believe that we were too scared and respectful to swear any oath at him!
The first day starts with our bus driver dropping us off at
Medhane Alem School. The pictures that I have seen from the
50th Anniversary Booklet show the gates and the front of the
school identically to the memory pictures in my mind from 35
years ago. So, there we were Peace Corps volunteers in a new city
, with a strange language that we had not completely mastered and
left to the mercies of the previous volunteers in the town. As
it turned out, there was a house at the other end of Yeshemabet
road that could take four volunteers and so four of us, who had
trained together but had not known each other, decided to take
Our home was located the end of Yeshemabet near the meat
rendering plant and the old graveyard. We involved ourselves
with moving in, setting up the house, pretending to interview
the cook and student/houseboy ( what the heck did we know about
these things? - we were all recent college graduates! ). Our cook,
Ayelish, prepared some 'western food' for us and we collapsed
from the altitude, the excitement and the novelty. We managed
through the first night and then to school(s) the next day, TTI
and Medhane Alem for meetings and meetings and meetings.
It was just a day later when I was to have and experience what
I would call the 'defining moment' of my Peace Corps days in
Ethiopia and in particular, Harar. While there are other events
and memories that support what I learned at this time, none were
as intense and unambiguous as this.
After the second day of school, I was curious to visit the old
city of Harar. In my teacher attire, casual clothes and a tie,
I wandered down the main street to Feras Megallah, one of the
entrances to the old city. It was about 5 p.m. and the sun was
setting. As I started to walk down the rutted cobble stone path
into the old city, I felt a touch on my arm and turned to face a
man who said, "Sir, it is not safe for you to go down there
alone". Even now, I remember the confusing thoughts that raced
through my mind when hearing that statement. [ An interlude: By
this time in our young Peace Corps lives, we had trained with
Ethiopians and had developed a wonderful respect for these
people. The furthest in our mind was the possibility that we
would face 'unpleasantness' in Ethiopia. This was, of course,
before the children chanted 'ferengi, ferengi, ferengi' and the
beggars 'silet, maksheesh, baksheesh' and then showing anger and
frustration - as we too had so little to give. ]
The speaker was an older person. I guessed around 50. He was
wearing a khaki suit, the type that were popular at the time.
I would guess that he was a government employee or teacher or
professional. Our conversation continued "Oh, I am sure that I
will be all right". "No, sir, it is becoming dark and it is not
safe for you to go alone." What to do? "Well, I will visit just
for a minute. I want to see the market. " "Then, I will go with
you" and with that he took my arm and gently directed me towards
the Muslim market. I can remember various musings. "Was he part
of the reason that it was unsafe? I feel like a little child. Is
it really unsafe? Am I keeping this man from his family?" With
those thoughts swirling, we walked into the market area and I
visited the meat shops, examined the spices in baskets on the
ground and after what I felt was a reasonable 'minute' that I
had mentioned earlier, I said. "This is wonderful. I have seen
enough to return during the day" and started to head back up to
As we were walking the thought occurred to me that I had missed
the point entirely. I started to think that he had offered the
'unsafe story' so that it would allow him to 'guide' me for a
time and earn some money. My explanation seemed more plausible
than his 'unsafe'. As we reached the end of our walk and were
again with the garries, taxis and lorries of Feras Megallah,
I reached into my pocket for a birr to pay him for his kindness.
As I offered my 'thank you' and my money, he gently pushed my
hand aside and said, "Sir, I did not do it for the money".
Seconds passed which seemed like a century as I reframed the
moment. I held out my hand to shake his and said, 'thank you for
your kindness". He wished me a good stay in "his country" and
turning, went on his way.
I never saw that man again. I can only reflect on that moment as
the beginning of two very memorable years in Harar. And if I
could see him again, I would thank him for sharing what is truly
the Ethiopian spirit and let him know that as a Peace Corps
volunteer, I too, did not do it for the money.
For comment e-mail
Mr Joe Ciuffini
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