|Ethiopia I Training
by Marian Haley Beil
(please send your corrections and additions to this remembrance)
|ETHIOPIA I as our group was called went into training at Georgetown University in Washington, in early July 1962. The Peace Corps was less than a year old, John Kennedy was the President, and all of us in those early groups really were there in response to Kennedy's Inaugural Address comment : "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." We were also considered to be very daring and brave doing something that had not been done before.
The group started with 325 trainees, which even today is considered to be a huge training group. We took classes in Amharic (the official language of the country), history of the region, a little teacher training, and phys ed (which was the source of lots of jokes and some aching muscles). We underwent psychological testing, had all our wisdom teeth removed and all our fillings replaced, and received lots of innoculations. We hiked along the C&O Canal adjacent to the Potomac River, had a weekend hike along the Appilacian Trail in Maryland, and took weekly swimming lessons at the amusement park Glen Echo.
A great camaraderie developed within the group I think because of the training which continues to this day. Along with a couple of groups that were training in the Washington area for other countries, we all went to the White House and on the South Lawn, President Kennedy spoke to us, thanked us and encouraged us.
At the end of training, there was a selection process that generated both a lot of stress as well as a lot of gossip and humor. No one had any idea what the criteria for being selected to be a Peace Corps Volunteer was. Of the 325, 286 made the cut.
Over the Labor Day weekend, we went home for 5 days to pack our things for two years and say our good-byes. We then all flew to New York to what is now Kennedy Airport. It took two planes to hold us as we flew via TWA through Athens (couldn't even get off the plane, however) then on to Addis Ababa.
There we stayed on the campus of Haile Selassie I University in Addis (now Addis Ababa University), and experienced our first hit of culture shock. Like so many things, people can tell you over and over about something, but you never understand until you experience it yourself. We had about two weeks of additional training, and it was during that time that we were assigned to the cities and towns where we would be stationed. With the exception of two doctors in our group, every one else was to teach at a secondary school. When we arrived in Ethiopia, the group doubled the number of teachers who were teaching in secondary schools.
We also had the opportunity to meet with another head of state. Emperor Haile Selassie held a welcoming reception for us (it was his leadership that brought the Peace Corps to Ethiopia) and in a receiving line he shook the hands of all 286 of us.
Then it was off to our own posts and our own unique experiences. Unlike today, we were not permitted to go home for visits, phone communication was difficult, it was long before email, and air mail took several weeks to make it back and forth between Ethiopia and the US. We were on our own, but were supported by an in-country PC staff that dealt with crises, post transfers, etc. We worked within the existing school systems, but were in many ways able to be creative in our teaching.
Two years was a long time, everyone had ups and downs, but it was life changing for all.