Going Back
by John Kulczycki (Debre Zeit 63–65)
with photos by Scott Morgan (Debre Zeit 64–66)

Click on any of the photos shown here to go to a site where there are more than 40 photos from the trip. The password is "lalibela."
Each photo can be clicked on to see a larger versio
There are also many photos taken by John during his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia from 1963 to 1965.

Remembrances from a trip to Ethiopia
February 7th through March 4th, 2003

OUR (MEANING MY WIFE REGINA AND ME) latest travels took us to a very special country under very special circumstances. For three weeks we traveled around Ethiopia — where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1963 to 1965 — along with two friends, Scott Morgan and John Goulet, who were also PCV's in the same small town of Debre Zeit in 1964 to 1966. It was a highly emotional trip for me, varying from exuberance and delight to near despair over the poverty of the country and the deterioration over the last 40 years.

This account has proved far longer than anticipated: don't hesitate to stop when you have had enough!

Ethiopia is a special country also because of its history and culture, with a centuries-long continuity that is unmatched in most of the rest of the world. There is a state tradition stretching back at least to the first century A.D. Axumite state. (We visited the ruins of a pagan temple at Yeha that dates back to 500 B.C, attributed to Sabean immigrants from southern Arabia who probably eventually mixed with the local population, forming a distinctive people who later established the Axumite state.) The ancient capital of that state, Axum, which we also visited, is still regarded as one of the most important sites in modern Ethiopia, the place where its emperors were crowned in the 20th century.

Christianity came to Ethiopia in the early 4th century. Though until a half-century ago linked with the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church developed unique forms and practices. The liturgical language is Ge-ez, from which the modern languages of Amharic and Tigrynia developed, much as Italian or Spanish derives from Latin. This ancient culture and tradition is very much alive today and dominates most of the parts of the country that we visited, though an equal number of Ethiopians are adherents of Islam as of Christianity. (One guide said — as if to reassure us Americans — that Ethiopian Muslims are Sunni rather that Shiite Muslims.) Ethiopia has little in common with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is a lot more than a place where periodic famines occur, though unfortunately one is currently affecting large areas of the country.

The people
Joyous weddings set the tone
Any trepidations that I had about our trip — and I had some — melted away on the very first day. We arrived in Addis Ababa (AA) at 2 am on a Sunday morning and checked into the Ghion Hotel, which is situated in a large compound, including a large lawn and garden and thus is isolated from the busy district of AA that it is located in.

Later that day dozens of wedding parties arrived to have their pictures taken in the garden. Nearly all the brides and bridesmaids wore Western-style gowns and many looked stunningly beautiful and the grooms handsome. Family and friends gathered round the newlyweds as they arrived in decorated cars, chanting, singing, and dancing in their traditional way, including rolling the shoulders and the women ululating. The spontaneous joy that was evident literally moved me to tears as I watched.

One group in particular danced and sang at length out on the hotel lawn. One of the members of the wedding party engaged me in conversation and could not believe my tears of delight over being back in Ethiopia: he shared his amazement with the rest of the wedding party, and they wanted me to come in on the pictures, but I declined. I asked if the tall man beating the drum and leading the singing was a hired professional and was told that, no, this was just a group from the newlyweds' Pentecostal Church. He maintained that their singing was more joyous, whereas that of the other Ethiopians was more emotional, a distinction that I did not pursue. Anyway, our conversation continued and I learned that he has a brother in Chicago — where we live — and he runs an Ethiopian restaurant. In fact, I had met his brother at his restaurant before we left Chicago! He ended up inviting us to dinner the next night to his favorite neighborhood restaurant, an Ethiopian-run Italian restaurant.

Rusty Amharic generates a warm response
This first encounter set the tone for most of our contacts with Ethiopians. We found them to be overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable when in direct contact, that is, our hired tour guides, taxi drivers, the employees of restaurants and hotels where we ate and stayed, and shops that we visited. Except possibly in Axum in Tigre, where the local language in Tigrynia, people generally responded with enthusiasm and delight to our attempts to speak Amharic, which despite a new emphasis on minority languages, is still the most widely spoken language in the areas where we traveled. Even in Axum people seemed to appreciate our attempts to learn the Tigrynian equivalents of the Amharic we had learned. When the occasion arose, we told people (in Amharic) that we were teachers in Debre Zeit 40 years ago, and this always elicited a warm response of amazement. On two occasions I understood our guides telling a shopkeeper or a driver we were trying to hire for an excursion to give us a break on price because we had served their country 40 years ago, an unexpected dividend of our Peace Corps service!

Causal contact, such as passing people in the street, is more complicated to describe. Forty years ago it was impossible for a white person to go anywhere (except maybe in AA) where he or she was not known without children endlessly (so it seemed) shouting "ferenge, ferenge." This has largely changed, except in Harar, which seems to have its own dialect version of "ferenjo." With many children "ferenge" has been replaced by the equally jarring "you, you," which seems to be a direct translation from Amharic: I heard even children who were friends refer to each other as "you" in Amharic, much as some European languages use the familiar form of "you" for family members and close friends. In some cases children have been apparently taught to say "hello, good morning" instead of "ferenge" or "you." But many still immediately ask for money or a ballpoint pen. It doesn't seem to matter whether they are among the poorest or not, though of course compared to us they are nearly all living in poverty, especially outside of AA. Still, I found that in many cases the children and young adults, who often were trying to sell you some souvenir you really didn't want, would respond to attempts at humor, especially if it was partly in Amharic. They would laugh and kid around, like kids anywhere. Almost never did they become an unbearable nuisance.

One occasion when I did buy something from a child was during our hike to the Blue Nile falls: a tiny little girl — she could not have been older than 5 — wanted to sell a small colorful basket. I asked her in Amharic how much, and she answered in English "10 Birr" (US$1.20). I could not resist and gave her 5 singles and a 5. She apparently did not understand this calculation because I later noticed that an Ethiopian (a whole entourage was following us or rather accompanying us on the hike) gave her a 10 instead. But it was a ripped 10, and she was only satisfied when someone else exchanged it for one that was not ripped.

When we visited a monastery on Lake Tana that was surrounded by a large village, I did give a ballpoint pen to a child whom we passed on the way. Though I thought I had done so surreptitiously and to an isolated child, the news soon spread. Children came out of nowhere asking for pens. One young girl with a water pot on her back kept up with me as I quickly walked back to our boat. When I gave her my last pen, she skipped down the path to the lake with unbelievable joy!

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