Lest the Event Becomes the Person
Bill Olson (Adi Ugri 65–66)

Recollections and reflections by Wayne Handlos
(Addis Ababa 62–64)

WAY BACK WHEN WE ETHI 1s had completed our two years’ service, like many others, I ended up as a grad student. I chose to go to Cornell (as did fellow Ethi 1s, Peggy Drury and Toby Page). There is no doubt that our time in Ethiopia had forever changed us as it did so many of our colleagues. Our years at Cornell were transforming ones as well. The years were ones of great turmoil for the nation (embroiled in Vietnam and continued civil rights issues) as well as for us personally (trying to reconcile a love of people outside the US, our interest in making the US a better place to live, and forwarding our own lives personally).
     Bill Olson was an undergraduate student at Cornell, about to graduate when he was offered the opportunity to join a PC group that would train for Ethiopia/Eritrea. As happened to many of us when we received our notices, he set off to find someone who knew something about the Horn of Africa. I did the same back in early 1962 but there were no RPCV’s then. I had found a real Ethiopian grad student at the U of MN. Bill was content to find me.
     Our little group of RPCVs were fairly close knit in those days. There were not many of us. We had served in Ghana, Sierra Leone, India and we knew a few grad students who were citizens of those countries too. I helped to introduce Bill to those I knew.
     Bill and I immediately hit it off (I suppose today we would have “bonded”). We hung out, in current jargon. I found Bill to be a gregarious, enthusiastic person. A nice guy. Unassuming. Non-threatening. Searching. A degree at hand, but for what purpose? This last a feeling I’m sure many of us shared as we wondered about volunteering for the Peace Corps in our own time. He was from the Finger Lakes region of upper New York state near Ithaca. He had a mother and father, salt of the earth kind of people who lived middle class unassuming lives in a nice ranch house in the woods. He had an older brother Dick, recently married, tall and thin. He had a girl friend, Sarita, who lived in New York. But the world was a big place, Cornell was in the backwaters of rural New York. Worldly but isolated. (Another dear friend of mine, a native New Yorker, when packing to come to Cornell to start his grad studies in 1964, packed a year’s supply of tooth paste and deodorant for his time in the “bush”.) The Finger Lakes region was a place to be contented, to pursue academic interests without too much distraction. The theaters ran all the newly released movies; Joan Baez came to sing. A non-threatening environment. Academically challenging. Nice people. But Bill was searching for more.
     We spent a lot of time together (or as much as a grad student could spare). I met his parents, brother, sister-in-law, girl friend, roommate. I made them an Ethiopian meal; showed them my slides and movies. I learned much about Bill and liked him a lot. He was a very nice person searching for a path; a bit lost but looking. In due course Bill went off to UCLA for training. My closest Peace Corps friend — another Ethi 1, Dennis Ekberg — was one of the trainers.
     Bill was very excited about going to Ethiopia; it was for him, as for many of us, a chance to see some of the world, which we couldn’t have afforded on our own then. To say nothing of having no usable knowledge or experience of these far flung and exotic places on the globe. He was going to be a teacher but again like most of us, had not trained to be a teacher as an undergrad. But he was prepared to give it a try.
     Bill wrote me from his training and service and I’ve still got those letters. They seem to epitomize many of my own feelings and, I presume, those of many other Volunteers. He can speak for himself.
. . .
— postcard of Jun. 21, 1965. The training for Ethiopia VI at UCLA included total immersion in Amharic, so speaking/writing English was not encouraged.
     Bill had a great sense of humor.
What a lovely place U.C.L.A. is. I met Dennis [Ekberg] right away. The kids here are extremely pleasant in spite of the fact they are from the East. I start Amharic lessons in about 10 minutes. I will try to write in English later.
. . .
— posted July 9, 1965 Dennis has probably already told you about what happened to his slides. About 60 of them warped and buckled due to a broken heat shield in the projector . . . . The Peace Corps just bought me a new set of eye glasses — 20 dollar frames & all . . . . I haven’t selected myself out — nor do I intend to — though I must say Amharic sure discourages me . . . . I probably spend more time at the beach than I should, but I insist on taking Sundays off whether I deserve them free or not . . . . The dentist is also taking quite a bit of time — they found 10 cavities — after my dentist at home declared them perfect before I left . . . . Are you still excited about your trip to Mexico — I bet you are.
. . .
— posted Oct. 5, 1965 in Adi Ugri

I met so many people in Addis I hated to leave. The Armenian Drug Store owner wanted to take me on a safari already that weekend & I had 2 dates with Cosette & saw two free films at her uncle’s theatre. I took many pictures in Addis but found out that the film did not catch on the sprocket so all of my photos were imaginary. 

Asmara as you know is lovely though quite un-Ethiopian. I am teaching in Adi Ugri. A small village of 15,000, 52 kilometers south of Asmara. We are living in a hotel until we get moved into our house.

The house is a rather modern Italian brick and stucco creation. 2 of us are living there and a PC girl is living in a small house in the back with the maid and houseboy.

Both the maid & houseboy have a reputation with the Peace Corps for being excellent. We were lucky to get them.

The house came almost fully furnished so we will save much along those lines.

We bought a new bottle gas range for cooking & we each have new bicycles.

The school goes from 8–11 grade & has 1,200 students. There are no lab facilities & few books. There are only 6 Peace Corps out of 60 teachers. There is a teachers club right across from our house — they are all wonderful. The headmaster & director are most enlightened & friendly. Corporal punishment of students is banned, etc. Send mail to Eritrea not Ethiopia.

P.S. I went to Massoua on the train – how beautiful a ride to get to an absolute hell hole.”

. . .
— posted in November 1965 in Addi Ugri.

My address is just Adi Ugri, Eritrea. I am well settled now and am an old experienced teacher. I have 160 10th grade science students and 50 books only with no lab. It is rough some times. So far I have enjoyed myself immensely. I have been to Massaua two times and to Axum, Adwa, and Inde Selassie.

This last weekend we went to Green Island at Massaua (it is quite cool there now) and spent the day skin diving. Sat. night we slept at north beach and spent the next day diving there. At that time my luggage hadn’t arrived yet so on the way back we bought a huge watermelon and one of the girls wrapped it in my only sport coat to keep it cool. On the way back up the hill it rolled off the seat and smashed inside my jacket — what a mess — thank God my luggage was waiting for me when I arrived home. We had a nice watermelon party at about 4,000 feet.

I have taken 5 rolls of film already. The film goes through these automatics quickly. Please get yourself invited either to my parents or Dick’s for dinner sometime. They would be more than glad to see you.

Our house here is very lovely & plush.

I have been making plans to visit Cairo & Beirut for Christmas — but the Peace Corps says they’re sending us to Dire Dawa for a meeting to evaluate training. I would not complain about a free trip to that part of the country.

How is grad work going? I don’t envy you. I feel much more at home in Ethiopia than I ever did at Cornell. The people here are extremely friendly — we have wonderful servants — a beautiful house — a good school — enlightened headmaster. It is quite OK. I think at times I am a slight bit homesick. Best wishes for your academic grind, student (don’t mean to rub it in).

Sincerely, teacher Bill.

P.S. An Indian teacher, MA in English is driving me bats for addresses of American Catholic high schools in the U.S. Could you send me some?

. . .
dated November 1965 in Addi Ugri.

I was so happy to hear from you and was indeed pleased to hear that Girma [a student of mine in Addis whom I subsidized for years while he was in school] got his clothes . . . . I have been writing so many letters to people and have gotten so few in return . . . . I received the nicest letter today from Dr. Pimentel, the head of the Entomology Dept. at Cornell telling me how excited he was that I was in Africa; and if he could help me with graduate work or something when I come back to let him know.

We went to Massaua last weekend. I now have my own diving mask and everything so I spend most of my time there in the water. I brought many echinoderms, mollusks, corals, shark bones etc. back to my students. They were most excited about a giant hermit crab, which I found.

I hate traveling by plane. It gets you from place to place too quickly. I met the agent at Mitchell Cotts Ltd. who says he will be glad to get me on a freighter when I leave Ethiopia. I want to travel by ship to Europe and by train after I get there, but it is so far away. I met a Danish writer in Massaua who has been all over the world. He had a Ph.D. in Anthropology and was quite an explorer. He was trying to get me to go with him around Ethiopia — boy, I wish I had three months to spare. We were stuck in Massaua all Sunday afternoon because the Bulgarian President was in a motorcade from Asmara to Massaua. We were sitting by the road eating watermelon and spitting out pits when he came by.

I can see that I am going to enjoy my two years here, not because I give a damn about the Peace Corps but because I enjoy the people, climate, etc. I can’t at this time however, see living here my whole life, the same as I cannot see living my whole life in the U.S. I want a society, which has more intellectual life than Ethiopia, but not the maddening pace and demands of the U.S. New Zealand perhaps. In any event I am perfectly content here and will be for some time. Write when you find time. I will be sending really beautiful slides to my brother in a week or so . . . . I am also sure my dad would like to talk to you. 

Write soon and don’t let Cornell and the weather get you down.

P.S. I am happy you didn’t send addresses for the Indian teacher. He is really bad news. I wrote only because he was looking over my shoulder at the time.

P.P.S. We have to go to a conference over Christmas in Dire Dawa so I will get to see that section of the country. Also the Peace Corps has been blamed for the school leaving exam failures last year so few new volunteer are being sent here next year and we have to spend one month next summer taking courses at the university in Addis.

. . .
— Christmas Card, 1965

This shall be a very quick note. I have just gotten back from Massaua (the fifth weekend I have been there) and I hitchhiked back with an English zoology professor from the University of Khartoum. We are now trying to entertain him; I am trying to correct exams and prepare a lesson. Very confusing to say the least. Things are still well here. The Christmas conference is going to be in Asmara instead of Dire Dawa — too bad for us. Our book lockers are here — I just finished The Blue Nile (really great).

Have a happy holiday. So long for now!

. . .
— dated Jan. 3, 1966

These stamps made me think of you (the great botanist of Ithaca, N.Y.) [envelope with four wildflower stamps] We are now just one half a week from Xmas vacation. The vacation is unfortunately screwed up by the Asmara conference, which they have decided to schedule right in the middle of the vacation. I am leaving Friday however, for Gondar and Bahrdar. I will have six days to see both places including my travel from Adi Ugri by bus. I will have three days for travel and three for sight seeing; then fly back to Asmara on the seventh day. After the conference I have been invited to take a hydroplane of Gulf Oil from Massaua to the Dahlak Islands where I will spend three days loafing since there is nothing else out there to do.

Teaching is going superbly here. I see how easy it is to get attached to your students after a while — the good ones anyway. We are trying to get an American Field Service scholarship for our houseboy who is one of the top students at our school. I have been pretty busy lately trying to build a science lab. So far I have a room, quite a bit of physics equipment, no chemicals, a superb new Yashica microscope, better than any I ever used at Cornell. I have had to show all of the science teachers how to use it and they seem more fascinated with it than the students do, but that is because they are generally less educated than their students — figure that out.

I hope things are well with [Dennis Ekberg]. How are the studies? I don’t think I could do grad school after Ethiopia . . . . Write when you get the chance, Wayne. I like to hear reflections of what it is like to return to the hardships of the States.

. . .
— dated February 2, 1966

I was happy to hear from you as usual. I thought I better write to you while I still had lots of two and three cent stamps, since you like receiving stamps and I love pasting them on envelopes [letter received with14 small denomination stamps]. I don’t know how much longer the man at the post office is going to go along with my madness or how much longer his canceling arm will hold out, but he probably doesn’t dare be unkind to me since I am his greatest customer. Without the Peace Corps the post office here would close.

I have already made up 1200 sheets for my students tonight and finished half of one of Henry Miller’s novels — The Colossus of Maroussi. This will make the 18th long novel I have read since I arrived here. I just finished The Bridge on the Drina which I really found fascinating. On the weekends however I never do any reading since I am too busy running around. Financially speaking I am sure I will just break even when I leave Ethiopia since I spend freely.

This last weekend I had a very nice trip to Massaua (my sixth weekend there). I hitchhiked down and was lucky to get a ride with the manager of the Lloyd Trestino Shipping Lines Inc. I rode to Massaua with him and his assistant. I stayed through invitation at their headquarters in Massaua. They gave me a beautiful air-conditioned room, all of my meals. They had the Italian consulate opened up so that I could swim in their pool. Then when their ship came in they took me to meet the captain of the ship. He took us out to dinner and I heard the whole inside story of Eritrean history and of all the ports from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. The next day the captain spent about three hours showing me every detail of the ship from the flying bridge, to the galley, to the propeller shaft, holds, etc. It was very interesting for a man of the sea like myself who had never set foot on a ship. Ships hold a very special fascination for me. We spent most of the rest of Sunday in the ship’s cocktail bar discussing everything under the sun. When the ship got ready to pull out they insisted that I not rush off, but that I might as well stay and go back to shore on the pilots’ boat after the ship had reached mid-stream. Most of the Italians as well as the ship were from Trieste, and extremely fascinating people. They treated me as if I were the Emperor or something. The manager brought me back to Adi Ugri and a very pleasant weekend was completed without costing me a cent.

At the conference we had in Asmara (every bit the waste of time as yours was) I ran into a job offer for the summer. An English game officer is here from Uganda to set up game parks and he is looking for some help. Since I have an agriculture background and some experience in conservation the Peace Corps wants me to work with him. I have to talk with him about it in Addis during spring vacation.

I don’t know whether I mentioned my vacation or not, but it was quite interesting. We took the bus from here to Gondar and I needn’t mention, but I will, the fantastic highway over the Simien ranges, the Welkfiet etc. We spent two and a half days in Gondar taking our time to see everything. We got to know the head of the health college, and he suggested we take the trip across Lake Tana. We went to Gorgora and stayed at a newly erected health center where we had hot and cold running water etc. We took an 85-foot cabin cruiser across the lake. It took just under seven hours with a one-hour stop at the monastery of Daga Stephanes where the bones of Fasilidas are kept. We were the first visitors in three months to the monastery. We made arrangements for the boat through the hotel in Gondar; they wanted 50 dollars per piece, but after much haggling we got them down to twenty. After we were on the boat they told us we could have gone for three providing we hadn’t made our reservations through the hotel. Oh, well! It was a very pleasant trip. In Bahrdar we got a guided tour through the Russian technical school with picture taking allowed etc. since one of our group spoke Russian. We made a trip to the falls in a Land Rover, flew from Bahrdar to Lalibella and then back to Asmara.

It was a very pleasant week’s trip. I am looking forward to going to Jimma and Gambella this spring. Next summer I suspect I will be going to West Africa since it looks like the charter will be going there. I have changed my mind about six times already so now I am very uncertain. Lloyd Trestino say they will arrange a trip to East Africa by boat if I want so I don’t know.

The more I think of grad school it is simply out of the question for me. The list of reasons is a mile long though I would certainly like to do some more work if I decide to teach for a profession. If you can find time, I am extra sure my parents would love to have you for a guest any time you can find time. My father seemed to be quite enchanted with your fantastic ability at story telling. I have gotten carried away and it is now time to go to bed. I hope you will write when you find time. The political situation here in Eritrea doesn’t seem nearly as desperate as most people from Addis seem to make it out, but maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe political activity is stirring in the villages around here. If it is, it is very quiet – you do see once in a while "Freedom for Eritrea" written on the side of a building. The shiftas are the only other overt expression I have seen. The Emperor was just here with the King of Norway and during his entrance, the Ethiopian armed forces made a very impressive tour de force as much as saying "Don’t mess with Addis." Ethiopian air force planes skimmed the parade and the honor guard seemed to be endless.

So much for now – or I will never get any sleep. The weather here is still lovely, 60 at night, 80 in the day with little or no humidity — I use the roof of our bicycle port for a sun deck.

. . .
— postmark illegible.

As usual I was quite elated to hear from you. It is always pleasant to hear from an Ethiopianist in the States, or an Ethiopiaphile. I know that most of my letters of description to people in the States are well accepted, only because people find the things I am describing are strange to them. To put is simply, they don’t understand what the hell is going on over here. However, since you do it makes writing that much easier.

Congratulations on your success in the qualifying exams. I know what a big hurdle they are and what a relief one feels when he has them out of the way. I don’t think I will have that problem. I am quite convinced that for many reasons I am not Ph.D. material. However, since I am incapable of doing anything else, a higher degree would be helpful. All that I can think about is that I don’t want to stay in the States over a few months when I come home. Lord knows, even though I will be 26 the army may even get me.

Many thanks for the photo of snow in Cascadilla Gorge [a prominent landmark on the Cornell campus]. It certainly brings back many old memories. They are already beginning to improve with age. I think often of the remarkable number of things to do at a university. I often thought if one didn’t have to take courses it would be a marvelous experience. The weather here is still the same as when we came in Sept. It may be a couple of degrees warmer though I am not sure.

Easter vacation is coming up and I will be on my way to Addis as soon as it gets here. I have to see about my summer project of working with a game commissioner from Uganda on the development of game parks in Ethiopia. I can’t wait to get to Addis — I am so tired of Asmara. Asmara is not a cosmopolitan city. One just doesn’t meet people like one does in Addis. Also I love watt, but Eritrean watt (siggini and tyta) is not nearly as good. I met more marvelous people in three days in Addis than I have met since in Asmara.

I just took a trip through the Swedish mission school here. It is really a beautiful place though it only holds 200 students and only goes up to sixth grade. Adi Ugri has five hills surrounding it. On one is a mosque, on another a huge Catholic mission, on another a beautiful new Coptic church and on another the Swedish mission, and on the largest hill there is a prison. So far the prison is the only place that I have been in. They seem to have no meeting place for agnostics, or atheists except the two Peace Corps houses in town.

The head of the Peace Corps, Jack Vaughn came to Asmara to meet us so we had the day off. The Peace Corps here in Adi Ugri, however didn’t take it — we bravely taught the day. We have just had our yearly physicals and shots. I am still healthy as a horse, and still almost as fat as one.

The University students drew up a resolution that the Peace Corps was very bad, because it corrupted the morals of students. They also said the American Field Service should stop because that as well as the Peace Corps was getting some of the students exposed to too much affluence and progress so that they couldn’t be happy in their own country. So by the time you get your doctorate you may find all Americans driven out of Ethiopia.

One of the teachers here (Beany Kogen) was accused of all kinds of horrible things because a teacher caught her reading A Political History of Ethiopia — a banned book. The teacher went wild and accused the Peace Corps of stealing Ethiopian art treasures and heritage and taking it to the United States. Beany is really an excellent volunteer, she speaks Tigrinya and does all kinds of extra things. That night she rode out of town on her horse and was attacked by about 50 students with rocks, bricks, sticks etc. She is sure they would have killed her had they been given a chance.

The shiftas are now so bad here that they close all of the roads at 6:00 at night. I just bought a beautiful new Yashica with an f1.8 lens and I never dare take it anywhere for fear the shiftas will get it.

Our vacation by the way is going to be in East Africa this next summer. We had a choice of East or West Africa; on the ballot however, it said if we go to West Africa this summer we can have a charter to East Africa over Xmas. I felt for that reason it was a sure thing to go to West Africa, but the volunteers still chose East Africa. Everyone who has been there raves about it so I guess I will enjoy the trip. This way I will be able to go to Yemen next Xmas.

Out of 11 of the towns I have been in, I still think Adi Ugri is the most pleasant place I have been. I am still reading like a fiend. I have read 27 novels, and have studied some history and science. I am now teaching physics to my students, something I know absolutely nothing about. Since we have no books I am busy typing up sheets and running them off for the students. I practically have to write my own book, I also might have to borrow some money to go to East Africa since I spend quite a bit here. I have bought a lot of ties and even a couple of sweaters here, but god the price of most clothes is outrageous. I have more clothes than I know what to do with anyway.

I really miss spring however. I am sure it is spring that keeps people in temperate climates going. As far as other activities I can almost guess what everyone is doing. I am thinking of going to Australia or New Zealand to live from here. My brother and Mother are the only two people that bother to write anymore. I imagine by next year even they wouldn’t bother. Dick is building a house. I can’t imagine how he can afford it. I can’t imagine owning anything other than a few clothes and a camera for the next ten years or so.

Have you been home to the Midwest yet this year? I haven’t heard you mention it. Excuse me for rambling on. Dinner is ready now so I shall close. I am happy to hear that someone I know is making a success out of Cornell. Say hello to Peggy [Drury] for me. I hope to see Jimma this Easter and I will let her know how it is.

Write soon; best wishes and good speed — Bill

. . .

Kathleen Coskran has written an account of Bill's tragic death.

Steve Buff added his recollections of Bill's tragic death.

Searching, seeking, happy. So many dreams. Wonderful adventures planned for the future. The Easter vacation got him to Jimma and Gambella. In Ithaca we heard the news on the radio of Bill’s tragic death and later read of it in Time magazine. I was privileged to be a pallbearer at his funeral on a blustery spring day in 1966 — the only season he missed. His grave is in a wonderful, old cemetery on the hills overlooking Cayuga Lake. I don’t know if he got my last letter dated March 18, 1966. The rest is history.

Post Script: from a Christmas card from Bill’s roommate at Cornell, Jim Fisher, postmarked Dec. 23, 1966: “The Olsons informed me that Bill’s houseboy is now in the States — and they are planning to have him visit them. Perhaps we can have coffee at such time. In the meanwhile, the best of holiday wishes.” 

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