Chapter 1. Returning to Ethiopia - Michael McCaskey Photography

Forty-three years later, who could be sure what to expect? After college I had joined the Peace Corps to teach science and English and was assigned to a somewhat remote small village. With a good friend who had served at the same time, we were returning with members of our families, uncertain of what we would encounter. The warmth and graciousness with which we were welcomed exceeded all expectations.

Ethiopian Mahaber Parade

An early stop was Fiche, the rural town in which I taught 6th, 7th and 8th graders. Back then the population was about 5,000; now Fiche has grown to almost 40,000. Coming past us was a small entourage of festively clothed mothers and children. They were reminding everyone that the feast day of St. Mary was approaching and that all were invited to a certain house to celebrate with food and drink.

Farmer w oxen

Most of my students came from farming families or families whose livelihood was related to farming. Well over 90% of Ethiopia is agrarian. Contrary to popular impression, much of the land is fertile and could produce bountiful crops. However, farmers still use scratch plows pulled by oxen, just as they have for centuries. In addition, the uncertainty of rains is a challenge. What the farmers do produce is transported to the capital city, Addis Abeba. For producers an important new institution is the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange. Housed in a modern building, the Exchange provides a surer price to farmers and rewards improving the quality of their crops.

The fledgling Exchange was founded by a dynamic Ethiopian, Eleni Gabre-Madhin. Dr. Eleni has a PhD in Economics from Stanford, is full of energy marked by a move ahead spirit. The Exchange stands to become a force for better prices to farmers.

The highland plateau in Ethiopia is cut by rivers and the Rift Valley. Over eons of geological time, vast, spectacular gorges were created. Our group of five had the opportunity to walk 17 kilometers into one of the gorges for an arduous but rewarding trek. Every once in a great while, we would pass a small cluster of tukuls, or thatched huts. From time to time we would also see villagers for whom a long, long walk was customary.

At one point we came upon a meeting of villagers and asked permission to stay a short while. After some discussion, the villagers agreed. The business of the day was for the head man to call out the names of those who still owed taxes. He then tried to secure some commitment as to the date for payment.

Later in our trip, we visited Awassa, in the Rift Valley lakes region south of Addis Abeba. As was true in so many towns, education was a main route up and students were plentiful. Ethiopia has made great strides in expanding literacy in recent years. These three school girls were happy to have their picture taken and laughed with delight to see their image on the back of the camera.

We also visited the Awassa Youth Center which provides a broad range of activities for youth including theater, music, juggling and martial arts. Here the drummer is warming up for his band’s practice session. In the end, the best part of the trip was reuniting with former students. I hadn’t seen them since I left Ethiopia, 43 years earlier. Surprisingly many of them, now all grown men with families, had not seen each other either. So the get together was warm and heartfelt, a tale to be told in the next installation of our story.

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