I was in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia for three years, 1967-70. the first two years I lived in the capital city of Addis Ababa, taught English at Haile Selassie I University and was faculty advisor to the English-language student newspaper.
For the third year I was assistant zone chief in the Malaria Eradication Service based in Dessie, a provincial capital.
It was an interesting time in the U.S. The Peace Corps was still young enough to have some of the Kennedy “Camelot” shine still on it and the Vietnam War–and the draft–was going on.
I had spent five years at the University of Illinois getting a BA in Journalism. Spending the first two years as an electrical engineering major slowed me down a bit. The draft board asked me in that fifth year if I was really serious about getting a degree so I know they had an eye on my body.
I was looking for more than just getting a newpaper job and starting a career, and with the draft looming wasn’t even sure that I could anyway. And I was not relishing to have to actually make the choice to leave the country to avoid the draft. My inclination was just to get as far away from the U.S. as I could.
So during my fifth year of college, I applied to the Peace Corps. I was invited to the Ethiopia program. I quickly looked at a world map and determined Ethiopia was pretty far away, so I accepted the offer.
Fortunately for me, my draft board apparently had enough Illinois farm boys available to fill its quota of bodies for Viet Nam. I was granted a deferment for the Peace Corps and the draft board renewed the deferment for each of the three years I was there. (By the end of my third year, the lottery had started. I had a high number and I had turned 26–home free.)
A few days after my last final exam I was on a plane to Utah for the Ethiopia training program and three months later I was in Addis Ababa.
It was also an interesting time in Ethiopia. Haile Selassie I was still in power, in what would be the twilight of his 44-year reign as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God.” Or, simply, The Emperor.
University students were flexing their freedom and pushing the boundaries of dissent.
Suspension of classes because of unrest was common my second year there and the fledgling student newspaper I was brought there to guide and advise was not allowed operate freely and chose to not publish at all.
Anti-American sentiment became public and vocal enough in some areas that the Peace Corps presence became smaller and the organization pivoted from sending hundreds of BA-generalists to teach English in schools all over the country to focusing on community development projects and agriculture and recruiting volunteers with specific skills.
Four years after my departure Haile Selassie was deposed by the Derg (Ge’ez for council), a military junta with a communist ideology. Civil war and a long period of instability followed. Today the country is headed by a relatively progressive parliamentary style government and there is a lot of optimism about the future.
While I was there, I faithfully wrote letters home. Yes, my mother saved them! And yes, they are here. Warning: Not the most riveting reading.
For far more interesting reading and a lot of photos, I urge you to visit my Good Morning Addis Ababa! page. This is an account of a trip with my daughter to Ethiopia in 2018. It was my first time there in 50 years and I hope my report and photos convey the pleasure I had reacquainting myself with the country.