In June 1964, Jodie Collins boarded a ship bound for Ethiopia with her husband and 8-month old daughter, Shellie. In 30 days, they crossed the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, threaded the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, and disembarked in Djibouti.
Thirteen years later, in July 1977, Jodie orchestrated the escape of ten of the Ethiopian emperor’s great grandchildren in two small planes, traveling incognito from Ethiopia to Kenya to Sweden, and finally to the United States. In the preceding two years, Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie had been brutally murdered, his cabinet executed, the royal family imprisoned, and tens of thousands of people slaughtered. Ethiopia was ruled by a Communist military junta, the Derg, and its ruthless leader Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Christian mission Collins and her husband ran was forced underground, their church and headquarters seized by the military government.
Collins’ book Code Word: Catherine chronicles the experience of living in revolutionary Ethiopia and the harrowing circumstances necessitating the couple’s care of the royal grandchildren and their escape—against all odds and without the involvement of the American or Ethiopian governments. The historical account is simultaneously a fast-paced thriller, complete with CIA agents, a zebra-striped VW van, and secret code words, and a testament to the power of faith and courage.
Long out of print, Code Word: Catherine will soon be republished by Collins and Hillcrest Media. The Ethiopian Diaspora Stories Project recently sat down with Collins to discuss the effort, the possibility of future books, and her new project in Ethiopia.
EDSP: Jodie, thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Some time passed between when you returned to the States from Ethiopia in 1977 and when you wrote the book. What motivated you to start writing when you did?
Collins: Yes, the first edition of the book was published in 1984. I promised God before I even started planning the escape that if it was successful, I would give God all the glory and all the credit. When you’re sitting in the middle of a revolution and you’re thinking of escaping with your husband and four kids, it’s pretty bizarre. It was my faith in God that gave me the courage to do it.
EDSP: How did you first start sharing the story of what had happened?
Collins: We had been home about two years when I went to work for Simpson College in San Francisco as director of recruitment. The vice president asked if I would speak at youth camps and in some churches sharing the story of the escape. Once I began telling the story and how God had given me the courage and wisdom to successfully save the lives of 10 children, the story became very popular. I was asked to speak in more and more places. In Oregon, I spoke on a radio station telling the story and when I got back to the hotel, I had a call from a sales representative for Tyndale House Publishers asking if I had published the book yet. I hadn’t, and he said he wanted to know if I would be interested in talking to Tyndale about publishing the story. When I returned home, I had lunch with an editor. I had been writing, trying to start the book and had written a few chapters. I remember we went out to the parking lot after lunch. I had the binder with several sample chapters in the car, and I opened the binder on the trunk. He perused a couple of chapters and offered me a contract right there in the parking lot.
EDSP: What was the writing process like for you? You said you had notes and journals; did you also write from memory?
Collins: The way I write is I think of chapter titles. If you look at my table of contents, that was what I had written down, the outline. And then I just filled in the chapters.
I went from memory; I didn’t keep notes during the escape. I don’t know why, because I’ve journaled most of my life, I journaled almost daily for years. But I didn’t journal during the escape. There was just too much going on and too many things for me to do. I can’t remember exactly when I started writing things down, but it probably happened as I began telling the story.
EDSP: What was the writing process like? Did you start with longhand, a typewriter, or?
Collins: I wrote long hand. I still have the original manuscript. I think it took about 10 months; I had a one-year contract. I quit my job at Simpson College to write full-time. My longhand scripts are usually very messy. I rewrite and scribble in the margins. Then I typed it 8 times with carbon paper on an upright Olivetti typewriter. To type the final manuscript, I rented an electric typewriter and typed it. If you recall, there were no personal computers in 1984, or they were very unaffordable.
EDSP: When you began to go back and remember and talk about those things, what was it like? I imagine there was trauma and emotion attached to reliving those years.
Collins: You know, I don’t think the trauma surfaced for several years. I think we had post-traumatic stress (PTS), but I think our defense mechanisms were in place for years. My daughter said she had nightmares until she returned to Ethiopia in 2011. That’s a long time, 1977 to 2011. I went to counseling for years after we returned to the States. I dealt with a lot of the PTS in counseling.
EDSP: How was counseling helpful to you in reframing your experience?
Collins: My therapist told me that when I’m in a hard place I should reflect back on the escape and how we came through it. She always reminded me to look at my history. Reflect back on it. Look how time and again I landed on my feet. She said that should give me the courage to go on when I have to face particularly difficult times. And that’s what I do. I don’t give up easy. If a door closes, I know something else is going to open up. I don’t give up.
EDSP: What was it that initially brought you to Ethiopia?
Collins: We were missionaries, but I wasn’t raised in church. My parents were very much against me going to church. But my best friend went, and I went with her. I’d heard missionaries speak, and I even went to San Francisco to see a missionary family get on a ship and leave for the Philippines. That made an impression on me. Between my junior and senior years of high school I went to church camp. Every evening the speaker gave an invitation to come forward and give your life to Christ. I had been thinking about missionary service, and one night I felt like I was going to go to Africa and be a missionary, and I went forward. I was already a Christian, but that night I gave my life to full time service. I knew I was going to be a missionary to Africa and that was that. When I met Denton and we started going together, I said, “I’m going to Africa. It’s part of the deal.”
EDSP: Can you describe the work you did as a missionary?
Collins: I taught Amharic literacy to poor, uneducated women who had never had the opportunity to go to school, and 6th through 12th grade English as a Second Language (ESL) in our adult night school. Many working adults had not gone beyond 6th grade and were eager to return and finish high school. Many graduated from our night school and went to Haile Selassie University.
I would often go and visit women who didn’t come to the church. I would ask the women if I could take their kids up to the mission for singing and a Bible lesson. They were always happy for me to take their children. It wasn’t until later that I found out that many of these women were working in the sex industry as prostitutes.
EDSP: I can imagine it was difficult to return to Ethiopia after all these years. When you returned, were there moments that were cathartic for you, places or people you were able to revisit?
Collins: When I first returned in 2009, after 32 years, I went alone. As the plane was landing in Addis, I was crying. It felt surreal that I was actually returning. I visited many friends, but I was there to evaluate whether or not I could start a new project for women and children. In 2011, my daughter, Shellie, son-in law Dave, and granddaughter Tessie joined me in Addis. That was very cathartic as we visited places together and reminisced about our old life there. We even visited our home; the owners let us walk through the house. Shellie and I both cried. Together we went through the Red Terror Museum in Addis Ababa. It affirmed so much that I had thought happened and what I had written in Code Word: Catherine. I had some self-doubt thinking that maybe I had imagined things as much worse than they were. Could it have been as bad as I remembered? But everything I’ve ever said or written was affirmed in that visit. They have the torture machines, hundreds of thousands of pictures of the students who were killed. They have coffins, pine boxes, filled with their clothes, pictures of mass graves, confrontations between students and soldiers. I think every child in Ethiopia should have to go through that museum. They need to know what happened. It was Ethiopia’s holocaust.
EDSP: Do you know what happened to the home you and your husband built in Addis Ababa?
Collins: During the revolution, Mengistu’s government took our home. The government owns it now, but we’re working with an Ethiopian attorney to get it back.
EDSP: One of my favorite parts of the book is the inclusion of Denton’s letters toward the end, which give us a sense of his side of the escape and add such suspense. What made you decide to include them?
Collins: When you write first person, you can’t speak for another person. So the only way I could introduce his voice was through letters. I thought people needed to see his side and hear his voice. There was no other way to tell it.
EDSP: You and Denton were both working on the escape from different ends, he in Ethiopia and you abroad, in the U.K. and United States. How did the intensity of that time affect your relationship?
Collins: The publisher of my book, Tyndale House, wouldn’t let me tell the internal struggle that went on between Denton and me. And there was a lot, because he didn’t want me to go through with the escape. He thought we could stay in Ethiopia, and he believed I caused us to have to leave. That wasn’t realistic. The revolutionary government levied a $1 million (USD) tax against our mission. As its director, Denton was responsible for that tax, but our mission was not going to pay money to the Marxist government. That left Denton holding the bag. At the same time, the military government was arresting and killing missionaries. I didn’t see how we could stay. None of us wanted to leave. But Denton blamed me for having to leave Ethiopia and our ministry there. That caused a great deal of tension. When we got home and Denton expressed how upset he was, I said, “Why didn’t you just tell me no?” He said, “Because you would have just found another way and what would I have looked like?” I said, “Well that’s true. I would have found another way.” Needless to say it was a huge strain on our marriage, and in 1985 we divorced.
EDSP: Can you describe a day in the life of the revolution?
Collins: Most days we just carried on as usual. I taught school, Denton went to the mission, the kids went to the English school where I taught. When people ask questions like, “How were you able to cope seeing dead bodies stacked on street corners?” I find it difficult to answer. I didn’t feel particularly afraid. I think you just go into denial in order to cope. I was caught twice in crossfire with soldiers shooting over my head or very nearby where I was. Once I was in a restaurant and right out in front there was an assassination attempt on Mengistu, the revolutionary leader. The other time I was going up to the American embassy and Ethiopian soldiers were shooting at students, right over the top of my car. I did an interview last April on Ethiopian television and the interviewer said, “It must have been terrible,” and I said, “No, it was just everyday life.” You just did what you had to do.
EDSP: In this environment, you developed this deep desire to help the emperor’s great grandchildren. How did that happen?
Collins: The headmistress of the English School where I taught and the royal children attended asked me if I would look after four of the royal grandchildren because their parents were in prison. After they had been living with us for a year, I became very attached and felt very protective of them. A person at the American embassy told me that the government was going to take them away and put them in prison with their parents. That was very upsetting to me; I couldn’t imagine soldiers coming to our home and arresting the four children. They were only 13, 12, eight, and two years old. As crazy as it sounds, I began thinking about how we could escape with the children. I believe God has directed me to do a lot of things, like going to Africa, going to Bible college. I believe God directs my life. So whether God directed me to do this or I just needed to believe He directed me, I don’t know. I felt it was something I needed to do. I believe God gave me to courage to do it, and it worked. Isn’t that a miracle? To escape with 10 kids, not just four as was originally planned?
EDSP: We’ve talked a little bit about your relationship with the children at the time. When I finished the book, the first question in my mind was, what happened next? Can you talk a little bit about what it was like once everyone was in the States?
Collins: Life was good. People helped us. They gave us beds; they helped furnish an absolutely empty house. If I show you photo albums of all our Christmases and Easters and family get-togethers, it was a happy family. But at some point I guess the kids resented it. In Ethiopia, before the revolution or before things got really bad, we’d joke about them coming to the States. It was like, “You know we do chores in the States, we don’t have all these workers.” They said, “Mom, don’t worry about us doing chores, it’s nothing.” But in the end, at some point, that really got to them. After Loly and Menen graduated, they went to Social Services to tell them I brought them here to make slaves out of them.
EDSP: I can imagine that came as a shock.
Collins: Absolutely. The kids went to England to visit family after graduation and when they came home, they went straight to Social Services before they came back to our house. The social worker, Louise, knew us and had been coming to the house to visit the kids for years. She had seen how they lived. She was very disappointed in the kids, and she informed us what they had said. After that, they stayed with a relative in Oakland. Loly got into UC Santa Barbara and Menen attended San Francisco State. Kokeb went to live with a relative in New York. Amaha was eight. Our marriage had fallen apart by then, and we decided it was best to let Amaha go live with his relatives as well. We didn’t know then they were going to put him in boarding school.
EDSP: Do you have a relationship with any of them now?
Collins: Not with the four who lived with us for eight years. I communicate with the six, Sammy, Rahel, Mehret, Aster, Bekere, and Yisak. They’re all doing well.
EDSP: Do you have a sense how the grandchildren are received in Ethiopia, or what their relationship with the country is now given the way they left?
Collins: They can go back and forth between here and Ethiopia. Their grandmother and mothers were released from prison in 1991 and came to the States. They’ve all traveled back to Ethiopia for various reasons. Aside from close friends, I don’t think people even know who they are when they go back. It has been 42 years.
EDSP: In the Library of Congress, Code Word: Catherine is classified as a historical document, a first-person account. What do you think of that classification? Do you see yourself as an eyewitness?
Collins: I didn’t think of myself as an eyewitness. Now, though, I’m beginning to realize that maybe it is a firsthand account of what went on during those first three years of the revolution. We witnessed a lot. But it went on 14 more years after we left. When we were living through it, it didn’t occur to me that I was witnessing history per se, but I was.
EDSP: You don’t quite realize the historical impact of what’s going on around you because…
Collins: Defense mechanisms. That’s what I believe. We even had a ridiculous plan that if soldiers came to arrest Denton, he would run down to the river and hide. It was kind of a fantasy, now that I think of it, but there were weeks he didn’t go to church because we thought the government would arrest him for the tax they had levied against the mission.
EDSP: Now, at some point, Code Word: Catherine went off the market, right? What happened?
Collins: The book sold 20,000 copies and 3 foreign rights. But when we divorced, because Tyndale is a Christian publisher, they took it off the market. That was kind of a shock. But I bought all the rights back from the publisher, and I’m republishing Code Word: Catherine right now.
EDSP: And you’re self-publishing this time around, correct? What’s that experience like?
Collins: Hillcrest is the publisher, but I’m doing much of the work. I have a dashboard online, the author’s center, and I go there and there are things the publisher needs me to do or provide information, like where do I want the page numbers? Where do I want the chapter titles? What size font? I had to retype the entire manuscript because there was no soft copy. I had to find all the photos again. It’s not as easy as it sounds to republish a book.
EDSP: And you’re not making any edits, is that correct? Have you ever thought of doing a sequel or writing something new?
Collins: I’m not changing anything. I don’t have a sequel in mind but I’ve made another promise to God. If I get the land and the $13 million [for my next project in Ethiopia], because no one thinks I can get that much money, I promised God I would write another book and give him all the credit for another miracle.
People see all of the hurdles I have to cross, but my philosophy in life is, I’ll get over them. A lot of it is about faith. The Lord’s the one who will do the hard work. If he wants Humani to succeed, he will provide. I don’t have to figure everything out. Thinking like that takes a lot of pressure off. God doesn’t expect success, he expects faithfulness. As he opens doors, he wants us to trust him and walk through them. I won’t feel I’ve failed if God closes the door in Ethiopia. I’ll just believe I went as far as I could, and God closed the door.
EDSP: Can you talk a little bit about your next project?
Collins: I incorporated Humani, which means humanitarian, in 2002. I didn’t return to Ethiopia till 2009. I began working with the Ethiopian embassy and completing their paperwork in 2010. My project wasn’t approved until December 15, 2015.
EDSP: What’s Humani’s vision?
Collins: We want to empower impoverished, single women and their children in Ethiopia to become economically self-sufficient, so they become contributing members of the community. Right now, Ethiopia’s only developed half of its workforce–that’s the men. When you get the women contributing, statistics show that women will spend more money on the household and more money on the children’s welfare. This can’t help but improve the community and its economy.
We have a sustainable, community-based model. First and foremost, we’re going to provide health care for the women and their children. Second, we’re going to provide job training for the women. We will provide education for their children, and day care for the young children. The women will attend a two-year program. The first six months they’ll participate in each sector of the project so they can learn where their interests are and what they like. Then they’ll spend a year and six months training in that area. The various sectors include agriculture, horticulture, mushroom cultivation, silkworm cultivation, bees and honey production, a dairy, poultry, and textile production. These are skills they can learn and become entrepreneurs and have businesses of their own. We’ll offer them credit when they graduate to start their businesses and continue to work with them when they start. We want them to succeed.
EDSP: Do you anticipate any pushback from the community in Bahir Dar where Humani plans to be located?
Collins: We aren’t just going to let these women go once they’re self-sufficient. We want to empower them, we want to support them with an alumni association that will continue to mentor younger women. But I want to do something that makes a difference in the farmers’ lives as well as the women’s. I would always want to do that, but it seems even more crucial given recent protests by the farmers. We must partner with the community and the farmers. Humani is in discussion with them and we’re listening to their needs. How can we partner with them? We need to hear.
EDSP: Can Humani provide a model for working with the farmers?
Collins: Absolutely. The government is learning new ways to negotiate its path forward. I think the farmers are very intelligent. We’ve got to negotiate and listen to their alternatives, offer alternatives. Perhaps Humani can provide local medical care and jobs that will provide them a better life than subsistence farming. We are going to have to show them, because it’s hard just to take someone’s word that life is going to better when we take your land. There has to be something on the table that they buy into. We’re looking at a lot of creative options. But listening to the farmers is the most important.
EDSP: Imagine you’re in front of a group of farmers in Bahir Dar now, what would you say to them? How would you present Humani?
Collins: First and foremost, I would say, what do you need? If we come, what can we do for you? And listen, show that I’m a serious listener. If they want a better way of life, then what does that look like to them? And I think they want honesty and sincerity when you listen, or you might as well go home.
EDSP: You’ve had a relationship with Ethiopia for a long time now. What was your first impression, and what would you tell people about the country?
Collins: When we came, we came by ship to Tripoli, Libya, then to Alexandria, Egypt, and then on to Djibouti. From Djibouti we flew Ethiopian Airlines to Addis. After 120 degrees in Djibouti, I thought I’d gone to heaven when I got off the plane in Addis Ababa. That cool mountain air, the smell of eucalyptus. It smelled like California after a rain; I thought I’d come home. I think the beauty of Ethiopia is magnificent but underestimated. When you fly over that country, it’s the most breath-taking experience. You fly right up the heart of the Rift Valley and you just see all the contrasts, the mountains, the valleys, the plateaus. And the people, the people are good people. We’ve taken maybe 10 people with us since 2009, and every American that we’ve taken wants to go back. They’ve fallen in love with Ethiopia and the people. And that’s the greatest privilege I have, sharing Ethiopia with others so they see what I see.
EDSP: Jodie, thank you so much for speaking with us about your work in Ethiopia, Humani, and Code Word: Catherine. We wish you all the best. And in the spirit of the republication, one last question—have you thought about who would play you in the movie version of Code Word: Catherine?
Collins: (laughs) I’ve had movie offers before. Young me? Ellen DeGeneres. But now me, Judi Dench. She’s a very good actress. I mean, those are my thoughts, but no one’s taken me up on it so far.