Interview with Barbara Olson, author

gondar-ethiopia-1In 2017, EDSP co-founder Trudy Kehret-Ward interviewed Barbara Wyatt Olson, the author of Gondar, Ethiopia: 197l-1975 Guests in the Ethiopian Highland and Children of Zemecha.

EDSP: Your book, Gondar, Ethiopia: 1971-1975 Guests in the Ethiopian Highlands  and Children of Zemecha, tells the story of your family’s sojourn as teachers in Gondar, Ethiopia, during the years leading up to the Ethiopian revolution and civil war. Intimations of the events that were to engulf Ethiopia starting in 1974 reached Gondar (some 400 miles north of the capital city of Addis Ababa), and you make note of them, but your book’s focus is on daily life in a provincial capital, and it is the vividness of your accounts of everyday human rituals and familiar seasonal changes that stay with the reader.

Your biologist husband, Clark, was under contract to teach biology and chemistry at the Public Health College in Gondar, and you yourself bring a naturalist’s keen eye to your descriptions of trees (Eucalyptus, jacaranda, bamboo), flowers (maskal and nug daisies, Abyssinian rose bushes) birds (Bulbul, Yellow-billed stork) and butterflies (African Monarch, Anthill White, etc.). Many chapters of your book begin with a description of the “View from my window,” beautifully evoking scenes such as the “moving shapes of the bamboo silhouetted on the wall by a rising moon.” What was it in your education or earlier life that sharpened your eye and gave you such an appreciation of the human and natural landscape?

Olson: I am sure my love of the natural world comes from adventuring as a child in still wild South Florida — snake hunting in the Everglades and skin diving on coral reefs in the Keys — most often with my best friends, the Reno family. My earliest love of writing and story telling comes from long evenings spent listening to the matriarch of that family, Jane. She was a newspaper reporter with the Miami News, and a passionate story teller and lover of Miami’s vibrant multicultural scene filled with all sorts of characters. My love of language and music is from my mother who was a poet and artist.

EDSP: Not only did you pay close attention to the natural world around you in Ethiopia, but your husband, Clark, often went on bird watching excursions during your stay in Gondar, and I was wondering if your children, Ruth and Tommy, might have followed your example and become junior naturalists themselves, despite their relatively young age.

Budding Naturalists: Ruth and Tom Olson with their mother, Barb, looking for fish in the Megetch River, south of Gondar.

Olson: I think you are right – Ruth, for example, kept an eye out for butterflies, and helped me chase down new specimens when we were on trips (I kept a catalog of butterfly species I saw in Ethiopia, and included it as Appendix “B” in my book). And Tommy was fascinated by the domestic animals we saw in the market and the herds of sheep that passed our house on the way to pasturage each day, so much so that we decided to have a sheep and baby as pets.

At the market Tsegaw, one of the students who worked for us, purchased a pregnant sheep, and we staked her up in the side yard. Tommy immediately fell in love with her. He disappeared from the house every chance he got to run out, hug her, and bring her a flower or stalk of grass. And if bleating every time he said “baa!” to her through the kitchen window is any indication, perhaps she loved (or at least took some comfort from) him.

EDSP: In your book you also pay close attention to the human inhabitants of Gondar, both to your fellow international teachers and medical workers, and to the students with whom you came into contact. One of the things that impresses itself on a reader of your book is the hunger that Ethiopian young people have for education. You mention a lively popular tune, “Tehmirtebit,” the words of which were “School I love you, school you give me friends and hope” (p. 175). It is clear that you and your husband, as well as other international teachers, were dedicated to your students, respecting their culture and appreciating their desire for learning. Your husband’s biology students responded to his careful preparation, and he said that they were some of the brightest and hardest working students he had come across.

Your respect for the primary school students you taught in the Gondar International Elementary School is something students remember to this day. Ezana, one of your students and now an expat teacher in Columbia, said that in his teaching he follows your example in encouraging his students to reflect on their own history and culture. What aspects of Ethiopian or Gondarian history and culture would you have thought important for your students to learn about? Can you remember what kind of activities you might have assigned to help students learn their history?

Gondar International Elementary School Grade Two, 1975. Barb Olson is the teacher on the right.

Olson: I remember that the Department of Education had lots of historic and cultural instruction materials in the classroom. Students seemed well versed in stories about their history. Gondar was in a very traditional Amharic region of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and everyone knew the historic religious festivals such as Maskal (p. 176), commemorating the finding of the true cross by the mother of Constantine the Great, and Temkeut (p. 88) commemorating Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. In addition, there were more secular national holidays  such as the birthday of the Emperor. And many boys and girls had been named after kings like Tewodros and princesses like Aida.

But, looking back, it now seems that what I enjoyed bringing into the class room was what we might call geography, current events, information and experiences I was newly discovering and thought the children would not only enjoy but might not yet know. For example, the school organized a field trip on the college bus to the modern vegetable farm on the outskirts of town. There we learned about varieties of vegetables and hybrid cattle, how the plants were grown and the business run. We took an outing to the traditional Gondar market, asking how the products traveled here and which came from the farthest away. Another time, we walked to the near by traditional market path and asked villagers about their products (for example, wild honey and how they had to gather it) and life in their village back in the mountains.

EDSP: You were obviously a very creative teacher. You found ways to help your students to understand their local food ways. And you thought up interesting activities for your children and your students using simple, locally-available materials. Surprisingly, however, some of these activities were criticized by some of the local people, to whom these simple materials were dear – too dear to be used in “play” activities. Your Christmas cotton story is an example:

Olson: I feel the story of Christmas cotton (p. 73), which took place during our first year in Gondar, illustrates the clash between affluentAmerican obliviousness and Ethiopian customs.

Ruth with her friends Senite, Ida and Yemeseretch

Our Tom and Ruth, and their friends from upstairs, had covered our Christmas tree with home made decorations, including paper chains and a gold foil angel brought carefully packed from home. I’d seen raw cotton brought up from the lowlands for sale in the mercato, and decided it would make perfect snow for the tree, and purchased enough cotton to cover our Christmas tree. The cost was twenty cents Ethiopian.

A few days after my purchase, Chokola (a wonderful woman who cooked for our family and kept the house running smoothly) came to me upset. “Madam, please come with me right away!” She showed me our Ruth and four other little Ethiopian friends chattering away about nothing at all, pretending to be grown-up women visiting together at a sort of cotton seed-pulling party. (Women here, especially the less affluent or more rural, when they can afford to buy a bit of cotton, use their leisure time pulling the seeds from raw cotton in preparation for spinning, and then bringing the thread to itinerant weavers for cloth for a dress. )

Chokola said the neighborhood women, walking by the house, were complaining that the children were spoiling the cotton, wadding it and leaving the cotton grey and dirty from their hands. “Madam!” Chokola said, “You must take the cotton away from them. They are just children. They do not know.” I had crossed over an invisible boundary.

EDSP: I want to ask about your contact with students of high school and college age. You mentioned that there was a tradition of political activism among these older students.

Olson: Foreigners had referred to student agitation and protest from way back. It seemed to me to originate, in part, from the Amharic love of debate and verbal exchanges. But the students’ hunger, uncertainty, and callous treatment from authority played a large part. Over time, beginning with the university students in Addis, students across the country began to identify with one another, questioning those in authority regarding government indifference to issues affecting students and the larger society.

Student unrest seemed to center on two issues in particular. An increase in school-leaving exam fees affected students themselves and led to strikes in Asmara. And in December 1972, government indifference to drought and famine in Wollo and Tigray led five university students to attempt to hijack an airliner in order to attract international attention to the famine in Ethiopia’s northern regions. Concern for the poor in the countryside, especially those without land of their own and those suffering from the current famine, were expressed in student demands for “Bread for the Hungry,” and “Land to the Tiller.”

EDSP: At the time of the attempted hijacking, the government was denying what it called “rumors” of famine. The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture Report of 1972 stated that output for 1972-73 was only 7% lower than the previous year – a fall in production that should not have been significant enough to cause a severe famine. You and your husband had opportunities to hear reports from international aid workers, and you travelled around Ethiopia yourselves. Did you see any evidence of drought and famine?

Olson: In 1971 Clark heard from the College Dean that farmers in the north were forced to eat seed set aside for next year’s planting. Then in 1972 we traveled to the Awash Valley game park with Clark’s brother and sister-in-law, hoping to spot wildlife. There we found our way blocked by camels ridden by nomadic desert people, defying game park rules, forced by the drought to bring their herds into the highlands to find food and water.

But the most tragic, saddest circumstances were during our last big trip around the country. In August 1974, we were on route to Sodore Hot Springs Resort, a formerly wealthy and exclusive vacation spot south of Addis Ababa. Travel pamphlets still promised luxury, pseudo-Swiss chalets, and swimming pools. But now the approach was lined with groups of emaciated, skeleton-like adults and children, begging for us to stop and help, several already starved to death along the edge of the road.

What we heard, and saw with our own eyes, was known to the students. Aside from the military, students were one of the few well-organized groups in the country, and information about suffering in the countryside traveled quickly on the student grapevine.

EDSP: Gondar was far from Addis, where politicized students played a major role in the revolution that unseated the Emperor. Did the local high-school in Gondor also engage in political activism?

Olson: By June of 1974, there were confrontations between Gondarie high-school students and their teachers. Friends who taught in the provincial high school told us of student protests. In July students played a role in the Gondar Courthouse massacre, egging on the police who had entered the courthouse to deliver demands for court reform. Later, after the Emperor was deposed, high-school students went from building to building destroying pictures of the Emperor.

EDSP: Despite the uncertain times leading up to the Revolution, and the desire of students in regional centers like Gondar to follow the lead of politically active students in the capital, the Gondarie students you knew continued to try to complete their education. You employed several struggling students who were trying to support themselves while studying. Can you tell us something about them?

Olson: Tsegaw’s story: This young man was a bright high school student who lived at home, in very modest circumstances, with his mother and sisters. When he came to our house to ask for work, he brought a letter of recommendation from his eleventh grade teacher. Tsegaw’s mother sold home made tella (beer). Her only other income was what her son could earn.

Abaja’s story: Abaja was an older student with a background and interest in agriculture. He came from several hours away where he helped his grandmother farm her small piece of land. Abaja had difficulty passing the tenth grade, but was determined to keep trying.

Kassa’s story: Kassa lived at least a day’s travel from Gondar. He was bright but impoverished, and he suffered from serious health problems. What was more, as a member of a minority, the Beta Yisrael (Falasha), he no doubt experienced even more difficulties. It was said, many people in our area actually were related to the Beta Yisrael but people didn’t admit it. (p. 265)

EDSP: In 1974, toward the end of your stay in Gondar, the Emperor was deposed and replaced by a military junta called the Derg. The Derg had promised civilian elections, and popular elections became a student cause. The Derg, meanwhile, was seeking to consolidate its own power, and decided to harness student idealism in a cause less threatening to its own goals. Toward this end the Derg proclaimed a national campaign (Zemecha) that enrolled students from grade ten through college in a campaign to bring literacy to the countryside as well as to prepare the peasants for reforms in governance and agricultural practices – village councils and agricultural cooperatives.

Students did their Zemecha service outside their home districts. You mentioned in your book that your husband believed that if the Zemecha experience did no more than “help educated young people learn more about the many different people who make up their country . . . then it might be all worthwhile.” By February 1975 a busload of Zemecha students from other districts arrived to do volunteer work in Gondar, and not long after the Gondarie students were sent to districts outside Gondar. A number of the Gondaraie students wrote to you not long after arriving at their destinations, and you include their letters in your book. These letters, written from March through August of 1975, provide an intimate look at the hopes and fears of these young people as they embark on their Zemecha assignments. These letters from students you had known often ask for financial and other help, and you comment in your book about how frustrating it was to try, during those disrupted times, simply to keep in touch with people, much less get any kind of help to them.

Olson: We felt a deep responsibility to try to offer some support to people in our lives. Before returning to the U.S. in the spring of 1975 we made an effort to set up some sort of pipeline back to Gondar to help, through people at the college where Clark taught or local people we thought would be dependable. However the community was in such flux and plans fell apart as people left the area. We were never able to establish a dependable way to relay assistance.

EDSP: Your husband’s teaching contract ran though the spring of 1975. However during the last months of his contract, with the schools closed and the students on Zemecha, he was given non-teaching assignments which occupied him until your family was scheduled to return to the U.S.

As you look back on the time you spent in Gondar, 1971-1975, how do you think that experience affected you and your family?

Barb and her biologist husband, Clark, dancing at an event at the Gondor Public Health College, where Clark taught biology and chemistry.

Olson: It was so long ago, the question is overwhelming. Living there left us with emotional connections to a distant place and so many people as well as memories of so many fun occasions, such as the dances at the Public Health College where Clark taught, occasions shared with other international teachers and the Gondarie staff. Hopefully, we have more understanding and appreciation of all of Africa, and the complex challenges it faces.

Writing this book was emotionally challenging for another reason. One of our children, Tom, was killed in 1988 in a traffic accident. Working on this book seemed partly a saga of his early years as a child in Gondar, as well as a celebration of our daughter’s life, and her healthy, strong family.

Let me also say, I really learned how to be a writer, while working on this book over the many, many years it took to complete it.

EDSP: Have you done any more writing about Ethiopia in addition to your Gondar memoir?

Olson: The Kalahari Review looks for African stories about little known, seldom written about people. They accepted/printed my historical fiction story, “Final Days in the Reign of Haile Selassie I, Lion of Judah,” based on two young men and a young women who we knew in Gondar, including one young man who was Falasha (Beta Yisrael).

EDSP: Your daughter, Ruth, was four when you arrived in Gondar. She seems to have inherited her mother’s and grandmother’s artistic and poetic sensibility. Ruth’s charming woodblock print titled “The Queen of Sheba” is on page 1 of your book, and her adult memories from those years have a poetic vividness:

I remember:

Hearing the lions roar from one of our houses.

The monkeys that stole our food at a palace or monastery

The strong smell of coffee

Spending time with Mrs. Rajan [Ruth’s Indian elementary school teacher]

Eating the wonderful food

My friends Ida and Senite

The costumes and process ion at Timkat

The burning cross of flowers at Mescal holiday

Everybody touching my hair.

–Ruth Olson

EDSP: Among Ruth’s memories of childhood in Gondar was “eating wonderful food.” This included Indian food prepared by Sara Rajan, her teacher at the Gondar International Elementary School, and a number of her Tamil recipes are included in an appendix to your book. But what Ruth remembers even more are the traditional Ethiopian meals prepared for your family several times a week by the family’s cook, Chokola.

Ethiopian refugees from the famine and the political unrest following on the Revolution began arriving in the U.S. in 1980. The earliest arrivals missed the wonderful food of home, trying to make their traditional flat bread, injera, from wheat flour, inasmuch as the teff grain of Ethiopia had not yet been introduced in the U.S. Today teff is grown in many places in the U.S. – not just in Idaho where it was first introduced in the 1980’s by Wayne Carlson, an Idahoan who, like your family, lived in Ethiopia during the early 1970’s, but also in your own state of Illinois (where it is primarily grown as a nutritious livestock forage).

Today no Ethiopian émigré need long for the wonderful food of home. The large and medium-size cities (such as my own town of Berkeley, California) in which there are Ethiopian communities boast many Ethiopian restaurants, which are sometimes even able to purchase Ethiopian vegetables and herbs grown locally either commercially or in community gardens. And Harry Kloman’s 2010 book Mesob Across America explores the community of Ethiopian cuisine that has grown up in the US since the arrival of these first emigrants. Are you and your family able to find Ethiopian restaurants near your home in Springfield, Illinois?

Olson: There are no Ethiopian restaurants in Springfield, but there are a number in Chicago, and we just met a wonderful couple who run the St. Yared Ethiopian Cuisine and Coffeehaus in Indianapolis, Indiana, and were able to give them a copy of my book. It was not surprising to us that this restaurant is also a coffee house. Ethiopia is where the coffee plant originated, and the smell of coffee roasting, which Ruth recalls so vividly, and of the dry Eucalyptus leaves used as kindling for breakfast fires, floats through all of our memories.

Barb and her adult daughter Ruth today.