William Hershey: My 1968 in Ethiopia

February 26, 2018

COLUMBUS: Americans are obsessed with 50-year commemorations, and this year marks an important one for historically significant and solemn reasons.

It is also a 50th year commemoration personally, for reasons directly related to those that made 1968 stand out for the nation.

The Vietnam War that year was becoming an uneasy presence in the national consciousness.

The reality of the war gained a sharper and frightening focus in January when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched the Tet offensive against American and South Vietnamese forces.

The Americans and South Vietnamese ultimately prevailed, but it was a propaganda victory for the enemy, sending a message that they were capable of sustained and full-scale warfare.

Three months later, on April 4, the nation was shocked by the assassination in Memphis, Tenn., of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had become the face of the long-overdue national civil rights crusade.

Just two months later on June 5, the country was shocked again, this time by the assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, fresh from his victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.

Few of us were passive bystanders to these cataclysmic developments. I was finishing up graduate school and trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life. It wasn’t a decision that I could make on my own.

There were more than 500,000 American troops in Vietnam, and I knew that I was likely to be drafted when my student deferment expired, a possibility I didn’t welcome.

At the same time, the two assassinations had left many of us disillusioned. It seemed like a good time to leave the country.

A graduate school friend mentioned the Peace Corps, which I had not considered. This, by the way, is Peace Corps Week, commemorating its start on March 1, 1961. Joining would defer the draft for two more years but not substitute for military service ultimately.

A combination of self-interest — to avoid the draft — and an admonition from a college chaplain convinced me to apply. The chaplain was tired of young people protesting national and global problems but doing nothing to solve them. Do something, he said.

In my Peace Corps application, I emphasized that I was fairly fluent in Spanish. The government approved sending me halfway around the world to Ethiopia, an East African nation where Amharic, an ancient language with a complicated alphabet, was the official language.

In retrospect, I was lucky in 1968 to land in Dabat, a small Ethiopian town where I was the only American and taught English as a second language to junior high school students.

I learned important lessons. First, humility. It was difficult to forget how fortunate Americans were as I taught barefoot students, some clad in tattered shorts and shirts, using pencil stubs no longer than my thumb. Their hunger for learning still amazes me.

My hometown, Flint, Mich., had a diverse population, but white people — mostly men — were the majority and almost always in charge.

Not in Ethiopia, a country colonized only briefly by the Italians during World War II.

In Dabat, I was in the minority for the first time in my life.

The teachers and townspeople embraced my willingness to fit in by eating Ethiopian food and speaking fractured Amharic, but there was no special treatment from the school’s Ethiopian headmaster.

I forget the particular offense, but he once assigned me to teach first grade games to students with no English. The students and I figured it out together and came up with an Amharic version of “Duck, Duck, Goose.”

While the benefits to me were clear, it is harder to judge how much difference Peace Corps volunteers made in Ethiopia.

We didn’t help usher in representative democracy.

Ethiopia was a feudal society ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie when we arrived. The emperor was later deposed and replaced by a military government called the “derg,” which established a reign of terror resulting in mass killings.

The derg was ultimately overthrown, but the government today is authoritarian, dominated by one small ethnic group and charged with human rights abuses.

The benefits we provided, however, were personal. All classes were taught in English starting with the seventh grade. The English I taught equipped my students to further their educations and find jobs that improved their lives.

I had planned to return to Ethiopia for a third year, but during home leave I became seriously ill. After visits to more than three hospitals, the doctors correctly diagnosed me with malaria.

The draft board caught up with me as I recovered.

My doctor told me, however, that the malaria made me medically ineligible for the draft. He was right.

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is the co-author, with John C. Green, of Mr. Chairman: The Life and Times of Ray C. Bliss. He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.


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