Leaves in a Dry Wind

Version 2
The essay I am reproducing below is a reply to a comment made in my blog by OromianEconomist regarding the pictures and short essay on my blog  (You can find them HERE.) in which I referred to the Ethiopian drought of the early 1970’s. This was his comment:

“The same is going on right now in Ethiopia. Authorities are either hiding the presence of famine or stealing the food aid.”

He included the below link to an article written about the current drought which I suggest you read.  https://oromianeconomist.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/the-cause-of-ethiopias-recurrent-famine-is-not-drought-it-is-authoritarianism/      My comments follow below.

                                                           Leaves in a Dry Wind

I wrote this initially short reply to the Oromian Economist’s comment on my blog, but then I seemed to just keep writing and writing until it turned into an essay of sorts.  The facts are from memory and I realize I need to do some further research and I’d be open to any comments by people more in the know than I was at the time, but this is a short view of what I observed in Ethiopia when I traveled and lived there in 1973 and 1974:

I was in Ethiopia in the drought years of 1973 and 74. I saw the sacks of grain for sale in the market in Addis Ababa that said, “Gift of the people of the United States of America.” The grain was being sold and the money pocketed by government ministers. One month the teachers in my school (Medehane Alem T’mhrtebet) elected to forego our salaries and use the money to buy food and hire trucks to take it to the drought areas. I was on the committee set up to deal with this transfer, but the government said it could not allow private citizens (or expats such as myself) to handle the money or the distribution. What actually happened was that the government did hold back the money, but they merely used it to pay our next month’s salary. Not a penny of that money was ever used for drought relief.

Many people at that time were not even aware of the drought because the starving people were not allowed to migrate into the cities but were held back by military. We were only aware because we traveled out in the country via bus. Dead cattle dotted the countryside and in places people formed human chains across the road to stop the buses. This was in Wollo Province, enroute from Addis to Dessie. We threw all the food and money we had out of the windows of the bus, but then traveled on. There didn’t seem to be anything being done at that time nor any means for anyone to deal with the problem.

There was one relief agency and I can’t remember whether it was Swiss or Swedish, where the aid was brought to Africa and distributed by the country it was being sent from. I had a friend who was employed by this organization and I traveled with him at one point. He told me that this was the only aid that was actually getting to the people and that no other country actually sent people to insure that the aid was being distributed to the people who needed it. This was a long time ago and my memory is spotty, but I am thinking that they were setting up schools that he was inspecting, but it may have been other agencies.

We traveled from Addis past Bahir Dar and Lake Tana (source of the Blue Nile) and Gondar, up to Asmara. This was through the Semian mountains, noted for shiftas (robbers) and we traveled by caravan with armed guards as actually I had earlier when I had come out of the Lalibela region and back into Addis. Other trips were to the Awash Valley and then later to Gambela, to camps where Sudanese refugee camps had formerly been set up. My friends were Ethiopian nurses there.

When we traveled to Harrar, it was because all of the schools in Addis had been closed down due to student demonstrations and strikes. They had started stoning buses. The rumors were that the buses were all owned by members of the royal family, but I don’t know if this was true. In spite of the fact that almost no students were still attending school, we teachers were told that so long as one student showed up for class that we needed to show up. On my last day of school, I was on a bus that was stoned. A large stone shattered the glass near the window where I was standing, as the bus was full. The next stone whistled past just grazing my ear. After that, the buses all stopped running and they closed down my school. We had been wanting to go to Harrar, so we traveled by train. The trains were totally full with people standing and sleeping in the aisles as well. At times we would see people standing by the side of the tracks with camels. Someone from the train would open one of the doors and throw huge sacks of smuggled goods out to these desert nomads who were contraband runners.

After a few days in Harrar, we rode the train back into Addis and as we rode into the city, we saw the students swarming over the tracks behind us. I think we were on the last train back into Addis. The revolution had been going on for some time but we were just seeing it as student protest. The military later took over the airport and the night of my birthday and good-bye celebration, (my sister and I were due to leave the next day to travel further in Africa and then to go back to the states to see my father who was very ill) the coup was staged. The military had used the students to start the revolution but in the coming years, most of the young people I knew were killed by one wave of revolutionaries after another. They had more or less been used by the military for their own purposes and my only friends who made it through that period alive were ones who came to the U.S. or Canada.

My boyfriend who was shot defending me the first day after the coup miraculously survived a bullet that went all the way through his body and out the other side. I stayed for another month until he was out of hospital, then came back to the United States and have never returned to Ethiopia. My boyfriend became involved in politics and two years later, he was warned to leave Ethiopia by yet another wave of revolutionaries espousing a different branch of communism. When he refused, he was assassinated in the road right outside the hospital where we had spent our last month together.

I blindly stumbled through this very sad and violent slice of Ethiopian history not fully understanding all that was going on. My efforts to write about it since have always been stopped by my realization that I really didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of everything that was happening and probably still don’t. But, for sure, I realize that my experiences in no way equalled those of Ethiopian citizens caught within those circumstances. They could not just travel blithely through them as I did. And few of them lived to tell the story I am telling only sketchily, according to my own experience and probably faulty memory.

I was there for that lavish celebration staged for Haile Selassie’s birthday. When members of the royal family were arrested after the coup, they were put in the prison that was on the other side of the garden wall of my house near Mexico Square. When Haile Selassie was removed from the Royal Palace after my return to the states, he was arrested by my boyfriend’s father, who was a Colonel in the military and put into a little blue Volkswagon that was the car Andy and I used while I was in Addis. I saw Selassie say something to Colonel Getachew as he got into the car and I asked Andy what he had said. What he said was, “Am I reduced to this–riding in a Volkswagen?” In reply, Col. Getachew said, “Your majesty, most of your subjects walk.”

In my years in Ethiopia, I had seen Selassie riding around the countryside in the backseat of his Rolls Royce, sitting on a jumper seat to raise him up enough to see and be seen through the windows, his Chihuahuas running back and forth in the back window. Everyone along the roads bowed as he passed and Andy tried to pull me down into a bow. “It is for respect for our emperor,” he told me, but I told him I refused to bow to this man who lived in a palace and rode through his country in a Rolls and walked through the marketplace dispensing birr notes to the people when other subjects were starving. If he saw us, and if he saw the little blue Volkswagen parked at the side of the road, little did he know that one day he would be driven away in that very car. History can be chilling and its stories full of ironies that, known by few, blow away like leaves in the winds of the next event and the next and the next.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/worlds-colliding/  (This prompt called for taking two fictional characters from different books and having them meet and interact. I have chosen to depict events that occurred when a real person chose to enter a different world. Truth can be much more interesting than fiction.  I found this to be true during my years in Ethiopia.)

29 thoughts on “Leaves in a Dry Wind

  1. Marilyn Armstrong

    And today, finally, it’s raining. Imagine the hysteria and desperation should, say, California run out of water. Impossible? I don’t think so. We would behave better than the Ethiopian government? Or would we try to cover it all up …

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      Northern CA is running out of water with AZ soon to follow, if we believe the experts. Don’t know what they’ll do short of only flushing their toilets once a day. Again big corporations are not helping at all by taking out water efficient crops and growing almonds instead–real water-guzzlers.

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  2. janebasilblog

    One way and another you have seen and experienced some horrifying things, haven’t you!
    I’m trying to remember details of the news concerning Ethiopia back then, and all I can picture is the devastating starvation. It seems that back then we were pretty unaware of the corruption that exacerbated tragic events like these.
    Another excellent post from you Judy!

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      Thanks, Jane. It is amazing to me that in spite of the horrendous things that were happening in Ethiopia at the time–both around me and to me, that it was still one of the best times of my life. Perhaps the Ethiopian character was rubbing off on me–their determination to be joyful and generous in spite of poverty and the sparseness of living conditions. Just listed to those trilling voices of the women at celebrations and in music and you can hear the joyfulness. I once said and repeat here that I never in my life felt as totally accepted for myself as I did in Ethiopia.

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      I know. I think the prompts trigger a different thing within each of us and that is the point of it. Just to get us writing. It isn’t that important to stick to the point set for us–mainly that we stick to the one we set for ourselves! That variety makes it interesting. We need levity as much as the serious stuff. Just as in life.

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      1. granonine

        Yes, ma’am, we do. Interesting, though, that I get more readers and responses when I stay on the light side. And I do avoid, usually, writing things that I know will stir controversy. I love the pleasant tenor of most of the bloggers who post here. Don’t want to mess that up.

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        1. lifelessons Post author

          I know. I was just commenting today about that. The number of views has nothing to do with the amount of time I spend on writing my post. I’m really surprised that there were really no comments on the subject matter of this post. I think people are just tired of bad news. Can’t blame them. On the other hand, most of my posts are light and nothing wrong with facing up to reality now and then either. Balance is the key, I guess. Thanks for commenting, Gran! https://judydykstrabrown.com/2015/09/10/open-and-shut-thursday-doors-challenge/

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  3. lifelessons Post author

    How can people be happy in spite of poverty? I think it comes from simplicity. We have so much in our lives that we forget how simply incredible it is that we even are! We are constantly distracted. In Ethiopia, when I was there at least, there were few distractions. Your work, subsistence, family and friends. That was about it. So you drew all the pleasure you could out of those few things. Friends were treasured and talked to and helped and counted upon. Fun was made. We’d go to the tej halls and lay singers would come and make up fantastic stories about us and sing them to music and everyone would ululate and sing and laugh and get slightly sloshed and then go home to their dirt-floored houses made out of cow dung with no glass in the windows and make love or play with their children. Our electricity was a car battery taken out of our land rover at night and strung up to a single light bulb in our bedroom. Granted, there were those who had an even harder life. These were the women who carried our water three miles to town from the only water source. I don’t know that I thought much about that. I was young and in love and that certainly helped. Plus I knew I could leave whenever i wished to.

    I know there were unhappy women who when they left their husbands lost everything: money, possessions and children. Men had all the power and I think that is part of the reason I didn’t marry the man who was one of my life’s great loves. Some things such as culture are greater than love and it was a lesson I learned the hard way; yet I would not have traded that experience for anything except, perhaps, Andy’s life. But there is no magic in this world that lets you take back what you’ve done and alter the consequences it has for other people. There are more stories I have to tell and perhaps it will help me to figure it all out, but the greater possibility is that I will always make excuses for myself and never tell the full story–mostly because I will never understand the full story. Again, it is a matter of cultures. Phew. Some comment! That’s how my today’s post came about and perhaps I’ve done it again. xoxo Judy

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  4. Dreamer of Dreams

    Thank you for sharing this terrifying part of your life, and for being so brave. Your account was chilling, vivid, moving, and filled with a sort of historical weight that, if I were carrying it, would crush me.
    From what I see of your work, it hasn’t crushed you — but you are carrying a huge burden.
    I look forward to reading more, and learning more about you and your awe-inspiring experiences.

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  5. David

    Wow really interesting stuff, I must admit I don’t really know much about this point of history just the name of Haile Selassie. I had no idea it happened so recently as it were.

    It’s things like this that put me off travelling to places in Africa and the Middle East.

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      Because of world events at the moment, and because Isis has declared Ethiopia a Muslim country in spite of huge protests by the resident Coptic Christians, I feel the same way, actually. But it was strange that while living there I didn’t really feel a sense of danger other than at the exact time that things were happening. Once the coup happened and after Andy was shot, we had armed guards at the hospital with us at all times. I only felt in danger when I left the hospital and actually had a bit of PTSD even when I came back to the states. Probably mild compared to what soldiers go through.

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      1. David

        I’m sorry to hear that, it must be really weird to have been at such a significant historical moment, even if you didn’t realise it at the time. And yeah it’s groups like Isis that put me off travelling.

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      I know I think it is my way to remind myself that even though I have a dozen tasks and repairs to attend to, that I am so lucky I have the problems I have! Thanks for your kind words, Yeshasvi.

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  6. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Hi Judy,
    This was a chilling time of your life and I can understand you not fully understanding it. When you are part of it you just get on with living. You have no choice. I’m sorry about your friend Andy. I have recently read a book “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. This was a book I couldn’t put down and although fiction it tells a lot of what happened in that time. Worth a read if you have time.
    I also know what you mean about aid not getting to where it is meant to. Having lived in a country that survived on aid we saw it going to those that didn’t need it and aid that was simply inappropriate to the people. Much of it was just a waste of money. We did have some Swedish aid that came and put stirrup pumps for water in the villages. These were manually operated, had no parts that were going to cause trouble and for the first time all the villages had water. It was great.
    I hope one day you do work it out and become free of any lasting queries you have about that time. From the little I know of you I think you have chosen to be happy and not let these things destroy your life. The topic of my last flash fiction. http://irenewaters19.com/2015/09/12/99-word-flash-fiction-lost-virtue/

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      Thanks for giving the link to your latest. It makes it so much easier. I read Cutting for Stone and it was uncanny. I swear I knew every single person and location in the book. It was as though someone wrote my book with different characters. I know it was fiction, but the locations and political events were what were happening at the time I was there. I’m now reading “Sweetness in the Belly” by Camilla Gibb–also set in Ethiopia. There were so many wonderful things about the country, prople, and my time there. Even when the most horrendous things are going on, there are so many wonderful things going on in people’s day-to-day life. I hope I haven’t given a totally negative view of Ethiopia. I think I’ve said before that it was also one of the most wonderful times of my life.

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      1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Yes I like you giving me the link as well. I don’t get to reader much and I don’t look at emails so it is by far the easiest way to do it. Yes I thought when I read what you wrote that your story could be the same with different names. I have to admit I had not given much thought to Ethiopa – I represented Ethiopia in a church pagent when I was about 10 (there was a famine on so they picked the fattest kid to be Ethiopa) and then apart from knowing the names and vague news reports until reading the book I had not given it much thought. I may read Gibb’s book as Cutting for Stone and your piece has piqued my interest.

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  7. Tamara Alaine Mitchell

    I’ve had this open in a tab for a couple of weeks and finally, I’m back from vacation and read it…and the link to the Oromian Economist. You are not to blame for your limited viewpoint! You can only report what you saw. The only ones who knew the whole truth were those at the top, like Selase, but they chose to neglect the needs of their people. It seems that the only way things will get better there are if they are forced into accountability by the U.N. or if someone comes into power who cares about the people of the country more than their own fame and fortune. Shame on the U.S. for sending food, but not the people to distribute it! How could we trust that government? The situation in California is very bad, especially since so much water was used to put out fires! I hope Jerry Brown wakes up and starts putting the corporate feet to the fire because right now, it’s the citizens who are expected to cut back on water while manufacturing, agriculture, and fracking continue to go unabated. But, in reality, we are all pretty spoiled. Who really needs a green lawn?

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