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  • Writer's pictureTW Williams

A RPCV's return to ethiopia#1

Updated: Jun 9

My post is about my family's return to Ethiopia in 1994. It was eventful for us because it was our first trip back since 1972. My wife had returned in 1984, but this time we took most of the family with us. Hard to believe it has now been 29 years since that visit. I thought you might like to read about it. Of course, things have changed since then. If you have questions, send me a note.

This journal entry, Plans to Return, is the first of seven.


In 1994, my wife wanted to visit her family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The prospect of seeing the country thrilled us, and we started planning. I was interested in going myself but felt the situation in the provinces where I served, Wollega and Kaffa, was unstable. If I could not visit those sites, I would not go.


The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to return, even if only to Addis Ababa, where my wife’s relatives live. A few days later, we asked Ted (aged 16 at the time) if he wanted to go, and he agreed. He looked forward to seeing the relatives about whom he had heard so much.

I hoped the situation in those provinces was not as bad as everyone was saying, and I could take a brief trip to Kaffa or Wollega. But I discovered it was not a good idea.

We would stay for a month; however, because of work commitments, I could only visit for three weeks. Hirut and Ted left on 6 July, while I followed later on 11 July. We asked many of our Ethiopian friends where it would be best to stay and we checked in at the Ghion hotel.

On the 6 July, Hirut and Ted left from Dulles airport. The occasion was rife with mixed emotions. Hirut was eager to see her folks, but anxious about things here at home. Ted was excited, too, but worried about language barriers, things to do, and about missing baseball.

Over the years, I have observed many Ethiopians at Dulles airport checking in their luggage for the trip to Addis. Airlines are strict about how many bags and the weight each bag can have.

The process is unsettling for those who have little regard for the restrictions and limits. I have watched many Ethiopians forced to take out as little as one pound overweight from a bag or pay an exorbitant amount of money for excess baggage.

After they left, I marveled at our return, and wondered how Addis Ababa had changed. How would the in-laws react? What was the political situation? How would it be to walk the streets and roam alleys again?

I slept little and had wild and bizarre dreams laced with vivid extracts of American and Ethiopian cultures. I was ecstatic when I finally boarded the plane.

What a plane ride! I had forgotten how long it was: 20 hours total (connection and stop times included) going there and 22 hours coming back. The trip was uneventful, leading to a numbness in my mind, spirit and butt.

Later, I learned Hirut and Ted had to land in Riyad due to wind shear and air pockets that tossed their plane up-and-down and from side-to-side.

Ted still remarks about the lightning flashing about their plane and thinking about if it was the end.

Arriving at 8:40 p.m. local time, I began my journey through customs and immigration. I pleased the officials when I spoke and joked around in Amharic, but they responded in English. They stamped my passport and rifled through my bags.

I was off to greet Hirut, Ted, and all the multitudes of her relatives outside the airport.

“Can I help you, sir?” asked a porter as I wheeled out my stuff.

“No, my family is here waiting for me.”

Only they weren’t.

Guards kept away the crowd of greeters from entering the airport. They allowed no one in the airport who was not a passenger or on official business. The reasoning was based on security. There had been several hijacking incidents. (The crash into the Red Sea being the most famous if you remember.)

Guards, armed with long sticks, patrolled the line of people. Many faces looked my way, but none were of my family. The porter asked if I wanted to make a call.

I thanked him and called my mother-in-law’s phone, but no one answered. Puzzled, I thanked the porter, who smiled and waited.

Just as doubts crept into my mind, I heard my son call me. They were late.

Yes, I was back in Ethiopia. This rich culture’s disregard for timeliness had affected my family. It was great to have returned!

Many relatives were there. Hirut and Ted talked a mile a minute. Amharic and English words flew around me. Mittu, the seven-year-old daughter of one of Hirut’s sisters, Beliyu, greeted me with a bouquet, a lovely smile and bright eyes. After 20 minutes, we were on our way to the Ghion Hotel.

While everyone rushed into our hotel room, I stood in the rear courtyard, where the recollection of forgotten smells and aromas overwhelmed me. I leaned my head back and allowed the cool, damp air to lie on my skin, awakening my senses.

Smells of incense, smoke, coffee, blooming flowers, and trees clamored for recognition, as if saying, “Remember this, do you remember this? Can’t you taste me?” I had to take a step back to catch my balance.

“We’re here!” I said to myself.

To prevent being overwhelmed, I rushed into our room.

After dropping off our bags, my in-laws whisked us away to Beliyu’s house for what I assumed was a late meal. In a short while, we arrived at her house.

As we stepped through the door, there was a cacophony of yells adorned with wide smiles and laughter. After a few seconds, I realized they were saying, “Happy Birthday!” in Amharic and English. I had forgotten it was my birthday.

We ate, drank, and danced the ‘tesk-teska’ until late. When we arrived back at the hotel, I was once again tired, and slept with no dreams until mid-morning the next day.

After breakfast, we caught up on each other’s lives. Tesfaye, Beliyu’s husband, talked with me in Amharic all day.

In a week, I spoke Amharic better than I had for years. Phrases, words, and idioms crashed their way through years of cobwebs and disuse.

We discussed life in America and Ethiopia. We compared local coffees, such as those from Harar, Sidamo, and Jimma. I preferred Jimma, but Tesfaye liked Harar the best.

I lauded the virtues of Jimma’s coffee. We drank several glasses of beer, and ate fantastic dorowat, bugwat, kaiwat, and sigatibs throughout the day.

It was nice just sitting in the chair in their small, but cozy, living room. I could not have done much else since jet lag hit me hard that day. Sometimes I became drowsy, or wandered into another nebulous dimension, and my body felt like it was full of rocks. After that first day, I had no more problems with jet lag.

At Beliyu’s house, we spent our time singing, dancing, and laughing. While there, she kept things together, always had a plan, or fixed things up if we had to change our schedule.

Ted, who spoke little Amharic, still got along with his relatives. Many of the kids spoke broken English and were eager to use it with him.

They say that body language makes up 55 percent of, and tone of voice 38 percent of communication. Much of this must be true.

Ted made lifelong friends and filled in a missing section of his life. To watch him laugh and joke with his relatives was a wonder, and filled his mother and me with joy. His bonds with them grew each passing day. Ted even learned a few phrases and words which stay with him today.

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