By Joanne Richards
Former Keren High School Peace Corps
I joined the Peace Corps in 1966 at the ripe old age of 21, just after graduating
from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Our three-month training program, which took place in Cambridge, MA, introduced us to the language and customs of our host country, Ethiopia (now Eritrea), and reacquainted us with the history and political science of the U.S. As we prep
ared for life in a very foreign land, we became a close-knit group. I was posted to Keren (the northernmost of all the towns where volunteers served), but my friends were distributed all over Ethiopia. Before we departed from Addis Ababa to our far-flung cities, towns, and villages, many of us exchanged addresses. In those days there were no cell phones and no email! How would we survive?
Some months into my adventure, I received a letter from Ham Richards, another Cambridge trainee, who was teaching high-school physics in Dire Dawa. He really didn’t see much future in that—the textbook dated from the 19th Century, and most of the students cared only about passing the School Leaving Exam—but he pressed on. We exchanged letters, and our courtship was facilitated by our two required Peace Corps meetings, one in the winter of 1966 in Asmara and the other in the summer of 1967 in Addis.
Fall 1967 brought Ham a lot closer, when he moved to Mak’ele to work in an irrigation project for the local farmers. Continuing to exchange letters, we also spoke by telephone each Friday. What an experience that was! In those days, long-distance calls were set up piecemeal by human operators, and the operators in Mak’ele and Keren got so used to our calls that they started to place them without being asked (they were probably eager for the entertainment!). The telephone in Keren was in the post office, to which I was summoned by a runner when the call came through. Every third weekend Ham would travel north from Mak’ele and I would travel south from Keren to meet in Asmara, ostensibly for appointments with the dentist. By December, having gotten to know each other pretty well, we decided to spend our winter break together, exploring the wild animal parks of Kenya and Tanzania. Before leaving for the East African wilderness, we spent a few days in Malindi, on the Indian Ocean, and there, on January 6, 1968, Ham asked me to marry him. What a glorious way to begin a wonderful vacation!
Preparations for our July 4th wedding in Keren were a bit of a challenge. By then the Eritrean Liberation Front was in full force, and the Ethiopian Army were doing their best to crush it. To deny supplies to the ELF, the Ethiopian Army were keeping track of foodstuffs sold in the marketplace; how would we provide refreshments to our guests? Word got around town pretty quickly – students do get excited – that there would soon be a ferenj wedding. Each day the shopkeepers would put away a little bit of sugar, coffee, and sweets, not enough for the Ethiopian Army to notice, but just enough to accumulate over the weeks. A tailor designed my dress by showing me a Sears catalog and having me point to the neckline I wanted, the sleeves, bodice, and skirt. We picked a fabric. Then he took a scissors and a piece of butcher paper and proceeded to cut out a pattern. It was perfect. The students had wedding invitations printed. I typed seven original marriage certificates. July 4th arrived!
The ceremony almost went without a hitch. The mayor was to conduct the ceremony, but it was his first ever, and he was so nervous that he forgot all of his English. Fortunately the high-school headmaster was there and could step in! Although the ceremony took only a few minutes, the celebration afterwards spanned the better part of two days. First came the town officials to pay their respects, then the teachers, and finally the students.
To be on the safe side, the mayor stationed a few police officers to guard the house while the festivities were going on. As the afternoon passed into the evening, the students were dancing to the beat of drums, and then there came a knock and commotion at my compound gate. A drunken Et
hiopian Army officer, suspicious that the drums were signaling the ELF, tried to enter while brandishing a gun, but was stopped by the guards. The guards were so concerned that they wouldn’t let any of the students out on the streets, so we partied all night! The next morning when Lijajet, my cook, came to prepare breakfast, she was taken aback to see not the half dozen people she was expecting but more like fifty! With her usual good humor, she found enough food to prepare breakfast for all of us. When the festivities were over, we were all exhausted but extremely relieved and happy!
Fast-forward 43 years. Ham and I remain happily married, and we still hear from some of those who celebrated with us back on July 4, 1968. Email has kept friendships alive. Some are in the U.S., others in England, Sudan, and Eritrea.
But the story doesn't end here. In August 2011, I received a call from Yohannes Drar, a Keren expatriate who now lives in Ontario, Canada. It turns out that every few years he organizes a Keren High School Reunion in Washington D.C. I plan to attend the next reunion in July 2012, and be reunited with teachers and students many of whom I haven’t seen since 1966! What a kick that will be!