Women’s Travel Silver Winner: My Ethiopian Tent

by Carol Beddo

A Young woman encounters the courage of her convictions

Being called in to headquarters was not good, but I refused to be afraid. Back then, 1965, people said I had a lot of confidence. In what? I wonder. Myself? My choices?

I had been called in, but no one had told me why. I waited anxiously in Peace Corps’ Addis Ababa headquarters, the only distraction an out-of-date, well-read overseas edition of TIME magazine. I must have quieted my anxiety by leafing its ruffled tissue paper pages back to front, soothed as they fell in soft whispers. I stopped at a page and stared at the serene, idyllic waterfall in a Kool menthol cigarette ad.

Suddenly, Mr. Brown was ready for me. I stood, and something happened to me at that moment; I felt an invisible tent descend to shelter me; I was no longer anxious. Inside my tent I was composed, contained, completely sheltered and alone as I walked the hall to his office.

Bare whitewashed walls enclosed a small, square room on a concrete floor. Inside, each thing seemed gray. Mr. Brown sat in a gray metal swivel chair behind a gray metal desk with two wire mesh in-out boxes. I sat on the gray metal side chair. Concrete chill penetrated the leather soles of my black dress-pumps and gently cooled the air inside my tent. It was the first time in my life I had felt this way, separated and completely safe.

“So, young lady, how are things out there in Bahar Dar. Lovely spot, I’m told, with the lake and all.” Mr. Brown, an administrator who stayed in Addis, never ventured out to the provinces. Twice my age, I figured, and he dressed nicely, in charcoal slacks and a tweedy jacket.

“Yes, we have running water and electricity.”

“Have you gone to those islands? Visited the monasteries? Oh, what’s that lake called?”

“Lake Tana. And no. Women aren’t allowed in the monasteries. Only men.”

“Really? Don’t some women go? Tourists?

“Yes. But they disguise themselves as men. I don’t think I could do that.”

“Why not?”

“Why would I want to do something forbidden? It’s disrespectful. Plus, everyone knows me. Maybe they’d recognize me. I’d be mortified.”

Mortified. It was close to how I felt about being called in. But now in my tent, I had no such feelings, despite the fact that this guy had power over me. He could decide to send me home, send me packing. It had happened to other volunteers in my group.

“Have you been to the waterfall? What’s it called?” Mr. Brown seemed a kindly man in a dated, old-fashioned way, a man who never would have made it in a provincial Ethiopian village. He’d never be willing to lose twenty pounds, just because there wasn’t enough to eat. He’d never have agreed to stay long enough to get the lonely, hollow-eyed look my group had by then, all of us stationed in the provinces, in tough-duty, dirt-floor villages.

“It’s Tissabay Falls.” I said. “It means river smoke in Amarina. I’ll take you there if you come in a Land Rover. It’s wild and noisy and a mist comes off the violent crash when it hits the Blue Nile 40 meters below.”

“That’s fine. Just fine.” With this, Mr. Brown concluded his small talk.

“I hope you’re going to tell me the doctors finally know what’s ailing me.” Some instinct made me say this from inside my secure tent.

“Pardon?” He was taken aback. I was glad. But I was too young and inexperienced to understand. I had put him on the defensive.

“I’ve been sending in stool samples and I’m told they always come out negative. I thought maybe, finally, I’ve actually been diagnosed with amebic dysentery.”

“You’ve been ill?” he asked, alarmed. He was well aware my group was the first they’d sent out to the provinces. We were an experiment, and they were supposed to keep a close eye on our well-being.

“Well, it’s not too bad.” I told him. “But I have all the symptoms in the Peace Corps health manual. Stomach cramps. Diarrhea. Weight loss.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” He sounded genuinely sympathetic, but he didn’t want to hear more symptoms. No one ever did. “I’ll check into it, if you like.”

“Oh. That’s not why I’m here?” Without even knowing I’d made it happen, I would control the discussion, whatever it was going to be.

“Unfortunately, no.” Mr. Brown said. “There are rumors we need to discuss.”

“Rumors?” I kept my voice calm, revealing nothing.

“You’re friends with a teacher in your school? Desta?”

“Sure. That’s right.”

So, it would be about that. Okay, now I knew. I was comfortable within my tent, unafraid, which included not having to defend myself. But any of us could be terminated for even minor infractions and sent home in disgrace. I was determined; it absolutely would not happen to me.

“And you recently entertained him in your home until late one evening?”

“Yes?” Now I felt wronged. How was it that all the guys in the Peace Corps did whatever they wanted? There was Bob, who’d fallen in love with one of the bunna bet girls and she no longer turned tricks because Bob gave her money to live on.

“So, can you tell me what’s going on between you and, uhmm, Desta?”

“What is it, exactly, you’d like to know?” I was going to make him say it. What was my crime?

Mr. Brown was gathering his thoughts, and I was thinking of everything I would not tell him.

I never told anyone how I had felt at the beginning of the hollow-eyed time, when my infatuation with Desta began. How it started on its own—I didn’t seek it—and how it then evolved. I never told how, when I had more friendship from Desta, the plain and simple sadness of loneliness didn’t hurt as much. Decades later, when my father died, I would learn how grief—the tremendous sadness of losing a loved one—takes away your appetite, your energy, and your will to be at your best. Grief was exactly like that lonely isolation. Truly, I have never forgotten the blessed relief, when his friendship eased the heavy feeling in my stomach, when I once again took deep, refreshing breaths.

“Well, it seems this guy left your home late one night, and on his way home, he bragged about being with the Peace Corps girl.”

“Well, I can’t help what some guy says to other people when I’m not there.”

I didn’t think I owed him any kind of explanation. The truth was, by the time I was called in, I was cured of the infatuation, the sexual tension, even the friendship. But not the loneliness. That loneliness and its sadness stayed with me, never went away while I lived in Bahar Dar and, once experienced, is able to return even today.

Mr. Brown looked directly in my eyes. “So, you’re saying there’s nothing to it? You’re denying this allegation?” I would not look away.

I wanted to say I didn’t need to deny anything. I was thinking of telling him how I resented that, as far as Peace Corps staff was concerned, male volunteers were able to beat back isolation and loneliness and sadness with a bunna bet girl and it only cost them two bucks Ethi and they didn’t have to come in here and answer to anyone. I might have said these things to defend myself, but I didn’t want to and didn’t have to, because my tent embraced me and protected me.

“Why do you think he would say that if it wasn’t true?” Mr. Brown continued, while I kept our eye contact.

“It’s an occupational hazard for Peace Corps women.” I said, even though I wanted to ask if I’d done something that was any of his business. “An unmarried woman in this country, living without her family, is suspected and accused of things like this.” A true statement, and a truth we women had to discover on our own. Why hadn’t they prepared us? We had three intense months of training at UCLA—language, history, culture—and they simply omitted the part about the status of women? Oh well, we weren’t even thinking about the status of women in the U.S. back then, let alone in Africa. When all hell broke loose with the birth of the women’s movement after I got home, I was right there, not having to be told what I already knew.

“Well, I think I can write this up now.” he said slowly, looking down at his desk to study a piece of paper, taking time to think, to consider the outcome of my future. I remained silent, patiently waiting in my tent. After a long, deep sigh, he looked up and tried to smile. “I’ll just say the whole thing was a mistake.”

“Yes. It certainly is a mistake.” It was all I wanted to say, though I felt as if courtesy called for me to thank Mr. Brown. Thanks for what? Thanks for accusing me of an offense? For trying to scare the daylights out of me?  For not sending me home? I was grateful and relieved not to be terminated, but saying thank you was something I would not do.

I stood, and my safe enclosure rose with me. Calm and peaceful when I stepped out of Mr. Brown’s office, I walked alone down the whitewashed hall, without seeing anyone.

* * *

Carol Beddo, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, 1964-66, returned to her Peace Corps station in 2003. Flooded with memories, she began to wonder: Who was that young woman? While writing those memories, Carol is coming to understand how the Peace Corps experience provided a foundation for the rest of her life as a community activist and as a consultant in public policy, political campaigns, and elections. Numerous personal essays have been published in the San Jose Mercury News. Her Peace Corps stories have appeared in anthologies: The Best Travel Writing 2009 (Solas Award, Love Story) and One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, 50 Years Of Peace Corps Stories. The Peace Corps anthology received the Silver IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) for travel essays in 2011.

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