john kennedy

They came to Ethiopia in 1962

Dazzled by the American Peace Corps presence and intrigued by their thinking, I, along with my friends followed them wherever they went.

To Mars? Sure, why not!

We saw them in the marketplaces when they were mingling with the locals, engaging in petty bargaining over a small price for a live chicken. They were having a blast.

“What is the price of this vegetable?” they ask.

“Two pennies!”

Then, after finding the real price for the item (a penny), while enjoying the excitement in bargaining, they would leave the scene with a dollar left for the merchant without any purchase. A dollar at that time was ten times what the merchant could have made in a day, given to him by the time-conscious Americans.  We went wild witnessing this incident.

That side of the Americans’ magnanimity was seen as insanity.

The merchants were bedazzled.

They would scream, “Come again, Ferenji! Come again!”

Later, they would talk about them over their coffee gatherings.

“Let me ask you something,” one would ask.

“Ask.”

“If an American came and asked your daughter for marriage, would you bless the marriage?”

“No!”

“Why? These Americans seem kind, gentle and generous. Don’t you want to see that character in a son-in-law or daughter-in-law?”

“No, that’s not what I am thinking.”

“What are you thinking?”

“You see how big and how loud they are?”

“Yes, they are loud,” confirmed the second one.

“What if they are just as loud and as big in the bedroom? I don’t want to hear my daughter screaming while I am at her house for a visit. Oh, God!” he would say, as if he heard a loud groan.

For the Americans, the scrutiny was inescapable. Trying to be part of the community and part of the people, they made themselves available, on every corner. One famous Peace Corps member in particular who quickly learned how to play a masinko (popular Ethiopian musical instrument), and was fluent in the language, became the star on Ethiopian television. For us, he was larger than Elvis or Frank Sinatra. He sang like a native with an impressive style and energy, attired in Ethiopian costume, giving the people of Addis Ababa a sense of appreciation for their culture and music. Some of us even wanted him to lead the country! Many men were willing to give their daughters to this man, despite the loud noise that could emanate from his bedroom.

One American, I remember, trying to be like the natives who crossed a river infested by crocodiles, ended up in the bellies of two crocodiles. This was hearsay by the way, hearsay emanating from the stupendous nature of the Americans. It was equivalent to seeing a small antelope and claiming that it was a lion. The Americans created those fantasies in our brains.

A native woman who had heard of this horrific incident, as was told later, said, “I bet you that American has exited through the other end of the crocodiles.” When asked how, she responded, “Because the American is strong!” So, the make-believe stories about the Peace Corps volunteers mushroomed all over the country.

There was another Griot tarik (story) I had heard, which I will never forget. It was told that a female Peace Corps volunteer returning to the capital city after a three months stint in the rural area (drinking mud water and eating raw meat), found a nice looking Ethiopian guy on the street of Addis Ababa. She was dazzled and took him to a nearby hotel and made love to him.

In broad daylight!

She didn’t even wait for the night to cover her room. She didn’t ask the sun to go away. She didn’t even close the windows. She didn’t enter between the sheets. It was all on top of the bed, they said! All exposed! And the sun was watching. And the world was watching. And the king f Ethiopia was still on his throne, watching!

In our custom, sex was performed in the dark. The body remained hidden. Carnal pleasure was deemed as vile, something gross and ungodly. But this female American went into her room and took off all her clothes and exposed her entire body to that lucky man in broad daylight!

Then, it was told again, she sat on top of his body and made love to him. When the guy came out from the hotel, it was reported, he was weak and shaky. His buddies congregated around and started the interrogation. They thought she had beaten him up.

They said, “What happened? Did she beat you up?”

He confessed to them, that she sat on top of him and rode him like a horse, completely dominating him. He said, she smothered him with passion. She had him in all kinds of positions he had never experienced before. In the end, he told his friends, it was an explosive experience and the best sex of his life.

“Oh, America! She’s even number one in sex,” we said in unison.

There were also nobler acts by the Americans. Their incredible thirst for adventure was the talk of the town. The mosaic of Ethiopian life and its diversity gave these young people what they sought in Africa. Perils were ignored as the young men and women who, undeterred by attacks from hostile tribes, or being mauled by savage lions, crisscrossed the country to explore. Spirited and courageous, they vowed to penetrate the impenetrable. Sharing their world, while at the same time learning a bit of our African culture undeterred by the grim realities of our life, became their motto.

Goethe once said, “With sufficient learning a scholar forgets national hatred, stands above nations, and feels the well-being or troubles of a neighboring people as if they happened to his own.” President Kennedy’s troops in Africa were showing no religious borderlines, no color lines, no racial lines, no class lines in doing their jobs, as they brought hope and aspiration to Africa; but above all, they brought a piece of America with them to our continent!

Equipped with courage to accept the burdens and responsibilities of leadership, not only of America, but the world over, the Americans came to Africa with a message of hope. And in Ethiopia the name Kennedy was on the lips of every man, in every household, as America became synonymous with charm, joy and comfort.

More than anything else, however, we couldn’t anymore label the Americans with any color. The white Americans didn’t look real white to us, even though they were white.

There was something mysterious about their nature. Unlike other whites, who happened to be obnoxious and lordly, the Americans were easy, comfortable and laid back.

This was the age of innocence.

It was a crucial time when our perception of white changed completely. First, the behavior of some whites like Father who courted a selfless life of virtue, kindness and compassion in our continent, shifted our beliefs about the white race. Then, to top it all, Kennedy’s troops, the Peace Corps, demonstrated the degree of the human race’s union and its capacity for love.

The arrival of the Peace Corps in Africa and beyond stirred a curious aspiration about the world beyond ours. Thanks to their influence, we all wanted to see their country and devour their big burgers! Sure, I, too, wanted to meet John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the rest of the Hollywood gang. I wanted to go to America and be an American! But above all, I wanted to shake the hand of John F. Kennedy. I had no idea why I loved that man, but I wanted to come to America and tell him how much his leadership meant to me and to the rest of the world. Yes, and ten million yeses, the Peace Corps idea is a stupendous idea that should be celebrated and cherished.

Thank you Peace Corps!

And thank you to many-many American Peace Corps volunteers!

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