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In Abyssinia

The following article appears in the summer 2014 issue of Saint David's Magazine.

It was not anything like I expected. In the early morning hours of June 14, 2014, a Saint David’s contingent stepped out of the terminal building at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Expedition Ethiopia had landed. It was cool. There was a light fog about, moisture hung gently in the air, and there was the crisp smell of eucalyptus—a pungent aroma intensified whenever the air is stretched to its extremes by either heat or moisture. I found myself immediately transported by this distinct scent to another place and another time. I felt young again. The feeling of placing an anxious foot in a foreign land was replaced with a nostalgic step back to a place I knew. Growing up in Australia, the aroma of fresh, wet eucalyptus at the dawn of a new day woke the heart from its nighttime slumber. It made the blood run.

What Australians colloquially refer to as the gum tree, the eucalyptus was brought to Addis in the early 1890s by the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II, the first king much loved by all the Ethiopians. A fast-growing tree, it would fuel his new capital. Even today we watched wide-eyed Ethiopian women, and sad-eyed donkeys haul the heavy loads of wood down the Entoto Mountains to sell at market. This daily collection and procession has defined the ‘new’ capital’s northern limits for more than 150 years. It was from the airport that we immediately ascended these mountains and surveyed the city below.

Addis is filthy but exhilarating. Bipedal locomotion dominates as the principal mode of transportation, but scattered about are tri-wheeled Fiats, leftover gifts of the imperial minded Italian conquerors of the early 1900s, lorries and VW combos stuffed full of people, and 50-year-old blue and white taxis that somehow, by the grace of God, still run. It is a thriving, bustling metropolis—frayed at the edges, a little tighter in the center, but chaotic throughout. There are traffic lights installed at some intersections, but they are not turned on. Every crossroad in Ethiopia, it would seem, is negotiated and negotiable. Addis Ababa is wild, edgy, dangerous, but remarkably, it all somehow functions. It was indicative of all that followed.

In 2011, as Saint David’s celebrated its sixtieth anniversary year, we focused on continuing to illuminate and reflect upon our mission, critically evaluating its purpose and redefining its significance for today and for tomorrow. Expedition Ethiopia was the culmination of one of two major sixtieth-anniversary initiatives inspired by reflection on our mission’s imperative “that they be good men.” In celebrating our anniversary milestone, we wanted to do for others what others did for us by breathing life into two new programs. The first, Horizons at Saint David’s, would serve children in need close to home; the other would serve children far away. Both would involve education of children and serve the greater common good. The school would lead by example, illuminating its mission.

After several years working to identify the best partners for the second program, Save the Children and Mimi’s Building Blocks, and after completing the requisite planning, we asked our anniversary year Student Council President, Colin Johnson, if he would lead our effort to build a school in Ethiopia. It would be, I told him, an initiative that he and his team could start, but would not finish. The project would take at a minimum three to four years. It would be run by the eighth graders under the guidance of their teacher Tom Ryan, and involve the participation of the whole school. It would be hard work, time consuming, and at times frustrating. He would also need to inspire his successors to continue the good work. Without hesitation, the President took up the torch.

At Chapel, Colin and I spoke to the student body not only of the school’s anniversary and its significance, but also of the school’s mission, and of the boys’ collective responsibility to contribute to the greater good. We spoke about the notion of delayed gratification and how in our New York lives we do not often want for much, or for long. This work, however, like most things of value, would demand a prolonged commitment, a forging of partnerships and selflessness. A full year later, 2012 Student Council President Jack Mullin and I had a similar conversation, and in 2013 it was repeated with Student Council President Skakel McCooey.

It was these three boys—Colin, who launched it, Jack who kept the middle fires burning, and Skakel who brought it all to a successful close—who led our Saint David’s contingent to the official opening of our school in the northern reaches of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.

The boys were accompanied by their fathers, two of whom are Saint David’s alums: Jim Johnson, Terry Mullin ’73, and John McCooey ’72; three teachers: Jim Barbieri, Religion Chair, Peter King, Student Council Advisor, and John Dearie ’95, Assistant Director of Development; and me. In total, our ten-member contingent consisted of six Saint David’s alums.

After our first day in Addis, we flew north and west to Bahir Dar, where we traveled by a rickety, quasi-seaworthy boat across the northeastern quadrant of Lake Tana to the monastery and Church of Debre Maryam on the Zeghe Peninsula. It was hot. Lake Tana, which is considered by the locals to be an inland sea, is the source of the Blue Nile that flows south then north before joining up with the great Nile. Hippos and alligators infest her waters. It was at this moment I thanked God Tana was not a sea.

Later in the day the group crossed this Blue Nile in nothing more than a tin can with muddy water lapping its gunwales. Brown with runoff, the river was running fast and full through lush green banks. We then hiked through the mountainous volcanic countryside to the falls that bears the river’s name—more a trickle than a fall, really. It was on this hike that I met a 14-year-old shepherd boy named Abraham, who, distracted from his chores by our passing through, came over to tell me he had one sister and six brothers. On learning I was a teacher, he then added that he was top of his class this year. Proud Abraham was not surprised by the slightly deflated appearances spread across our faces on the return trip.

Day Three found the contingent flying from Addis to Lalibela via Gondar. Located in the mountains of Lasta north of the capital, it is best known for its incredible tenth-century rock-hewn churches, ‘the eighth wonder of the world,’ as the Ethiopians like to reference them. And they are a wonder! Like most things Ethiopian, they are also a mystery. The locals speak of King Lalibela and his workers chiseling the churches out of solid rock by day and the angels continuing their work by night—there is frankly no other explanation for how they came to be; divinely inspired if anything ever was.

On Day Four we left Lalibela and the Roha Valley and made a spectacular drive back down the twisting, turning mountain road. The countryside was dominated by ploughed fields and small village communities made up of Tukuls (traditional circular huts of sticks with earthen floors and thatched roofs). In the fields farmers ploughed, as they have for centuries, with a single blade pulled by two oxen controlled by a whip. Fires burned, coffee brewed over hot coals, and villagers went about their daily life while we flew back to Addis.

Ethiopian Air, on the morning of Day Five, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cancel our early morning flight. We had to quickly revert to plan B. With the help of our indispensible guide, Mulu, the three Presidents, Mr. Dearie, and I managed to get on the next available flight out of Addis, while the remainder of our contingent did their best to make the most of an extended stay in the nation’s capital.

After arriving in Mek’ele, the northern most reach of our travels, the boys, John, and I visited Dagia Reinhold School, which Mimi O’Hagan, a wonderful friend of Saint David’s, helped build. It is located about 5 miles outside the city made capital by the Ethiopian King Yohannes IV. The trip required us to move carefully and deliberately over unpaved roads. It was obvious that few vehicles traversed these roads. Our van couldn’t quite make it all the way to the school due to crater-like ruts left from the last rains, so we got out and did the last stretch on foot. It was all worth it. Our welcome was spirited and warm. The children ran from their classrooms to greet us with traditional song and dance. “Welcome guests. We are happy” was repeated in a rhythmic chant. We then visited their classrooms and shared time together.

With the remainder of the group reunited at day’s end, we explored a little of Mek’ele’s night life before retiring in preparation for our visit to Saint David’s Kalina School the next day. The group awoke early on the morning of Day Six ready for our two-and-a-half-hour drive south from Mek’ele to Kalina in the Raya-Azebo District of Southern Tigray. A beautiful, clear sky morning opened the day. It was a fresh 16 degrees Celsius. The rainy season, it would appear, remained late.

Our Save the Children partners, in their Toyota 4 X 4, led the way as we meandered in convoy up and over the Gira Castle Mountains and through several small villages. The smoke of Acacia wood burning in breakfast fires mixed with the scent of frankincense and myrrh filled the valleys and plains as we moved through the canyons. It was an aroma that seemed to follow us everywhere we ventured in Ethiopia.

Unlike Bahir Dar, Addis, Gondar, and Lalibela, most of the dwellings in this extreme northeastern region of the country are made of stone, chiseled and laid to form houses. Christian farmers dominate the highlands in the center north, while Muslim herders and traders occupy the lowlands in the east, where we were. We had to share the road with and gently navigate around herds of camel and cattle.

Our convoy pulled off the main road around 8 a.m. and drove the last part of our journey to Kalina on a dusty, pot-holed, unpaved road. Large cacti surrounded the approach to the school: 8 to 10 feet high they lined both sides of the road. The light, grey dust that followed the convoy then billowed around and in front as we stopped at the school’s main entrance. Saint David’s Kalina School consists of a main classroom building, an admin block, latrines and a well.

As on the day before, children greeted us enthusiastically singing and chanting “welcome guests, we are happy” as they streamed out of the school’s front gate—the movement of their feet adding to the clouds of dust already hanging in the air. Teachers threw popcorn in the air like confetti at a wedding. The boys carried long wooden rods as they marched and chanted; the girls all in long dresses danced, clapped and sang, their hair pulled back in the Tigrain style.

After the initial welcome and presentations, the children lined up and filed into their classrooms. The village elders and parents then greeted us. With the help of our translator, we exchanged formal welcomes, introductions, and gifts. We explained the course of events over the past six years that had led to this day and expressed our profound gratitude for such a warm welcome.

After opening remarks and on behalf of the faculty and the school, we presented the Principal with a pair of books, Saint David’s publications that chronicle the history of Saint David’s and the hymns and prayers important to the school. He was thrilled. Our Student Council Presidents presented Saint David’s hats and t-shirts for the children. In the spirit of the day, the Principal put the hat on his head, and we snapped a great shot. Saint David’s parents presented sweets to the Kalina parents, and our Save the Children rep Cheryl Anderson presented a gift to the head of the school’s PTA. After the formal ceremonies, we moved into the classrooms for a tour of the school and interactions with the children.

The boys took every opportunity to interact. Inspired by the World Cup, Colin took some shots on goal with some of the boys. Skakel drew a crowd that tried its best to share names and exchange customs. Jack wrote with chalk on the board, showing a small group of second graders just how it’s done. I struggled with a little one to learn Amharic and Tigrinya.

To conclude our visit, we were invited for a traditional coffee ceremony complete with incense. It was heavy, grainy, delicious, the tastiest coffee ever. We cut freshly made bread to begin the ceremony and we all enjoyed popcorn and fresh goat’s milk with the teachers and elders of the village. Not much was said, but much was communicated.
Between the two school visits, Colin, Jack, Skakel and I managed to catch a quiet lunch in Mek’ele where we reflected on the trip. The boys each expressed feeling moved by the impact of their hard work and the efforts of their respective classmates and all the Saint David’s boys. They were proud of their school’s efforts and the obvious impact Saint David’s boys have had on the education of children in another part of the world—children who could not have achieved their dreams without the help of others.

And I was proud of these boys, for the quality of their leadership and the level of their commitment to something greater than themselves. They represented, in every respect, the best of what defines Saint David’s boys—young men of ideas and ideals, of action and reflection—good men. They were true ambassadors of their alma mater, their families and their country too. How ironic, that in a country that is predominantly Christian, an Upper East Side boys’ school in the Catholic tradition finds itself building a northeastern Ethiopian village school for boys and girls in the Muslim tradition.

Expedition Ethiopia was remarkable, a confluence of conflicting realities. An ancient land and culture thrust into a modern world. Sharing this unique adventure with the boys, their dads and our teachers was nothing short of inspirational. The ‘Aethiopians’ were, to the ancient Greeks, all the peoples who lived south of Egypt. They were known for their piety and humility and the gods lived amongst them whenever they were outside Greece.

I sense God still lives amongst the Ethiopians today. They are a deeply spiritual, humble and proud people. We have much to learn from them. Sometimes, what we least expect can have the greatest impact. It is a rare gift that you can feel young again in such an ancient place. I did in Abyssinia.

The trip to Ethiopia for faculty and boys was underwritten by generous donors; parents paid their own way.


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