William Hershey: How We Sided With Change in Ethiopia Long Ago (Opinion)

William Hershey, who is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal in Ohio, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia during Haile Selassie's time. In the following commentary he recalls how Americans quietly sympathized with the "desire for change" in Ethiopia when he lived there in the late 1960s, while offering a timely advise to the current U.S. President regarding the protests in Iran. Hershey says: "President Trump could try a more indirect or even behind-the-scenes approach than nasty tweets to show support for the Iranian protesters." (Image: screen shot)


By William Hershey

COLUMBUS: President Donald Trump’s outspoken support for the protesters in Iran brought back memories of half a century ago when hundreds of Peace Corps teachers in Ethiopia, including me, were confronted with a dilemma.

For Trump, the concern is that the president’s bellicose tweets could backfire and give Iranian authorities an excuse to blame the protests on the Americans, still regarded as evil even by some critics of the regime.

In Ethiopia, the challenge was whether to stick to our assigned tasks — mostly teaching English, a key to further education and jobs — or also to provide our students with a vision of a society that could provide more freedom and opportunities than theirs.

I was the only foreigner on the faculty and mostly stuck to teaching but also pulled off a dirty clothes subterfuge. More about that later.

When we landed in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, in 1968, we were transported back in time to a feudal regime ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah.

The emperor’s picture was everywhere, in public buildings, bars and restaurants. He was not just Haile Selassie, but His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie.

The Ethiopian government had a veneer of democracy, including an elected parliament. Haile Selassie, a hero to many around the world for his country’s resistance to Italy in World War II, had initiated efforts at modernization, including providing education to a largely illiterate populace.

Still, the emperor and his allies lived lives of unbelievable luxury in a country where many people struggled to survive.

Our guidance from Peace Corps officials was clear. We were guests of the Ethiopian government, feudal or not, and encouraged to keep political opinions to ourselves.

The Cold War was also a factor.

Ethiopia was an American ally in a region where other nations supported communism and the Soviet Union. No reason for a bunch of foreign do-gooders to upset a friend.

There had been protests by Ethiopian university students, but they had been met with strong resistance. In our small, traditional town, located about 500 miles from Addis Ababa, a student who objected to the way things were would have had his or her education ended promptly.

Still, even in this pre-internet era, short-wave radio brought news of the outside world, including stories of political upheavals.

The students and especially the teachers wanted to learn all they could about what was going on outside Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian teachers and I sometimes discussed how things were in Ethiopia and how they would like them to be. They were especially interested in a book, Ethiopia: A New Political History. It detailed a failed 1960 coup aimed at toppling Haile Selassie and replacing imperial rule with a more representative government.

The book had been banned in Ethiopia, but the teachers knew about it and were eager to get their hands on a copy.

That’s where the dirty clothes subterfuge came in. During a vacation to the East Africa nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, I bought several copies of the book for the teachers.

The Ethiopian authorities were on the outlook for such seditious material. To evade customs inspectors, I hid the books among my dirty clothes when I returned to Ethiopia, and they went undetected.

The teachers got their books, and I hope that I signaled that I sympathized with their desire for change.

President Trump could try a more indirect or even behind-the-scenes approach than nasty tweets to show support for the Iranian protesters.

That, of course, is not the preferred approach for somebody who likes to say “you’re fired.”

If he tries, the ayatollahs won’t pay much attention.

William Hershey can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.

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