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Peace Corps Returns to Ethiopia After Decade-Long Hiatus

The U.S. Peace Corps is returning to Ethiopia to resume work that was interrupted by war in 1998. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports the Peace Corps program in Ethiopia has changed considerably since it first opened more than 40 years ago, but its mission remains the same.

Stephen Johnson was among the first American Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia in the 1960s, shortly after the organization was founded by President John F. Kennedy. He had just graduated from college, and was part of a group of teachers sent to help a country where formal education was rare.

"In those days there was no attempt to educate the masses," he said. "It was an elitist system in which, what, one percent even went to school. That was a guess, but it was roughly that. And even those who started school in those days, only five percent finished and went on to the university."

Johnson recalls that the first wave of 700 Peace Corps teachers made up more than half of all secondary school teachers in Ethiopia. It was the biggest Peace Corps operation in the world at the time.

Now, nearly 40 years after his service ended, Johnson is back in Ethiopia as a businessman. He expresses astonishment at the increase in education opportunities over those years.

"These days, from when I arrived in 1964, where there were 10 government high schools in the whole country, one figure I've heard is there's over 600 now," he added.

That Peace Corps teaching mission worked in Ethiopia until 1977, when it was withdrawn under the disastrous military regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. After Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in the mid-90s, the Peace Corps returned, only to be pulled out three years later when a border war erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Ironically, the latest return comes just as the simmering border dispute is threatening to boil over again. Stephen Johnson dismisses the talk of another possible war. He argues that the Peace Corps mission should go on anyway.

"The rumors about potential wars, they're always around," he noted. "I think this type of talk doesn't necessarily mean there's anything special going on right now."

The Peace Corps director for Ethiopia, Peter Parr, agrees. He says there are many good reasons why Ethiopia has invited the U.S. volunteer group back a third time.

"I certainly hope that those sorts of tensions that we saw earlier don't continue," he said. "Ethiopia is on a political stabilization track and an economic growth track, so there is a lot of reason for the government and the representatives of government and the representatives of the international community to assist in the stabilization of the region."

Parr notes that this new group of volunteers is unlike previous Peace Corps missions in several ways. For one, the group is small. A total of 43 volunteers, who receive a small salary for their service, arrived this month for language and culture training in preparation for their mission. That is far fewer than the 700 who were here in the 1960s.

For another, the group is not made up of schoolteachers. They will go mostly to rural areas to help people understand the dangers of HIV/AIDS. But Parr says the mission is unchanged.

"The mission for Peace Corps still remains the same as when President Kennedy and Mr. [Sargent] Shriver initiated the Peace Corps," he added. "Peace and friendship is the mission, and then there are the three goals of transfer of skills to other people, and communicating information about other people's values and culture, and taking that back to America and sharing it back home."

Stephen Johnson, from the the initial Peace Corps team in Ethiopia, says it is important for the Peace Corps to re-open here, despite the political turmoil and the war that forced the shut down of the first two missions.

"I think you have to try," he explained. "If there's any place in the world where the Peace Corps can be of value, Ethiopia is that place like that."

Johnson, one of 3,000 Americans who served in Ethiopia during the earlier missions, believes Peace Corps volunteers benefit as much as their hosts. He says, "every country, including the United States, has the need for people to give of themselves to help other people." He says the Peace Corps fulfills that need.