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California Congressman Returns to Ethiopian Roots

John Garamendi hugs his wife, Patti (file photo)
John Garamendi hugs his wife, Patti (file photo)

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A California congressman and his wife are in Ethiopia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps at the place where they served as volunteers in the 1960s.  The anniversary has revived memories of the Peace Corps’ key role in ending a war that killed 70,000 people.



John Garamendi leans back in his chair as he recalls the life he and his new wife Patti found when they arrived as Peace Corps volunteers in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia in 1966.

"We were to be English teachers. We wound up teaching the sixth and seventh grade," recalled Garamendi. "Patti not only taught school but set up a women’s program, a children’s program, a pre-school program, and I started doing community development work."

Previous trip

This is not the Garamendis' first trip back to Ethiopia. They returned in 1984 to help when famine struck the countryside and have been back several times since. Patti came in 1994 as associate director of the Peace Corps when the Ethiopia program was revived after a period of absence during the dictatorial Dergue regime.

But this week, 50 years after U.S. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps, now Congressman John Garamendi of California returned with Patti and the youngest of their six children to the town of Metu for an emotional reunion with friends they made so many years ago.

"It was wonderful to see the progress that the town and community had made," he said. "And one thing the students said as we were gathered there at the school was, you taught us two very important words, a four letter word H-E-L-P, that we were to help each other, and the other was ‘community’, that we were a community and we would together do well. And they had indeed."

Peace mission

The California congressman recalls another visit to the Horn of Africa in the late 1990s as part of a peacekeeping mission when the region was engulfed in war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Garamendi says the mission succeeded largely because both Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki trusted the Peace Corps.

"My team was invited to meet with prime minister of Ethiopia and the president of Eritrea. Why? Because they’d been taught by Peace Corps and they knew our agenda was peace," Garamendi said. "We had no other agenda. So we met with both heads of state talking about the war, talking about what their goals were. And in those communications we saw a path for peace. Those concepts we had discovered in our communication with the heads of state… became the essential elements of the peace negotiations and the settlement."  

Garamendi and his team of Peace Corps veterans were later invited to witness the signing of the Algiers peace agreement that ended the two-year war.

Changing lives

The Peace Corps left Ethiopia a second time during that war, which claimed 70,000 lives, then returned again three years ago. The 75 current volunteers do HIV/AIDS prevention work and agriculture projects. But Garamendi says just as in the early days, Peace Corps people bring a variety of skills to the places where they work and live.

"Now one of the Peace Corps volunteers in [the town of] Bonga has become the IT expert for the region," noted Garamendi. "He’s now traveling not only in Bonga but in other communities around that area helping with information technology, Internet, repairing computers, setting up programs and the like. He wasn’t sent here to do that but that was his interest and now he’s become the regional expert on that."

More volunteers

Ethiopia Peace Corps Director Nwando Diallo says there are plans to increase the number of volunteers to at least 200 in the next year or so. That number will include teams of English teachers following the trail John and Patti Garamendi blazed more than 40 years ago.

Congressman Garamendi notes, however, that it is not only the recipient countries who benefit from Peace Corps work.  He points out there are 200,000 American men and women who gained a greater understanding of other cultures, religions and the struggles of peoples through volunteering abroad.

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