As Larry Gallatin, a fellow former Peace Corps Volunteer, and I walked from his car to the Thai restaurant where we were meeting Tariku Belay for lunch on March 16 in Minneapolis, I was feeling a trifle apprehensive. I’d last seen Tariku in 1967, when I said goodbye to him and the other Ethiopian student, Tesfa Giorgis Wondimagegnehu, who’d lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates for two years in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I was heading back to the States to get on with my life after three years of teaching at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis, where Tariku and Tesfagiorgis were seniors. I’d been very close to Tariku and Tesfagiorgis, like an older brother, but that was 44 years ago, when they’d been 18 year-old boys and I a young man only five years older. Quite a chasm to bridge in an afternoon!
So I’d flown back to the States in ’67, and the years really did seem to fly: getting my masters degree, starting a career in nonprofit and public management, marrying, having kids, buying the first home, all those good and important things. Once getting back in the swing of things in the States, I didn’t spend much time thinking about my Ethiopian odyssey, but I managed to stay in touch with my former students for four or five years, as Tariku embarked on a military career after Harar Military Academy, and Tesfagiorgis went to work for what became the national Civil Service Commission after graduating from Haile Selassie University. But even sporadic contact ended in 1974, when revolution toppled Emperor Haile Selassie and the reign of terror under the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam unfolded. Coming across former Ethiopian students in the US over the years, I’d ask about Tariku and Tesfagiorgis, but no one could tell me anything about where they were and what they were doing – or even whether they’d survived Mengistu’s campaign of mass murder. I knew the odds weren’t favorable that we’d ever see each other again, in light of the estimated hundreds of thousands of educated young Ethiopians who died under Mengistu. My “boys” would’ve been prime targets.
Fast forward to November 2007, not long before Thanksgiving, and I’m in Seattle to present a workshop for the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools. Checking voice mail in my hotel room not long after unpacking, I hear a familiar voice asking if I am the Doug Eadie who taught at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa and, if so, to call Tariku Belay at this number. What a jolt out of the blue! Every so often over the years, I’d glanced at the photos of my former students on the bookcase in my study and wonder whatever happened to them, but I was resigned to never seeing them again. Of course, I returned the call immediately, and was soon talking with the long-lost Tariku Belay. It turns out he’d been in prison for two years in Addis, managed to escape and make his way to Sudan and eventually to the US, where he was a teacher in the Minneapolis public schools. No, he knew nothing of Tesfagiorgis’ whereabouts and hadn’t talked with him for over 30 years. We both figured he’d very likely not survived.
For the next four years, Tariku and I talked and exchanged cards and emails every so often, and when the invitation came to keynote the conference in Minneapolis, I arranged to meet Tariku for lunch the day before, with my old Peace Corps buddy Larry. Now, as if this impending rendezvous after a 44-year separation wasn’t dramatic enough, only a couple of days before I was scheduled to leave for Minneapolis, Tariku emailed to say that, after all these years, he’d finally located Tesfagiorgis, who was alive and well and living in Addis Ababa. I dropped whatever I was in the middle of doing and called the number in Tariku’s email. Tesfagiorgis answered – believe it or not, his voice really did sound familiar – but at first couldn’t figure out who I was. When he realized it was the long-lost “Mr. Eadie,” on the phone, he was overcome by emotion. He called our finding each other again after nearly a half-century a miracle, which struck me as a pretty accurate description.
Tariku, Larry, and I spent a delightful afternoon in the restaurant in Minneapolis. The only awkward moment all afternoon was when we first met at the hostess’s station. How to greet each other? After all, when we’d last seen each other, I was “Mr. Eadie the teacher,” and he was “Tariku the student,” and a handshake would’ve fit the bill. But the minute we clasped hands, our handshake turned into a warm embrace. The next five hours were wonderful, as we fleshed out largely blank 44-year canvasses for each other and even placed a call to Tesfagiorgis, who was still marveling at our finding each other again after nearly a half-century. By the way, I learned that Tesfagiorgis had also spent two years in prison under Mengistu, which makes our re-connecting even more extraordinary. That all three of us could be alive and well and together again – after 44 years, thousands of miles, and a reign of terror – that’s beating the odds! That’s a miracle.
I’ll share more about my former students in my next blog, but that’s enough for now. I’m not sure what all of this means. My gut feel is that I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to write about Tariku’s and Tesfagiorgis’s separate journeys, and about the intersection of our paths, but I’m not sure exactly what or how to go about it. I’m open to suggestions.