ELEVEN: PARIS WEDDING AND ETHIOPIA

Previous chapter: Ten: Asia and the USA

Christmas came and went and I was just starting to wonder what to do with the rest of my life when Göran Dahlgren – my old friend from Stockholm University, to whom I had sent a copy of my booklet – wrote to ask if I fancied coming to Sweden to help train Swedish Peace Corps volunteers, under the auspices of SIDA, the Swedish Agency for Overseas Aid. I would both teach English and give advice on the nature of volunteering. The first group of young Swedes was just leaving for Ethiopia with Göran as Field Director, and his lovely young wife, Rita, would help in the administration. Group Two had started training at Lövudde Folk High School in Västerås, and would fly out to Addis Ababa in July. It might even happen that I could join them and become deputy Field Director. The pay was very reasonable, and though I had some doubts about working for a government agency, I knew Göran’s egalitarian spirit and felt we would have a huge opportunity to create a truly volunteer programme, but with adequate funding.

A clear blue sky, sparkling snow and a frozen lake lay outside our window – bitterly cold, but beautiful – while the Folk High School itself was modern and beautifully furnished. Our meals were lavish both in quantity and quality. At least, they seemed so to me after eighteen months of travel, forever skimping on food. The 22 volunteers were friendly and pleasant, mostly practical artisans or professionals. We had building engineers, vets, nurses, child-care specialists, motor mechanics, and so on. I taught English, but also tried to get the volunteers to look ahead, to realise that volunteering means identifying with the local people and to some extent sharing their standards and way of life.

In mid-February, I received a last-minute invitation to take part in an OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) conference in Paris. At first I groaned, weary of all these conferences with so much talk, so much paper, so much rhetoric and so little achieved. But then something very strange happened. Paris meant Sigyn – with whom I had hardly exchanged a letter since the previous summer. I did not know what she was up to, how she was, whether she had a new boyfriend…. a boyfriend?? Suddenly I saw her in a new light, or rather as I had seen her when we first met and I broke her arm at the old castle of Charbonnières, when I had been so in love with her. I realised that I was indeed in love with her now, more deeply than ever, and I kicked myself for not having taken my chance in Paris, six months earlier.

I accepted the invitation and wrote Sigyn a long letter, pouring out my heart and apologising for the pain I had caused over the years. I said that I loved her completely, that I now had a salaried job that might well lead on to a post in Ethiopia, and asked – if she still felt for me as she once did – if we could marry and live the rest of our lives together.

Day one of the Paris conference was tedious, with long introductory speeches and piles of working papers on the theory of economic development, graphs and statistics to deaden anyone’s mind. At last we broke up and I arrived rather late at a small dinner party in the home of the Chairman of CCIVS, a charming Frenchman by the name of Jean Michel Bazinet. There was much embracing as I entered – naturally, we were in France – and I gave Sigyn a special kiss. She smiled, but did not respond particularly: in fact she looked rather sad. But it was already time to sit at table and to my dismay – a throw-back to our very first meeting in the church of St Sulpice – she did not sit next to me, but some way off. I asked the woman sitting next to me if she would mind swapping places with Sigyn, as we were planning to get married, and the good soul cheerfully went round the table and congratulated my wife-to-be.

General astonishment followed and I honestly cannot remember who said what to whom amid all the amazement, explanations, laughter, tears and cheers – because, to cut a long story short, my love letter to Sigyn had never arrived: she knew nothing of my proposal. I can’t remember now if she said Yes on that first evening or if she wanted to think things over, but as the train left Paris carrying me back to snowy Sweden I was the happiest of men. We would marry in Paris in July and, if fortune smiled, would start our new life together in Addis Ababa.

During much of the spring, while I worked on the training course and later joined my parents for a couple of weeks’ holiday in Ireland, poor Sigyn struggled to get permission from French bureaucrats for us to marry. She trailed from office to office, sent off for various original documents that needed translating and certifying by a lawyer. She joined long queues of Algerian immigrants, who on reaching the desk were often insulted or turned away by officials. Even she had to put up with the odd bit of Gallic brilliance. One clerk, seeing my father’s name on my birth certificate, sneered, ‘Robert Roberts? Quelle manque de fantasie!’

Our Irish holiday had its good sides and its bad. My mother and father, as they aged, had grown more patient and friendly with each other, which I found a wonderful change, and the landscape  and small towns in the far west of Ireland around Dingle and Slea Head had great character. One day, we paid for two boatmen to row us the several miles across the sound from Dunquin to the Blasket Isles. These were inhabited until 1953 by a completely Irish-speaking population, and as we landed only thirteen years later we found many of their houses still intact and even holding sticks of furniture. It felt intrusive but also fascinating to wander through them, wondering about the choice of wall-papers and other details, The main street of the settlement had become a lawn, nibbled short by thousands of rabbits, and the whole island seemed covered by the same soft and springy green carpet. From a hilltop we stared westwards on that bit of land which, of all Europe, was closest to America.

Another positive visit was to Ballinskelligs Bay: the spot which I, aged ten, had picked out with a pin, blindfold, one winter’s evening at Weet Ing. ‘One day, we’ll go there,’ my mother had promised, and she kept her word.

On the down side was the food: not that it was generally bad, but the three of us agreed later that the worst meal we had eaten in our lives was consumed that afternoon in the restaurant of Killarney railway station. Our train arrived at two and, while discerning passengers headed for pubs and restaurants in town, we three innocents entered the station buffet. It was deserted. Tables, each with its white cloth, cutlery and glasses, stood in four silent rows.  We selected one, sat and waited. After a decent interval, a waitress appeared, wiping her fingers, and advised that we take the basic menu of soup, lamb casserole and desert. We went along with this, she disappeared and we waited. The clock ticked, flies buzzed on the window pane.

A few minutes short of three o’clock the soup arrived: shallow bowls of warm salted water, swimming with whitish bits that seemed to be cauliflower. We each thickened ours by crumbling in a slice of white bread and then made liberal use of the pepper, ‘to bring out the flavour’, as my father advised. Next came the lamb course, or rather, watery mashed potato, slices of boiled mutton with a generous layer of white blubber to them, boiled cauliflower and a spoonful each of tinned peas. This one green item, though welcome, marred what would otherwise have been a purely white gastronomic experience, for desert proved to be thin, wobbly blancmange. By this time (nearly four o’clock), we had passed the indignation barrier. Mother and I were sniggering into our table napkins and father’s face was pink with utter disbelief. We settled the bill and left the good woman a shilling – as thanks for a truly unforgettable meal.

The weeks passed. Sigyn wrote to say that she had arranged for us to marry in the Town Hall of the 16th Arrondisement of Paris on July 24th. She had two other bits of good news. First, her younger sister Ing Marie, and fiancé, Åke Magnusson, had also decided to marry in Paris. They would wed a couple of days before us, cunningly side-stepping all Sigyn’s problems with the civil authorities by tying the knot in the Swedish church on the rue Médéric. Second, and even better, a friend – Georges (surname forgotten) – apprentice dress designer at the world-famous house of Givenchy, was making her a wedding dress, and for free!

She also asked me, when back in Sweden, to visit her parents, Karl Erik and Dagny, on their small farm at the forest edge near the village of Daretorp. They were not great travellers and there was no question of them coming to Paris. (As a twenty year-old, Karl Erik, and some other lads from Daretorp, once decided to taste the delights of urban life and had driven that evening to Gothenburg. But coming down a hill, with the lights of the city spread before them, they had stopped, wondered if it were really a place for honest country folk, turned round and driven home.)

Before visiting them though, I had to do one more thing in Stockholm: Needing to find someone who sold strips of gold, I picked out an address in the telephone book and found a small office down a back street – not the large jeweller’s that I had expected. And there, I bought two thin lengths of gold, each stamped with an official hall mark, the one just long enough to entwine Sigyn’s ring finger, the other just long enough to circle mine. A good friend had lent me a jewellery tool kit, including a tiny blow lamp, controlled from the lungs, with a flame hot enough to melt two scraps of gold alloy. With a ring formed from a straight length, my alloy would join the two ends together.  The alloy was designed to melt at a few degrees below the melting point of gold, and I had been warned not to over-heat it, or alloy and ring would suddenly melt into a metal blob. ‘The gold will change colour,’ I had been told, ‘and it MUST not go beyond light pink’.  I lit the blow lamp, slid a piece of alloy into the crack where the ring ends met, and started to blow.

All too quickly, alloy and gold began to change colour – the alloy suddenly ran – I stopped blowing – and it was done. Nothing to it! Likewise with the second ring. I began to fancy myself as a jeweller already, though when I examined the rings, once cooled down, they did not look very professional. Mine had quite an angle to it; Sigyn’s was even more misshapen – and had to be pressed into shape by a shop specialising in that sort of business.

our wedding rings

Our wedding rings (Sigyn’s after treatment)

 

From Stockholm, I took the train to Jönköping, the bus to Tidaholm, a second bus to Daretorp and found myself walking the last mile along a gravel track through the wooded Swedish countryside. I reached a clearing, with walls of dark conifers on two sides, a red-painted house and barn surrounded by small fields. Inside waited my future parents-in-law, probably just as nervous as I.   Karl Erik was tall, lanky, fair and blue-eyed, kindly by nature and rather taciturn and still. Dagny was equally kindly, but in all other respects a contrast to her husband, being busy, chatty, dark, brown eyed and tiny in stature. Karl Erik was clearly of Scandinavian stock, while Dagny had ancestors among the Walloons who came from Belgium in the 1600s as smelters and workers of iron. One could now see why Sigyn was not “typically Swedish”, having dark hair and brown eyes, though of normal height.

They spoke no English, but my Swedish helped us through an enjoyable evening, Dagny proudly showing me Sigyn’s paintings and school exercise books. Then I visited “dasset” – the outside earth closet, some 40 metres from the house, returned, climbed the narrow wooden stairs to my bedroom and slept soundly.

After breakfast next day, with cream from the Ärligs’ own cows in the nearby barn poured over bowls of berries picked in the fields, woods and hedgerows, and cups of good, strong Swedish coffee, Karl Erik told me, ‘Kom, nu ska du få hjälpa till lite.’ (‘Come along. You can give me a hand.’)

We walked across to the wood store, outside which stood a pile of tree trunks cut into short lengths, of a size that would fit into the kitchen stove. Karl-Erik explained that they still needed splitting lengthwise into quarters before being stacked for two years to dry out completely. He then passed me a long handled axe and stood back. It is as well that he did, for my first hefty swing sent the chunk flying, still in one piece. I propped it up again, swung and sliced off a fragment. Karl Erik smiled, shook his head and took the axe from me. He then split log after log, clinically, into four, using no effort. I looked on, savouring the sweet smell of pine resin in the morning sunlight.

Karl-Erik then suggested that, while he went on splitting logs, I could collect the quarters and stack them in the wood store, simply following the pile that he had already started. His stack was perfect of course, each piece of wood flush with its neighbour, and all aligned straight and true against the barn wall. I piled my pieces on top of his – at least I thought I did – but within minutes my sector developed an ugly bulge and collapsed when I tried to straighten it. As I desperately snatched up pieces from the ground to jam them back, Karl-Erik peered in, smiled and shook his head. ‘Kom,’ he said, ‘nu ska’ vi in i skogen’. (’Come. Now we’ll go into the woods.’)

Having failed pathetically at my first two tasks, I flinched at the idea of further tests in Swedish woodsmanship. Must I now fell a pine with twenty blows of an axe? Would he lead us deep into the forest, then slip away leaving me to find my way back? Or was there some other dark ritual, a Viking ordeal, by which a father would sort out the weaklings from any who sought his daughter’s hand?

I needn’t have worried. Karl-Erik just wanted to show me certain spots in the woods, known only to the Ärlig family, where to pick wild strawberries (“smultron”), cloud berries (“hjortron”) from which to make delicious jams and liqueurs, raspberries (“hallon”), cowberries (“lingon”) and chanterelle mushrooms – a delicacy in Swedish cuisine. He also took me to the ruins of his old house, Ekornabacke, far deeper into the forest, where Sigyn and sister Eivor had lived until the family moved closer to the main road and village school. [Years later, Eivor and I revisited this ruined house, now completely overgrown by silver birch trees. There she removed a stone from the garden wall to reveal a collection of tiny plates, jugs and cups – all in pewter – toys with which she and Sigyn had once played.]

It slowly dawned on me that these shared confidences signalled my acceptance into the Ärlig family. This made me happy on several counts: I liked Sigyn’s parents for their kindness and modesty; beautiful Sigyn would become my wife, and her three brothers, her two sisters, their spouses and children would become close relatives. Having been an only child myself, it felt wonderful to be joining a large family – a pleasure that simply increased as the years went by.

Back at the farm, Sigyn called and was glad to hear how well her mother, father and I had got on together. But she had worrying news: the treacherous Georges of Givenchy had still not finished her wedding dress – in fact it was not sure that he had even started it. She had seen the design months before and he had sworn that he could cut it out and sew it in a couple of days, but now there were less than two weeks to go. Should she go out and buy something?  ‘You know him; I don’t,’ I said, ‘how reliable is he?’  ‘Well, that’s the trouble – he’s a lovely chap, but head in the clouds. I think he really means to do it. I’ll keep on ringing him.’

I said good bye to the Ärligs and spent the next few days in Stockholm finalizing the details of my contract with SIDA (the Swedish foreign aid agency – a branch of their Ministry for Foreign Affairs). It outlined my job as deputy to Göran with the Swedish Peace Corps in Ethiopia and promised me the first proper salary of my twenty-eight years.

With a week to go, I arrived in Paris. We had hot July sunshine and the city was as lively, romantic and wonderful as ever. Sigyn showed me the boat she had hired, by the Pont Alexandre III and much bigger than Geneviève, for our party on the night of the wedding. She had also booked three rowing boats on the lake at the Bois de Boulogne to fill in the couple of hours between the marriage ceremony itself and lunch at a small restaurant somewhere between the Town Hall and the Bois. But the slippery George de Givenchy had still not produced the promised dress and had stopped answering phone calls.

With four days to go, sister Ing Marie and fiancé Åke arrived and we joined them for their own wedding at the Swedish church in Paris. We spent the next morning showing them round our favourite streets in the Quartier Latin, and then rushed around buying wine and food for the party on board. With two days to go, the execrable George phoned Sigyn to say, sorry, but he couldn’t make her dress after all, just too busy. Poor Sigyn! But she had too much character to let it get her down for long and soon she was out dress hunting. From a little boutique, she chose a slim-line, armless white dress – and looked beautiful in it.

With one day to go, friends helped us to shift food and drink on board the boat and decorate it for the following evening. My mother and father flew in from Manchester – for once, he showed no sign of travel sickness – and after taking them to their small hotel, we ate together. At the end of this long day, even though I was not hungry and only needed a good night’s sleep, Arthur marched me off to a restaurant by the name of Roger le Grenouille (Roger the Frog). Apparently, we consumed much white wine and a sizeable number of frogs’ legs. I have only Arthur’s word for this, as I remember almost nothing of my stag night – but it was a splendid token of friendship on his part, and just one of many, over fifty years.

Saturday 23rd July, 1966 dawned bright and sunny. I was slow to recover from the previous night, but by 10.30 I was up, washed, in a suit and waiting at the Mairie of the 16th Arrondissement on Avenue Henri Martin, in the posher part of Paris. For us, it had the advantage of being close to the CCIVS office on rue Franklin – still my main pied à terre in Paris – and to the Bois de Boulogne. Arthur and his very attractive French wife, Nicole, were waiting when I arrived, and soon my parents and half a dozen friends turned up. So did five other wedding parties, each bride in a conventional white gown and veil. Sigyn arrived with friends at 10.50. In contrast to the other brides, she stood out like a film star, radiant and stylish in her simple, close-fitting dress.

Just before eleven all the wedding parties were ushered into the same large hall. A registrar of some sort – possibly the mayor – appeared on a dais before us and called on the first couple to step forward. He muttered a few words to the bride and a few more to the groom, rings were exchanged and – Mon Dieu – they were married! Did it take five minutes? I doubt it. Romantic, it was not (though Henry Ford of conveyor belt fame might have approved) but already the next couple was stepping forward, and in two ticks they had become man and wife. No time to get nervous; no time to change one’s mind. I started to whisper some caustic remark into Sigyn’s ear when a voice called, ‘Monsieur Roberts, Glyn et Mademoiselle Arlig, Sigyn Linnéa’.

We stepped forward and the official said something along the lines of, ‘Les futures conjoints ont déclaré l’un après l’autre vouloir se prendre pour époux et nous avons prononcé au nom de la Loi qu’ils sont unis par le mariage’ (‘These two have said they want to tie the knot, and we declare in the name of the Law that they are now united in marriage.’) I slid a ring onto Sigyn’s finger, she did the same for me and Hey Presto – we were man and wife.

wedding day
Married – at last

 

We stepped out into the sunshine, took half a dozen black & white photos and walked the mile or so to reach the Bois de Boulogne. Our rowing boats were waiting and we scrambled aboard, taking bottles of sparkling wine (not champagne) – a cork from which, with a ten centime piece embedded in it, I have before me as I write – glasses and a portable tape recorder. In the summer sunshine, we gently rowed in convoy to the strains of Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and other tuneful, happy composers.

My parents paid for us all (we were twelve) to enjoy lunch at a nearby restaurant, after which all were free to do what they wanted until the evening party began.

Paris by Night, and under a starry sky, the stone quays by the Seine released their warmth from the day’s hot sunshine. The river sparkled and forty friends gathered on board, bringing presents, eatables and many bottles of wine. We soon became too many for the vessel, and spilled across onto the quayside where passers-by stopped to congratulate us and enjoy a drink. Numbers grew, the music bawled and just before midnight two gendarmes pushed through the crowd to ask if we had permission to hold a public event. Of course we hadn’t, but Arthur at his most fluent explained that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and wouldn’t they enjoy a glass of good wine to celebrate with us? They nodded, downed their drinks, and left – asking us just to keep the noise down. We nodded, though we had a final symbolic act to perform.

At one a.m., we lit the blue touch-papers of two powerful rockets. They swooshed up together and exploded in two bursts of colour against the night sky. Sigyn and Glyn were saying au revoir to Paris, to friends and family, and leaving for a very different world: Ethiopia.

 

ETHIOPIA

Our first week in Addis, we stayed in a modest hotel while we looked for somewhere to live for the next two years. Neither Sigyn nor I wanted the luxury of the high-walled expatriate compound, out of town, with its lawns, bungalows, tennis courts and armed guards on the gates. We wanted an ordinary house, on an ordinary street, alongside ordinary Ethiopians. Göran and Rita had chosen to live in this way rather than in splendid ex-pat isolation, and we wanted to do the same. We were also anxious to get out of the hotel because we were bitten each night by fleas. Being short sighted, I was hopeless at catching them, but Sigyn proved to be quick and accurate.  One night, she caught a flea that was so big, so impressive, that one had to admire it. We named him Napoleon and put him in an empty matchbox till dawn.

Next morning we opened the matchbox, just a crack. Napoleon glowered up, fiercely, vengefully – then leapt! But only onto the table a few inches away. Quick as a flash, I tipped a small tin of DDT over him – that’s an insecticide that we now know to be quite dangerous to humans, though in those days people would dust their arm-pits and other nooks and crannies with the stuff.  The pyramid of DDT towered above Napoleon, many times his height, and we fully expected it to put him out of his misery within seconds. We watched and, slowly, slowly, one side of the pile began to move. Then, somewhere near the top, a landslide of DDT dropped away and Napoleon materialised, his eyes ablaze. Sigyn jumped back, and I joined her, aware that this was no common-or-garden flea.  The three of us eyed each other for a moment longer (and did I hear a snarl from him, tiny but vindictive?) before – hop – he vanished.

Within a few days we had found a house on a dusty street near the city centre – single storey, the four rooms in a line like railway carriages – only a couple of hundred yards from Göran and Rita. It had a longish garden and a hut in which to house a sebanya or night-watchman.  We felt uncomfortable having this man, Ato (=Mr) Gebere, especially as he insisted on rushing to the heavy metal gate and bowing low on opening it, when we would have much rather opened it ourselves. Another irritation was that during the small hours he would sing traditional songs, unmusical to our untrained ears, playing his masenko, a traditional stringed instrument with a crude bow. This possibly warned thieves that our house was well guarded but also hampered sleep, already disturbed by fleas during the early part of each night and shrill birds at dawn. But we couldn’t sack him for he certainly needed both job and shack.

ato gebere and family

Ato Gebere and family

 

Eventually, we learned that Ato Gebere not only played but also made masenkos, so we asked if he would give up the night-watchman role and earn his living making instruments, while still keeping the hut. We would buy him tools and materials for the first dozen or so, after which he’d be on his own. He jumped at the chance, asked if his wife and young son could join him, which was fine by us, and went on to make quality masenkos, some of which found their way to a Stockholm museum and Swedish Trade Fair shops.

We had been in Addis Ababa for only a short time when we were invited to a barbeque at the home of some Swedish Peace Corps volunteers. It seemed a good chance to get to know them, especially as several volunteers from outside Addis would also be visiting that day.  Around four o’clock, Göran, Rita, Sigyn and I turned up to find perhaps a dozen young Swedes happily chatting, enjoying beef burgers, cutlets, fried onions and such from charcoal grills in the garden. There was an unusually pleasant atmosphere as we ate our succulent meat-filled rolls, licked our fingers, laughed, talked and fed meaty tit-bits to our hosts’ eager dog.

Presently, talk turned to a more serious subject, rabies, and someone produced a leaflet detailing the symptoms to be seen in a rabid dog – the foaming mouth, a wild look in the animal’s eyes and signs of paralysis or stiffness in its hind quarters. Then Göran observed quietly, ‘Well, I don’t know, but couldn’t much of this – er – apply to your dog?’  We all looked and, yes, the animal was staring at us wildly, slavering from the mouth and, yes, its tail did seem rigid – and it was dragging one of its back legs. ‘What do you mean “your” dog?’ snapped back one of our hosts, ‘We don’t have a dog. We thought it was your dog!’

The room fell silent, and Bengt, from up-country, who had just stepped in from the garden and missed our earlier discussion, called out cheerfully, ‘Oh, he’s a stray I picked up along the road, but I plan to keep him, so I guess he’s my dog! Why, any problem?’

I have never seen a party go off the boil quite so fast. Just about everyone had fed and petted the animal and eaten with their fingers. A debate sprang up as to what to do next. In those days there was no preventive vaccination against rabies; once infected, you had to start a course of duck egg vaccine within eight or nine days, otherwise you died a horrible death. But the injections themselves were numerous, painful and not even guaranteed effective. Then there was the dog. Did it have rabies or not? We could take it to the Pasteur Institute for observation in the kennels, but a sure diagnosis could take several days and time was short. How long dared we wait? The one quick way to find out was to have the animal killed and its brain examined. Some wanted it done immediately, while others felt this was unfair on the dog. We agreed, finally, that it should be examined at the Pasteur Institute. Then, the barbeque having lost its allure, we headed home, each person pondering what fate might have in store. As Ato Gebere sang and played in the dark, Sigyn and I tossed and turned wondering what the future would bring.

Nerves were tense for the next few days. At the Peace Corps office we found it hard to concentrate on the tasks at hand. At home we alternated between long silences and intense discussion: should we start on a course of rabies injections or not? Finally, the Institute phoned to say the dog was undernourished but otherwise healthy. Our surge of relief was indescribable and we could concentrate on work once more.

And work is what I wanted to do. This felt like the dream job: to be in the same team as Göran – who was the principal Field Administrator while Rita helped alongside him and I acted as deputy. The Peace Corps programme in Ethiopia was a new initiative from Stockholm and it ran into opposition from many old-timers employed in Technical Assistance in Addis Ababa, sceptical about a volunteer project working in partnership with Ethiopians. To Göran, and indeed to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, “ownership” was an essential first principle to the school building programme, ownership at every level, from the Ministry to village elders on School Building Committees in isolated rural areas. Normally, ownership was kept well and truly in the grip of foreign experts until the day of the official hand-over.

(This was the secret of the success of the school building programme, and an evaluation years later showed clearly that schools built in this spirit continued to function well for many decades, while those built by outsiders with no local consultation were often neglected and failed.)

school building project

Ethiopian-Swedish school-building project

 

While Göran and Rita oversaw the major part of our programme – the school building project – I was free to look after the other volunteers: child care nurses, motor mechanics, teachers, researchers in community development and a vet. This would mean much travel, usually by Land Rover, to see the volunteers’ work around the country. I looked forward to driving, as the landscapes were often

dramatic and beautiful, with huge swathes of yellow (Maskal) flowers after the small rains, and one seldom had other traffic to worry about. For mile after mile the roads lay empty. On the other hand, certain stretches could be deep in mud or fallen rocks after heavy rain and some lonely mountain passes were the haunt of shiftas (bandits). Should you round a bend and find a line of stones blocking the way, it would be best to back off as quickly as possible.

swedish volunteers in addis off to work places

Swedish volunteers in Addis awaiting transport to their homes & work elsewhere in Ethiopia

 

One task needing immediate attention was for me to pass my driving test. I had driven three times before, once in a Citroen 2CV across an empty plain in Algeria – simplicity itself – and twice in Ghana. To my shame, after an hour’s practice in Accra I booked a driving test for the very next day, arrogantly assuming I would sail through. Very properly, the examiner failed me on a long list of points. Now in Addis Ababa a licence was essential, so I put in hours of driving practice, learned my highway code and studied the workings of the internal combustion engine, because in Ethiopia candidates were also questioned on this, long before in Britain. Lastly, I had to visit the British Church for a Morality Certificate: proof that I was morally suitable to take to the road.

On the morning of the test, I did the driving part, which included a steep climb up Churchill Avenue (since renamed) praying that the traffic lights at the top would not turn red and force a hill start. They stayed beautifully green and as I parallel parked into a generous space, the examiner confirmed that I had passed.

In afternoon came the Theory exam. I sat in a room with a dozen other candidates, all African. A new examiner entered, saw me and threw me a question in English. I answered, and he addressed an Ethiopian in Amharic. Next, oddly enough, he came back to me. Then he questioned one of the other candidates. Then, me again!  Righteous indignation welled up, but I suppressed it. After thirty minutes, I had possibly answered six questions, while others sat there who had yet to open their mouths. Then he stood up, said something which I took to mean, ‘Congratulations. You have all passed’, and left the room. Later, I received a small, red driving licence sporting the Ethiopian coat of arms and a rather sinister photograph of myself, which I retain with pride to this very day.

A few volunteers were based so far from the capital that I would visit them by plane, using Ethiopian Airlines. And to reach one very distant spot, Murle, nearly as far south-west as Lake Rudolph, I once took a Cessna four-seater, flown by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship. I remember this flight particularly well. One bright morning, as we crossed the tarmac to the plane at Addis Ababa airport, the pilot commented, ‘I’ve not been up in the air since I came out of hospital ’. As an introduction to our flight, I found this slightly worrying but reasoned that he could have been hospitalised for many reasons, so I relaxed and we took off. From Addis, a city built in the hills at 7,500 feet, the land drops away to the south, and my pilot kept low, giving us wonderful views of hills, farms and fields – the people looking up and waving. We could easily identify the roads, the small towns and brown, shallow lakes – Zwai, Langano and Abyata. After an hour the landscape grew emptier, wilder, drier, flatter, and we skirted Ethiopia’s second-largest lake, Lake Abaya.

For much of the journey, my pilot had seemed pensive, but then he called out over the noise of the engine, ‘It would be about here that it happened’. Instantly, I became alert. ‘On my last flight,’ he shouted, ‘I had a couple of chaps on board: one next to me up front, where you are, the other behind me. It was a nice day and we were also heading for Murle, as it happens. Ninety minutes out of Addis, we saw a group of men driving cattle towards the Kenyan border, almost certainly shiftas.   I radioed Addis, and they asked me to fly lower and take a closer look, which I did. But then those fellows upped with their guns and fired at the plane.

One round hit me in the groin, then exited and killed the chap in your seat‘. (I looked at my safety belt and saw parts of the webbing still caked with something brown.)  ‘I was losing a lot of blood,’ he went on ‘so I told the chap behind me that if I passed out he’d have to lean over, take the controls and try to land the plane himself. But he just freaked out. Useless! Anyway, I radioed Addis for help and then managed to get her down myself. Ready or not, here we go….!’

At this, he put his plane into a steep dive, roared very, very low over an empty stretch of grassland, swooped upwards, made a complete 360°curve, brought her down again – and landed.  I sat there, sick and stunned by what he had told me and by our own dramatic landing. As he cut the engine, I gasped, ‘What the hell..? Why the crash landing?  Were they shooting at us again?’

He laughed, ‘Oh, no. We’ve arrived. There’s no airport here, just this grass strip, and often there’s cattle around, so I always abort the first landing to scare them off.  Sorry, should have mentioned that before. Want a cold drink?’

You bet I did.

For our first Christmas in Ethiopia, I wanted Sigyn to climb Kilimanjaro with me, as I had found it such a great experience a few years earlier. We celebrated Christmas Day in Nairobi, staying at the unfortunately-named Kaka Hotel, and then caught local buses to Arusha and Moshi in Tanzania. Then began the climb. It was already afternoon when we set off from the bridge at Marangu, and almost dark as we left the last cultivated fields to reach the first clumps of trees. Sigyn was not keen to enter this terrain, probably with good reason as lions still roam, though they are now largely confined to the game reserves. We could see no building in which to shelter, so we spread out our sleeping bags on a level spot near the road. As she was so nervous, I built a large pyramid of tinder-dry grass, twigs and thin branches and assured her that we would be quite safe. I would sleep with a cigarette lighter in my hand, and my hand lying within the pyramid. In the event of some large cat nosing around, I would activate the lighter, the dry grass would flare up into a burning torch and the terrified animal would flee, its tail between its legs. Sigyn bit her lip and I, too, felt rather less confident as we lay there together alert to every grunt, squeak and crack of twigs in the darkness.  Sometime before daybreak, a steady rain began and my anti-lion device lost any remaining credibility, so rather than let the sleeping bags get soaked, we rolled them up and set off up the track, trusting that no sensible predator would hunt in such dismal weather.

With the advantage of this early start, we skipped the first hut and entered the dripping rain forest belt, climbing up a very steep path, emerging an hour or more later, very abruptly, onto open savannah (grass), which slowly became rocky moorland. A warm sun shone and we reached the next hut well before nightfall, ate, and slept well that night. Next day was a long hard slog, with Kilimanjaro mostly out of sight, but the bulk of Mawenzi, its sister volcano, up on our right. At last we reached the col which separates the two mountains and we could already see the final hut (Kibo hut, but now renamed) several miles off at the point where Kilimanjaro itself suddenly rears up to its summit. The walk to this last hut looked flat and easy, but proved to be enormously tiring. We were already at 14,000 feet where the air is thin and once we reached the slopes of the last mile or so, we found it hard to drag our feet along, and rested again and again. Also, we both began to feel nauseous and thirsty, and made the basic mistake of scooping up fistfuls of snow from the patches we passed.

At last we reached the shelter – which was no more than a wooden construction with bunks made of planks (no mattresses, no heating, no water, no food). But at least we had sleeping bags, unlike my first ascent, and we had each other to keep warm. Also, another party joined us, with porters who had carried much of their baggage, plus water, fuel and food, so they helped raise the temperature in the hut by a few degrees.

By 5am, everybody was up. The other climbers sipped mugs of hot cocoa and other food, while Sigyn and I chewed on nuts and raisins. At 5.30, still in the dark – though the others had all been equipped with electric torches – we set off, they in front and Sigyn and I following. It was bitterly cold and the ground was frozen, which was good since the crust gave one’s feet a better grip than it would once the material thawed. But our feet were icy too, and poor Sigyn was wearing only tennis shoes. At one point we rested beneath a rocky overhang, and she wondered if she could go any further; but after ten minutes – with the sky over Mawenzi in the east turning red – morale improved and we struggled on. By this time, though, various members of the party ahead who had given up on the summit, came plunging past us down the loose lava causing small landslides with every step.

We climbed for another two hours, by when it was broad daylight, and at last reached Gilman’s Point (since renamed) on the crater rim. Uhuru Peak (19,341 feet) a mile or so around the crater edge, was somewhat higher, but Sigyn was happy to stop at Gilman’s and enjoy the views of Africa reaching fifty, a hundred miles away. I, too, decided to leave Uhuru unscaled, and instead scrambled down a few hundred feet onto the floor of the crater itself. This is flat and covered in lava sand and patches of snow, while huge blocks and sheets of fissured ice, the remnants of a glacier, stood here and there, shining bottle green in the morning sunlight. Towards the middle of the crater a fumarole emitted smoke or water vapour, and the whole scene was reminiscent of Scott of the Antarctic and Mount Erebus (12,440 feet) – fire and ice together – a scene that had so excited me as a boy at Weet Ing, reading the account of his race against Amundsen to reach the South Pole in 1911.

After half an hour, enjoying the view and the heady feeling that we were on top of the entire African continent, we headed down again, taking giant strides in the loose material. This was almost as tiring on the legs as climbing, but it was somehow very satisfying. We reached the middle hut in excellent time, delighted at our progress, and kept on going. But neither of us could talk or even smile, for the snow and ice we had sucked the day before to quench our thirst had caused deep cracks in our lips that stung and bled. Even so, we shared a vision that urged us on: ice cream at the Hollywood Bar in Moshi, and when we got there, we indulged.

1967

Back in Addis Ababa, I had plenty to do sorting out volunteers’ problems. I was also very keen that our office should move out of the Swedish enclave and have its own house in town. My philosophy of volunteering was that we should identify with – and be seen to identify with – “the people” and not with the privileged expatriate community.  Sigyn, on the other hand, found herself with no job, as did the wives of many technical assistance “experts”, but unlike them, she didn’t intend to spend the next two years drinking coffee, horse riding, playing bridge and tennis, complaining about the house servants or getting tipsy every day on duty-free sherry. As a trained teacher, she naturally hoped to find a job at one of the international schools, but there were no vacancies. She then had the idea of making children’s clothes, as she was a good seamstress. The clothes displayed in local shops tended to be frilly garments, with many gaudy layers and big pink bows – clearly reflecting Italian styles of yesteryear. Sigyn liked the calmer, simpler Scandinavian approach, with clean lines and only one or two colours. She sewed a dozen or more, very professionally, and they would have sold like hot cakes in Sweden, but in Ethiopia – no takers. Stylistically, they were ahead of their time.

Sigyn and Tafari a student

Sigyn and Tafari – a student living with us

 

A particularly enjoyable drive from the capital to visit Swedish volunteers was westwards to the town of Lekemte in Wollega Province where we had several Community Development volunteers. The countryside is open and beautiful, widely farmed for grain, vegetables, fruit and cattle, not mountainous but cut through with deep valleys. On this road, one passes several small towns, including Ambo. Ambo was a favourite because of its warm volcanic springs. Here one could wash off the dust of travel and relax in an outdoor pool heated by Nature herself, all the more delightful on a chilly night, the stars above icy and brilliant.

On one occasion I was driving a Land Rover back from Lekemte, still some miles short of Ambo, and followed a lorry that just would not let me overtake. A narrow road and the cloud of dust thrown up by the truck made overtaking hazardous and the driver continued to hog the middle of the road. Time and again I caught him up, hooted and then had to drop back because of the dust.  At last, we reached a wider stretch of road with a better surface and I forced the Land Rover past him with a satisfying blast of my horn. But it was a nervous overtaking, my wheels only just staying on the road, and possibly because of this I soon felt an overpowering need to pee. But this was out of the question as I could still see the truck in my rear mirror.

I needed to gain a couple of miles, brake hard, jump out, do the necessary and be off again before he overtook me, so I put my foot down, pleased to be heading into a valley, with hairpin bends that my vehicle could take more quickly than a lumbering truck. With a quiet sense of pride I slewed the Land Rover round each of these dusty bends, speeding up on the straights and braking at the last moment till I reached the stone bridge and causeway that marked the lowest point and the start of a new climb. Unfortunately, the road onto the bridge and the bridge itself were deep in gravel washed down by the rains and my vehicle began to slither. It hit one wall of the bridge, rebounded to hit the other wall, then emerged onto a causeway, skidded off it and plunged into a tiny field at the river’s edge. The engine roared, then stalled. All fell silent, apart from the stream splashing by and an occasional bird call. And soon, thirty feet above me I heard the lorry rumble over the bridge, along the causeway, and away up the hill.

I checked myself for injuries and found none. Amazingly, the Land Rover was intact and still on its four wheels, which was a huge bonus, but how to get it up the steep slope of the causeway and back onto the road? Too steep a climb and the engine would stall, too gentle a gradient and the Land Rover might well tumble back into the field, onto its side or the roof. With no experience to go by, I could only do it by ”feel”.

With the vehicle in four-wheel drive and low gear, I viewed the bank ahead of me and aimed for the far top corner, pointing a bit higher if I sensed I might roll, and levelling off when the motor sounded like stalling, never daring to stop. And there I was, back on the road, feeling immense relief and some pride, both sobered by thoughts of the report I must make once back in Addis Ababa.

Another long drive took Rita, Göran, Sigyn and me – for pleasure, not work – up north-east from Addis into the mountainous highlands of Debra Berhan and Dessie (maybe look this up on a map?) and then down the face of an incredible escarpment. This is part of the Great African Rift Valley that runs from the Red Sea, through Ethiopia and Kenya and down to Tanzania and Malawi. After innumerable twists and turns, the road reaches level ground and the small town of Bati – a traditional market town on the edge of the Danakil Desert. Each market day, traders come up from the desert, their camels laden with silver, cigarettes, dates, and goods smuggled from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In Bati market, they set up stalls alongside traders from the cold, rainy mountains thousands of feet above, bringing goats’ meat, textiles, milk, cheese, hides and grains. These are carried down the escarpment by donkeys and mules. Of course, there are also ancient vans, trucks and other vehicles coming from both directions.  A particularly sinister feature of this market was the gallows – cement platform holding a metal structure, rather like goal posts. Public executions were still carried out at that time.

Crossing the Danakil Desert from Bati to the Red Sea in a small car, should not be undertaken lightly. Although the road is tarmac, it runs through 150 miles of salt-caked desert, sometimes below sea level and temperatures can reach a blistering 50 degrees Celsius. You must take extra fuel, water and other provisions in case of a breakdown.

A couple of days by the Red Sea, with its endless sandy beaches, passed quickly enough, enjoying the swimming in crystal clear water and grilling fish over fires made on the open beach. Rita and Sigyn soon discovered the mistake of sunbathing, as just an hour left them both red raw, peeling and in great pain. Then, we were back in the car (taking care not to burn ourselves on the black plastic seats) with a bag of seaside souvenirs – brightly coloured sea-shells and star fish. But half-way back across the desert, we had to jettison the lot as they stank to high heaven.

We reached Bati in the early evening, just as the market was breaking up, and it was fascinating to see how the traders, as they emerged onto the main road, separated out unfailingly, donkeys and mules turning up towards the huge escarpment – camels downhill to the darkening desert.

Some months later, five engineers on the School Building Programme came and asked to be issued with revolvers. ‘We have to take large sums of money with us out to the provinces to pay the Ethiopian workforce,’ they explained, ‘and we need to defend ourselves if we are ever threatened by shiftas’. We turned down the request. We were, after all, the Swedish Peace Corps; they had no training in handling fire arms; they might well misjudge a situation and kill some bystander. And in a fire fight against shiftas armed with AK47s, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Far better, we said, would be to hand over the money with a smile. The Swedish Government could well afford the £2,000 cash the engineers carried on such journeys.

They left, but then approached the Swedish ambassador who supported them with a telegram to the Foreign Office in Stockholm. Soon, a Swedish police fire arms officer arrived with hand guns for the engineers, who then received training on a local shooting range. I felt in my guts that something was going to go wrong.

We didn’t need to wait long. One night, women volunteers sharing a house in town – where the engineers would often lodge when in Addis – phoned to say, ‘Come quickly, Sven has gone mad, shooting his gun indoors!’ I drove round, nervous at how best to disarm the crazed Sven, and was glad to find him in a drunken sleep, his revolver removed by one of the women. I prised a few bullets out of walls and furniture, took charge of the weapon and was assured by the other volunteers that they now felt safe – Sven had never threatened them. As he explained to Göran, who escorted him to the airport on his way home, in northern Sweden it was not uncommon to do a little target practice, even in the comfort of your own home (!)

Soon, all guns were retrieved and returned to Stockholm. As for Sven, I was glad he’d provided the clinching argument against them, and but we all felt sorry to see him go as he was a skilled and decent fellow. And so, indeed were the great majority of our team – ordinary young Swedes, whose lives were changed by their two years’ service in Ethiopia.

In May 1967, Göran and Rita themselves returned to Sweden, their contract ended, and I served as acting Field Administrator for the next three months. Things ticked along nicely until the day when Göran’s replacement arrived and I became deputy once more. Torvald proved to be to a very different kind of leader. He promptly threw out the Ethiopian-made furniture from his office, replacing it with stylish and costly Swedish equipment. This typified his approach: he considered himself a professional technician and our “volunteer values” unnecessarily idealistic. ‘The Swedish Aid programme has plenty of money,’ he argued, ‘so let’s spend it’. Some of our volunteers agreed with him. It was noticeable, for example, how they would come back to Addis Ababa each month, whether they needed to or not, once their monthly Hardship Allowance was due to expire. Others, though, only claimed genuine expenses on top of living allowances, and it was this approach that I encouraged. Often I did not claim them myself when filling in a travel statement and this greatly upset my new boss and the Swedish accountant, who tried to insist that we must all claim expenses allowable for a given trip.

A respite from this tension came when Torsten announced that he would be attending a conference on an International Peace Corps, to be held in Delhi. A little later, my old shipmate Arthur cabled to say that he and Martin Dyas (of LSE Drama Society and CCIVS days) were going too. I replied wishing them well, and explaining that I must stay behind to oversee things in Addis. But then came a message from Stockholm asking me to go to Delhi because of my long background in volunteering. Delighted and excited, I began to cable Arthur the great news, but then had a better idea….

Torsten and I landed in Delhi a couple of days early in order to brief the Swedish ambassador, the third member of our team at the conference. We then had time for sight-seeing, during which, I found Arthur’s hotel and the exact time he was due to arrive. My original plan had been to dress up in rags and confront him in the street, begging for alms, but I dropped this idea when I thought of the terrible poverty of real beggars in India. It would have been sick to play such a game. Plan B, though, was to go up to Arthur’s room, darken it by drawing the curtains, remove my shoes and socks, replace my trousers with a dhoti (a bed sheet wrapped round my legs) and a turban (towel) on my head – and become a mysterious and incompetent hotel porter. Plan B worked perfectly.

From three floors up, I watched him come into the lobby and register at reception. A bell boy tried to take his suitcase, but Arthur declined the offer (as I knew he would: both of us hated such personal services, just as we disliked posh hotels, though sometimes they were unavoidable). Up the stairs marched Arthur, case in hand, one flight, two flights… But as he started up the third, I rushed down the stairs to meet him, my face tucked into my chest to avoid recognition. ‘Carry your bag, sahib,’ I muttered in a phoney Indian accent, then snatched it from his hand and hurried up the stairs again. Half way up, I dropped it, to his obvious exasperation (‘Very sorry, sahib!’), but retrieved it and sprang ahead into his darkened room. I put his case on the bed, from which it fell off (‘Oh, very, very sorry, sahib!’) and then grabbed his hand.

‘Tell your fortune, sahib,’ I offered, ‘you very lucky man!’ Of course Arthur didn’t welcome or believe in fortune-telling nonsense and tried to pull his hand away, but I held tight and went on in a sing-song voice, ‘You lucky man. You marry two times. You marry one time – Kitty. You marry two time – Nicole –‘. I got no further before he jerked his hand free, completely astounded. Knowing that I couldn’t go on much longer, I made for the door, chanting, ‘You live on boat in Paree – You not know me, sahib?’ Arthur spotted my white legs and grabbed me. Turban and dhoti came away and the game was up. But my old shipmate did concede that he had been well and truly bamboozled – and promised revenge!

I remember little of the conference or of Delhi itself, though I do still have a photo of Martin Dyas posing as a United Nations delegate, and for years we kept our tea in an ornate copper caddy bought at a market there. I also bought a ruby for Sigyn, which we never got round to setting in a brooch or ring. For years, it wandered about the house, turning up here and there, and we always meant to put it somewhere safe. The last I recall, it was in a decorative dish at Little Anglesey Road with other odds and ends, after which it vanished for ever.

Back in Addis Ababa, Professor Rita Liljeström of Gothenburg University arrived to start an assessment of the first two years of the Swedish Peace Corps. This survey brought to a head some of the different views held by expatriates as to the role of volunteers in development. These fell into two camps. The first might be called the idealists, those who, like myself, came from an older voluntary background of work camps and the Peace movement. To us, volunteers were egalitarian and needed to fit into democratic structures. Good human relations and international understanding were all important. But there were others in the Swedish Aid programme, both in Stockholm and in Ethiopia, who saw volunteers as ‘Junior Experts’, bringing Western know-how and technology. Both sides put their views to Rita Liljeström, and her final report showed how deep the split had grown. This debate was one to which I gave much thought, and wrote several books, over the following years.

Then, to the delight of Sigyn and myself, Arthur and his young French wife, Nicole, also arrived in Addis to start a research project with UNESCO. They brought news from many friends in Europe and a record of the Beatles latest hit: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which we played again and again. Also, having Arthur to chat with gave me added confidence in my arguments with the ‘Junior Experts’ side of the volunteer debate.

My work continued, visiting volunteers around the country, getting them out of fixes with the authorities, sitting alongside them in hospital after car crashes (two volunteers died in this way during the short time we were in Ethiopia) and escorting senior officials from Stockholm to various ministries in Addis. I recall that one of these visitors – we were warned in advance – was a very pleasant and intelligent man, but who had a serious facial disfigurement. Even with this advance notice, it came as something of a shock when we first saw him. We didn’t quite know where to look; if you met his gaze you felt that he must be thinking that you were staring at his facial scars. But of course within half an hour his personality took over, you forgot his outward appearance and felt ashamed at your earlier attitude. I remember admiring his courage and the admirable Swedish spirit of fairness in selecting a person as a top official spokesman for his inner qualities, with little regard to his outward appearance. I doubt that many other governments in the 1960s would have been so highly principled.

Around this time, I bought a small rowing boat, to which we added mast, sail and rudder. Addis Ababa is nowhere near the sea, of course, but there are several large lakes to the south, a favourite of which is Lake Langano.

sailing on lake langano

Sailing on Lake Langano

 

Sometime before Christmas, Arthur, Nicole, Sigyn and I visited Langano and sailed to a lonely spot some miles from the road, where we set up camp. Once the tents were up and night was falling, Arthur and I decided to sail back to the launching point to buy a bottle of whisky from a roadside shop, to be enjoyed by the camp fire. Whisky purchased, we piled into the boat again and tried to sail back to our wives, the tent and the camp fire that we could see as a tiny speck of light across the dark waters.  But the wind had changed and however much we tacked we could make no headway against it. Four hours went by as we sailed up and down until finally, painfully, we made a landfall – to find Sigyn and Nicole both furious with us for leaving them and risking our lives for something so trivial as a bottle of whisky. It seems that they, after waiting for hours, decided to walk cross-country all the way back to the shop and had done so, only to learn that we had set sail a long time before. On their way back to the tent, pushing their way through the scrub, they had run into four Ethiopian cattle herders, stark naked and carrying spears – and though nothing untoward had happened, Nicole had been very frightened. Arthur and I apologised, but – despite the whisky – the weekend never really picked up after this disastrous start.

On another occasion, the four of us – at least, I think it was we four – were driving through the night meaning to reach the eastern town of Dire Dawa. At one point, we stopped by a river and in the light of a full moon Arthur and I threw stones at a sheer rock face across the water. When the stones hit, they made a most satisfying cracking noise which echoed down the valley. Suddenly we were surrounded by armed soldiers and forced to drive with them to an army post some miles away. There, our papers were examined and the official demanded to know why we had been firing guns. Of course we explained we had no guns and had just been throwing stones. ‘What for you were throwing stones?’ he demanded. ‘Well, just for fun.’ ‘In the night, and near a railway bridge. Why this for fun?’ Eventually, they searched our car, found no weapons, and sent us off into the night as lunatic foreigners.

By five o’clock, as we drove eastwards, a blood-red sun lit up the semi-desert landscape and we badly needed rest, tea and a clean up after our long night. Our map showed the symbol for a volcanic pool a mile or two ahead, and a little while later we spotted a clump of palm trees and a small, shimmering lake not far from the road. Remembering the pellucid waters of Ambo, where we always bathed on trips to and from Lekemte, we hurried to the water’s edge and undressed. I was quickest, and decided to take a running jump into the shallow waters, when someone – possibly Arthur – said, ‘Don’t you think you ought to check it first?’ I went to the bank, dipped my hand in and – OW!!  My fingers stung, for the light grey cloud that hung over its surface – that we had taken for morning mist in the chilly air – was vapour rising from the scalding water. Had I jumped, no one could have waded in to rescue me. Presumably, I would have suffered a heart attack from the shock and then, literally, boiled to death. On that occasion (besides the person who warned me) I really thanked my guardian angels, who, I must admit, have had quite a job these last seven decades, preserving me, one way or another, from a grisly end.

But now another end was in sight. Tensions had risen between me and Torsten, and between those volunteers who, in their hearts, would prefer to be employed as ‘Junior Experts’ on a proper salary – and those who felt that the volunteer spirit was essential. Soon, Gothenburg University sent out a researcher to assess the volunteer programme. This was then presented to SIDA in Stockholm, and was unbalanced in that it focussed largely on these tensions and on attitudes, but ignored the enormous achievements of the programme as a whole. Most of our team were ordinary young Swedes, working either in Addis or in small regional towns as school building engineers, child-care nurses, motor mechanics, surveyors or lab technicians. For the great majority – whatever their attitudes – they did great practical work, their lives were changed by the experience of life in Ethiopia. Many continued working overseas for years, several adopted Ethiopian orphans, and once back in Sweden went on to support communities and programmes in Africa.

Nevertheless, I felt I must now resign, return to Sweden and speak out for a voluntary spirit (among volunteers and administrators), rather than a ‘Junior Expert’ approach. In early January 1968, Sigyn and I took the plane to Cairo, where we landed in a sand storm. This storm continued all next day, so we glimpsed the pyramids merely as huge bases dissolving upwards into an amber mist and the Sphinx appeared no more than a grey presence in the gloom.

1968

The next fortnight, living with Göran and Rita, I argued my case at SIDA, the Swedish Aid Programme, but getting nowhere, I went public, gave radio and TV interviews and wrote a strong article for the principal daily paper, Dagen’s Nyheter. For some reason, probably sheer cowardice, I didn’t tell Göran about this article, and I shall never forget how bad I felt as Sigyn and I lay in bed one morning as the newspaper plopped onto the doormat. We heard Göran collect it and pad back to his bedroom. Then we waited. I felt that I had betrayed his kindness and good nature by criticising what he had, so successfully, set up and developed. Of course we knew that he knew my own views on what was happening – the professionalising of the voluntary spirit – and that I felt so strongly against it. But even so, it felt like a betrayal. Breakfast was a quiet affair. Then we talked for a while and agreed that, whatever else, we would always remain good friends. Soon after, Sigyn and I left Stockholm for Tidaholm (Swedish family) and then for England.

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