Published: Sep 22, 2012 06:00 PM
Modified: Sep 22, 2012 04:03 PM
More than 40 years after serving in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, Don and Jacqueline Schlenger are heading back to the African country to reconnect with friends and former students.
The Cary couple taught at a school in the town of Waldia from 1966 to 1968, during the early years of their marriage. Jacqueline taught English to seventh- and ninth-graders, while Don taught upper-grade math, geography and history.
The school had no glass in the windows, no electricity and no running water. To maintain the grounds, school leaders let animals graze.
Now the Schlengers can’t wait to return.
Their trip began Saturday with a reception at the Ethiopian embassy. Ninety former Peace Corps volunteers then flew to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where they met with former students, dignitaries and members of the media.
The Schlengers will return to Cary Oct. 6. Q: How did you prepare for teaching overseas?
Jacqueline Schlenger: We taught here in the U.S. for one year before we went to Ethiopia. Then we trained at the University of Utah and on a Navajo Indian reservation. We learned Amharic, the language many Ethiopians spoke at the time. In Ethiopia, children learned their language but also English, so that made it easier. Q: What was it like to teach in a small town in Ethiopia in the 1960s?
JS: We didn’t have a lot of materials. We had an old Gestetner that made copies, and we had an old-fashioned chalkboard. It was not a big school, but it was about like a small elementary school here in America used to be. Q: What do you most remember about your time serving in the Peace Corps?
JS: As a teacher, my strongest memory is that some students came from 50 miles away and had no shoes. They had one suit that they had to wash over and over. They lived on 25 cents a day.
But it didn’t matter; they wanted to learn. They were like sponges – they knew the value of education.
So many of them became Ph.Ds and M.D.s in this country. They had such determination.
When I came back and saw what education meant here, it was very discouraging. People here take education for granted.
Don Schlenger: The most memorable part for me was the goodness of the people, both the volunteers and the Ethiopians who we worked with and taught. Kindness is what I remember.
My eyes were opened to life outside the U.S. and the standard of living that was so different. Q: You served while former emperor Haile Selassie was in power. Were you concerned as the revolution unfolded?
DS: The second year we were there, we were in danger more than once. The unrest that became the revolution was beginning. We were held at gunpoint more than once.
But readjusting to life in the U.S. was more difficult. The year we returned, 1968, had assassinations, riots and the Vietnam War. Q: Why go back to Ethiopia now?
JS: Because of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, we went to a big celebration in Washington a year ago and knew we wanted to go back. One of our former students works here in the U.S. now as an avionics tech for United Airlines, and we made connections with other former students through him.
DS: We want to go back, but our main goal is to be reunited with the men who were our students. Two of the boys lived with us while we were teaching. So they are our primary motive. But we would also like to visit our site.