Coming of Age

Old British coffee warehouse in Gambella
Old British coffee warehouse in Gambella

I’ve noticed, as you may have, that, when I speak of my early time in Gambella, I speak also of Coming of Age. Obviously, these two are linked, and important, in my mind. I thought I should try to explain to you—and to me—why.

I went to Gambella, Ethiopia—a town of about one thousand on the banks of a tributary of the Nile that, in the rainy season, could only be reached by small plane—straight out of college in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there, in a town of dirt streets with, maybe, five vehicles, many darkly graceful dugout canoes to match the darkly graceful Nilotic peoples who belonged in its lowland, riverside grasslands, that I came of age.


Not in the brick-walled libraries of Harvard University, thirty miles from the suburban town where I was raised.


There were brick buildings in Gambella, too; mostly abandoned warehouses once used by the British for coffee trucked down from the Ethiopian highlands, on torturous dirt tracks, for shipment on paddlewheeled steamers up the Nile to Khartoum. Our program, the nascent area program of the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees), used those buildings as a dormitory for male refugees from the civil war in the Sudan. I and a fellow volunteer from our college group, Volunteer Teachers for Africa (VTA) had been seconded to them through Church World Service (CWS) by the efforts of Don McClure, the dedicated and controversial “flying missionary” whose life’s work is inextricably woven into the history, people and landscape of western Ethiopia and southern Sudan.


It was in this small town that my adult consciousness was formed, around the reality of Main St., Gambella, instead of Main St., USA.


My consciousness expanded in that year, much more than it could have through the Timothy-Leary drug culture of my college years. Woven into it is the concept of people who are different from me and have things to teach me. I think my protagonist—no, because she lives by a few simple things like this, I feel confident calling Hannah Apple a heroine—understands this also. That is why we chose each other to tell our stories.


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