It’s been a year since the death of Fidel Castro, the iconic leader of the Cuban Revolution, who left a complicated legacy—some heralding him as a liberating hero and others decrying him as a ruthless dictator. For Ethiopians, Castro’s legacy is a positive one and many Ethiopians are grateful for the military assistance he provided when the country was invaded by Somalia’s Said Barre in 1977 at the height of cold war. Castro not only sent as many as 15,000 troops to back Ethiopia’s fight against Somalia but also financed around 4,000 young Ethiopians, children of people killed in the fighting, to study in Cuba on full scholarship. After completing the training, many of them have returned home and have been serving the nation in various walks of life. Ethiopia Observer talked to a couple of them. This is the first of several articles.
Michael Gessese, Director of Biofuel Dev’t Directorate at Ministry of Mining, Petroleum and Natural Gas.
We joined other orphans who came from other provinces such as Harar, Gondar, Mekele, Asmara and headed to the port of Assab convoyed with miltary forces (At the time, there was fear of strike from militant groups such as EPRP and Meison). The journey from Addis Ababa to Assab took three days, which was the first major journey of our lives, crossing regions with intensely hot climate. Leaving Assab we sailed to Gulf of Eden in a day, to cross the Mediterranean via the Swiss Canal. I’ve had a vivid memory of waiting a week for our turn to cross the Swiss Canal. Then to the Canary Islands, which also took 7 days more, if my memoroy doesnot fail me, and later across the Atlantic to Havana. All in all, a twenty seven days ship travel to arrive there and in my young mind, overwhelmed by a barrage of new sights, sounds and smells. In Havana, we had an official, colourful reception. We then travelled 50 kilometres by land to southwestern coast of Cuba. And we arrived in Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth by modern boat. Once arriving on Isla, on the way to the final destination, there were many Cubans waving and clapping for us. On arrival, we were welcomed by students from Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, who arrived before us.
(Michael with younger sister Tsehay Gessese)
There were two special schools constructed for Ethiopians, Kara Mara (named after a strategic pass in the battlle against the invading Somalian army) and Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ethiopian teachers came with us to teach us Ethiopian history, Amharic language and geography which were part of the curriculum but the rest of the class was in Spanish. We took six months Spanish language courses, which helped us to be comfortable in the language. As we immersed ourselves in a new culture, we quickly adapted to the different way of life. We were dressed to impress in our wonderful uniforms. There were four dormitories for girls and eight for dormitories for boys. I became very close to boys and girls in my class.
I also formed close bond with some of our teachers. We concentrated hard on our studies and we participated in cooking and cleaning. The schools were all close to plantations of grapefruits, mango and yams and we worked part time in the fields. I was extremely happy to participate in the work and in fact, I begged for it because at the beginning I was not permitted to work because of my age. There was an exciting, youthful atmosphere and I fell in love with Cuba, a fertile and sunny land, with warm, open hearted and hospitable people. We had extra-curricular activities, sport, physical fitness and film screenings. I used to do lots of reading outside the classroom, I enjoyed reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote.At the end of the week, we went to the beaches. In terms of disadvantages, being far away from home especially for the first year was not easy and we endured loneliness and homesickness, especially during holidays. Wherever there were groups of people and an intense form of living, there could be hassles and scuffles. There were occasional clashes with students from Angola and other countries when we have competition of football and some time they were dating our girls whom they found pretty than their own.
Fidel came twice to visit us, once on the occasion of Mengistu’s visit to Cuba last April 1979. We also grew up listening to his speeches on television. When he started nobody could go away before he finished because it is was very attractive. He was a highly effective orator. There were mass rallies when he used to address. He was an avid reader and knowledgeable on many issues.
We grew up in Cuba’s golden age.That was the most serene period of a peaceful and prosperous nation.The Caribbean island had many achievements, high quality public healthcare, life expectancy, child immunisation and literacy systems parallel to those of first-world nations.
All in all, I stayed thirteen years there, which include going to college. I studied sugar agro industrial engineering at the University of Matanzas. After the whirlwind experience of my formative years, when I came back home, like so many of my friends, I was concerned about my adjustment to life in Ethiopia, having left home at the tender age. I was unsure about the working culture, traditions, bureaucracy. We were used to lifestyles, which had little in common with our communities. Effectively, the return was not easy. Despite our training, it was hard to find jobs in our fields because we were trained in a different language than English and there were people in the government who were hostile to us, associating us with the Mengistu regime. At the same time, one of the important values we gained from our stay in Cuba was a sense of nationalism and pride, to continue serving our country despite the challenges.
(Michael’s two sisters are also back in Ethiopia, Dr. Mulualem Gessese is serving as now newborn specialist, one of the best in the city and Tsehay Gessese as Senior Budgeting officer at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development.)
(Michael’s passport size photo taken at Tatek camp, the next one sitting in the middle of the his two closest friends in Cuba and the group photo with his class mates.)