Interview with Christine Pattee, December 20, 2021
Project: Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project
Interview SummaryChristine Pattee served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia from 1966 – 1968 as a high school biology teacher. In 1961, as an undergraduate student attending Douglass College (Rutgers University), she heard of the Peace Corps from President Kennedy’s founding of it and wrote her first letter to a legislator, asking New Jersey’s Senator to support it. Christine was accepted as a volunteer in 1964 to take a placement in Malaysia, after she had turned down a number of graduate assistance scholarships. She attended a training session at Northern Illinois University for five weeks, where all of her instructors were academics and Peace Corps staff members. Christine mentioned at the time that she was possibly a lesbian which raised red flags for her instructors, and she was deselected from the program. It was a horrible feeling at the time, she disclosed, but it probably turned out for the better. She completed her teaching degree in Biology, reapplied to the Peace Corps in 1966 and was accepted to teach in the assigned country of Ethiopia. Because of her early catechism years with the Maryknoll Missionary Sisters, Africa was actually her first placement choice. Christine trained all that summer in Cambridge, MA in a program run by ex-volunteers, several of them Black, and Ethiopian nationals who taught Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language. She noticed a great deal of difference between the two training programs and felt happier and more confident in her new environment. She and her peers were rated by each other based on “Would make a good volunteer", where she rated high and “Want to be assigned with", where she rated low. She was part of a group of five volunteers, older and with solid teaching skills, who were assigned to Dire Dawa, a cosmopolitan town with 24-hour electricity and running water (though it needed to be boiled), midway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, because previous volunteers had not connected well with the local inhabitants. After landing in Addas Abba, Ethiopia, her group of five volunteers flew to Dire Dawa, where she was given lodging around the corner from the two single male volunteers and across the street from the local police station, where it was felt she would be safer as a single female. She noticed many ‘gari’, or horse-drawn carts, on the streets of her area, but bicycled to school. She had a maid, Balinish, who was a wonderful cook and became a friend. Christine was assigned to the Prince Mekonnen/Haile Selassie Secondary School, a large high school that drew students from throughout the region. She, along with her teaching cohort - Sidney, Hamilton and married couple Joyce and Bernie– started instruction with Christine specializing in Biology. She felt that the students were very receptive to her methods, and they learned quickly. There were no textbooks, but she made use of an old Gestetner stencil copier in the building while working with materials on hand from previous Peace Corps volunteers. In many ways, her teaching had to be geared towards her students passing the equivalency test they needed to move up to the next level of schooling. However, Christine, as a hands-on teacher, had her students take part in a seed-planting experience, which they loved, and ran an after-school Biology Club. Decades later, two of the students in that club tracked her down when they came to work in the US. Two of her students were “half-caste,” which was the local term for children of mixed racial parentage. At lunch time students went home for a three-hour rest period and returned to school around four in the afternoon. Dinnertime was usually around eight in the evening. Christine loved the local cuisine that was a mixture of Arabic and African preparations, except those made with too much “berbere”, or hot peppers. Meat was a special treat, usually “doro wat” (stewed chicken). For the first time, she enjoyed coffee, which originated in Harrar’s mountains above Dire Dawa, and her maid roasted and ground in a mortar and pestle each morning. before serving breakfast. They even found a turkey that became a Thanksgiving dinner for many of the Peace Corps volunteers from the area. She sometimes ventured to the “merkato,” or marketplace, where she noticed that the price of marijuana was cheaper than the price of an American cigarette. During her summer vacation, Christine spent a month at the Gondar Public Health College where she aided with diabetes record keeping and became interested in public health. While in northern Ethiopia, the heart of Amharic culture, she visited Axum, a city known for its steles, or stone monuments and Lalibela, a church carved out of solid rock. She also spent a month hitchhiking around Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya. Christine felt safe doing this except in Kenya, which had been firmly under the British colonial thumb, and she felt the people did not like anyone who was white-complected. Christine thought about taking a third year in Peace Corps service to work with the Ethio-Swedish Nutrition Unit, but found out they no longer accepted non-Swedes. She experienced excellent health throughout her service except for some dental problems. On her way home, she was so homesick that she canceled most of the European trip she had scheduled. Arriving home in late summer, she had to scramble to find a job because her applications for stateside teaching employment had been sent from Ethiopia via surface mail instead of airmail. Though she thought she’d be immune because she’d been out in the real world for so long, she experienced a major ‘readjustment crisis’ in the year following her Peace Corps service. She has spent the last ten years as an interviewer for the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project.
Interview KeywordPeace Corps (US) Dates of Service: 1966-1968 Peace Corps Volunteer Job: Education Peace Corps (US): 1960-1970 Language: Amharie Language Training Cultural Training: Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa Diversity in the Peace Corps: LGBTQ+ Country of Service: Ethiopia Cambridge, Massachusettes Addis Ababa Dire Dawa
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Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
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Pattee, Christine Interview by Donald C. Yates. 20 Dec. 2021. Lexington, KY: Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Pattee, C. (2021, December 20). Interview by D. C. Yates. Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington.
Pattee, Christine, interview by Donald C. Yates. December 20, 2021, Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
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