Interview with Joe Ciuffini 

for Ethiopia on the Web (

joe_head.jpg (8713 bytes)EOW: Please tell us where you grew up and a little bit about your childhood, Joe?

JC: Born in Rochester, New York and lived there until I left for Peace Corps training in 1964.  The childhood part was very confused as I was the middle child of 5 and my father was the person that I remember during the early years. One of my sisters was born with cerebral palsy and that had a dramatic effect on my mother in the sense that my sister's care was very difficult for her. As a result the children had a day care person for a number of years and much of my early days were with other caretakers.

Catholic schools were, with the exception of kindergarten and post-graduate work, my foundation. I was generally an active child with after school activities, scouts, camp, and my favorite activity bicycle riding. I used those bicycle rides to explore the city and learn about the ‘big world’.

My first paying job was at age 10 setting bowling pins (this was before the pin setting machines !) for 10 cents a game. So, if I made a $1.00 for three hours of work, I considered myself lucky.

Because of family finances, I paid my high school and college tuition by working at a retail store selling toys and baby furniture. This was a job after school, during vacations and summers. I still had time for school plays, the glee club, writing editorials for the newspaper, chess club and intramural sports.

I want to travel from Addis on train, drive up the mountain from Dire Dawa, see Alemaya and the long road into Harar. I want to run thru all the gates of the old city and enjoy the market once again!

EOW: How was it like being young in the 60's and responding to JFK's call for Peace Corps volunteers? Was that the cool thing to do back then?

JC:  Being young in the 60’s .. Well, you have to remember that the precursor was the 50’s and as a child, we were moving from the staid ballads to the rhythm and blues of the black singers and then to Elvis. The world of what we listened to was changing and so was the culture around us.

As a child, I really did not pay attention to politics. High school and college years were busy with work, school and of course, social life!  It was during my junior and senior year of college that JFK and his youthful presidency caught my eye and his energy and the Peace Corps was visible to me.

I am sure that for others, the Peace Corps was important as well as an important thing to do. My view of the world was that I had to get a job and become self-sufficient. It was also a time that Vietnam was becoming a ‘hot’ issue and my foresight told me being in the service would lead to a ‘position’ in the US Army. I doubt that I am/was unpatriotic but I was not interested in that type of life.

EOW:  How did you get interested in serving in Peace Corps?

JC:  Towards the end of my senior year of college, I was on the interview trail for a job in one of the large corporations that were part (and many still are) of the Rochester area employment opportunities - Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Bausch& Laumb but each new interview was a depressing as the last. I was talking to people in white shirts and suits and they all had the same kind of ‘patter’.

I was not impressed, nor enthralled with the prospect of starting a work-life wherein I would end up like that. I suppose it is only fair to say that by that time of my life, I was really not happy living in America and would not have considered myself a ‘good’ American - though I would have considered myself a good person.  It was during the process of interview that some of my fellow students were talking about the Peace Corps and I saw that it would be a wonderful solution to a number of priorities:

a)        I was very draftable - Vietnam was becoming a very hot war. There was no desire on my part to serve in that way.

b)        I had always wanted to see more of the world. My ‘explorations’ on bicycle had been a start. Hitchhiking to New York city at the age of 13 had been another and there was always a desire to see and listen and learn other cultures.

c)          I had taken some education courses and had always thought that I would teach some day. That was a response to some very poor teachers that I had while in school.

d)        I was faced with the prospect of earning a living.

So, I sent away for a Peace Corps application.  There was something very terrifying about that application. As I inquired more and more about Peace Corps, I started to learn the ‘fallout’ statistics: So many applied, so many rejected, so many in training, so many deselected for service in another country. It was not a very favorable set of odds!

What really calmed me down was looking at a photo in the Peace Corps literature of a teacher who was serving in Ethiopia. (Ethiopia was not important at this time.) What I could identify with was that person looking very excited and engaged in what they were doing! (I learned latter that his name was David Fox and I owe him a large ‘Thank you!’)

EOW:   Why Ethiopia?

JC: The Peace Corps form asked for a priority ranking of areas of interest: The Americas, Asia, Africa as a general start.  My first choice was Africa. I have yet to understand why my first choice was Africa but I am sure it had to do with the mystery of the continent. As a child I was a voracious reader – my favorite place to visit was the library and I enjoyed the adventure stories of travelers to Africa. To me it was the most distant, the most unique and probably the most challenging place for living.

Dear Ethiopians, as many and as difficult as the problems are for Ethiopia, do not give up in trying to solve them as the people and country are well worth the efforts!

Peace Corps then examined all the country requests and matched available volunteers and skills to the specific country.  Ethiopia was one of the countries that had requested more secondary school teachers and when I received an acceptance they made it clear that Ethiopia was where I would be sent.

EOW: How much did you know about Ethiopia at that time?

JC: Well, let me answer that question by admitting that I had to get a map and locate Ethiopia on it. Additionally, when I told friends at college that I had been accepted to go to Ethiopia, one of them asked, “Aren’t you afraid to go there?” I asked why and they explained that as an Italian there would probably be resentment because of what had taken place during WWII.  Thus begins my life of learning about Ethiopia.

In spite of the comment by my friend, I never, ever felt that my nationality would be an issue. Not at that time, not while I was a volunteer and not since returning.

EOW:  Please tell us about some of your impressions during your first trip to Ethiopia. How was the trip? What sorts of feelings did you experience as you landed in Ethiopia? Apprehension, guarded optimism, etc…? 

JC:  Actually, I remember most of those feelings quite vividly. To understand what follows is to understand the training that we as volunteers were involved in.

The training of the first volunteers followed a military model wherein the volunteers had to scale cliffs, learn ‘jungle’ survival skills and so on. By the time the third wave of volunteers were preparing for Ethiopia, the physical part of the training was trimmed back – we still had to be in good shape but not in the same way as previous volunteers as most of us were headed for secondary school teaching. 

I, along with 320 other prospective volunteers for Ethiopia trained in the summer of 1964 at the University of California in Los Angeles.  These were days of aptitude tests and learning about Ethiopia’s history, culture, geography, government and the cultural do’s and don’ts.

Our language training was on campus. The major portion of training was provided by Ethiopian Airlines personnel or Ethiopian students who were attending college in America. In those years, there were few Ethiopians in the diaspora.

Language training was difficult but fun. I believe that while we learned Amharic (that was the only language taught to prospective volunteers at that time) we probably learned more about Ethiopia and Ethiopians from those teachers. In a way, passing the time together built a foundation of trust and understanding that no other experience – outside of actually being in Ethiopia – could provide.  And language was important to us until the head of the language curriculum, Dr. Wolfe Leslau (famous for his study and recording of many unusual and almost extinct languages) told us that the need to learn Amharic was not that important as we would be teaching in English and that we probably would have a student to live with us and/or a cook to do the shopping and so on that in effect, we would not have to depend on the language. Those words changed our efforts to learn and become fluent – an event that I have always regretted.

After 8 weeks of training and having reduced our numbers down about 280, we were to meet again in New York city for a flight to Rome and then to Addis. We were finally on our way. The plane was full of good spirit and spirits!

On that plane, I carried with me $10 to last until I arrived and received our first ‘allowance’ from Peace Corps.  During our trip, I realized that once I had money again, I needed to purchase a pair of pants as I had so few extra clothes to last until the trunks arrived by sea cargo.

So, my first memory was receiving my allowance and walking from the AA University to the piazza, alone and full of excitement. After walking a while I wanted to ask directions to a store that might sell men’s clothes and I noticed a young man wearing a jacket and I stopped him on the street.

In the worst Amharic possible, I tried to construct a sentence with all the words that would mean “want”, “shop”, “pants”, and “where”. This young man paused a moment and then politely asked, “Do you speak English? “  (So, you have some idea of my command of Amharic at the time!!) He politely provided directions and I was a bit embarrassed. 

EOW:  Where were you stationed? What kind of courses did you teach? What sorts of things did you do in the community? How was a typical day like?

JC: I was stationed in Harrar, Ethiopia, which I believe is the best place in all of Ethiopia. I was to teach mathematics but another volunteer and I visited the headmaster and offered to open a shop area for after school activity. The head master was so delighted that we had the skills to teach woodworking that he changed both our and the students’ schedules overnight! So, we both taught shop and Maths. My classes were from the different instructional streams: academic, business and vocational.

Our teaching days were full and much time was spent preparing lessons for the next day. I was also the keeper of the mimeograph machine and spent time keeping it in operation. I taught a night school course in science to help students pass an equivalency exam.

Typical days started with a walk to school. The first year was a long walk and the second just 30 seconds!  We taught from 8 am (after the assembly with the raising of the flag) until 12 noon as long as the rains did not create too much pitter-patter on the roof to sound out the lesson.

Lunch was from 12 until 2 pm and then class from 2 until 4 pm. After school was a trip to the post office to get mail and buy some goods that were needed for the house, gas for the stove, and so on. During the period of drought in 1965, another volunteer and I drove to the leper colony at Besidimo to obtain 4 drums of water to disburse to other Peace Corps houses. We lived on 50 gallons for a week for two people, cooking, washing, showers, etc.

EOW:  What are some of your fondest memories of your stay in Ethiopia?

JC:  In Harar, visiting the old city, visiting the markets both Muslim and Christian, walking and exploring the city and the holiday ceremonies. In Dire Dawa, it was the ice cream on the porch of the Gelatti place. In Addis, the piazza and Filowha baths!

Just to put some context to the answer, you should remember that as Peace Corps volunteers we were paid the same amount as an Ethiopian teacher. So, in many ways, we found simpler and less costly forms of entertainment and simple living.

EOW:  Any Ethiopian languages you speak? Please give us some words you remember (no referring to a dictionary (-:)

JC:   Speak? Well, I do not consider myself fluent in Amharic although I have learned a great deal over the years, I can listen and understand some/most but have trouble composing thoughts.

I have always thought that learning to say ‘please’ ibaku/ish and `thank you’ were the most important things to be able to say. I could bargain (sint now?) and ask for time, (sint saat?) Then a great deal of constructions  around I need/want ( … efalegalo )  My most favorite phrase that I learned later is the proverb, “kes be kes inkulal be igru yihedal”.


EOW:  How about difficult times? Were there moments that tested your resolve?

JC:   Not really difficult times. Some scary – like almost being arrested by the police in Dire Dawa when leaving a tedj bet after curfew; some very ‘delicate’ when one of my 10th grade students suggested that she could be my girlfriend; getting into an argument with the water authority who was demanding payment after months of our having no water with the argument that the money was needed to pay for new pipes!

EOW:  Did you have a chance to visit other parts of Ethiopia? Any lasting impressions (good or bad)?

Visited Kulubi, Jigjigga, Deder, Jimma, Asbe Tafari. Rode the train to the end of the line in Djibuti. Lasting  impression of the oppressive heat! The only bad impression was Addis – which was too western by standards that I was getting used to in Harar. I did however, enjoy Filowah after traveling from Dire Dawa to Addis.

EOW:   If you were told that you are offered only a 3-day vacation to Ethiopia now, which place will be your first choice?

JC: Harrar. I want to travel from Addis on train, drive up the mountain from Dire Dawa, see Alemaya and the long road into Harar. I want to run thru all the gates of the old city and enjoy the market once again!

EOW:  Joe, what sorts of things did you learn in Ethiopia that later proved valuable lessons in your career and life?

JC:   This question does not have simple answers. I learned very quickly that ‘want’ was different from ‘need’. I learned that despite what I thought was growing up poor, I was rich in the freedoms of education and opportunity. However, the one enduring message that I have carried a long time is that no matter what the differences in language might be, the sense of another person and the trust that you have of each other are very intangible and yield to no measurable quantities.  Perhaps that understanding was a reflection of the time or the experience and training of the Peace Corps or the respect that I had then for other cultures.   But whatever the cause, the effect has been of long standing value in interacting and dealing with people.

EOW:  How was it like coming back to the US after the PCV years? Any "re-entry" challenges?

JC:   At first, it was exciting to be back; there was a period of newness and catching up. There was also a period of getting a job so that I would not be drafted.  And then the feeling of missing ‘home’ which in my case was Harrar. (Many returned volunteers often call their country of service ‘home’.)

Re-entry will always be a vivid memory as I landed in New York and was greeted by what I felt were gruff and harried people. Somewhat harsh after Ethiopia.

EOW:  What kinds of things did you do after coming back to the US?

JC:   I taught school for 4 years in Syracuse, New York, traveled to California with the hopes of getting a teaching job there but was exasperated by the driving one had to do to live one’s life. Returned to Boston and after a few odd lot jobs, started teaching again at a Jr. High school in  Newton, where I have made my home. When my son was born in 1978, I decided that while I enjoyed the teaching, I needed to make money. I enrolled in a Masters program of Computer Science at Boston University and changed careers. Today, I am at Compaq Computer Corporation involved in creating hardware/software solutions for large storage arrays.

EOW:   Do you still interact with Ethiopia and Ethiopians?

JC:   Yes, in a number of ways.

Over the years I have volunteered in a number of Ethiopian related efforts. My personal life is very intertwined with Ethiopia. I am a specialist collector of Ethiopian stamps and postal history, librarian for the Ethiopian Philatelic Society, collector of books of and about Ethiopia and immensely enjoy talking to Ethiopians of all walks of life. I have been very fortunate to meet a large number of Ethiopians of various social strata.

Because of my visibility in a few Ethiopian newsgroups, I have been involved in the reconnection of Ethiopian students with their former Peace Corps teachers and I must add that those reconnections are very touching. Those memories – even as old as they are, are still very fresh and treasured by both parties.

One of the highlights of Ethiopian involvement was a Human Rights group that lasted about a year and a half. The Americans and Ethiopians produced a number of newsletters speaking out for human rights in Ethiopia. 

My own music collection contains some of the oldest and newest of the Ethiopian performers, bands and singers. I find that listening again to Ethiopian melodies brings me back to a place of peace and contentment.

One of my favorite activities is to attend the local Ethiopian music parties but found myself withdrawing when the war and politics changed the nature of the events. Not expert at the ‘iskista’ but I never stop trying to improve.

EOW:  Did you tell your children stories about your adventures in Ethiopia? Was there moments like: "Dad… more stories of you being chase by hyenas and lions in Africa…..Yes, we have heard it many times…."?

JC:   No, I did not want to be one of those parents that would force children to be a historical copy of myself. When the time was opportune – and they signaled such by their interest rather than mine, some experiences were retold.

EOW:  What are your feelings regarding prospects for Ethiopia and Ethiopians turning out to the better?

JC:   What is keeping Ethiopia and Ethiopians from achieving the greatness that they could achieve and enjoy are two important factors:

a)        A sense of good governance that speaks to justice, equality and a promise of a shared and better tomorrow.

b)        The ability to weigh the histories of the peoples of Ethiopia with the scale of forgiveness and to place on that scale of the finger of a helping hand.

Naturally, those two factors play a large role in what is not being achieved. That discussion is outside the scope of this interview.

EOW:  If you had to give a one-sentence advice to Ethiopians as they face numerous challenges and obstacles to improve theirs and their country's destiny, what would it be?

JC: One sentence advice to Ethiopians? Surely, you are joking! (smile) Seriously, I would say the following:

“Dear Ethiopians, as many and as difficult as the problems are for Ethiopia, do not give up in trying to solve them as the people and country are well worth the efforts!”

EOW:   While we are at it, how about your words of experience and wisdom to the new generation of American PCVs?

JC:   Respect the culture that you are serving in. Treat others with the respect they deserve and expect the same from them. Assume that you will learn from them much more than you will teach them. Do not attempt to measure your success in Western modes of time nor accomplishment.

EOW:  Thank you very much for your time, Joe. We owe you good "kitfo" and "tej" in one of the Ethiopian restaurants in Boston.

JC:  Thank you for allowing me to share one of the most important parts of my life! I will hold you to that restaurant debt!

Joe may be reached at:

Copyright 2001 - SKK_EOW