IN THE FALL of 1962 in the final days of my group’s in-country Peace Corps training in Ethiopia, we had a celebratory dinner at the Guenet Hotel in the Populari section of the capital, Addis Ababa.
The Guenet Hotel, even in 1962, was one of the older hotels in Addis Ababa. It wasn’t in the center of town, but south of Smuts Street and down the hill from Mexico Square, several miles from where we were housed in the dormitories of Haile Selassie I University. While out of the way, this small, two story rambling hotel, nevertheless, had a two-lane, American-style bowling alley, tennis courts, and a most surprising of all, a real lion in its lush, tropical garden.
Surprising, because at that time in the Empire no Ethiopian commoner was allowed to keep a lion, the symbol of His Imperial Majesty’s dynasty. The Emperor, Haile Selassie, whose full title was Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia, had a private collection of animals, including the Imperial lions, antelopes, monkeys, and cheetahs at Jubilee Palace, his royal residence.
There was also a small government lion park near the campus of the University. This park had about twenty full-grown lions in a large circular cage and sometimes late at night we would hear them roaring in the distance.
On a rare occasion a wild lion would wander down from nearby Mt. Entoto looking for food and be spotted by townspeople and that would create headlines and eye-witness accounts in the next day’s morning paper.
So, seeing a lion up close and personal in the heart of Africa was something special for a group of young Americans new to Africa.
We 275 Peace Corps Volunteer teachers, the first to serve in Ethiopia, arrived in Addis Ababa in September at the end of the African Highland long rains. In our final days of training, before being dispatched to our teaching assignments throughout the Empire, we went off one evening to a farewell dinner at the Guenet Hotel. It was the first time any of us had been to the Populari section of the city or seen the lovely gardens of this hotel or seen their caged lion.
Well, actually it was a caged lion and a large German shepherd dog.
I recall that when I first saw the lion the German shepherd was stretched out comfortably between its paws, and both the dog and the lion were calmly gazing out through the bars of the small cage at the lot of us. The dog was able to come and go through the narrow bars but we were told by the hotel staff that he always spent the night sleeping inside the cage, curled up with the lion.
AS IT TURNED OUT, I was assigned to teach at the Commercial Secondary School in Addis Ababa and in the early fall of that year was living in the Populari section near the Guenet Hotel.
The Peace Corps had issued bicycles to whomever needed them to get to school and I had gotten into the routine of riding back and forth to classes, and also of stopping off at the Guenet for a coke or coffee after school and to correct my students’ homework while sitting in the gardens of the hotel surrounded by thick bougainvillaea bushes, wild roses and carnations, and gnarled eucalyptus draped with streamer-like leaves. It was here that I came to know the lion and the German shepherd, who often slipped out through the bars of their cage to beg food from me while his partner stood at attention inside the cage silently watching the transaction. They were quite an odd but wonderful couple.
During one of my mid-day rides home for lunch I was tearing down a steep hill, and an American pulled his car up along side me and singled me to stop. He turned out to be a TWA pilot employed by Ethiopian Airlines who had been in-country for several years, and he invited me, and several others Volunteers, to a “home cooked” dinner that weekend. It was his way of welcoming the new Peace Corps to the Empire.