A Writer Writes

The Lion in the Garden of the Guenet Hotel

by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    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.

    DURING THE DINNER I mentioned the lion and dog in the garden of the Guenet and the pilot asked me if I knew the story of how the they had gotten to the hotel.
         It seems that the first American TWA director in Ethiopia had raised the lion from a small cub in his home’s compound along with the family’s dog. The lion was such a household pet that everyone who visited the house treated it as such.
         But there was the time the CEO of TWA worldwide came to Ethiopia to meet the Emperor and visit his overseas operation. Trans World Air Lines had managed Ethiopian Airlines since 1946 and that relationship was one of the great early success stories of private development in Africa. In fact, by the time we reached the country in ’62 over a third of the trained pilots were Ethiopians.
         The CEO arrived at dawn in Addis Ababa on an overnight flight from Europe and immediately took a morning nap at the managing director’s home.
         Later that afternoon, rested and revived, the CEO was sitting with a half dozen pilots who had stopped by for a drink and to meet their boss. The group was sitting in the livingroom and the the French doors were open to the garden so that they could watch the African sunset and enjoy the first cool breeze of evening.
         Sometime towards dusk, the full grown lion, who had been asleep in the sunny terrace beyond the French doors, woke up and ambled passed the open door, gazed in at the assembled group, and then ambled off.
         No one commented about the lion, as all the pilots knew about the animal. However, the visiting CEO had no idea that the enormous maned lion was a household pet and sat petrified at the sight of this legendary African beast — on the loose and just yards from him.
         He didn’t say anything until the next morning when he confessed to his host what he thought he had seen, thinking it must have been a frightening fantasy caused by his fear of being in Africa. The host explained the presence of the lion to him and the CEO’s mind was put somewhat at ease.
         Some time later, the American manager’s tour in Ethiopia was scheduled to come to an end and the family decided to give the lion to the nearby hotel as the tame animal could not be returned to the wild. The German shepherd, however, would go back to America with them.
         In the weeks before their departure, the lion was successfully transferred, but when the family realized the German shepherd was so lonely and unhappy with the loss of his companion they decided to leave the dog as well, giving both animals to the Guenet where they could live peacefully in the small cage in the hotel gardens.
         And it was there that I found them when I arrived in Addis Ababa.

    I LEFT ETHIOPIA in the mid-sixties and did not return again until the early ’70s. While I had a short list of old friends in Addis I wanted to see, high on that list also were the lion and the German shepherd in the gardens of the Guenet.
         A day or so after arriving, I took a taxi to the hotel, which had thankfully not changed much in the years I had been away, and I walked into the garden to find the caged lion and the German shepherd.
         The cage was where I remembered it. However, the door was wide open and the lion was gone. Sitting alone in the middle of the empty concrete floor was the old German shepherd.
         I walked inside to the front desk of the hotel and asked about the lion and was told the animal had died only months before. It had been such a news event that a story was published about his death in the Ethiopian Herald, the English language newspaper in the country. The staff found a copy of the article that detailed the demise of the lion and I sat down in the lobby of the old hotel and read the account.
         Several months earlier when the lion was suffering from an infected tooth, doctors from the Pasteur Institute of Ethiopia decided to drug the animal so the tooth could be extracted. Unfortunately the dart of drugs was too much for the old animal and the lion died before it could be saved.
         The hotel had not yet decided what to do about the lion cage for the dog still lived there, spending his days waiting for his lifelong companion to return.
         I gave the article back to the receptionist, thanked him for the information, and then I went out into the garden and walked through the open gate and inside the cage. I knelt down beside the German shepherd and petted the old dog one last time, then I left Addis Ababa and Africa.
         I have never been back.

    John Coyne is the founding editor of Peace Corps Writers and the author of the recently published novel, The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan.