April 18, 2020 (GMN) - This article was written following the publication in PeaceCorpsWriters.org, November 2000 of “A Letter from Ethiopia” by Kathleen Coskran, who told of the tragic death of PCV William Olson, which she witnessed.
During our spring vacation from school in 1966, close to our scheduled departure from Ethiopia, my wife-to-be, Evelyn Ashkenaze, and I flew to Gambella to see a very different Ethiopia from the one we knew in Shoa province. This was not the Ethiopia of cool highlands and white flowing traditional dress, but Nilotic Africa, in the blazing southwestern lowlands near the Sudanese border. The people were semi-nomadic, extremely tall and blue-black; the villagers were barely clothed in the heat, and the women were adorned with elaborate wide, high necklaces. This was much closer to our childhood National Geographic images of Africa than any place we’d seen before in Ethiopia.
Within minutes of arriving in Gambella, we met an interesting young man named George Christodoulos, a friendly Greek-Ethiopian, also visiting from Addis Ababa, who had traveled there by Jeep. With an assortment of relatives and friends, he was visiting a cousin. We quickly became friends and he invited us to stay with all of them across the Baro River. The town was small, the muddy river no more than 50 yards across. We spent a few days trekking around the area, seeing the sights and meeting the local people, known to us then as the Anywaa and Nuer.
One afternoon, as George and I were enjoying ourselves paddling around the river in a dugout canoe, we became aware of a group of folks swimming in the river. They had arrived in Gambella that day and I assumed that they were Peace Corps Volunteers. (I remember being displeased that there was such a large contingent of them because we would no longer have this remote, wondrous place virtually to ourselves.) We then heard alarmed shouts coming from the group and immediately paddled toward the PCVs, who were across the river and downstream from us. They yelled that one of their companions, whom we later learned was William Olson, had just disappeared while swimming off a sandbar in the middle of the river. It soon appeared likely that he had been pulled down by a crocodile. He never resurfaced.
Villagers gathered at the riverbank and there were much agitation and discussion. They were joined by an American army colonel named Dow. who was on safari with a Swiss guide, Karl Luthy. They were traveling with powerful rifles intended for the big game. We learned from Luthy and from several other people that this group of PCVs (or at least some members of the group) had been warned repeatedly not to go into the river, that a large crocodile lived on a bank nearby, and had “taken” a woman only recently. Luthy makes this clear in his account of the tragedy, which appears in the book Eyelids of Morning.
George and I and others paddled back and forth along the river until dusk searching for any sign of the crocodile or Bill Olson. In the evening, many groups, including Dow and Luthy, continued searching. George, his cousin, Evelyn, and I scanned the river and its banks with searchlights from George’s Jeep. There was no sign of the crocodile.
The search resumed early the next morning. Before long, the crocodile surfaced and, after several attempts, it was killed by Colonel Dow. (We still have one of the shells.) The thing was so huge and heavy that it was a struggle for several men to pull it through shallow water and onto a sandy low part of the shore. Townspeople were rejoicing. It was a victory, after all, over a dragon, a historic enemy of the Anywaa and Nuer, a monster whose kind had pulled down and fed on children and adults on river shores for as long as anyone could remember.
There it lay, facing the river, fluid dribbling out of its closed jaws, broad, tall, enormous, a nightmarish alien species, more like a dinosaur than anything else. Luthy was anxious to cut open the crocodile’s belly. Evelyn stepped a few feet away and turned in the opposite direction. Luthy, with considerable insensitivity, said, “Let’s see what’s in here” and cut the crocodile open with a large hunter’s knife. Gelatinous stuff billowed out of its mouth. There was no longer any doubt about Olson’s end.
Without speaking, I helped one of the other PCVs extract Bill Olson’s remains and put them in a box. His other companions, whom we had barely seen, watched from a distance, presumably traumatized. Grisly as this task was, it was made somewhat less wrenching by our never having met Olson. We’d never even seen him he was in a different Volunteer training group from ours. Yet, he was one of us, an American and a fellow PCV, a young man killed by a monster, and I was numb. I moved the box a short distance and it was later taken back to Addis Ababa by Olson’s companions on a small plane diverted to Gambella for this purpose.
Evelyn and I have carried these memories with us for almost 35 years. But there is one image that remains even more vivid and constant than the rest. After I had finished my solemn task by the carcass of the crocodile, I looked up and saw Evelyn, sitting on a log a short distance away, weeping. Sitting opposite and facing her was an elderly villager, also silently weeping, possibly for relatives he had lost, for himself, or out of sympathy. There was no doubt that he was weeping in concert with her. In that most exotic setting by the Baro River, with people so distant from us in history and culture, those mutual tears that finally brought home to me the tragic death of our colleague had a profound and lasting effect on both of us.