Monday, December 20, 2010

He forged a bond between the rainforest and the desert

Elias Cheboud helped bridge Victoria to his native Ethiopia.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 20, 2010


A week after his sudden death, Elias Cheboud’s friends still speak of him in the present tense.

He died after a sudden illness on Dec. 12 while working on a development project in his native Ethiopia. He was 51.

He is mourned in his homeland and in Victoria, where his sons and their mother live. He forged unlikely bonds between a peaceful campus in the rainforest and a sun-parched African land where violence is all too familiar.

Mr. Cheboud had led student demonstrations calling for greater democracy in Ethiopia, earning the enmity of a Marxist regime. He was arrested, tortured, and narrowly escaped being murdered. He fled to a refugee camp in Djibouti, before starting a new life in Alberta.

He had wanted to be a doctor and had worked as a medic, only to learn in his adopted land that his qualifications meant nothing. He started over, listening to the radio and reading newspapers to improve his English before enrolling in college in his early 30s. He came to the University of Victoria 17 years ago to study social work.

“He was a student of mine,” professor Barbara Whittington said. “But he wasn’t. I was a student of his.

“He was the most compassionately confrontational, challenging person. He treated you as an equal, so that meant you’d better shape up.”

After completing a bachelor’s degree, he commuted by ferry to Vancouver for his master’s, while working part-time as a drug and alcohol counsellor for the provincial ministry of children and families. He then earned a doctorate in education in Victoria, while also serving as the president of the Victoria Coalition for the Survivors of Torture.

He was a bridge builder. And not just metaphorically.

He initiated exchanges between the campus and his homeland. Once, a Victoria student and a professor were visiting a town in eastern Ethiopia when told about an annual tragedy. Heavy summer rains turned a rivulet into a torrent, cutting the town in half. Children on one side of the divide needed to ford the dangerous waters to get to school. Some drowned trying to do so.

The Canadians returned home, where they began a campaign to raise $10,000 for a bridge. In Africa, Mr. Cheboud encouraged the local effort, cajoling the carpenters into donate their time for a span designed by Ethiopian engineers.

“Elias would lure you into coming,” Ms. Whittington said of her own experience in Africa. “They can’t pay you, so you have to get there yourself. He makes you work you like a dog. But the project is so interesting you’d want to go back.”

Six years ago, he returned to his homeland, where he supported an extended family while working as a researcher and professor with the University for Peace, which is affiliated with the United Nations. Based in Addis Ababa, he was traveling when he took ill one evening earlier this month. He got to hospital and was seen by a doctor, but died before dawn. Family and friends are now awaiting the results of an autopsy.

He had been born in a dusty, hardscrabble village northwest of the capital, near the dramatic gorge carved by the Blue Nile. Nearby can be found the famous Debre Libanos monastery, originally founded in the 13th-century, razed and resurrected as the heart of the Ethiopian church over the centuries. It is a place of peace where blood has been spilt, most notoriously after an unspeakable massacre of monks, deacons and the faithful ordered by a fascist governor during the Italian occupation. The monastery, once a centre of learning, never fully recovered from the atrocity.

The sun-baked soil of the complex includes a cemetery in which earlier this month was buried a man who found a safer life overseas but returned to repair his homeland.

“Hundreds of people gathered there as it was also his home area,” a witness to the Cheboud funeral wrote. “It is so much of a loss for everyone and more so for his mother whom he adored so much.”

At 9:30 a.m. on Monday, a memorial service will be held at the Interfaith chapel on the University of Victoria campus.

Back in Chiro, the footbridge was completed before the rains came in July. No one drowned this season. It is said the local schoolchildren sing songs of praise for the people of a faraway city who helped them get to school safely.