PHOTO: Yohannes Zeleke is a man of many hats, including the one above. (Photo by David Cogswell)
When you hang with somebody, when you get down, travel around, eat meals together, hike around, discuss, argue, dance, drink, sing, laugh and various other things, you don’t often think about the initials after people’s names. But in truth Yohannes Zeleke, a member of the party that traveled to Ethiopia on the recent NTA Product Development trip, is a Ph.D.
As remarkable as those initials are, it’s one of the least interesting things that comes to mind about Dr. Zeleke. He is an anthropologist, an archaeologist with decades of digs in Europe, Asia and Africa under his belt. He’s an author. He’s a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution. He’s an alumnus of the University of California at Berkeley, The Russian Academy of Sciences and St. Petersburg State University. He teaches anthropology at the American University in Washington DC. He’s the president of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Africa Travel Association and he’s a tour operator.
The problem is where to begin. Any attempt to sum up his multi-faceted existence would fall short.
Yohannes Zeleke’s own long, winding journey began at Gondar, where he was born in one of Ethiopia’s largest cities and the site of Gondar Castle, a cluster of impressive stone structures built in 1636 by King Fasilides.
Growing up in Ethiopia, the site of the earliest known human fossils, as well as the Gondar Castle and many other sites of historical and religious significance, it is perhaps not surprising that he would have followed the courses of study of archaeology, anthropology and history.
What is more remarkable is that he survived to study anything at all, having lived through the revolution of the early 1970s, a struggle in which he lost his father, his brother and his grandfather .
“I was not remarkable in that,” he said. “Everyone lost someone in their family. There was a mass execution in the country. The group who came to power practiced a kind of Stalinism. A lot of people were killed. It happened to everyone. The country was for three years in a reign of terror, 300,000-400,000 were killed.”
In 1981 an exodus from the country began as President Reagan opened the American door to Ethiopian refugees in Sudan. Many Ethiopians emigrated to America. Many more, including Yohannes, wanted to.
“I didn’t want to leave my mother,” said Zeleke. “I had several chances to leave, but if you lose someone from family due to the revolution, you were called counter revolutionary, so you couldn’t leave. I had a chance to come to America for a scholarship. I was working as an archaeologist with the ministry of culture since 1978.”
Though he couldn’t yet go to the States, he was able to go to the Soviet Union to study. Later after things had settled down in Ethiopia and his mother was no longer in danger he got his chance to travel to the U.S. to do post-doctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley in 1998 and 1999.
He did extensive field work in Ethiopia from 1991 to 2003, though he was stationed in the U.S. after 1998. He started his own tour operation five years ago, operating city tours in Washington D.C. and trips to Israel.
Back to Ethiopia and a New Future
Many of his interests converged at the NTA Ethiopian Product Development trip. Dr. Zeleke participated on that trip in a multidimensional capacity, suited to his multifaceted personality and experience.
Operating as Jerusalem DC Tours and Africa Legend Tours he is a tour operator member of the National Tour Association (NTA). And he's here as president of the Mid Atlantic Chapter of Africa Travel Association (ATA), with which NTA has a close working partnership.
As an archaeologist, historian and native of Ethiopia, he was an invaluable resource for NTA and the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism in both planning and conducting the tour. It would be hard to imagine a more perfectly focused skill set for the task at hand. And that task was to introduce a small group of American tour operators and travel writers to the possibilities for tourism in Ethiopia within the limited time and resources available.
On the trip he was both a participant, and a tour guide. At the planning stage, he the probably the most essential architect of the itinerary.
He is helping his country pick itself up by its economic bootstraps and plunge into the world travel industry. The country certainly has all the ingredients necessary to become a major destination, if the word gets out and the country is able to continue building its tourism infrastructure.
In spite of all this, of all that lies hidden behind the curtain of his jovial smile, my most lasting impression of Yohannes was that of him being a fun guy to travel with.