Gunilla came to Ethiopia in 1969 as a member of the Peace Corps. Onni was her boss at ALERT.

"It was just like home..."

-Gunilla Sparell

Onni in my life

by Gunilla Sparell

The first time I went to Ethiopia was in the beginning of 1969, as a Peace Corps employee. I did not know a lot about Africa at all, but I was fascinated by Sten Bergman's adventures on New Guinea and I can still hear his voice on the radio when I think of him. What tempted me was probably the adventure and that it was Ethiopia was mere coincidence.

It was rather frightening to arrive at ALERT, currently Princess Zenebework Hospital, in the middle of the rainy period. Wet, barefoot, limping, malformed people, covered in dirt grey sheets of fabric, shuffling through the mud. Most of the employees were deeply religious and I remember them questioning my suitability to work there. I was in fact sharing a house with a boy I got to know at the preparation training we had in Västerås. Onni defended me and said that it was completely natural in Sweden and that he was not going to do anything about it. He told me this many years later and I had no idea about it at the time. On top of that, I did not even live on the compound, which a German locum doctor and his girlfriend did. They have now been married for many years. She hung out a bra on the washing line, which also created a storm of protests. Such things were among the problems that Onni had to deal with.

I lived in the same direction as Onni's (to me) first house, approximately 1 km from the hospital. As a Peace Corps employee, I did not have a car in the beginning, but obtained a bicycle from SIDA. It did not take many days before children, who thought I was a splendid target for their stones, hit me. After a couple of hits, I did not dare to bike anymore, and got a lift with Onni until I, or more correctly my friend, got a car. He could very often not get to work, since he had to pass by the University, where it had already started to boil over with dissatisfaction with the Emperor and the regime. My friend bought an old car, which he fixed up on his spare time, and he later gave me a lift to and from work.

I had an enormous respect for Onni. He was a couple of years older than my mother was and, when she came down to visit a few times, they got along very well.

When AHRI's first laboratory assistant came down, six months after me, we became very good friends and she became fond of Onni. De used to meet, mainly at home over nice dinners cooked by my friend. I have never seen Onni in public with a special woman. He was very discrete when it came to women. The laboratory assistant and I still meet up and she is a very nice person.

Onni always became the centre of all parties, both at his home and away, and it was fun to listen to him. He arranged many things for the Swedish Association. I was once participating in a car rally for families, with several checkpoints. Among them a huge tree, where I always think of Onni every time I pass. At another place, we had to change a tyre as fast as we could. The finish was a bit more than 80 km from Addis. The winners were a family with toddlers, of whom I have a picture. My above-mentioned friend and I ended rather well, but I do not remember in which place. There was also a nice picnic before we turned back home. In the beginning, my lab was situated in two rather small rooms, but I saw how the new hospital grew, and the day arrived when AHRI's and also my lab, four departments, physiotherapy, etc. were to be opened by the Emperor. My new friend and I supervised the work in the kitchen, where they prepared snacks for all employees and all invited guests. This was the first time I saw the tiny, great Emperor close up. There are many nice pictures of Onni and the Emperor from this occasion, both in private hands and - as I presume - The Ethiopian Herald.

When AHRI's employees arrived, they were quite "normal" people and when the missionaries' contracts ended, more and more normal people arrived and it was more fun and easier to work, even though I do not oppose missionaries. I saw Onni in three houses. The first one some kilometre closer to the city centre, the second some kilometre beyond the hospital and the third within the Building College compound. All three houses had been very personally decorated and cosy, with lots of memoranda in cupboards and on the walls. His houseboy, Roman, followed him through all three houses.

One Christmas between 1969 and 1972, Onni was as usual playing Santa at the palace to the diplomats' children. He was to be there when the children came out into the park, but the big thing was that he should jump into an air balloon basket, wave goodbye to the children and take off, when he had done his part. A couple of friends and I were standing at Kokeb Restaurant opposite the palace. At the time, it was a newly opened, elegant restaurant with many Ethiopian souvenirs on the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Most of the decorations were unfortunately stolen very quickly, so when I returned to the country in 1980 it was rather shabby. But now we were standing on the top floor balcony that runs along the whole restaurant waiting for Onni to take off into the sky. We saw the balloon rise a little, disappear, rise above the trees and sink again. The party had gone on for longer than planned, the thermals were no longer favourable and Onni finally had to give up. I do not think I have ever seen him so angry and disappointed. Things had been working better the times he had arrived on camel, donkey or by car, as he had done in previous years.

I do not quite know when Onni moved into (to me) house number two, beyond the hospital, but I remember a big New Year's party for Swedes, with a lot of nice food, some even Swedish, and a lot to drink that was not easy to come by daily. At midnight, we all went out onto the terrace to toast the New Year, behold the Southern Cross, which he so proudly showed us, and kiss each other for luck. That is, Onni did not go for a peck on the lips, but gave every woman a big French kiss!

In 1971, I adopted a girl in Addis. At that time, I did not have a car, since the guy I shared house with for two years, had driven home to Sweden in his renovated car. I renewed my contract, which he did not. Onni lent me his rally Saab when I was to pick her up in the other end of town. Björn Lundmark, who is my daughter's godfather, drove and I sat beside him on the battery. There was only one front seat, for the driver, and nothing in the back, so I will never forget that ride. Dirty, wet and hungry, the girl cried all the way through town, until we arrived home where my wonderful "mamita" who, with 17 pregnancies and 11 living children, skilfully took care of her while we continued to our workplaces. When I arrived home that night, there was a contented and happy four months old baby, Saunet, lying in a handed down cot. She is now 38 years old.

As I said earlier, I saw Onni more privately in the beginning of the 1980's, when I returned on a new three-year contract, than during the first three years when he was my manager. This time, I was working for the Save the Children Foundation, and since Onni was now working for them as well, we met up rather often. One person, who was very close to Onni in the 1970's, after I had gone home, is Björn Lundmark. He was the Mr Fix-it Peace Corps employee at ALERT, he helped Onni build a sauna in the palace, acted as co-driver when Onni drove rallies, and got very close to Onni, since he asked Björn to mend everything that broke, both at work and at home.

Now I want to tell you about a party at Onni's last house, in the Building College compound. This house had, like all the previous houses, a nice atmosphere with many personal things. There were many Swedes invited, but also a few other nationalities, which I do not remember clearly. I was driving my car and indicated that I was about to turn over the road, onto the compound. I got into the outer lane, checked to see that there was no oncoming traffic, and started turning. Suddenly, some idiot hit me from behind, when I was almost inside the compound. It was the Russian ambassador and his wife! A lot of people gathered around as usual and everyone chatted loudly. The chauffeur jumped out and spoke in Russian, the woman opened up the car widow and shouted and then … there was a Swedish Embassy car, with Anders and Anette, the second Embassy Secretary and his wife, good friends, who were also going to Onni. "You drive in, I will take care of this" said Anders, and since they had the same status, the Russians immediately turned towards Anders instead. The guard at the gate saluted me, shushed the people away and said something in Amarinja that I did not understand. Probably something disparaging about Russians and that I should have a good time at Onni's party. I just noticed the voice changing when he mentioned Major Niskanen.

I drove trembling down to Onni's house and arrived pale and shaky to the party. Onni heard about the nuisance, laughed and got me half-smashed on whisky before dinner, stoned after. Anders came in after a couple of minutes. I do not remember very much of the party, except that everyone felt sorry for me, topped up my glass and comforted me. The Russians' car was still outside the gate and when I had a lift home, by God knows whom, we saw that all four tyres were sliced. The Russians were not loved by the people. They implemented many idiotic things during the years they were in power. The system for shopping was to chose an article, get a note at the till, collect the article against showing the note, go back to the till and pay, or how it was set up. They painted over all the shop signs so the names were not readable. I was lucky to have been there before, even if some things had changed, so I knew where to look. They were rude and terrifying as well. During those years, we also had Cubans all over the place. They were more cheerful and friendly, but drank copiously. So did the Russians, but while they got grumpy, the Cubans sang louder and louder the more they drank.

When I ask my children what they remember about Onni, Saunet, who was 9 years old at the time, has more to tell than Peder, who was only five. All he remembers is that Onni asked him to blow money out of his nose and that he was nice. Saunet remembers more. Onni liked children and if the whole family was invited, all the children's eyes glittered. Onni liked eating glass, swallowing burning matches and conjuring money out of the children. He fondly split us into teams to have us solve different puzzles. For example, he could put matches out in a shape that we should form into some other shape by moving a limited amount of matches. He also liked to tie us all up, two and two together, and ask us to try and get lose in the quickest time possible. There were a lot of screams, laughs, and snakelike moves that he ought to have filmed. We giggled, crawled around and rolled over and we got very close while we got more and more tangled up. Onni smiled contentedly until he finally showed us how to do it. It took about three seconds when you knew how, but we had worked for an eternity, sweating and snorting. The solution was simple: you had to lift the ropes over each other's hands in a simple way, but nobody understood that. Saunet saw Onni as a very nice old man who always treated her like a human being although she was a child. I have a photo from a rally outing to Ghion, a bit south of Addis, where he was just sitting contented on a chair. He did not drive himself that time. I did not think about it at the time, but maybe he did not feel very well.

In the beginning of the 80s, Onni and I both worked for the Save the Children Foundation and he had a huge circle of friends, where children and adults, Swedes and foreigners all were welcome. I do not clearly remember when we realised that Onni was ill. I had my job, which now meant a lot to do and bigger responsibilities, and I was a single mum with two small children, Peder 5 years and Saunet 9 years old. However, I did have the most wonderful "mamita" during these years, who took care of us all.

I think it was Bernt, Onni's successor, and Onni who had the closest contacts these years and sometimes I would come along. It happened more and more often, as he got more and more ill. I thought it was rather frightening that he had oxygen in the house. It was not like in Sweden, where they have rigorous laws. Both Onni and Bernt smoked so I was wondering when the house would explode! Onni kept his spirits up as long as I was in the country and we had many cosy evenings with his stories from the past about old friends, hunts, travels and so on, but unfortunately, you do no listen closely enough to other people's life tales. Nobody wanted to hear about my years in Ethiopia or look at my pictures. If you should ask my sister about my time there, she would not know a thing and she has hardly even seen my photo albums. My brother possibly knows a bit more, but not a lot. I wish I had been more attentive when Onni played out his register.

I do not know why, but it seemed like his friends deserted him when he got worse, but Bernt at least continued taking care of him after I had gone back to Sweden. A short while after I had come home, Onni was sent to Sweden and was admitted to the Red Cross Hospital in Liljansskogen in Stockholm. I was there and said hello. Han said that it was a small routine check and that he was very bored. He longed for a small whisky and asked if I could possibly come back with a little snifter. Wrong or not (alcohol is strictly forbidden in Swedish hospitals) I poured it in a lemonade bottle, as per instructions, and took it up to him. It was very appreciated, at least by Onni, and the doctors did not know, so …

That was the last time I saw him. When he was moved to KS (Karolinska Sjukhuset = another hospital in Stockholm) and I wanted to visit him, the snooty nurse would not let me in. She asked if I was a relative and when I told her that we were close friends since many years working together in Ethiopia, she just pursed her lips and said that I could not go in. Then, after several weeks of suffering, there was the funeral. If only he had been allowed to stay in Ethiopia, then the end had been quicker and that is where he wanted to be. Anyway, it was a pompous reception at Stallmästargården and I arrived via the diversion to Arlanda airport, where I had picked up my old counterpart, Demisse, for whom I had got a scholarship in Örebro. He had known Onni before me and had him as manager for many years. He was with us at Stallmästargården and when we came out, thieves had broken into my car and taken Demisse's luggage, my camera and some other things, which I have managed to forget. A real highlight when you come outside with red eyes, emotionally moved, tired and just wanting to go home. Instead, there was a visit to the police station in Solna to file a report.

These two negative experiences, the snooty nurse and the burglar, became the last memories of Onni. He was such a connoisseur in the art of living and gave so much of himself. All the other memories of him are light and positive, except for the two last ones, so I wonder deep inside if it was his disappointment over his death, when he had so much left to do, that showed in those two idiots. I suspect his ghost played the tricks to show how he felt.

This is all I remember right now, but when I talk to old friends, an old memory pops up again. For example, when I talked to Margit in Malmö, with whom I have attended parasitic info courses. She had asked Onni to be Toastmaster and entertainer at her Christmas party in her garden in Addis. She had asked 125 guests and they had never been to a funnier party.