After years as Denver TV anchor, Ernie Bjorkman, and wife, Sue, serving in Peace Corps in Ethiopia

BUTAJIRA, Ethiopia - For more than 35 years, Ernie Bjorkman was on television sets across Colorado reporting on the news in our state and around the world. Now, he's living in one of those far off places -- experiencing what it's like to live and work in Ethiopia.

Yes, Ernie and his wife, Sue, are in Ethiopia. Not as tourists, but as peace corps volunteers.

"We were thinking of what the next chapter in our life would be," Ernie and Sue said via email from Ethiopia. "We thought first about just 'vagabonding' across the U.S., then we thought of traveling overseas indefinitely, but we realized we wanted our travel to have some kind of purpose."

The Bjorkmans said while they were researching possibilities, they came across the Peace Corps.

"[We] looked at each other and immediately knew that was the perfect blend of passion and purpose," Sue wrote. "As fate would have it, the same day we realized this, there was a Peace Corps informational event at CU."

They said they came away inspired and resolved to get the process going.

When asked where they wanted to serve, the Bjorkmans said their preferences were the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and South America.

"And here we are in Africa," they laughed.

 

-- TV career lasted more than three decades --

Ethiopia is big change from Ernie's life as TV news anchor on Channel 7 and Channel 2 in Denver.

However, even back then, he was serving the community by hosting charity events.

In 2009, Ernie Bjorkman was downsized from TV and became a veterinary technician.

Now the Bjorkmans have downsized even further -- living in a rural community, with a host family, half a world away.

 

-- Peace Corps Training --

The Bjorkmans arrived on February 12 for three months of intensive training. They're living with a host family in Butajira, about two hours south of the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa.

"The training is very intense – 8 hours a day all week and then four hours on Saturday, too," they wrote. "Training consists of Amharic language classes, as well as Agriculture and Environmental classes and Peace Corps development theory."

"We are now 'experts' in an innovative new way of gardening/farming called 'Permagardens,'" the Bjorkmans said. "They’d love this in Colorado!"

The Bjorkmans have a Facebook page where they've posted photos of animals, scenery and the people they've met.

There's the Broncos fan wearing a Peyton Manning shirt with Hebrew letters Chet and Yud, which add up to 18 but also spell "Chai," a word that translates to "life."

There's a picture of the classroom at a local school where the Bjorkmans taught an environmental lesson.

"It went better than expected. They were well behaved and attentive," they wrote. "There is no electricity at the school, but it doesn't seem to bother anyone. They are still learning."

For Easter, there's a photo of their host "dad" Zerihun.

"He and some neighbors slaughtered a cow very early this morning and this is the family's portion," the Bjorkmans wrote on Facebook. "The devoted spent 5 hours in church overnight to celebrate this major holiday."

There's also a photo showing an Ethiopian child named 'Nati' learning how to dye Easter eggs.

The Bjorkmans have worked on a watershed project, learned to cook local items, repaired gullies, learned how to do laundry, worked at a local tree farm, and they are learning how to speak Amharic.

"We are at the 'tinnish' (very little) level right now, but we are getting there 'kas bekash' (step by step)," Sue wrote on Facebook in March.

"We are learning the language as best we can and living with a host family who doesn’t speak English really accelerates the process," Sue wrote. "Some people do speak some English here and they want to talk to us to practice their skills. They come up to us and say, 'Hello! What is your name?' because that’s the one phrase they know well." 

"Locals love it when we try to speak their language, although for some reason they always laugh at our attempts!," Sue said.

The Bjorkmans are finishing training and will be sworn in as volunteers, instead of trainees, on Friday at the U.S. Embassy.

Saturday, they'll move to a new site located in Holeta.

 

-- Living in Ethiopia --

Many of us saw pictures of the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, so what's it like living in Ethiopia now?

"We were surprised at first, to say the least," the Bjorkmans said. "We imagined it to be a desert-type country, but we found out the elevation is very similar to Colorado’s and it is mountainous and green. The climates are amazingly similar, except it doesn’t snow in Ethiopia because they are located so close to the equator."

"The culture here resembles America in the 1950s," the Bjorkmans explained. "The majority of the families have both a mom and a dad at home and the kids play outside with each other until dark and the roles of the genders are very traditional. The neighbors are very close and support each other through all life events."

The Bjorkmans said no one has a personal car, and very few people own a personal computer.

'There are no computers in the schools. In fact, the schools do not even have electricity," the Bjorkmans wrote. "It is interesting though how happy they are anyway! They live very simply and are fine with that."

"Their favorite saying is 'chigger yellam' which translates to 'no problem,'" Ernie and Sue wrote. "They are accepting, content people."

One thing that surprised the Bjorkmans were the animals -- everywhere!

"It is surprising how many animals are all over the streets -- Donkeys, cows, horses, goats, chickens roam these dirt roads in huge numbers and that’s just life," the Bjorkmans wrote.

"More donkeys than cars here. Love it," they wrote on Facebook a week after arriving.

"They are also very religious people and whether they are Muslim, protestant or Ethiopian Orthodox, they all live peacefully with each other," they said.

The Bjorkmans are living in an area without a modern, working sewer system, and the electric and water systems are very undependable.

"Guns are outlawed (except for police, of course) and hard drugs have not become popular here," the Bjorkmans wrote.

 

-- Serving together --

The Peace Corps says more and more Americans are volunteering with their spouses.

"It’s great being here as a couple! We have each other as a support system and that is really important," the Bjorkmans wrote. "We are always together and will be for our two years here."

The Bjormans are both assigned to the same agriculture/environment sector so they do their work and projects together.

"We think it is easier to be here together than it is for the 'kids' straight out of college who are here on their own," the Bjorkmans said.

While the Bjorkmans are a few decades from college age, they haven't slowed down.

"A lot of people don’t realize, but the 50 plus age group is a growing sector in the Peace Corps," the Bjorkmans said. "They are encouraging older Americans to look into serving because they have more experience."

However, it's not easy.

"It is intense," they said. "Learning a new language can fry your brain sometimes and it is definitely a 'hardship' lifestyle, so just know those things going in. It is a unique opportunity to totally immerse yourself in another culture, though."

On Facebook they wrote, "Everyday we find ourselves saying 'We are in Africa!' It still amazes us."

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