Diplomat ready for Ethiopia

June 20, 1994|By Verne Kopytoff | Verne Kopytoff,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Irvin Hicks, a career diplomat who grew up in East Baltimore, has been studying the official Ethiopian language of Amharic, and for good reason: He was sworn in Friday as ambassador to that East African country.

Foreign service is nothing new to Mr. Hicks, who has spent much of his life at embassies in Africa and around the world, places that few can point to on a map. But compared with Mr. Hicks' previous ambassadorship as envoy to the Seychelles, an idyllic archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Ethiopia will be a challenge.

Mr. Hicks, 56, whose family still lives in East Baltimore, graduated from Dunbar High in 1956 and the University of Maryland. He was in the Air Force for five years, then joined the Foreign Service. His first assignment was in Gabon, in West Africa, where he worked through a coup.

Now, Mr. Hicks is trying to master the Amharic language, one of the most difficult, but he can already say a few phrases and make small talk.

"I thought it would be very culturally sensitive to say greetings and talk to people," he said.

Most people know the troubled country of Ethiopia and its 53 million citizens from reports of starvation and civil war. But conditions have improved recently. War has ended, though problems from a renewed drought loom.

"After decades of civil strife, Ethiopia today is largely peaceful and stable," Mr. Hicks said. "The people of Ethiopia have made significant progress . . . and created hope for a better life for all Ethiopians."

The job of watching over the Ethiopian government, not known to focus on human rights, will occupy much of Mr. Hicks' time.

Elections were held last year after 30 years of civil war and 17 years of Marxist rule for a government "that is in the process of becoming a democracy," Mr. Hicks said.

He said he will push for additional aid to feed a country where many are in danger of dying from famine. He will do what he can, he said, for the thousands of Somalian refugees within Ethiopia's borders.

George Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said Mr. Hicks was "one of the department's most seasoned diplomats." Mr. Hicks will leave for his post in July.

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