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Published March 07 2012

Threads of woman's story stitched together in Ethiopia, woven now into life in North Dakota

FARGO - Without a speck of exaggeration, Bethlehem Gronneberg can say that as a child she walked six miles to and from school every day.

It was all on foot, too, though never in the snow.

“Betty,” as she was known then and now, viewed her early years in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – a city of more than 3 million people – as one grand adventure.

“I would go to my next-door neighbor’s, knock on the door, pick her up, then we’d keep picking up kids on the way until there would be five or six of us,” Betty said.

Her lively spirit eventually would bring her far from those beginnings to a land where snow does exist; a place called North Dakota.

But back then she was still being formed in a school with classrooms filled to capacity – around 50 students per room – and teachers who imparted strict discipline. “If you were misbehaving when the teacher was correcting homework, you could hear a pin drop.”

More vividly, though, the youngest daughter of six children recalls the tender feeling of community.

“In Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, your older siblings take care of you, so my sisters helped raise me,” she said.

“Even until adulthood they would braid my hair and wash and feed me. We did household chores, too, but I didn’t have to do a lot because my older sisters did it for me,” she said, eyes twinkling at the memory.

This left her with time to play with neighborhood kids in the “mini forest” of eucalyptus trees behind her house, where they’d collect leaves and have competitions with the resulting “flying wheels.” Other times they’d stuff socks to form balls to play a game similar to baseball.

In time, however, play gave way to a heart yearning to learn. Intrigued by the words she saw her older sister reading, Betty became determined to enter and master the world of ideas.

With colleges relatively scarce in Ethiopia, only the brightest students can attend the free, government-run universities. The weeding process begins in secondary school, if not earlier.

Recognizing her academic gifts, Betty’s parents sent her to a private Catholic high school led by religious sisters from India.

Their support continued during her college years.

Though often away through military work, her father, Abera, would encourage her through letters and phone calls.

Her mother, Asamenech, would make sure Betty had home-cooked food to offset the dorm variety, and would do her laundry so Betty could focus on her education.

“My mother, I can’t speak enough of her. She’s the ultimate example of unconditional, timeless love. Even now when I’m older and can take care of myself she worries about me all the time.”

Discovering N.D.

Betty graduated in 1993 with a degree in statistics and computer science from Addis Ababa University, and began work in information technology and web development at the Ethiopian branch of the United Nations.

It was in a nine-story building of more than 2,000 employees that she met fellow employee named Ronald Gronneberg – a man of Norwegian ancestry raised in a remote, faraway farmstead near Hannaford, N.D.

“Ronie,” as she affectionately calls him, won her over with his gentle, caring ways; attributes common in men from her culture.

Her parents saw it, too. “I can’t say anything bad or complain about him to my parents,” Betty said, “because they would say, ‘You must be wrong because Ron is good!’ ”

The more Ron spoke of his home during their courtship, the more Betty’s curiosity was piqued. Finally, in August of 1998, following their wedding in Ethiopia and subsequent move here, she met the prairie firsthand.

Betty was immediately struck by the contrasts.

“My first thinking was, ‘Where are the people?’ I was used to seeing people walking about in bunches,” she said, “and Ronie said, ‘Well, this is us!’ ”

Winter also was a bit of an adjustment, though Betty had experienced snow a few years earlier in Canada, and remembered her amazement at what looked to be cotton falling from the sky. “I had no sense that it was wet and cold … talk about shock.”

To help her mother grasp the concept of “cold weather” by phone, Betty likened it to putting your hand into a freezer “and just staying there for three months.” Her mother replied in Amharic, her native tongue, “Oh dear!”

Now, Betty has warmed to winter. She, Ron and their three sons, Josh, Gabe and Nate, particularly enjoy snow-skiing and sledding, as well as summertime activities like swimming and fishing.

She also appreciates the convenience of life in a place where everything to be done in a day can usually happen within 15 or 20 minutes from home.

New family, new friends

The people she’s met here also have made the introduction less chilly.

Ron’s parents and four siblings immediately embraced her, and when her twins were born in 2003, her mother-in-law, Sylvia, became a needed, nurturing presence.

“In such times, it’s hard not to have a mother to run to,” she said, “but she was my mom and was there for me as long as I needed her, and even now. I feel blessed and lucky.”

Friend Deb Wendel-Daub said she enjoys Betty’s “worldly view of things” and interesting perspective on human interactions.

When Betty became pregnant with her firstborn, she shared details of the experience with Deb, who was told she couldn’t have children. The same happened when Betty’s twins were born.

“I would sit with her and we would talk while she was nursing them. That was a real bonding time for us and got us connected on another level,” Deb said. “Not long after that, I ended up pregnant. That was a real surprise, and I felt blessed that she had included me in some of the more intimate and personal times with her newborns.”

Another friend, Laurie Carvell, met Betty when the two worked together at Sundog, a local marketing firm in Fargo.

“One thing that is wonderful and amazing about Betty is that no matter how busy she is, once she’s on a project she’s dedicated to it totally,” Laurie said, “but she also maintains her sense of humor and has that contagious laughter that is always at the surface and ready to come out.”

Both friends are inspired by Betty’s commitment to her education – she’s currently completing her master’s degree in software engineering – along with mothering and working as a software development engineer at Fargo’s Intelligent InSites.

“She has a lot of ambition, and she’s doing her master’s in the time she can carve out,” Deb said. “She also shares her dreams with me and it seems like she’s always taking steps toward making those things happen.”

Referring to his wife as a “smart, determined, adventurous woman” with a focus on family, faith and education, her husband is perhaps Betty’s greatest admirer.

“Though we both grew up in different parts of the world with different experiences and cultures, I find that values transcend cultures,” said Ron, chief information officer for the city of Fargo. “I was confident that, with our diverse backgrounds, life would always be interesting, wherever it took us.”

Faith and citizenship

Now an active member of Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo with her family, Betty said it was the ancient religion of Orthodox Christianity that is so deeply embedded in Ethiopian culture that offered her an initial spiritual grounding.

Indeed, her relationship with God is what has kept the threads of her life intact, she said, through affirmation that even though she’s left the familiar many times, God has never strayed.

“Anytime you leave what you know and go to a new culture, you leave behind many things – the people that know you, the sense of belonging and the language, the color of the people, the smell, the food,” she said. “That’s why I hold my memories dearly and treasure them, and when there are holy days I think of (home).”

While Betty serves as the perpetual “living testament” to her sons’ Ethiopian heritage, she said, Ronie represents their Norwegian/North Dakota side.

“I love America and care about it deeply,” said Betty, who became an American citizen on July 4, 2008.

She added that her intent is not to create another Ethiopia here, but to meld gracefully with her new world and encourage her boys to fully experience being American.

Nevertheless, there are times the Ethiopian mother emerges strongly, and without apology.

“I hug them all the time … and sometimes they will say, ‘Mom, I need my personal space!’ and I say, ‘No, not with me!’ ” she said. “You can’t separate completely from who you are, but I also want to raise them to be proud of who they are.”

Helping kids through Ethiopia Reads

Bethlehem Gronneberg can’t fathom the thought of a child not having access to books, though she knows it happens all the time.

To that end, the Ethiopian-born woman, who now calls Fargo home, has become involved in a nonprofit program called Ethiopia Reads.

The organization was co-founded by former North Dakotan and children’s author Jane Kurtz, who spent much of her childhood as the daughter of missionaries in Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia Reads is non-profit whose effort includes delivering books to the hands of children in need and planting libraries in every region of Ethiopia,” Betty said. “When I read about this organization, I knew I had to be involved because I love reading, children and helping – a combination I can’t resist.”

She added that fostering a genuine love of reading in children is the most satisfying thing one can do. “I know firsthand how education is an enlightenment and a key to self sustaining society.”

For more information on the Ethiopia Reads program, contact Ann Porter, Friends of Ethiopia Reads, in Grand Forks, (701) 330-0602.

Online: www.ethiopiareads.org/