A tale of two lives in Eritrea/Ethiopia
From Kagnew Post as a military dependent to Dembi Dollo as a PCV
by Ginger (Mary) Kayton Hajoglou (Dembi Dollo 72–74)
How could Africa be so cold? That was my first impression upon landing in Asmara, Eritrea, in November of 1962. I was 12. My family and I were accompanying my father to a military base for the next three years. For three months we lived in the Hamasien Hotel waiting for our household goods — including a red Chevrolet.
My father, who was a nonconformist when it came to living on Kagnew Post, chose to rent us a house “on the economy” in the Casa Bunda area in town. We had Tigrinian neighbors on one side and Greek neighbors up the hill. We soon had friendly relationships with both. I attended a DOD school on post. We all loved living in Africa and made many trips to Massawa, Karen, and other local spots. I used to walk alone over a mile to school through the poorest of poor neighborhoods and I always felt safe. I don’t think my parents knew I walked.
There were two major events that happened while we were there. First, Eritrea became part of Ethiopia. My father was put on alert to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice if there was violence. However, it was all very peaceful. The second was the assassination of President Kennedy. We joined the world in grieving.
Two other events stand out in my mind as well. The very first Peace Corps Volunteers came to visit our school to talk about their experiences and the work they were doing. I don’t remember any names, but perhaps they remember us. Second, one year the Army spared no expense in importing fireworks for a Fourth of July display for the military families. However, no one bothered to tell the town what was going to happen! The morning after the grand show, we discovered many Eritrean families had fled the town thinking the post was under attack. I could go on and on with memories, but to sum it up, I cherish my time in Asmara with all the wonders it had to offer.
Let’s fast forward to 1972. Here I am in Ethiopia again, but now as a Peace Corps Volunteer, sworn in and everything. There were 120 of us in my training group, but half didn’t make it to a second year. I trained in Shashamanie with one group, and the others, further south. Our trainers were wonderful and thanks to them my Amharic was passable. It was quite the experience since we were rewarded for not going to Addis on our days off; we were encouraged to live locally and visit local areas of interest. I don’t think the Peace Corps was quite ready for us though as I received a first aid kit with some band aids and a thermometer!
I lived in Dembi Dollo, Wollega, far to the West of Addis. The Amharic I worked so hard to learn was useful in town, but most people spoke Galligna so I learned the essentials of a third language. I flew in and out of Addis and Dembi since there were rocky roads in the dry season and no roads in the rainy season. It was a place of plenty, especially compared with the east of the country that was suffering from drought. Because of my status as a “Peace Corpse,” I had wonderful interactions with the town leaders including an Araja Governor. There was a large Italian and Greek community with which I became very close, as well as my fellow teachers. I lived through a strike by students that resulted in gun fire and injuries. There was no school for three months, though the teachers showed up everyday and signed in. Once it calmed down, life went on as usual.
My two years ended in a boom. Haile Selassie’s government was overturned; and I was in Addis the day he was transported to jail. Nothing was the same after that.
Peace Corps promised “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and it delivered.