Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memories of barriers and protection in Eritrea

From 1962 to 1964 (when I was 8 to 10 years old) my family lived in Eritrea. My father was in the U.S. Army, and he was posted to Kagnew Station in Asmara. Recent events have caused me to reflect on the experience of living there, and in retrospect I see that it was a very insulated setting in which I was kept safe from genuine dangers, but also from experiencing the place more closely.

Big events were occurring at the time. Eritrea had been an Italian colony; after World War II it was a British protectorate; in 1952 the UN approved federating Eritrea with Ethiopia. In 1961 Ethiopia dissolved the federation and the following year declared it a province of Ethiopia. In 1961 the Eritrean War for Independence began, and would take thirty years to reach its conclusion.

During the time my family was there we knew the name of Eritrea, but we spoke of ourselves as living in Ethiopia.

We pronounced "Kagnew Station" with a hard G. I remember once being told that the local people pronounced it differently, but I don't recall ever hearing the correct pronunciation. And I don't recall ever asking for it. The "GN" combination is likely a transliteration under Italian influence as in lasagna. So we should have been pronouncing "Kagnew" something like "con-you". In retrospect I am dismayed to realize that I was one of a large number of American guests in a foreign country who essentially gave our own name to a place in preference to the name used by the locals. It was not a very good example of how to receive hospitality.

When we first arrived in Asmara, there was not housing available for us on the base. We lived in a small house in the city. The house was surrounded by a wall designed to discourage anyone from trying to climb over it; pieces of broken glass were embedded in the cement on the top of the wall. There was a metal gate in the wall, and each morning we could see that many tiny slips of paper had been stuffed into the gate through the night by the watchman who patrolled our neighborhood.

The house itself had a central area open to the sky, and the rooms in the house opened on that tiny courtyard. The ground was covered with white pebbles. The electrical fixtures were like nothing I had seen before. We had to use a transformer to convert the local power for use with any appliances we had brought with us.

Eventually we were able to move onto the base. (Here is a satellite picture of where we were.) The perimeter wall was across the road in front of our quarters. The wall had barbed wire on top and was tall enough to deter someone from trying to climb it. Because of the torrential downpours we would get during the rainy season there were occasional openings at the base of the wall for drainage; these openings had a metal gratework in place to make sure only water passed through.

Life on the base was very much like the life we had back in the States. There was a movie theater on the base. The base had its own radio station, and a TV station. Our kitchen radio would usually be playing American programming while our family had breakfast. Back in the States in the early 60's my experience with TV had been that we could get one channel well, and perhaps could watch a couple other channels with poor reception; at Kagnew we could get one channel well, and if there was another TV station in Asmara it was not in English.

The food we ate was very similar to what we had been used to back in the states. My mother had to adjust cooking times in any recipes for high altitude cooking; after all, we were living 7,000 feet above sea level.

Once, early in our time in Eritrea, my father took me along when he went to check out the local butcher shops. We found shops where the raw meat for sale was hanging unrefrigerated in store windows. For the whole time we lived in Eritrea, my father insisted that meat had to be fully cooked until no part of it was still pink. If we discovered meat was undercooked in the middle of a meal, the meat went back to the stove.

Our Sunday dinner routine included all of us taking a quinine pill for malaria prevention. I remember the pill as the biggest one I ever had to take. It had a sugar coating that did not last long, and the inside was extremely bitter, so there was a strong incentive to swallow the pill as fast as I could get up the courage.

I think we had zigni, a spicy stew, a few times while we lived in Eritrea, but I believe I only ate injera bread once.

We took occasional trips to the R&R Center at Keren. It was a very relaxing setting. I remember there was shuffleboard on the pavement at the R&R Center. In the evenings we would sit under the open sky and watch movies, like "That Lady in Ermine" (or perhaps I am remembering this one), projected on a portable screen. Often we would even have our meals served outside. One time I came across a whole bay leaf in the dish that was set before me, and my parents had a hard time convincing me that it had not fallen into my food from the trees.

Whenever we were at Keren, I would usually get a pet chameleon from one of the Eritrean boys outside the R&R Center. The transaction always seemed to take place through metal grillwork of the gate to the center. We were very protected, even when bartering.

While we were in Eritrea we did know that there was unrest outside the base. If our family had to travel off the base we always made a point of being home and in a secure place before nightfall. We were told that the problem was "shiftas", a word meaning "bandit", but I use the term not knowing precisely what it meant to the Eritreans. (I suspect it may have been a pejorative term used to dismiss the developing struggle for Eritrean independence.) There were stories of families who would stop their cars before hitting obstacles placed in the road, and that the shiftas then would relieve them of their valuables. I did not hear stories of people actually being hurt by the shiftas, and never encountered any shiftas myself.

Walls, metal gates, parents who kept me safe, an American community outside the States -- these made it possible for me to live for more than two years far from home, seeing some of the differences in the ways people lived without ever being fully immersed in the other culture.

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Anonymous said...

thx 4 sharing.

Anonymous said...

Stewart, You have done very well to remember so much against all the barriers that were stacked to prevent you from discovering Eritrea in your own way. I think your parents had your best interests at heart; full marks to that. It is however sad that the Western media portrayed (as it does today) Ethiopian propaganda which is designed to give a negative image of Eritrea. Eritrea is as safe as houses and the Eritreans are the most peace loving people. If you scour the internet, I am sure you will not find a significant number of incidents where serious crime have been committed in the country. Opportunites for learning, friendship, and collaboration have been and continue to be missed to this day through misinformation (mostly for political reasons).

Incidentally, have you ever read the history of Kagnew Station? If not, do try and read "I didn't do it for you" by Michela Wrong.


Stewart said...

I have not yet read Michela Wrong's book, but I have ordered a copy through my local bookstore, and have read a couple of online reviews/critiques of it.

It is obvious to me that there is Ethiopian propaganda against Eritrea. I have no reason to disagree with the notion that Eritreans are as peaceloving as people of other nations.

People have different ideas of what constitutes "serious crime". It seems to me that it is far more dangerous for someone to be a political dissident in either Eritrea or Ethiopia, than in the United States. Political opponents of the leadership of either the Eritrean or Ethiopian governments seem to have a way of disappearing or of being arrested on exaggerated charges. The violations of human rights in that region do concern me.

I am looking forward to reading Wrong's book and learning more about what has been happening in Eritrea.

Anonymous said...

Dear Steward
Been there done that.Thanks for a tale very simular to my time there. We lived off base too,but
we played with the local kids.
Yes you could avoid all contact
or you become very close. Thanks for the memory of Keren.I forgot about the movies and lizards