Memories of Addis Ababa
George (you would remember him as Lieutenant Tomich) had been at the Mapping Mission for six months when he returned home to marry me. I was 19 and had never been out of the United States before. I had thought I would be traveling back with him but the Army had other ideas, and I had to fly to Africa by myself. By today’s standards, not a big deal, but I had never been in a plane before. The flight originated in Pittsburgh, I changed planes in New York, flew across the ocean to Athens for an 8 hour layover, a short stop in Aden, then the final leg of the journey to Addis. When I arrived, customs officials looked at my passport and said I would have to travel on to Kenya as I only had a visitor’s visa. George, on the other side of the counter at the airport, had other ideas and after a rather heated exchange between him and the official, I was allowed to stay for a “week”. That week turned into a year.
As we drove from the airport in the mapping mission Landrover, George decided to stop in the center of Addis to show me the city. Immediately, small raggedly dressed boys rushed the vehicle, begging for money in a mixture of Amharic and Pidgin English. Tired, disheveled, and feeling more than a little overwhelmed, I thought perhaps my parents were right when they said I had lost my senses marrying and going so far away. (From a distance of many years, I know now I would have felt the same way if my daughter had wanted to do the same thing at 19.)
We headed “home”, a small ranch house, surrounded by a walled gate and a “sabana” who opened the door with a flourish and a broad white smile in an otherwise dark and creased face. He was dressed in someone’s cast off military jacket, white pants and brandished a long pole with a spear on the end. Seeing him, I suddenly knew, like Dorothy, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I asked George why he was carrying a spear and he casually told me there were “bandits” that had attacked some foreigners and a guard was a “precaution”. I took a second look at this guy and I wasn’t sure he could scare anyone but me – and promptly asked if I might have a dog.
It seemed we had barely entered the house when another “rover” roared into the driveway and out stepped “JAR”, a.k.a. James A. Richardson, another lieutenant, shooting a hand gun in the air to announce he had arrived. Jim and his wife Pat were to become our closest friends during our time at the Mapping Mission.
I had barely been in the country for a week when George received a call in the middle of the night from the commanding officer. As it is now, late night calls rarely contain good news. George hurriedly informed me he had to leave and drive down “south” where there had been some problems with an accident in the field with a mapping crew. He handed me a hand gun, made me promise to lock the bedroom door, and rushed off. Welcome to Army life, I thought as I looked at the object in my hand. I’d likely shoot myself if I tried to use it, so I put it in the top dresser drawer, however, I did what my husband asked and locked the bedroom door that evening. In the morning, I tried to unlock the door and found out first hand Ethiopian workmanship could leave something to be desired. It wouldn’t open. I tried repeatedly, first jiggling it, then banging it in frustration, finally giving it a futile kick, and in desperation climbed out of the window. About this time, my guard raced around the side of the house, looked at the crazy American and motioned for me to go back inside and leave the house by more normal means. I, not knowing a word of Amharic, pantomimed back that I couldn’t! I don’t know if the soldier who came from the mission and opened the door for me reading this, but I’m still in your debt, and I didn’t lock that door again for the duration of our tour!
Another memorable time in our house occurred when George was again called to the field and I was alone. I heard a really loud commotion and rushed outside to see a literal sea of humanity approaching the house on the nearby road. They not only filled the road but spilled over onto the ditches and every available bit of open land. I knew that there had been problems and people had actually been hung in the square in Addis prior to my arrival so my first coherent thought was it must be a popular uprising and they were coming to kill off the foreigners. (This was reinforced by the fact I had worked in the Air Force Section for a short time and they had talked about evacuation contingencies.) I thought, where was that damn gun when I really needed it, looked at the approaching mob, and realized the futility of brandishing it. I looked for my German shepherd, who was supposed to be my protector, and found him cowering under the bed. I thought “boy, my mother was right” – as the crowd drew ever closer. I though I might as well stand my ground as I watched the crowd surge forward – closer and closer. I saw people with spears, shouting and raising them high in the air, but then I also saw a priest resplendent with robes, his hand grasping an ornate bible, in the forefront. What I had mistaken for a mob was a religious ceremony!
The next adventure occurred when George was home for a change. In the middle of the night, he shook me awake to say he heard something in the room. He turned on the light and it was worse than an intruder. Army ants were “marching” through the house – every inch of it! They looked like a carpet of black and it wasn’t a reassuring sight. George carried me (and the dog) into the back bedroom, which didn’t seem to be in the direct line of march, and then sprayed to no apparent effect till morning. By noon they were all gone, over the fence and to their preordained destination. I swept up dead carcasses all morning and had yet another tale to frighten my parents with. The ants never returned, but from then on if I woke in the night my first thought was to jump up and stand in the middle of the bed!
So many memories -- our first Christmas together with a scraggly tree and 3 pitiful ornaments; Christmas eve caroling by a bonfire on a warm summer-like evening; my first attempt at baking bread; a death defying trip to Asmara on an ancient C-47.
Images, scents, and voices (our young doctor Creighton, who died of leukemia when he returned to the US) – all crowd my mind -- the sight of rain approaching in the vast distances as you drove, the staggering beauty of the land from the Blue Nile to the mountains, to trees filled with scampering black and white monkeys high in their leafy canopies. The images to this day are so vivid -- the bustling market places near town where, if we were separated, George only had to look for a crowd – they were amazed at my light colored eyes and blonde hair and would gather around to stare at the strange looking foreigner and occasionally touch my hair or pat my hand. I never felt any fear – there was always genuine puzzlement on their part. When we traveled any distance from the mission we were always a source of interest – not always welcome when you were far from home and no bathrooms were available! Women with their back breaking loads of sticks, the donkeys that lined the dirt roads – the baskets of such intricate design, that it made you sad how little they earned for their efforts, lined the road near the mapping mission. The sight of wealthy women in their colorful white dresses, to men in from the country dressed literally in skins – I never lost the feeling that as you drove away from the center of town and you reached the end of the paved road, you somehow stepped back in time. Some of the scenes we witnessed probably were the same as they occurred a thousand years ago.
I first worked for the doctor, then the air force section, and finally the finance section at the Mission, all for brief periods of time. When the government decided to cut back on personnel, I took the Ethiopian equivalent of our Civil Service exam and gained a permanent position with the Ministry of Planning and Development. Strangely, I worked for an Indian economist -- one of the most interesting positions I ever held.
George left the military shortly after we returned to the United States (although he remained in the reserves for several years) and resumed his career as a Civil Engineer. For over 36 years he has designed bridges and highways in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and has worked for the Army Corp of Engineers, Michael Baker Engineering, Green Engineering, Kosal Engineering, Wilbur Smith Associates, HNTB and currently is the Director of Engineering at MS Engineering. He has taught Fracture Critical Courses on Bridges across the country for the federal government, and was named the Engineer of Year for the National Society of Bridge Engineers – Beaver Section - in 1992. Several of his bridges have won design awards in Pennsylvania and he continues to direct varied projects at MS consultants. I currently work for Penn State University in the Office of Academic Affairs as a staff assistant.
We have three children – David, who is an internal medicine physician and resides in Arizona; Douglas – a graphic designer who designs movie posters and works in the CNN building in downtown LA – and lives off Sunset Strip; and Melissa, the one who followed in her father’s footsteps and became a civil engineer. She lives in Harrisburg, PA and works for Gannett Fleming. She is engaged to another bridge designer (Do you see a trend here?) and will be married in August, 2004.
I always thought someday we would return to Addis, but now I know that will never be. Still I am content; I know reality could never live up to the Ethiopia I knew and came to love so intensely. Sometimes, though rarely now, I still dream of Addis. I can see George coming through the gates in his dusty Landrover with the mission seal on the side, and I think how happy I am to be here, in this time, in this place……
I had a home in Africa
GEORGE AND KAREN TOMICH