I was evacuated from Peace Corps Ethiopia 🇪🇹 last March, due to the worldwide COVID crisis. The picture above was taken on the drive from Addis Ababa, to my 12 week PST (Pre Service Training) site, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, (one of the ten ethnically based regional states of Ethiopia). Today, news reports of Ethiopians fleeing the current political crisis, in another region, have emerged. There are no words.
Our Peace Corps cohort was a small one, only 27 volunteers, serving in schools across Ethiopia. Five of our group were selected to serve in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia. This group of trainees moved North, after a few weeks of living with host families, in Southern Nations. It made more sense for them to have language and culture training in the region where they would eventually serve. They flew to Tigray, as it was too far North to drive. Once there, they heard tales about discontent, in the region. It was all part of learning about their new home. When they told us what they were hearing, we thought little of it. We were all dealing and adjusting to our new normal.
My own days in PST were hard. This was my third time, serving in the Peace Corps. Shortly after moving in with my host family, I became ill. For weeks, I could not keep any food down. Peace Corps suggested that the family feed me small amounts of boiled foods. The youngest daughter, around twelve, would boil a carrot. That would be my lunch. Later, she’d boil a potato. That would be my dinner. After a month or so, my malaria pills were changed. I’d been having a negative reaction to my weekly malaria meds. I was given a different pill to take daily. By PST’s end, I had dropped forty pounds, in twelve weeks, and swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer.
I was so happy to leave post service training. My permanent site was in Kotu, north of Addis Ababa, on the border between two regions, Amhara and Oromia. My housing compound was shared with medical staff from the local clinic. My school had a supportive principal and teaching counterpart. I taught two sections of ninth grade English, ran the gender club, and was able to acquire three book donations, during my first semester. I had also figured out how to travel to and from my Hub Town, where I could bank, get packages from the Post Office, and spend the night, at a hotel, with a hot shower and western toilet. Then, spring semester, the protesting began.
Would there be a peaceful election? Would there even be an election? Would Peace Corps consolidate us, before the election? Would we be sent home? On one of my shopping trips to Debrre Birhan, (my Hub Town) the road between Addis Ababa and Debrre Birhan was closed. The 45 minute trip from Kotu took two hours. The traffic in the opposite direction, to Addis Ababa, was completely shutdown. People were out of their cars and buses, sitting on the side of the road. The van I was in made it to the edge town and stopped. I started walking. The bank was closed. The post office was closed. There were road blocks and armed police, every few blocks. I phoned my teaching counterpart and he quickly found me, in the growing crowd. I spent the night with his family and went back to site the following day. The situation didn’t seem troubling. Although, the school principal announced that from now on, no one could travel from Kotu without asking for his permission first.
None of us saw COVID coming. We were focused on local protests and the upcoming election that was scheduled for the end of the spring term. I went on holiday to Zanzibar, during the short February school break. Our first full year of service was just months away. We only needed to get through a few more weeks of teaching and final exams. We were looking forward to our mid service conference and coming together, once again. We made travel plans. Four of us booked a flight to Istanbul, for the spring break, in April. Then, it was March. The COVID-19 pandemic was confirmed to have reached Ethiopia on March 13, 2020. On March 21, my cohort (and Peace Corps worldwide) evacuated. Peace Corps was shutdown. I arrived in Honolulu, shortly before midnight, the following day.
Once back, I thought little about the protesting I had seen, in the Amhara region or the stories I had heard about Tigray. I was simply dealing with being an evacuated volunteer. We arrived home to a two week self quarantine for all returning volunteers. Then, there were post service medical and dental exams, to be done. We had questions (and mixed messages) about qualifying for unemployment. I didn’t. I had done back to back service, with Peace Corps, Armenia in 2017 and then Ethiopia in 2019. I hadn’t made a salary, in three years. Now, America was shutdown. I needed to file (early) for social security or find another job. After three months, under a Stay at Hone order, in Hawaii, I signed up with Americorps and moved to Alaska.
For eight months, there was hardly enough time to process my nine months in Ethiopia. I thought little about my service there. Then, fighting began, in Tigray. Now, I can think of little else. Today’s New York Times headline reads, “They Once Ruled Ethiopia. Now They Are Fighting Its Government.” The feature story, by Declan Walsh and Simon Marks begins, “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s two-year feud with the rebellious ruling party of the Tigray region has exploded into a war, with bombings, massacres and ethnic divisions, that threatens to upend the entire Horn of Africa.” I guess our friends serving in Tigray weren’t wrong. We were all seeing a shift, in different regions, at different times.
Next month, I will have been out of Ethiopia for the same amount of time that I served in Ethiopia. Today, it seems like an entirely different country, but it’s not. This is the world we live in. This is how fast our lives can change. —GGT