Many of the 20,000 people from Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the Bay Area call Oakland home. Oakland North is taking a look at the culture and history of the Ethiopian or Eritrean communities in Oakland with “East Africans in Oakland” a series of profiles on everyday people living in the city.
If it wasn’t for a freak accident that gave him a bad knee, Woldezion Mesghinna probably would still be a farmer in Eritrea. He would have never gone to school, he said, or learned engineering, moved to the United States, helped design one of the world’s largest pipeline systems, become a leading expert on water rights or testified before the Supreme Court.
“So many things happened after I fell down,” he said.
Mesghinna, 65, is the founder and president of Natural Resources Consulting Engineers, a water resource and management firm. The company’s office is right next door to the Eritrean restaurant Mesghinna owns, Café Dejena, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and 40th Street in Oakland. His expertise has him testifying as an expert witness at water rights trials all over the country—Mesghinna said he’s flown more than 2 million miles in the last 20 years on Delta alone. But this life almost didn’t happen.
Mesghinna was born in 1946 in a small village outside the capitol of Eritrea, Asmara. His parents owned a farm where they grew barley, wheat and corn, and also had a ranch with cattle, goats and sheep. Mesghinna spent his early years tending the livestock and helping out with his six brothers and sisters.
But then at 6 years old came the accident. Mesghinna was running from his house to another when he slipped and fell, crashing on his right knee. Though the kneecap was broken and hurt badly, he hid the injury from his parents because he was too scared to visit the doctor.
Over the following months, the knee got worse. A local doctor tried to fix it, to no avail. Finally, his parents took him to the hospital in Asmara. Operations followed. One doctor wanted to amputate his leg, but was talked out of it by Mesghinna’s father. The result is a knee that now looks like the kneecap was replaced by a sock, lumpy and misshapen, with incision scars dotting the sides.
The injury took Mesghinna off the farm—though he could still walk fine—and put him in the classroom. “My parents thought I’d be frustrated living [on the farm] among people that are very fit and strong,” Mesghinna said. “So my aunt in Asmara volunteered to have me stay with her. That’s how I went to school.”
Mesghinna said he loved living with his aunt and going to school. During the summers, he would return home to work on the farm. He was the only kid from the village at that time who was going to school. “There just was no opportunity,” for the other village children, Mesghinna said. Six years after he started going to school, the village banded resources together, built a school and hired a teacher. “I tried to set a good example,” he said.
Though he loved going to school, and hanging out with the friends he made there, Mesghinna said he had no idea at the time how much learning could impact his life. “What I would get out it did not really come to me, what I would become in the future,” he said. “I did not really understand it very well. At the time, I was going to school for the sake of it: My parents want me to go to school, so I have to go to school.”
While he may not have thought much of it at the time, Mesghinna was excelling in the classroom. He skipped grades twice—second and fifth—and graduated from high school at a technical boarding school a year early after passing a university entrance exam. He then moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to study building engineering at the Ethio-Swedish Building College.
Mesghinna also graduated college early, finishing in three years, and began working for the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA), designing and building schools and medical clinics around the country.
After two years, in 1969, Mesghinna said he was “borrowed” from SIDA to go work for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Sudanese Civil War had sent 2 million refugees from South Sudan to Ethiopia, and Mesghinna was hired to design and build schools, clinics and hospitals in the Gambella region on the Ethiopian side of the border. At 22 years old, he was managing major construction projects for millions of people, with experienced engineers working under him. “When you are young, you don’t feel that pressure,” Mesghinna said. “But in hindsight, I always say, ‘How did I do it?’”
While working for the UNHCR, Mesghinna was told that he was being offered a scholarship to study civil engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Mesghinna said he wanted to expand his engineering knowledge and learn about hydrology, transportation, technical, environmental and structural engineering as well.
He arrived in the U.S. in 1970 and immediately regretted it. “It was too cold, too much snow,” Mesghinna said. “I should have gone to Southern California, or Stanford, you know?
He became friends with the three other Eritrean students on campus. He was the only undergrad in the group, and politically involved in the independence movement back home. At that time, Eritrea was under Ethiopian control, and the ongoing war was preventing Mesghinna from returning to visit his family.
Mesghinna toughed it out in upstate New York, and received a B.S. in civil engineering in 1972 and a master’s in hydraulic engineering in 1973. He then started working for a large civil engineering firm, Woodward-Clyde Consultants, just outside of New York City. It was while working for Woodward-Clyde that Mesghinna visited Oakland for the first time, since the firm had an office there as well.
But it would still be a few years before he would move to the East Bay. Mesghinna was working on projects all around the country for Woodward-Clyde when he was asked to work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which pumped oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. “It was a huge undertaking, a huge project,” Mesghinna said. “And it led me to California for the first time.”
For every eight weeks of work on the pipeline project, Mesghinna got two weeks off, and he decided to spend one of those vacations in Oakland. He had heard the weather was similar to that in Eritrea, and knew some Eritreans who lived in the area, so he came to visit for the first time in 1975. “I loved it but only stayed for two weeks and went back to Alaska,” he said.
Soon after, Mesghinna quit Woodward-Clyde to go back to school. He said he wanted to study hydraulic engineering because he thought, “One day I can help my country to build infrastructure related to water resource development.”
“In Eritrea, you need to build storage facilities and dams to retain the flow of water because you don’t have rivers flowing for 12 months of the year,” he said. “So during the rainy season, you need to retain it and use it during the entire year.”
In 1976 Mesghinna left Woodward-Clyde to study for PhD in irrigation and water resources at Utah State University. He wanted to expand his knowledge past the engineering aspect of water resources, and become an expert on how best to use the water. “I knew how to design and construct dams, but I didn’t know how to grow crops,” he said.
After graduating from Utah State, Mesghinna got a job with Stetson Engineers in San Francisco and moved to Oakland. “I got a job, plus there are a lot of Eritreans here,” he said of his decision to move to Oakland. “I felt at home, as if I knew the area.”
Though he had other offers, including with firms that would take him back to Africa, Mesghinna accepted the job with Stetson because a large portion of the work the firm was doing was with water rights concerning Native American tribes and building water resources on tribal land. Mesghinna had studied Native American history and recognized many parallels with his own people’s struggle at the time. “Eritrea was at that time fighting for its independence, and I felt that Indian tribes were more or less nations within a nation,” he said. “And I wanted to help.”
Mesghinna began working on tribal land throughout the country, helping Native Americans with water resources and rights. He calls that time “the center of my life.”
“If you go to Indian country, chances are that a lot of people know about me,” Mesghinna said, starting to laugh. “If that haven’t seen me, they know about me.”
The first tribe he worked with was the Shoshone tribe on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The tribe, with support from the federal government, was battling the state over irrigation of the Missouri River. Mesghinna had to prove in court that the tribe not only needed the water and was using it properly, with a system of dams and canals, but that the project was feasible and not too costly. The state went to court to prove the project wasn’t feasible, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Mesghinna was selected as the main expert witness. In what is known as the Big Horn River case, the Supreme Court ruled in the tribe’s favor, awarding 500,000 acres of reserved water rights to the tribe.
The result changed Mesghinna’s life. “I don’t know how to say this [without bragging], but I became a ‘known’ person in this country,” he said.
Mesghinna opened his own firm, Natural Resources Consulting Engineers, in 1989, and has since worked with more than 70 Native American tribes in the country on water rights. He opened up offices in Fort Collins, Colorado and Eritrea as well. His company has done work in Eritrea, working with the government to develop water resource policies. They also designed a major municipal water dam north of Asmara. Mesghinna has spent the past two decades travelling around the world working and talking about water resources.
Mesghinna said he derives the most joy from his work when he’s helping his native country. He said it’s also his “obligation” since he was educated for free when he was growing up. He wants to use his expertise knowledge to help rural farmers, like his family, use scientific methods to grow crops.
“That’s what gives me the most happiness,” he said.