By Andrew Cowie,
Last week, Wikileaks revealed what US Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen really thinks about Eritrea. You’re forgiven if you missed it – amidst the chatter and gossip about Iran, China and our own political class the Eritreans never really stood a chance. But, for me, it was fascinating. You see I lived in Eritrea for nearly three years, from September 2007 until February 2010. His vision was of a dystopian hellhole – “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” My experiences of the country were a little more nuanced and, I think, to be fair to Eritreans we should try to understand the reality of their lives.
I was the Head Teacher of a privately owned school in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. There were over one hundred and fifty children at the school. Only three of them were non-Eritrean. We taught the English national curriculum, alongside the Eritrean National Curriculum. We used English as our primary teaching language. The Eritrean Ministry of Education were happy with the fact that there was an independent school, outside of the State system, providing those parents who could afford it with a choice. These were privileged children, no question, but they were allowed – indeed encouraged – to be so. Within the state education system there was also choice: One tier of education that was absolutely free and another that cost a small, termly fee. The primary difference was class size. There were remarkably few children who did not go to school.
I lived in two houses in Asmara. The first was in the centre of town, handy for the shops and the market where I could buy everything I needed to eat. Fresh and wholesome food but, sadly, no junk. Handy, too, for the many vibrant bars, restaurants and cafes where I could buy the best cappuccino, a glass of tea and cake galore. If I went out at six pm, when in Eritrea it falls rapidly dark, I stood the chance of bumping into many of my Eritrean friends and colleagues. We would go somewhere and sit and chat. About absolutely anything and everything. Eritreans love to gossip. Secrecy is not in their nature. During the course of an evening strolling I might visit three of four different Cafes. All of them busy, clean and bright. For the time that I was there the power cuts about which the Ambassador complains were not very common – and seldom longer than two hours. For someone who had sat through the gloom of England’s depression in the mid 1970’s, hardly a hardship. On Friday and sometimes Saturday nights I would eat my evening meal in one of the many restaurants in Asmara. I could choose between Italian food, Indian or Chinese, or else traditional Eritrean cuisine. The best Pasta I have eaten has been in Asmara. Eritrean food is delicious. A range of sauces, pulses and meats. There is a particularly fine dish which resembles haggis – of which, thanks to my Father, I am extremely fond. Asmara is, after all, a highland city, with a rich highland tradition of song, dance, food and, of course, drink. There are two local alcoholic beverages. One made from grain, the other from honey. Both vary in taste and quality depending upon the refining process. Just a bit like whiskies and meads. And if they are not to your liking, there is a local wine which is very drinkable and a beer that would stand up well against any of the popular European brews. Eritrea made a conscious decision not to trash its Italian heritage. Which brings us to the art deco architecture of the City itself.
Some buildings are in need of repair. A task, with the assistance of the European Commision, that is being ably undertaken by the Eritrean Government. But most are in good condition and serve as a glorious reminder of just how beautiful Art Deco can be. Sadly the numerous fountains no longer flow with water much needed elsewhere – keeping the admirable sanitation system operating for example. But the gardens are kept clean and tidy, where flowers of one kind or another are always in bloom. And after dinner, a walk back home. Through well-lit and extremely safe streets. One of the things every Eritrean will tell you is that Eritrea is a relatively crime free society. It’s strangely true.
My second house was a little out from the centre of Asmara. Two of my nearby neighbours worked at the American Embassy. Neither of them had armed guards protecting their houses. Unlike the Embassy itself ,which has an embarrassment of militia and weaponry surrounding it. The only Embassy, incidentally, which does. Even the Israeli Embassy is surprisingly low key. I once met the Israeli Ambassador at the wedding of the sister of one of my teachers. He was there with his wife and daughter. There wasn’t a hint of a protective gun anywhere. The British Embassy has guarding it the most beautiful Eritrean, who disarms you with her smile.
I used to catch sight of my two American neighbours on odd occasions. Sometimes when they were walking or else cycling to work. Bicycles are very popular in Asmara. And yes, you can leave them unlocked outside a bar, and yes, they will still be there when you are ready to go home. Sometimes when the younger of the two had a party. I could see over to his roof from mine. I was always just a bit disappointed that I was never invited. I used to hear about them from some of my teachers who often were. From the sound of them, and the stolen glimpse of them, they were pretty relaxed. His work was something to do with intelligence. My teachers told me. They used to joke about him being a spy. They found the whole idea hilarious. There is absolutely nothing to spy on, they said. Yes, there are people in prison, yes there are people trying to leave, but everybody knows that.
Some of my teachers wanted to leave. But only for a while. Only to make some money and then go back to Eritrea. Some of them didn’t want to leave at all. At one stage, four of my teachers were granted exit visas. Two of them took them up. Two didn’t bother. ‘Why should we go some place else’, they said, ‘we like it here’. So did a lot of the parents who brought their children back from the West to attend our school. ‘They need to grow up in Eritrea’, they said. ‘It is too dangerous, too harmful in the West’. They meant, mostly, the USA and parts of Europe.
I seldom saw much of other people from the West. Didn’t go to the right parties. But there were always a fair few in Massawa. This is an end of the Red Sea to which hardly anyone goes. Which happens to make it an extraordinary safe haven for all manner of wild life, only occasionally disturbed by the twang of an alien accent. I used to go there on the bus. Which ran regularly, there never being a shortage of fuel for public services. The road was treacherously steep but well maintained. In fact there are two roads to Massawa. The first built by the Italians. The second by Eritreans. To prove, perhaps, that they could. That’s the trouble with being a brash young Nation State. Always feeling the need to show off. Shock the grown ups. We need to talk about Eritrea. That kind of thing.
I found, with my own brash children, talking to and with was always a much better option than talking about. The same with Eritrea.