It shocks me now to think how Eritrea and Ethiopia have descended back into a bloody war over the last few years again or a struggling and distrustful peace, over a small piece of disputed territory, which some claim holds oil and rich pastures, and others say is little more than a pile of rubble and rocks.
My visit to Eritrea was in late 1997, when the country was still at peace. The mood amongst the people there was one of “we fought the Ethiopians to reclaim our nation, once we had achieved that, we had no quarrel with them”. And that was a pragmatic view – Eritrea’s 3 million inhabitants are dwarfed by the 60 million of Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia need be careful in any assault on Eritrea, since it depends heavily on access to its two main ports, Aseb in the SE and Massawa in the centre of the country, for many of its supplies. There seemed to be an easy peace, but deep down the same hatreds that had stirred the revolutionaries to bomb were beginning to seethe once more.
It is such a tragedy. Eritreans are among the most pleasant people in the world, and their cities, towns and villages, although poor, are incredibly civilised. The streets of Asmara, the capital, are friendly places. Visitors are treated with curiosity but no malice. There is little of the begging that inhabits so many cities of the world, and what there is, is low key. No intrusion, no rudeness, no forcefulness; it makes people more willing to support these people. For those with homes and jobs, although badly paid, there was a sense of great pride. They were rebuilding the streets of Asmara. They had remained remarkably intact after the civil war with Addis, mainly because the Ethiopians had kept their administration of this NE territory of their country here, and had left in a hurry when the Eritrean Freedom Fighters broke into the city.
There had been some damage done, but the Eritreans are carefully reconstructing the city – new electricity schemes, roads are gradually being tarred, pavements carefully reconstructed with gleaming white tiles, sewage systems installed, the parks and buildings gradually spruced up. None of the rush reconstruction that has occurred in so many other cities. Out by the airport, there were new developments, but again they were relatively well built.
Asmara is worth preserving. Although quite small, there are probably only about 350 000 inhabitants, it has a very grand central boulevard, palm fringed with wide pavements sporting Italian style cafes and restaurants. Dominating the scene is the modern campanile of the Catholic Cathedral. Most of the rest of the city is low lying; only the two other main religions pierce the sky; the mosque and the Coptic Cathedral.
My job in Asmara was to install and train some locust experts to use a new computerised database that makes maps of where locusts are seen during particular month. It also allowed them to show environmental data, things such as rainfall statistics and vegetation greenness alongside. From this they are meant to be able to determine whether the locusts are a threat to crops in Eritrea or further afield. They themselves are experts in finding locusts, assessing the damage they do and forecasting where they might go or how they may develop next.
I was there for a week on my own, staying in a strange hotel opposite the Ministry of Agriculture,
where I worked. It had a modern frontage, and my room was upstairs in a dark corner immediately below the huge fans of the air conditioning system, which meant that there was a loud hum and slight vibration nearly twenty four hours a day.
Additionally, the electricity in Asmara is one of the most variable I have ever come across. The lights would waver between almost complete darkness and incredible brightness in a few seconds, the voltage probably varying between 30 and 330 volts.
My week there was routine. I often ate in a little Italian restaurant, Castello’s, on a hill about a mile from the hotel, to get variation from the local food in the hotel. Injera is the staple base of Eritrea, a flat pancake made of tef. The tef grain ferments so the injera has a rather bitter taste; as if it is sprinkled with vinegar, which sticks on the teeth. Various dishes would be spooned out on a large circle of injera and the whole table would piece of bits of the injera to scoop up the meal, of course using only the right hand. The westernised version of injera using a wheat base was better for my taste than the tef but I still found the spicy dishes not to my taste. The only one I warmed to was Zil-zil, a dryish sort of stew. The hotel restaurant was a curious building; a traditional style hut squashed into the narrow courtyard surrounded by the drab concrete slabs of the hotel proper. It was neatly decorated with Eritrean crafts, thick carpets on the floor and small low tables. In essence a nice atmosphere but so few people ever visited made it feel more like a monastery than a restaurant. Castello’s by comparison was very pleasant, a wide gravel area surrounded by trellises covered in leafy climbers. It was high above the surrounding suburbs, and a large army camp to the east. The air in Asmara is quite rarefied, the city being 7000 ft above sea level. The clouds look closer than usual, because they are. Large fluffy cumulus clouds would drift across only a few hundred feet above you.
And to the east storm clouds would drift over the hill and envelop the woods on the city’s edge. You realise that in fact you were looking half way up the cloud, because beyond those hills the land dropped steeply away to the coast, down 7000 ft in barely 40 miles. The brewing storms that abutted the escarpment evaporated as soon as they reached the plateau of Asmara.