Eritrea - an African success story if the West will encourage it.
Whilst I admit it may not be the first country to spring to mind when you
are wondering where to go on holiday, if you like warm (but not too hot)
weather, friendly self reliant people, non corrupt government, a lively
pavement café scene, pastries cakes and coffee to die for, cheap prices,
striking art deco architecture, dramatic mountain scenery, fascinating and
inspiring history, pleasant beaches and islands and big game fishing and
diving and snorkelling that is amongst the best in the world, consider
Where? Isn't that the country in Africa that fought Ethiopia? And that's
probably all you know. Its not much more than I knew when we decided to go
there. On the west side of the Red Sea, Egypt is at the top, then going
south, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and then Somalia at the southern end of the
Red Sea. Ethiopia lies inland west of Eritrea.
Eritrea is about the size of England, with a population of about 7 million,
made of 9 distinct racial groups, about half are Christian, half Muslim, but
all contributed to the effort to regain independence. Eritrea was a very
early Christian state, this being the state religion of the powerful
Aksumite rulers in 400 AD, but was then diluted by Islam in 700's AD. In
1500 when the Ottoman Turks invaded and stayed for 300 years. Then the
Egyptians, and when they were defeated by Ethiopian armies in 1875, an Italian shipping company bought some land, then
in 1882 the Italian Government took over and for the next 60 years Eritrea was a prosperous and
pleasant Italian colony.
Eritrea was the jewel in the Italian crown, and Italian businesses set up
high status villas, offices and industries in striking art deco form - Fiat,
Alfa Romeo etc, and Massawa on the Red Sea became the largest port in East
Africa. However the Italians often seized land, and under Mussolini
established a form of Apartheid, and resentment amongst the Eritreans
simmered. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia, and at the start of WW2 declared
war against Britain. But Italian armies were swiftly defeated and in 1941
British armies entered Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, 2300 metres high in
the range of hills parallel to the Red Sea that are the start of the
Ethiopian high plateau.
The British ruled Eritrea for 10 years, but after the war moved to grant
Eritrea independence, whilst at the
same time in a shameful episode taking away much of its factories and
infrastructure. . However the USA was negotiating with Emperor Haile
Selassie to get a communications base in Ethiopia, and was concerned that an
independent Eritrea would be vulnerable to possible communist influence. The
USA argued that 'although the wishes of Eritreans should be considered, it
is of more importance to prevent the spread of communism'. Accordingly after
much wrangling, UN Resolution 390 A was passed and incredibly and against
the wishes of its people, Eritrea disappeared from the map and became the
14th province of Ethiopia.
Haile Selassi is remembered for his moving address to the League of Nations
when Italy crushed Ethiopia in 1935, but once restored to power he cracked
down swiftly to extinguish Eritrean symbols, and moved
more factories etc to Addis Ababa. Eritrea sunk deeper into economic
stagnation, which at least stimulated protests. Repeated appeals to the UN
did nothing, so in 1961 armed resistance started. Initially splintered, the
ElA and EPLF resistance slowly made ground even against American tanks.
However in an embarrassing come-uppance for
US policy, Ethiopia itself went communist, In 1974 Haile Selassie was
overthrown by a broad based opposition frustrated at economic decline, and
in 1978 the USSR armed the Ethiopians to overthrow the Eritrean resistance.
8 major offences backed by Russian made tanks and Israeli counter insurgent
specialists were all defeated 1978-1986 by the guerrillas whose keyword was
self-reliance (eg most of their guns and ammunition had to be captured from
the enemy). Then in a key strategic shift, sensing the low morale of the
Ethiopian troops, the Eritrean forces abandoned their guerrilla tactics and
attacked a key ammunition and command base at Afabet and in one day captured
or killed 18000 Ethiopian troops. The Eritreans went on to drive the
Ethiopians back to the port of Massawa where they were wiped out. The
communist ruler of Ethiopia, Mengistu was deposed and the Eritrean army of
some 40,000 walked into the capital Asmara in 1991 without firing a shot.
A referendum produced a 99.8% vote in favour of independence and Eritrea was
reborn with the leader of the guerrilla EPLF Isaias Aferwerfi head of state.
Eritrea showed the same self reliance in repairing its damaged
infrastructure, and agricultural terraces, drafting a constitution, caring
for its women children and veterans, reinstating health care and education,
(secondary schooling is in English) and fighting AIDS.
No country can be born without there being territorial disputes. A dispute
with Yemen over the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea was resolved when an
international jury ruled against Eritrea and it handed them back to Yemen.
But a small piece of land on the border with Ethiopia provoked an argument
likened to two bald men arguing over a comb, and a major war in 1998, which
wrecked both economies.
Eventually after vast bloodshed both sides agreed to binding arbitration,
and the international court ruled in 2005, marginally in favour of Eritrea.
However the war has had long lasting effects both on Eritrea's international
status, tourist trade and national psyche. Tourism is minimal, the
government has become more authoritarian, and the people tired of waiting
for the benefits of peace and independence, more frustrated. But its still a
marvellous place to visit.
To give you an idea of the fishing, as we were preparing to enter the port
of Massawa, I put out 2 lines when we were about 6 miles offshore. Within 3
minutes we had a marlin on one line, and a barracuda on the other. We
released the barracuda, the marlin released himself with 5 huge leaps,
dancing on the water, and we decided we didn't want fish that much anyway
and put away the lines.
Massawa is about 300 miles up the Red Sea and is a natural harbour, deep and
protected. The Ethiopians had bombed Massawa during the war to such an
extent that 90% of the buildings were damaged, and as you enter, you see the
ravaged remains of the Governor's Mansion, and the skeleton of Haile
Selassie's Massawa residence. The wrecks of 6 ships have been moved to one
side, and another is still stranded on the reef outside. Yachts anchor is a
lovely sheltered bay deep inside the harbour, and dinghy ˝ mile to the port
The port buildings date back to Italian times, and need paint, but the
efficient and did not ask for bribes (although we had to pay $1 towards the
cost of our file!). Ben who had come to try to get work on a promised
container ship showed us round the town, remains of elegant Italian
balconies fronting quite run down accommodation and myriad 'bars' which
catered to the seamen. Quat is illegal, beers are 10 Nakfa (30 pence) but
most people are too poor for even this and drank chilled water, still or
The highlight of many people's day is the coffee ceremony, and Mary invited
us into her house to show us. The beans are first roasted in a small pan on
a charcoal fire, then after we had smelt the aroma, ground, then put into an
earthenware flask balanced on the stove. More water is gradually added, and
the contents poured out and in to stir, until finally it is left for 10
minutes to cool and mature on a tray of flowers, then served with a
teaspoonful of sugar in tiny Turkish cups. Mary's husband is in the military
serving at the border, so his wages of N400 ($25/month) only just pay for
the rent on their one room. Mary used to be a prostitute serving the
American seamen, so she spoke reasonable English, but when the American
ships stopped coming, the Eritrean authorities rounded up many of the
prostitutes and sent them to boot camp in the interior.
Ethiopia which used to import most of its goods through Massawa now brings
them in via Djibouti, and for some reason, the USA which used to send 1 or 2
ships/week to Eritrea, has dropped its aid, (perhaps as a quid pro quo for
Ethiopia doing its work trying to expel the Islamic courts from Somalia, or
because 3 USAID officials were expelled for mis-spending more than 10% of
their aid on 'administration' (for which read Mansions and limousines).
China is now filling the vacuum, and the USA seems to be losing the
friendship of what would seem to be a natural and powerful ally and rare
symbol of the triumph of honesty, hard work and discipline in Africa.
We had to get permission to travel to Asmara, which the local Head of
Security reluctantly signed. Buses only leave when their capacity 24 seats
have been sold (and this has been checked by an official). A lady
entrepreneur was carrying crates of soap powder and fish to sell, and
whenever the bus went round one of the many bends, melting ice from the fish
poured into the window, and round one particularly tight bend, a crate of
soap powder came off the roof and everyone had to collect up the boxes
scattered in the road. We encountered 4 police or army check points, at each
of which we had to show our travel permission which were taken away to be
recorded, then returned, Eritreans had to show their ID's. The road winds
slowly up, in company with the single track railway which is being repaired,
the coastal plain green only in the wadis slowly giving way to scrub and
terraces being readied for the small rains which come in July. The views are
breathtaking, the whole journey some 100 kms taking 4 hours.
The Africa Pension is in a restored Italian villa, but had only 2 rooms
left to share one bathroom with 7 other bedrooms, so we went to the Asmara
Central where the best suite cost $26/night. Whilst Massawa remains ravaged
by war, Asmara was liberated peacefully, and its lively pavement cafes
vibrate with life, and most of Asmara promenades along the main street,
enjoying life. We had dinner at an Italianate restaurant, and breakfast at a
pavement café which could have been lifted from Rome (and quite probably was
copied from there), where 4 perfect cakes and 4 espressos and cappuccinos
cost less than 1 pound in total (29 Nakfa). It took us 2 hours to find a
map, and the only guide book was an archive listing architectural details of
historic buildings, but we did our best, and just wandering the
bougainvillea strewn streets, admiring the handsome villas which used to be
reserved for Italians and now house Embassies, and trying on the hand made
Italian style shoes and handbags that are made in Asmara (a relic of the
Italian occupation) was enough.
The shoes and handbags are exquisite, hand made to order or ready to wear
they are marvels of style. Nicky and Jill each bought a handbag and sandals,
and if you would like a hand made white, black, red or green leather stylish
handbag or sandals in a variety of styles, email me and we can probably get
some sent from Asmara, price about 25 pounds for something that would cost
about 100 pounds in UK. Nicky has some photos if you are interested.
The majority of Eritreans are Orthodox Christians, but the Roman Catholics
have a Cathedral and we climbed the spiral stairs to see the city from
above, the nuns cloisters, and the rectangular grid layout of streets. There
are few cars, so walking is a delight, the air cool enough to enjoy, we
carried a fleece at night and sometimes it was just chilly enough to wear
it, but usually the temperature was that of a perfect English summer's day.
Chris and I travelled to Keren, the 3rd city of Eritrea. The Monday Camel
Market attracts tribes from all around, and we chatted in a variety of
dialects and gestures to wrinkled, turbaned robed owners, haggling over the
merits of this camel or that donkey. There must have been about 50
attractive young camels for sale, the same number of donkeys (a bargain at
N1500), and several thousand goats, sheep and cattle all wandering around
loose, accompanied by their owner looking for buyers, with one energetic
vendor demonstrating a pair of cattle pulling a hand plough, the usual
method of ploughing still. Each town is Eritrea has its market on a
different day, so that buyers can if they wish take their purchases to the
next market and particularly the Saturday market in Asmara, and sell them on
at (hopefully) a profit. On the way back, we passed burnt out tanks and
personnel carriers, most stuck in the steep ravines, and peppered with shell
After the war, the Eritrean Government gave some veterans a taxi each, and
they could use this or sell it and the licence. We chose to taxi to Keren,
and next day asked the same careful driver, Seghid (who used to be a tour
guide and escorted the Lonely Planet travel writer round for 6 weeks before
the tourists dried up) to take us back down to Massawa (1100 Nakfa or 35
Would you care to share a boat with a rat? When we were in Salalah, we took
on fresh water in the dark moored next to a dhow and some rats must have
clambered aboard Intrepid uninvited. We first noticed signs of them when we
left the boat to go to Sanaa, and bought a rat trap and poison. Its not nice
knowing that you may have a rat scampering over you as you sleep. But one
night at midnight Nicky heard a snap and found one brown rat about 10 inches
from nose to tail scrambling round inside trap. She bravely disposed of it
overboard, and we thought that was it. But next day more tomatoes were
gnawed, and we set the trap again, and next morning I disposed of a 2nd rat.
Now one rat is sort of OK, two can mean thousands. So we left Intrepid to go
to Asmara with trap set, and some apprehension. But on return Intrepid was
ratless, and we could relax.
I watched the Champion's league soccer semi final between Manchester United
and Milan in the 3* Red Sea Hotel with 40 animated Eritreans who clearly
knew far more about English soccer than I, we shopped for what few
provisions there were in Massawa, bought one ton of fresh water delivered by
the Fire brigade to Intrepid, and sailed off towards the 300 Dahlak Islands
offshore Eritrea, and Sudan, stopping only for Chris to haul in a prime
Wahoo. Apparently for whatever reason, Eritreans don't like fish, and
despite the best efforts of the Government, we didn't see a single fishing
boat go out. Therefore the fish off Eritrea are plentiful. Come.
The snorkelling off Sheikh el Abu Island was superlative, miles from
anywhere, thousands of fish and wonderful coral, and today we send our best
wishes from Difnein Island, the most northerly of the Dahlak Islands.
Andy Nicky, Chris and Jill.