Wednesday, October 25, 2006

All the presidents of the world have died and gone to Hell. As they sit roasting in the flames, they ask the Devil if they can call home. 'OK,' says the Devil, 'but it'll cost you.' First Bush calls his family in Washington, and they chat away. 'That will be $200,' says the Devil. Then Chirac calls Paris. 'That will be 100 euros,' says the Devil. Finally, it's Isaias' turn [Afewerki, President of Eritrea]. 'That will be 5 nakfa,' says the Devil. 'How come he gets to pay so little?' wail the others. 'Oh,' says the Devil. 'It's only a local call.' Eritrean joke doing the rounds in 2004.
Extract from Michela Wrong, I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: How the world betrayed a small african nation. Please note the paperback is titled I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: How the world used and abused a small african nation.

Read this book. I guarantee that you will be captivated. If you read largely fiction, this will still roll comfortably past like a thriller. If you read no other non-fiction this year, read this.

Eritrea's story is a fascinating one, and Michela Wrong writes in a strong, unfussy manner. She peppers little-known facts - outside the country at any rate - ("The colony baptized 'Eritrea' after Erythraeum Mare - Latin for Red Sea...") through the wider story which creates a layered effect: you could skim for these, or savour the full dark tale.

Wrong covers the Italian colonization of Eritrea (left a legacy of some of the most spectacular art deco architecture preserved today); the Keren Battlefield (who knew that one of the decisive battles of the Second World War was fought here, as the British marched on the Italians down through Sudan and on into Eritrea?
Popular legend has it that a British captain leading his weary men on the march from Keren into Asmara was met on the road by an old Eritrean woman, wrapped in the ghostly white shroud of the highlands. She was ululating in traditional greeting, celebrating her country's liberation from Italian Fascist rule and the start of a new era of hoped-for prosperity. Perhaps that high-pitched shrilling irritated the captain, extenuated by a campaign he thought he might not survive. In any case, he is said to have stopped her in mid-flow with one throwaway line designed to crush any illusions about why he and his men were fighting in Eritrea. 'I didn't do it for you, nigger, ' he said, before striding on to Asmara. (p. 99)
The British administration did not deal any more kindly with the country than the Italians, although the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline the suffragette, and her contribution to the region makes for some positive relief. This is chronicled against the backdrop of the great stories of neighbouring Ethiopia: the legend of the Queen of Sheba, Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie.

The Cold War brought new complications. America set up a listening post, Kagnew Station:
By the 1960s, $69.5m in held 4,200 men, not counting family dependants...nineteen operational sites...185 buildings, nearly 700 antennae...3,400 acres of land. The biggest dish, 150ft wide, weighing 6,000 tons and worth $600,000, was estimated at the time to be the largest movable object ever built. It was visible from 30 miles away. (p. 218)
Russia retaliated by furiously arming the power-hungry and ruthless Mengistu in Ethiopia. The civil war between Ethiopia and Eritrea raged for decades, largely ignored by the outside world. Wrong describes life in the trenches and the profound impact the war (and the earlier colonial power shenanigans) had on the development of the Eritrean nation state.

Part of what makes Wrong's account of the development of Eritrea so compelling is that she succeeds at making history readable and approachable; people are strongly present, and the brooding presence of the harsh landscape is well-described. Scandalous and muckraking tales weave in between the historical and political account and this makes for gripping reading.



Blogger The Traveller said...

I feel the need to add more non-fiction to my reading list, so I've added this one. It sounds like a good read, if one that's guaranteed to raise emotions.

8:59 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

Great! Let me know how you get on with it.

9:28 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home