Monday, June 20, 2011

Simplicity in Eritrea

I lived with my parents in Asmara in 2003. It was perhaps the most unique, out of character family experience we've had to date. I'm writing this on Father's Day, and I remember thinking at that time that my dad is "big in the big things", and that I want to be, too. This is because my dad dealt with a barrage of fairly serious, intractable bureaucracy the entire time they were in Eritrea. And did well.

There were many things about our lives in Eritrea that I'd like to remember and build on. Eritrea is not an easy place for most Eritreans to live, while I'm not going to talk politics here, I did want to acknowledge this with one story: A colleague of mine at the archives disappeared for a few days. He returned looking gaunt and tired. He had been in the countryside; his niece was gravely ill. She set herself on fire after she heard that her brother had been killed in the 1998 border war (which followed the tentative and hopeful peace of 1991-1998). However she, like many others, had only heard about her loved one's death in 2003, when the names of the war dead were posted on cafe windows. She would have lived-- her burns were not untreatable-- but she set herself on fire on a weekend, when there were no hospitals open.

There's no easy way to segway from that story-- and the many others like it-- to "Eritrea was awesome", but I wanted to hold a tension between forced simplicity and simplicity that is chosen. They are very different. What made Eritrea a blessing was that it was a piece of my life, not my whole life.

Our lives in Eritrea did not involve a lot of choice. Some days I'd spend the morning looking around (like a mouse) for cheese: had it arrived from Holland? If it had, we'd buy as much as we possibly could. If not, well, spinach again! Even a life of perfect simplicity cannot be without cheese, I think. Unfortunately, there was no ice-cream in Eritrea (and I didn't know how to make sorbet, nor did we have a freezer), otherwise I'd probably say the same for ice-cream. Apparently one can do without it, if one has to.

I would bicycle about 30-45 minutes to either the university or the archives in the morning (often with my dad) then bicycle 30-45 minutes back for lunch. If I felt brave, I'd do it again in the afternoon. Or I'd wander around the city or visit the family of an Eritrean academic. At night, I'd read or watch movies. There was very little internet, and the university library was stocked mainly with classics and some big journals. My time in Eritrea allowed me to read broadly and deeply-- I read all the great anti-colonial writers, for myself and not for anyone's approval. And while I can't quote them much, their ideas seeped deeply into me, informing my ideas about the world and my understanding of history. I read every current issue (and many back issues) of Scientific American, Nature, Science, and The Economist cover to cover, and I think that shaped me, also.

I'd like to reclaim some of that focus, the beauty of our two brief trips to untouristy Eritrean coral reefs near Massawa, effortless superwoman fitness, and a very healthy diet during the week (followed by a huge buffet every Saturday morning). Day-to-day life in Eritrea was very good to me, despite being close- at least physically- to people experiencing the very worst things, which makes me very hopeful that life anywhere can be very good.

No comments: