January 4, 1998
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Newest nation determined to thrive
An American in Africa
By BRUCE SICELOFF, CorrespondentASMARA, Eritrea -- A wheezing saxophone dirge echoed across Martyrs Square and from pairs of loudspeakers placed all the way up the hill to Independence Avenue. When the P.A. system faltered, we lifted our eyes and traced the unamplified music to its source: a gray-haired musician alone on the roof of a tall Art Deco building.
A spotlight flared on his golden instrument as he finished the hymn to Eritrea's war dead.
The song opened a November celebration as Eritrea, Africa's youngest nation, released its national currency, the Nakfa, and took another step toward establishing a global identity.
The currency's name comes from the mountain town that was the heart of Eritrea's 30-year war for independence from neighboring Ethiopia; Nakfa is a one-word homage to the 60,000 Eritrean fighters who died along with 90,000 noncombatants before the Ethiopians were driven out in 1991.
Eritrea was a cause long before it became a country. Some who lost loved ones or gave 20 years or more of their lives as guerrillas, prisoners, refugees or exiles say that they often doubted they would ever live free.
But liberation was not quite an end in itself, and not the end of Eritrea's remarkable accomplishment.
To an American midway through a 10-month stay, Eritrea seems still to be a cause uniting its diverse citizenry in an ambitious mission of nation-building.
For a glimpse of how Eritrea sees itself, look at the new currency. The pictures on the Nakfa coins and notes say a few things about how this former Italian colony on the Red Sea draws power from its history, and how its war-forged spirit has shaped its outlook on the future. Some of these images advertise not what Eritrea is now but what it is determined to become.
Women as equal partners
Most of the faces beaming on the crisp new banknotes are those of women from some of Eritrea's nine ethnic groups. During the war, one third of the fighters were female, and women now train and work with men in the 18-month national service required of all young Eritreans.
The Nakfa notes are prominent reminders of the government's commitment to equality and empowerment for women. The new constitution ratified last spring (but yet to be implemented) emphasizes equal treatment for women in all aspects of life, from marriage and divorce to property and political rights.
But as women and minorities around the world know, legislation is not a magic genie that quickly grants the wish for social equality. The intentions of Eritrea's new government face resistance from centuries of custom.
In many households here, the wife would be considered disrespectful if she addressed her husband directly by name instead of obliquely as, say, "Father of our son Habte." At the Asmara office where I work, if I rinse out my own teacup, my female coworkers blush in surprise. And my wife's law students chuckled a couple of weeks ago when I grilled and served hamburgers for them; Eritrean men generally are not expected to clean up after themselves or to help with the cooking.
Ritual female genital mutilation is widely practiced in Christian and Muslim families, as elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Putting women on the Nakfa and in the president's cabinet won't change that soon.
Stewardship and sacrifice
Each bill and coin bears a triumphant image of hard-won military victory: rebel soldiers wearing khaki shorts and toting AK-47 rifles, planting their flag on a steep, rocky hilltop.
Other Nakfa images include farmers plowing with oxen, tractors and even camels; and cargo ships moored at Massawa. In the 1930s, at the height of Italy's expansion in its East African colony, Massawa was the busiest port on the Red Sea.
Italian rule ended with World War II, but Eritrea was denied the independence that had been granted to other European colonies across Africa.
Instead, the United Nations declared it a semi-autonomous region to be federated with Ethiopia, which soon moved to annex Eritrea, abrogate its sovereign rights and begin a brutal occupation of the country, without complaint from the United Nations.
In 1961, Eritreans resorted to armed rebellion.
The Ethiopian armies of the Emperor Haile Selassie and later the Marxist Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam were supported heavily at various times by the United States, Israel, Cuba, the Soviet Union and other powers of the East and West.
The Eritrean resistance, with scant international help, was essentially united by 1981 under the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), headed by Isaias Afwerki, now Eritrea's president.
The EPLF began to govern and unify the liberated areas of Eritrea long before 1991 when it recaptured Asmara, formally established the first provisional government and changed into today's ruling party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice.
As early as the 1970s, the rebels were providing public health, literacy, nutrition and agricultural programs with underground hospitals and front-line classrooms for civilians and soldiers alike, dug into hillsides to avoid detection and bombardment.
Technological innovation played a key role in the underdog victory. Soviet tanks were captured, re-engineered to increase their top speed and turned back on the surprised Ethiopians.
Rebel medics developed a plastic microscope for field use that folded to pocket size but was powerful enough to enable spot diagnosis of tropical diseases.
And, in what they proudly called "vodka-cola" technology, rebel mechanics created tough hybrid vehicles for the punishing rocky terrain by combining the best features of American Mack trucks and Russian-made Oral trucks.
This resourcefulness is celebrated on the 10 Nakfa note in an unlikely symbol of national pride: a funny little train pulled down the tracks not by a sleek locomotive but by a captured Oral truck, rebuilt for rail duty.
Along with the gorgeous Art Deco buildings that distinguish Asmara, its capital city, Eritrea traces its odd railroad to the Italians, who invested heavily in the colony they ruled from the 1880s until 1941.
Eastern Africa's first railroad was an Italian engineering feat that required 65 bridges and 30 tunnels to make its 7,600-foot climb from Massawa through steep mountains to Asmara. Before it was destroyed during the war for independence, the railroad was a crucial conduit for goods hauled between the port and the interior.
Today, Eritrea is determined to resurrect its antique narrow-gauge rail line, which may have more symbolic than economic value here. And what's more, Eritrea will rebuild the mountain railroad its own way. The impoverished nation rejected foreign help and said it would do the job on its own, mostly with national-service labor.
There are many hills to climb. The war left Eritrea with 500,000 refugees, 200,000 exiles around the world and 90,000 demobilized fighters to be reintegrated into civilian life, as well as a high infant mortality rate of 135 per 1,000 births, and a per capita income estimated at $150 per year -- less than half the average for sub-Saharan Africa.
But less than seven years after winning the continent's longest war, Eritrea is serving as an example for some of its neighbors.
In December, President Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda toured the Massawa port, several factories and a new Asmara housing project. Rwandan reporters accompanying the president echoed his astonishment at the state of civic unity and economic revival they found, and what Bizimungu called the "clear vision" of its people.
At a news conference in Asmara, Bizimungu said simply: "The society we have seen corresponds to our aspirations, and the type of society we want to build."
Bruce Siceloff, on leave from his job as The News & Observer's new media editor, is living in Eritrea where his wife, Donna LeFebvre, is one of several UNC-CH professors teaching at the University of Asmara through a U.S. Agency for International Development program.
Copyright © 1997
The News and Observer Publishing Co.