Asmara, City of Hope

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ASMARA, Eritrea - With its palm-lined streets, tiled sidewalks, lazy cafes and pastel villas baking in the flat sun, you'd think you were in southern Italy. Look more closely and the faces are swarthier, women wear white rather than black, people scurry to get to appointments on time, and an occasional driver leaves his key in the ignition while running an errand.

In the halves of the day which surround the two-hour lunch break, Asmara hums.

It still has one of the flattest urban skylines on the continent, lined with mosques and church steeples and low Mediterranean houses. Crime is unfamiliar here, and people gape when asked whether the city is safe at night. Strangers greet foreigners in the street with a broad smile and 'Welcome' or 'Hello, Sister,' and where bureaucracy might rule, ingenuity finds solutions to problems which elsewhere in Africa might be ironed out with a banknote.

"We didn't fight for 30 years just to become another corrupt nation," said Tesfay, a government employee who spent 12 years as a foot soldier. "We didn't just fight for independence, we fought for a just society."

Down the escarpment from Asmara, the deep-water port of Massawa is being slowly rebuilt, the bombed ceilings repaired, lattice-work screens replaced, columns buttressed and facades replastered. This oriental city, facing Yemen and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, was bombed mercilessly during the war. Massawa hums too, with the energetic sounds of reconstruction.

In this era of conspicuous consumption and instant gratification, Eritrea is like a throwback, an anachronism, a nation aiming for long-term solutions and the common good, whose politicians eschew the trappings of newfound freedom, the luxury cars, the unlimited foreign aid with strings attached. In a sense, it is working towards sustainable government, where today's policies are dictated by tomorrow's needs rather than other way around.

"No one helped us during the war, so we learned to help ourselves," said Tesfay.

Against all odds, Eritreans won a war of liberation against Ethiopia's mighty military machine, which was backed first by the US and then by the Soviet Union, the world's two superpowers. And they won it with almost no outside help. That self-sufficiency is the base of almost everything Eritrea does.

But scratch the surface and Africa appears. Young jobless men, many of them born too late to fight the war, spend their days at the outdoor cafes lining Asmara's Independence Street. The city's shops are bulging with produce, but in the countryside, only 40 percent of people's food needs are met, even in a good year. Peasants migrate to Asmara to cash in on their expectations, raised by the end of a long war. From beyond the country's borders, hundreds of thousands of refugees and returnees set out for home and for a new life. Many may be disappointed.

In downtown Asmara, each day brings more automobiles, spewing fumes which at times make the air unbreatheable. Here and there, ugly modern structures inch into the sky past the minarets, and more are planned. New shantytowns spring up to accommodate recent rural arrivals, and, increasingly, poverty-stricken beggars stand discreetly in doorways. Beyond the paved streets, oxen and camels compete for space on dusty tracks, hawkers on horsecarts shrilly tout their produce, and at night, people go home to their village, to one of the many 'suburbs' that ring Asmara. The city's core remains an island of wealth in a country with a per capita GDP of about US$150, half the sub-Saharan average, a nation of illiterate farmers and shepherds.

Despite its good intentions, Eritrea is not an easy place to govern. After years of military discipline, the grace and flexibility of civil society are foreign and its needs and prerequisites often misunderstood. The country's nine ethnic groups and two major religions must be kept in harmony if Eritrea is to have a peaceful future, in itself a daunting challenge.

No one could blame the country if it were to take a few shortcuts. But Eritreans look at their continental neighbors in dismay, vowing to steer clear of a cycle of corruption and dependence. Rather than handouts, they want investment. Eritrea is banking on its potential. It has 1200 kilometers of unspoiled coastline, plenty of fish, and maybe even gas and oil. But it also has a lack of skilled workers, its natural resources have yet to be tapped, it has little history of open government, and its coffers are not exactly overflowing. The social safety net for the poorest of the poor is threadbare, and some people argue the country is trying to become too self-reliant, too soon.

The word Eritrea still conjures up legends of the war, the women guerrillas fighting alongside the men, the hospitals carved out of solid rock, the self-sufficiency and restraint of the fighters towards the villagers. The war may have ended, but the principles hewn from it have so far remained.

Jobless or not, people stroll along Asmara's streets with heads high. At times, their benchmarks are pride, a sense of purpose, a commitment to social justice, and a willingness to incur an opportunity cost today for an improved tomorrow. Eritrea wants to be different. Things may not be perfect in paradise, as the country mends its broken bones. But so far, it provides additional proof that a poor, war-torn African country does not necessarily have to sell its soul in order to survive.

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