I was not born in Asmara, although I considered myself in that modern parlance an ‘Asmarino’. I came to Asmara when perhaps I was just may be over fiver years old from the next small town, next to the next small town.
Living in Asmara was like living in a big village. Asmara, at least in those times was considered cosmopolitan. It was beautiful, clean, dirty, sordid, picturesque, cramped and if you lived on the wrong end of the city like we did, ghettoized.
In my teens I remember strolling up and down Kombishtato later known as Haile Sellasie Ave. elbow linked with my friends on Sundays. Our walk started near one of the tea houses that dotted the area near the Municipality around ten and mostly ended around twelve.
The aim of the walk was to watch all the beautiful young girls who did likewise. They were ordinary, not overtly beautiful but reasonably polished and demure, giggly, and sufficiently flirty. Although I did not speak Italian I was familiar with some of the wowing words such as ‘chao bella’ ‘comme va bellissima’. The girls would smile, and sometimes open up and say something that sounded inviting. I will often flatter myself that they liked me but soon find out that they were speaking through me to one of my handsome friends.
I went to a school called Scoula Vittoria. I was never one for the books. I was a disappointment both to my parents and my uncle. It was not that I wasn’t average it was just that I wasn’t focused. Who ever came late into the class, my teacher will tell him “sit over there with the useless”. I was that useless. Repeating class had become a norm for me. In class I spent most of my time daydreaming or being mischievous. I was a disappointment both to my uncle and my father.
It was when I was fifteen that my uncle asked me if I would like to go to America to live and to go to school. America!! Wow, that was unbelievable. My uncle with whom I was living then was working at the American base of Radio Marina as a cook or something. Fortunately for me, he had struck up a friendship with a Marine Colonel for sometime and had in his limited English beseeched the officer to take me with him at the end of his assignment. The colonel (a half African American) was reluctant at first but eventually my uncles’ persistence had won him over.
I had trepidations, I wanted to run, I wanted to hide, I wanted to crawl back into my mothers wombs, but eventually I convinced my self what was there to loose and accepted my fate..
The day I left Asmara, the whole village came to see me off, of course out of respect to my father. There was my mother crying out her eyes and my father acting stoic and unperturbed. I had mixed feelings. Elated at the prospect of going to America, afraid and disturbed at having to leave my parents and all my friends behind.
America in those days was not the kind of America that we know now. The exodus hasn’t started and with the exception of a few royalists and others there was nary a soul you can talk to. In the city I lived , there was an international club started by a grizzly old Ethiopian and there was the YMCA. But outside of that you were on your own.
My adopted family did everything to help me adjust and make something out of myself.
I spent most of my adult life going in and out of school going in and out of work. Years later I went back to Asmara and to our village because my mother was very sick. When I disembarked at the airport, my father and my uncle were there to meet me. They had become so old that it was scary to see them. In our village I found out that I was late for her funeral.
I didn’t stay long in Eritrea. Things have changed since I was there last. Our village has become a garrison town. Most of my friends have left. Some I was told joined the budding Eritrean resistance army. Some where in neighboring countries. The whole atmosphere was oppressive, dangerous and cruel. I didn’t want to stay there. I wanted to look forward. I wanted a life of my own. For some reason I felt that America was my home. My father and uncle came to see me off. As I looked through the DC-3 window I knew in my heart that it was the last time I will ever see them again. I was right.
The war escalated, the resistance continued and the stories of atrocities and heroism became a staple of our daily life. We lost our friends. We lost our relatives. We lost our neighbors. But the hope of one day being united with loved ones never faded. Most of us became active in the resistance to the extent we could, hoping that one day we will live free and we will live happy and we will be united. But fate is cruel. Dreams just end up being dreams. Over two hundred thousand dead, over half a million in refugee camps or in the Diaspora!! How does one measure independence?
We Eritrean are no Tunisians. We are no Egyptians or Syrians. We Eritrean are a people who feel comfortable in being afraid. In being very very afraid. Probably that is why we never had a hero in our history. In the old days the best we could do was a feudal village bandit called Weldemichal Solomon , a.k.a Aba Gomida. Yes we now have come up with another manure named Wedi Afeworki, a riffraff who enjoys tiptoeing on sewage.
Today, prisoners in our own country, our true history is being rewritten. Our ruling elites and their enablers and their scribes furnish us with a narrative that suits our current purpose or the purpose of those who stand to gain the most from turning us into the most pliable, compliant and contentious subjects they need to have. We haven’t failed them so far. We are a divided people. A people at odds both with our ourselves and our heritage.. A people who have been talking for the last twenty years. From what I observe about the so called opposition ‘am afraid we will still be talking for the next twenty years. How did we get from there to here? How did we become victims of the uses and misuses of hope?
I have now accepted my Karma. I have now accepted my new home away from home. It is not perfect but it is the best country to live in. My children have assimilated, acculturated, in this our adopted country. Yes, you will say home is where you are born where your father and his father before him and their fathers before them where born. For me home is where you are happy!
This, my friends, in a nutshell is the story of my life and perhaps the story of my generation. Please tell me yours!!