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Isolation in Asmara

A couple of abandoned planes to the south of the city
A couple of abandoned planes to the south of the city
Midday at the bus station
Midday at the bus station
A horse and cart signpost
A horse and cart signpost
Mosque in the city centre
Mosque in the city centre
Alcohol - not in short supply
Alcohol, one of the few things that's not in short supply
Old rusting military vehicles
Old rusting military vehicles
A local neighbourhood store
A local neighbourhood store
Pile of junk at the Tank Graveyard
Pile of junk at the Tank Graveyard
Art Deco on Asmara's main street
Art Deco on Asmara's main street
Playing pool in the 1950's bowling alley
Playing pool in the 1950's bowling alley
A rusty old tank amongst the cacti
A rusty old tank amongst the cacti
Recycling VW Beetle bonnets at the Medebar Market
Recycling VW Beetle bonnets at the Medebar Market
Asmara's Catholic Cathedral
Asmara's Catholic Cathedral
Stained glass windows
Stained glass windows at the remarkable 1950s bowling alley
Bright orange bendy bus
Bright orange bendy bus in front of the Orthodox Cathedral
Taxi in need of some TLC
Taxi in need of some TLC
Cart waiting to be loaded at the market
Cart waiting to be loaded at the market
The aeroplane inspired Fiat Tagliero building
The aeroplane inspired Fiat Tagliero building
Chillies at Medebar Market
Chillies at Medebar Market
The characterful Opera House of Asmara
The characterful Opera House of Asmara
Cinema Impero
Cinema Impero - a throwback to the Italian colonisation
The Senay Supermarket
The Senay Supermarket has been closed for several months
Commercial Bank of Eritrea
Commercial Bank of Eritrea
Time for some bowling
Time for some bowling
Distinctive Eritrean postbox
Distinctive Eritrean postbox
View over the roof tops
View over the roof tops
Clothes drying in the sunshine
Clothes drying in the sunshine
Wikianos Supermarket - the only one currently open
Wikianos Supermarket - the only one currently open
End of the school day
End of the school day
You can't take nakfa out of the country
You can't take nakfa out of the country
Expat standard housing in the Tiravolo suburb
Expat standard housing in the Tiravolo suburb
Foyer of the Roma Cinema
Foyer of the Roma Cinema
Fruit and veg at the Markato
Fruit and veg at the Markato
Government building in Art Deco style
Government building in Art Deco style
Grains at the Central Market
Grains at the Central Market
Harnet Street - Asmara's main drag
Harnet Street - Asmara's main drag
Horse and cart - a common sight in the capital
Horse and cart - a common sight in the capital
Hotel Asmara Palace
Hotel Asmara Palace
Learning to count
Learning to count
Leaving Asmara
Leaving Asmara

Back in April I visited the secretive nation of North Korea, just before the leaders of both the Korean nations met. It wasn’t a data collection trip but a few days’ holiday to get a glimpse of a country which always seems to be cloaked in mystery. It was a fascinating trip and the capital city, Pyongyang, is very different to any other city I’ve visited. A few weeks after my North Korean trip I found myself in another ‘secretive’ country, the oft dubbed ‘North Korea of Africa’ – Eritrea. This visit, though, was part of my role on the data collection trail.

The planning for my trip started way back in January as securing a visa to visit is notoriously difficult. This gave me plenty of time to read up and gain as much pre-trip knowledge as I could about the capital city Asmara and what I was to expect. However, I soon realised that there isn’t actually a great deal of information available about life in the country. The only times in recent years I recall Eritrea being in the mainstream media in the West is in relation to the significant proportion of refugee migrants to the EU that Eritreans make up. 

It is one of the newest countries in the World, having gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a bloody decades-long war with its neighbour. During late colonial times the region was under the control of the British, but the most noticeable influence is that of Italy which colonised present day Eritrea from 1889 to 1941. Much of the architecture and city layout of Asmara is the result of Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s who wanted to create a Piccola Roma (Little Rome) in Africa. As such he gave architects and town planners free rein and in the space of six years most of central Asmara was built with grandiose and striking Art Deco and Modernist buildings. The city centre has hardly changed in the intervening years and all those buildings are still there. Many of them are crumbling and quite run-down but almost all are still functional, and they give the city a unique, trapped-in-time feel. 

The architecture is not the only aspect of the city that hasn’t changed much over the past 70 odd years or so. There is very little in the way of modernity at all, in fact, and this is a big factor when it comes to enticing expatriates to go to Asmara on assignment. There are many locations around the world which lack basic entertainment or leisure facilities such as theatres or tennis clubs but access to the internet has grown and grown and even in some of the most remote assignment locations it is rarely a problem for expatriates to get online. Asmara is physically remote, high up in the Eritrean Highlands, and visitors can only access it by plane but, with respect to the internet, the city is even more isolated from the outside world. Eritrea is often mentioned as the least connected country in the world and that seems hard to dispute after talking with several expatriates living there. These conditions are reflected in ECA's Location Ratings score for Asmara.

I was able to access the best Wi-Fi network (apparently) at the Asmara Palace Hotel so I wasn’t completely off the grid during my stay. It was quite refreshing, though, to be out and about on the streets and be able to meet people’s eyes and smile at locals while passing, instead of people having their heads buried in a smartphone. In fact, smartphones, are rendered rather useless as they offer very little more than the mobile phones of ten years ago. 

There are very few foreign firms operating in Eritrea, bar a few mining companies, and most of the expatriate population is made up of diplomatic staff, some of whom have the luxury of being able to bring items in from abroad from time to time. For many expats, though, it is not only the internet which is limited but also many day-to-day items which are simply not available. Of the 164 items I aim to price in the ECA Cost of Living basket, I was only able to find 116 and many I did find were of very poor quality. Some surprising items which couldn’t be found include brown bread, frozen vegetables, whole chickens and long-life milk. It’s not unknown for even high-ranking diplomats to fly over to Dubai just to stock up on some of these items. A recent crackdown by the government on many shop owners has also seen a bad situation get even worse with the temporary closure of many of the supermarkets which expatriates used to use for their groceries. There are no major Western brands in Asmara or chain stores, and so life really can feel like living in a bubble, particularly with poor internet connectivity. 

Entertainment options are few and far between and there’s not much to do apart from kick back and sip a cappuccino or dine on pizza in one of the many cafes around town. Watching the world pass slowly by, along with a horse and cart reminiscent of yesteryear, and leaving the stresses of modern life behind once away from the office is one of the pros of living in Asmara - assuming that you’re not keen on living life in the fast lane. Earlier this year Asmara bizarrely played host to the English singer Joss Stone, who put on a concert in the crumbling old Opera House and had the expatriate community abuzz with excitement. However, I still can’t see Beyoncé or Taylor Swift playing in Eritrea any time soon! 

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