AFRICAN countries like Burundi and Somalia garner consistently negative press. Eritrea, on the other hand, garners consistently zero press.
Perhaps this is because the International Press Freedom Index ranks Eritrea’s freedom of press as dead last in the world — below that of even North Korea. It is not then entirely surprising that one of the first articles I find about the country describes it as the “North Korea of Africa”. Another discusses how Eritrea has the second largest standing army relative to general population, right behind North Korea.
These are not normally two statistics that would inspire one to visit a country. But I also stumble upon a Lonely Planet review that describes the capital, Asmara, as “like a film set from an early Italian movie.”
So which is it: North Korea? Or Naples?
Visiting Africa’s Hermit Kingdom
When I first call the Eritrean embassy in Washington, the man on the other end of the phone does not sound hopeful.
“So, you do not have any family in Eritrea?
“What about an organization to sponsor you?”
“What about Eritrean friends in the country?”
“Okay… well, this could be challenging.”
The central government in Asmara issues all visas. US-Eritrea relations are strained at best, rocky at worst, making it difficult for even American-Eritreans to obtain visas. Tourism is virtually non-existent.
When I receive a call from a random Washington DC phone number six weeks later, the same gentleman at the embassy seems as surprised as I am: “They gave you a visa.”
On the Ground
Other travelers warn me about the airport. Every penny of currency will be counted, every picture on my camera checked, every serial number of every device recorded.
I make it from the plane to the parking lot in 10 minutes flat.
After a quick nap, I venture out to the streets of Asmara with two Eritrean friends of friends. The ever-optimistic US State Department told me to expect the following:
“The Government of Eritrea is arming its citizens with automatic rifles to form citizen militias.”
“Crime in Asmara has increased as a result of deteriorating economic conditions accompanied by persistent food, water, and fuel shortages, and rapid price inflation.”
“The Eritrean government-controlled media frequently broadcast anti-U.S. rhetoric.”
The first Eritreans I encounter, on the other hand, have this to say, after they recovered from their initial shock of meeting an American tourist wandering the streets:
“San Francisco is my favorite city in America!”
“I lived in Houston for a few years; I would never walk in the city at night. Here I always do.”
Someone in the Eritrean anti-American propaganda department needs to be fired.
Unlike North Korea, I was able to freely wander around Asmara at all hours of the day and night and speak to whomever I wished.
Italy controlled Eritrea from 1890 until WWII when the British awarded Eritrea to Ethiopia. Ethiopia annexed Eritrea as a province 10 years later, sparking a 30 year war for independence between Eritrea (population: 6M) and Ethiopia (population: 94M).
The conflict ended in 1991 with the expulsion of Ethiopian forces. Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence in 1993 under an UN-administered referendum.
Unfortunately, independence did not bring lasting peace or prosperity. The two countries continued to fight over disputed borders. Under the guise of security, one party has controlled Eritrea since independence. The country has held exactly zero national elections in the last two decades.
I know this only from public sources, however. Given Eritrea’s political situation, I was advised against inquiring about politics, so limited my visit to experiencing life on the ground. While not ideal, I wanted to both ensure my own ability to leave the country as well as the security of my local hosts.
From at least external appearances, Lonely Planet had it right — Asmara felt much more like Naples than North Korea.
In fact, it is unquestionably the most beautiful African capital city I’ve visited. It’s truly pleasant to stroll around on foot, with wide sidewalks, towering green trees, and minimal traffic. Breathing comes a bit harder at an altitude of over 7,000 feet, but the mountain air is refreshingly cool, clean, and crisp. The streets are immaculate; “roving gangs” of street sweepers “descend upon” the city every morning at 5am and “attack” litter.
Cafés dot the sidewalks. The gelato rivals that of Rome or Florence. Cappuccino is considered a national addiction. The national cuisine resembles Ethiopian, but Italian restaurants almost outnumber Eritrean ones.
Immaculately preserved cathedrals and mosques line the main squares. Christian and Islamic houses of worship stand in close proximity. The population is split between the two religions, but I am told no one can tell a person’s religion unless they ask. Everyone attends each other’s weddings regardless of religion; my hosts had over 4,000 guests at their ceremony.
Walking is a slow process as every third person stops and offers a warm greeting. I did not receive as much attention as in other countries as there are still quite a few Italians living in Asmara, making Eritrea the first and last time I will ever be mistaken for an Italian.
Allies versus Enemies
Eritrea undoubtedly has issues, but it seems the US government has taken a particularly harsh approach to the country. When you compare it to a country such as Bahrain — which relentlessly cracked down on protestors during the Arab Spring — it seems the US approach to Eritrea is disproportionately heavy-handed. That being said, unlike Bahrain, Eritrea isn’t housing the US Fifth Fleet.
Despite warnings about militias and armed gangs, I saw a grand total of three traffic police and zero militias — unlike Bahrain where every 10 minutes a pack of 5 armored police cars roared past. Even without a visible police presence, crime seems extremely rare.
In many respects, I found myself thinking back to my travels to Iran. Simply because a government is autocratic does not mean a country is either unsafe, unfriendly, or lacking beauty. Here’s to hoping that one day, both governments will reconcile their differences and make it easier for more people to enjoy the charm of the Naples of Africa.