|Eye on Eritrea|
Eritrea unexpectedly captured my heart. When I first arrived in 1994, the artists I came to interview for a book project, Africa: Women’s Art, Women’s Lives, became my friends. They also became my guides to Eritrea’s war-weary past, in contrast to their present enjoyment of peace.
Villages, more than 2,000 of them, are the pulse-beat of this small Horn of Africa nation. Carrying our sketchpads, we visited many. Welcomed and frequently invited to share tea or coffee in adobe or stone and thatch homes, we sketched the mothers preparing tea or weaving baskets, children caring for other children or fetching water at the village pond. There were also sheep and goat herders carrying long guide sticks, men ploughing with oxen or leading camels to market. My eyes, hands, and heart merged with the pen lines that eventually filled many sketchbooks.
Eritreans walked with pride — that is, those who could. Many men and women fighters and survivors of their victorious war of liberation were missing limbs, comrades, and families. After thirty years of war (1961-1991), much work was needed to re-establish personal relationships, revitalise the land, educate the young and plan for the future. I was impressed by the Eritreans’ spirit of national unity — though almost equally divided between Christian and Muslim — their unique attitude of self-reliance and absence of governmental corruption. The official languages were Tigrinya and Arabic. English was widely studied. "What is your name?" was a popular refrain, punctuated with a big smile, during village visits. The languages of the Saho, Tigri, Bilen, Kunama, Rashida peoples, etc., were also taught in local schools.
In the process of completing my book project and interviewing Terhas Iyassu and Elsa Jacob, I felt as if I had acquired two more daughters. They were both in their mid-thirties (like my daughter Winona) and they had lived almost half their lives as fighters in a war zone. Approximately one-third of the combatants were women. During periods between battles, a Culture Unit with a Fine Arts section was established. Terhas, Elsa, and three other women then had the opportunity, along with twenty men, to learn to draw and paint for practical reasons as well as self-expression. Their story is told in the chapter ‘Eritrea: Artist-Fighters With New Visions’ in Africa: Women’s Art, Women’s Lives.
In 1995 I returned to Eritrea, pleased to be invited by the Eritrean Ministry of Education and Culture and the United States Information Service (USIS) to present a workshop at the Asmara School of Art. It was an extraordinary challenge to encourage young people to explore new visions based on peace and their hopes for the future.
In all my 32 years of teaching, I had never experienced such enthusiastic students, varying from ten young teachers in training to the majority of older, seasoned fighters, including Elsa and Terhas. The workshop culminated in an exhibit of over 100 detailed pen drawings and some acrylic paintings on themes such as Love, Coffee Ceremony, Camels, Dreaming, and My Family. Their images were a radical departure from the social realism of the war years.
Impressed by Eritreans who valued art in war as well as peace, I kept returning to visit friends and to continue our sketchbook ventures. In Asmara, my sketching sometimes occurred while enjoying cappuccino at one of the many neighborhood bars, a popular legacy throughout Eritrea from its brief period of Italian colonisation (1889-1941).
There were also many occasions to share tea or coffee with families, in village homes or crowded into a small room in an adobe compound of many family rooms in Asmara, Keren, Barentu, Mendefera, Senafe, or Massawa, a strategic port on the Red Sea. At home, coffee preparation was a woman’s ritual activity, beginning with roasting the beans in a shallow, long-handled pan held over a charcoal stove. Before grinding the beans with mortar and pestle, she passed them around the room for all to inhale and comment on the good vapours. Then they were put into a clay pot, to which boiling water was added. When the grounds settled, the strong, sweetened coffee was served in tiny cups neatly arranged on a tray.
A simpler preparation for chai or peppermint tea also brought family and neighbours together. Friends from abroad were included in this bonding ritual during Eritrea’s brief period of peace, in 1991-1998. In my painting Chai Dreams, the mother’s whimsical dreams of her children’s well-being are portrayed in incense vapours rising from near the teapot she is about to pour from.
Impressively, Eritreans organised themselves to fulfil monumental projects, from resurrecting the tracks of the destroyed railroad line from the Massawa port to Asmara, the highland capital, to terracing everywhere with endless ribbons of rock, especially along the steeply eroded mountainsides. Erosion, the result of a deliberate deforestation programme, was another form of war conducted during the long Ethiopian occupation. Now, thousands of trees were planted annually and protected from invasive grazing.
In 1996, Newsweek described Eritrea as Africa’s "success story." In 1977, the Christian Science Monitor considered Eritrea "a unique country… President Afwerki and his fellow leaders have a commitment to the masses that is unparalleled elsewhere in Africa."
A leading contemporary American artist, Betty LaDuke is also known for her documentation
of the work of women artists all over the world. She lives in Oregon