The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

Is That A Ray Of Light Trickling In?

Good news from Africa are rare, but have started trickling in. First we’ve had Mugabe removed from office, then Zuma. But lesser known, and as monumental is the seismic changes occurring further north. More specifically, Ethiopia and Eritrea. I became aware of the latter country when I went to see Pasolini’s A Thousand and One Nights


in the seventies.One of the characters was played by a stunningly beautiful actress, and I discovered that she was Eritrean. After that, I kept noticing Eritrean women in magazines and arrived at the conclusion that they were the most beautiful women on earth. A few years ago, when I was in Seattle, my host Louie and I wanted to buy a lottery ticket, and we entered a shop. Behind the counter was a stunningly beautiful dusky lady. I was unable to resist question: Are you Eritrean? She was amazed and nodded. Then timidly she asked, Who they tell you? Noticing that the husband was nearby, I made an innocuous reply. But I digress.

When I was in Switzerland a few years ago there was a debate about a new law being talked about: Whether or not to make it legal to repatriate Eritrean deserters (soldiers) who had sought asylum in the country. Having struggled for over thirty years to gain its independence from Ethiopia, president Isaias Afwerki has ruled the country with rare brutality. He has been compared to the Kim Jons. Torture and hanging were commonplace. The country which depended on its more powerful neighbour from the south, found itself in an economic mess, which meant lack of medical care and starvation. A number of soldiers had deserted, and gained asylum in Switzerland on the very real grounds that if sent back they would face certain death.

As all links between Ethiopia and Eritrea were severed, there was next to no official traffic between the two countries, although there were huge swathes of people who had family in each other’s countries. A situation comparable to the two Germanies during the cold war. There were no flights at all. Phone communication, either did not work or were unavailable. Letters rarely arrived at their destination, and often had to be delivered by tortuous routes. There have been continuous border skirmishes over the last thirty years.

When I was in Zaire in the seventies, with its creaky bureaucracy, whenever I entered an office and was greeted by an Ethiopian functionary, I usually gave a sigh of relief, because they were usually much more efficient than their Congolese cousins. They were only in Zaire as political refugees because the highly ludicrous Haile Selassie had put a price on the heads of his “political

Emperor Haile Selassie

enemies”. So, it came as no surprise that after the clueless and vain emperor was ousted, and ineffective communist regimes failed to deliver, once a sort of stability was arrived at, there would be great improvement. The manpower was there, the country had good universities, and a multitude of youngsters eager to learn.

Thus it was that the second-most populous country in Africa, which was the third-poorest country in the world, with an GDP per capita was only about $650 in 2000 is now reckoned to be the fastest growing economy in Africa, and third in the whole world, behind China and Myanmar. It has grown by approximately 10% per year in the last 15 years.

Modern Addis Abeba

Although there is still political instability, probably inevitable when there are so many different ethnic groups in a country, a new leader has emerged, Abiy Ahmed. A man with rare charisma, he has been talked of as Africa’s own Obama. Accepted as a man of rare intelligence and wisdom, one of his first propositions was to make peace with the turbulent neighbours in the north, for the good of both countries. (Do we have a whiff of Nobel Peace Prize?) He began by inviting the lugubrious Isaias to Addis Abeba, and it seemed that he was even caught laughing! Then Abiy went to Asmara. In an unheard of gesture, Ethiopia decided to cede land claimed by Eritrea to them. The two countries have re-opened flight routes between the two countries, and already working groups are meeting daily to find common grounds. Could this be a model for other countries on the dark continent to resolve their disputes?



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San Cassimally

San Cassimally


Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.