Tag: Horn of Africa

Eritrea’s unique architecture under threat

Eritrea’s capital Asmara boasts buildings unlike anywhere else in Africa, a legacy of its Italian colonial past, when architects were given free rein for structures judged too avant-garde back home.

Modernist architectural wonders in this highland city include a futurist petrol station mimicking a soaring aircraft and a funky art-deco bowling alley with checkered, coloured glass windows.

“The city is a living museum of architecture,” said Medhanie Teklemariam, an urban planner in Asmara’s city administration.

Yet while many of the buildings survived a decades-long liberation war from Ethiopia that ravaged settlements elsewhere, preservation and restoration projects have been hampered, threatening to erode the country’s rich cultural heritage.

Medhanie said money remains a critical obstacle, along with a lack of local technical expertise required for specialised restoration projects.

“To undertake a major restoration of all these buildings is very, very challenging because of one, the funding issue and, second, technical capacity,” he said, sitting before a map of central Asmara.

But Medhanie is pushing for change. He is lobbying for the historic city centre to be included on the United Nations World Heritage list and working to renew a European Union-supported project to restore a market building and the Capitol, an Expressionist-style cinema.

He sees the preservation of Asmara’s precious buildings – mainly from the first half of the 20th century – as a matter of maintaining the country’s national fabric.

“This heritage… it is very important for Eritrea’s identity,” he said.

World Heritage status would also be a rare opportunity for Eritrea to win positive international exposure. The Horn of Africa nation normally makes headlines only for its raft of repressive policies.

“The international reputation… would be boosted,” said Edward Denison, a photographer and co-author of Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City.

A bowling alley in Asmara. (Pic: AFP)
A bowling alley in Asmara. (Pic: AFP)

A different side of Eritrea
Most of the buildings in the former Italian colony were constructed between 1936 and 1941 as part of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s plan to expand his foothold in Africa.

Asmara used to be known as Piccola Roma, or “Little Rome”. In the 1939 census, more than half the city’s inhabitants were Italian – 53 000 out of a total of 98 000.

Italian architects were brought over and encouraged to experiment with innovative designs that were frowned upon in conservative Europe.

Asmara gained a reputation as an “experimental playground” where wacky designs were welcomed.

Cinema Impero in Asmara. (Pic: AFP)
Cinema Impero in Asmara. (Pic: AFP)

Today, Eritreans have a deep appreciation for the buildings – even though many were built by compatriots carrying out forced labour under colonial rule – and are proud of their unique city.

While some buildings sit unused, such as the Teatro Asmara with its high arched awnings and Roman-style pillars, many of them remain functional.

Asmara Theatre (Pic: AFP)
Asmara Theatre (Pic: AFP)

Tables are busy at Cinema Roma, as regulars sip macchiatos on the terrace beneath the marble facade. Inside, dated American movies and Eritrean shows are screened to visitors who watch from plush red seats.

According to Denison, the buildings could be a major boost for the sagging tourist industry.

“The opportunities are boundless, and Eritrea is very aware of that with the various other cultural and natural attractions that it has. I think architecture is a key component of that,” he said.

Luckily, the city’s slow development has preserved many of its old buildings, most of which have been left untouched since Eritrea’s war for independence kicked off in 1961.

Dennis Rodwell, architect and author of “Conservation and Sustainability in Historic Cities”, describes Asmara as a “time warp”.

But preservation efforts have been held back in part by Eritrea’s staunch principle of self-reliance. Rodwell said that outside support is sometimes seen as “a threat rather than an opportunity”.

The $5-million World Bank-funded Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project ended in 2007 as funding dried up and relations between the World Bank and Eritrea soured.

EU funding earmarked for architectural restoration projects remains frozen for review.

Denison, the photographer, agrees that preservation efforts could be improved through greater collaboration with outsiders, but notes Eritrea’s rebel-turned-politician leaders have long struggled to balance “self-reliance and collaboration internationally”.

Yet despite stalled progress in recent years, he says he is hopeful that Eritrea’s rich architectural heritage can be preserved.

Jenny Vaughan for AFP

Facebook courting, Mogadishu-style

A tall figure in a black hijab and face veil strides confidently towards 20-year-old Ahmed Noor’s computer terminal. Only her dark brown eyes and eyelashes, thick with mascara, are visible.

On reaching Noor, she lifts her hijab to reveal manicured nails and gold rings on her fingers. In her hand she’s holding a folded white piece of paper. With a wink she passes it to Noor and walks off into the busy street outside.

Noor unfolds the paper. There’s a Facebook profile link and an email address written on it. It’s now up to him to take the next step.

This is post civil-war courting, Mogadishu-style.

In the conservative Muslim society, social networking is a popular and easy way through which Somalis can interact with members of the opposite sex.

Slow internet speeds – fibre optic cables are yet to reach us – and expensive internet café rates of up to 60 US cents per hour do not deter Somalis from staying connected. Internet penetration in the country is only at about 2% but it’s growing, especially among the youth. Currently there are more than 130 000 Facebook users in Somalia and more than half of them are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Despite the hardline al-Shabab group no longer controlling the Somali capital and imposing its own version of Sharia law, many women still wear the face veil. The only place their faces are visible is on their Facebook profiles. Even then, they’re a step ahead in concealing their real identity thanks to photo-editing software.

“Many girls come to us to have their photos altered. We exchange, for example, the head of an actress with theirs so the picture has their face on an actress’s body,” says Sharif Hussein (24) who runs Satellite Photo Studio. It’s conveniently located next to an internet café.

“They usually tell me they want me to photoshop their pictures so they can send it to potential boyfriends or husbands on Facebook.”

Some university students and working professionals prefer studio shoots instead of what Hussein calls a ‘virtual body part swap’. They stop at the Mogadishu Beauty Salon a short drive away to have their hair and make-up done professionally before arriving at his studio.

Saida Ahmed, a colourful woman in both appearance and personality, runs the popular beauty salon. She’s wearing a bright orange dress, her hair is dyed orange with henna and her ear lobes stretch under the weight of gold earrings.

“Some girls come here black and want to look white, so I make sure they leave the salon white. I’m here to help other sisters succeed with their Facebook missions,” she tells me while applying cream on a client’s face.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)

But Somali guys aren’t impressed with the visual tricks girls are employing on Facebook. “They look like Iman [the Somali supermodel] on their Facebook profile and they sound like Farxiya Fiska a [popular female singer] on the phone, but in reality they are neither,” complains Noor.

Back at the internet café where I’m hanging out with him and his friends, all the females are wearing face veils. One of them, Amina (19), is chatting on Facebook and showing off her two Chinese-made smart phones to friends over a webcam.

I ask her about Somali women’s preference for digitally enhanced photos and she retorts that Somali men shouldn’t complain.

“Men in Mogadishu tell lies to your face, we at least tell it behind a screen. They have two, three, four wives and still tell you they are single,” she says, breaking into high-pitched laughter.

Her friend Shamsa calls me over to her terminal and shows me her Facebook friends list. Most of the men on it look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than typical Somalis.

“Guys do the same thing that we do! And worse,” Shamsa points out, clicking through the men’s photos. “They all look like wrestlers. You will not find a skinny Somali man on Facebook. They don’t look like Mo Farah.”

Hussein concurs with Shamsa and admits to helping many men doctor their photos. “Plenty of them come to my studio too. They usually ask me to swap their torsos with those of bodybuilders.”

With these tricks up their sleeves, courting on Facebook can be entertaining and exciting but religious leaders in Mogadishu aren’t happy about it. Sheikh Abdi Haji, a religious studies lecturer at Mogadishu University and imam of Zobe Mosque is vocal in his opposition to youngsters searching for life partners on the social network.

“There is a guy who wanted to marry a lady he met on Facebook. He paid the dowry only to find out on the wedding night she is a cripple. She didn’t tell him before they got married, nor did the pictures on her Facebook show she is a cripple.” Youth should stay away from Facebook, Sheikh Abdi says, because it’s full of “hypocrites”.

Noor, Amina and Shamsa wouldn’t reveal whether flirting on Facebook has paid off for them. They, like other young Somalis, are ever wary of the “religious police” and prefer to keep their relationships quiet to avoid trouble. There’s no way they’ll give up Facebook, though.

Noor takes out the piece of paper that the mysterious young woman had handed to him earlier. He’s going to take the next step. And, he tells me quietly, he’s come up with a solution to avoid being duped by Somali ‘supermodels’.

“I don’t go for girls with very pretty profile photos. They’re photoshopped. If she’s average-looking with spots on her face, I talk to her.”

Hamza Mohamed is an independent Britishi-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter

Somalia: Pray before, during and after your flight

Taking a domestic flight in Somalia is an experience that can best be described as travelling to the brink of death and coming back. The airplanes on the domestic routes are commonly called express flying coffins and those who survive a flight on them are fittingly referred to as coffin dodgers.

Due to the appalling state of the country’s roads and poor road safety more and more Somalis are choosing to fly instead of drive.

On a recent hot humid Thursday afternoon more than 150 of us gathered in the lounge of Mogadishu International Airport to take a flight to Kismayu, Somalia’s third biggest city.

The passengers crowded around the few windows in the lounge, their eyes locked onto a sky-blue plane at the far end of the runway. Dark smoke, the kind that billows from burning tyres at protests, was coming out of the plane’s exhaust. We just knew that plane was going to be our ride for the 45-minute flight.

(Pic: sxc.hu)
(Pic: sxc.hu)

When the gates at the departure lounge opened, everyone rushed towards the plane. I, along with some other quick-footed passengers, chose to run.

As with many domestic flights in Somalia, there are more passengers than available seats. If you don’t literally grab a seat on the plane, you’ll stand for the whole journey despite having paid for a seat.

I was lucky to be one of the first to get on the plane. Seats filled up fast and 25 unlucky passengers were left standing in the aisle.

Competition for seats on a flight can be humbly described as fierce. If you leave yours to go the bathroom, another passenger will grab it before you’ve even negotiated your way through the packed aisle, and you’ll find yourself among those standing when you get back. On a Somali flight, when nature calls you don’t answer!

Most of the seats on this plane were faulty. They had no seat belts and reclined 180 degrees if you touched them. Each passenger had to hold the seat in front of them with both hands. If we didn’t, the seat and the passenger in it would be in our laps during take-off.

Once everyone was on board, a loud male voice pierced through the cacophony of noise. The voice asked all the passengers to be quiet for prayers before take-off.

Then, in an impeccable Somali voice, the teenage-looking steward in a half-buttoned baggy pink shirt said “welcome on board” and proceeded to recite a prayer at the top of his voice (the plane had no PA system and the steward had no megaphone). It was the kind of prayer Somalis normally recite at the graves of their long-gone great grandparents.

For a few seconds everyone was totally silent. Even the crying babies were quiet. I guess reality hit: we were on a plane not fit to fly.

But instead of comforting and reassuring us, the prayer caused silent panic. A lady sitting a few rows in front of me was overcome by fear and the thick smell of sweat in the air. She threw up on the feet of a standing passenger.

A few minutes later, two old, pot-bellied, sun-burnt, sweat-covered, cigarette-smoking, booze-smelling, Eastern European male pilots wearing only shorts climbed up the creaky metal ladder attached to the emergency exit. It had been left open to let air into the plane since the air conditioning had long since seized to function.

Passengers who’ve been on this plane before – and survived – had come prepared with prayer beads and cardboard pieces to use as makeshift fans.

Because of the intense heat and lack of air, babies started crying and parents shouted at the young steward to do something. Since the standing passengers were blocking the main exit, he rushed out of the plane through the emergency exit and returned with empty boxes. He ripped them into small pieces and started distributing them to passengers who did not bring their own cardboard. The situation calmed down a bit then and soon we were in the air.

I was travelling with my colleague Awil and his three-year-old son Lil Abdi. Despite paying for three seats we had two. Children under the age of 14 aren’t allowed to have their own seats even though they are charged for one. They have to sit on one of their parents’ laps. If they’re travelling alone, they have to ride on the laps of strangers.

Lil Abdi was spoilt for choice compared to the other kids on the flight. He had the pick of two laps to sit on for the journey. But he preferred to sit on mine because I was seated next to a window, which had a small crack that let in cold air. The little things like a window crack are attractive bonuses when you’re on a Somali flight.

I should mention that there were no cabins to store our possessions in. Everyone held their bags on their laps. If there’s a child on your lap – which will most likely be the case if you’re flying during the high season – then you leave your bag in the aisle. If there are passengers standing in the aisle, you have no other option but to hold your luggage over your head until you land.

Somalis are usually not scared of death. In fact, death is treated like an intimate neighbour. Sitting on the seat in front of me was an old man who had returned from Milan. He had his grandchild on his lap. He wasn’t worried about dying, just about where his bones would end up if something fatal happened mid-air.

“Do you think our bones will land on the ground or disappear in the air?” he asked the passengers around him. No one responded.

A few minutes later he looked out the window, pointed to the green vegetation on the ground, and said: “Even if my whole clan went out there looking to collect our bones they will not find them.”

By this time, forty-five minutes had already passed so I asked the steward if we should prepare for landing. Looking visibly irritated he said: “It will take us a further twenty minutes because the plane is overloaded and has to fly at slower than normal speed.”

On hearing this, some passengers voiced their displeasure and asked that the plane fly faster. Frustrated with our constant complaints, the steward reminded us all that a few weeks ago another plane that was flying at high speed was targeted by the Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab as it prepared to land because they suspected the flight to be carrying government officials. Our hearts sunk and fresh panic set in again.

Suddenly passengers were scanning the skies for incoming rockets. It was bad enough being on this plane without the fear of being struck down by al-Shabaab.

Fahad, a passenger standing next to our row of seats, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was married. “No,” I said. He wasn’t married either, he told me. “I’m not scared of death but I want to marry and have at least one son before I die. I want to leave something behind on this world.”

I told Fahad the plane could have other plans for us and that al-Shabaab sheikhs may not want to wait for him to marry and have a son.

Perhaps he was looking for reassurance but I just wanted to finish listening to the Dhaanto track on my iPod and then pray for a few minutes in case things went pear-shaped.

With every word I uttered Fahad got more tense. Sensing this, Awil jumped in to comfort him: “If the sheikhs kill us up here we’ll be closer to heaven than if they killed us on the ground.”

I guess the sheikhs were busy with other business that day because we landed all right.

As soon as the plane touched down in Kismayu every passenger was on their feet, rushing for the exit. Some prayed enthusiastically on the dusty airport tarmac, thanking God for allowing them to survive the flight.

As we exited, I told Awil I’d be writing about this experience.

“If you do, we could get banned from future flights,” he said.

“That might just extend our life expectancy,” I replied.

Hamza Mohamed is an independent British-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter.

Ethiopia celebrates return of iconic fossil ‘Lucy’

Not even a head of state can expect this kind of reception in Ethiopia.

When two heavy suitcases with the remains of Lucy were brought to the national museum in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, there was no holding back the emotions of onlookers and even journalists.

The 3.2-million-year-old fossil of a female hominid had been on tour throughout the United States for the past five years. Now Lucy is back in her African homeland. A woman wearing traditional African garb even offered a red rose to welcome Lucy’s return.

“There was a feeling of emptiness in Ethiopia while she was away,” said anthropology professor Berhane Asfaw, who has been researching human evolution for the past 30 years. “Lucy is an icon for all the people in the country.”

US palaeoanthropologist Donald Johanson, who made the discovery of the bones in the Afar Triangle in 1974, also did not pass up the opportunity to take part in the welcoming ceremonies.

“Lucy has a message that overcomes all cultural barriers,” Johanson said. “She is proof that the seven billion people in the world all have the same origin and that basically speaking, we are all Africans.”

But this alone does not explain the worldwide fascination for the skeleton of the “Australopithecus afarensis”, a primate closely related to the Homo genus, which includes modern-day human beings. Johanson said he believes people see more than just a fossil in Lucy.

“She is like a person with whom they can identify,” he said. “In addition, there is naturally an extremely attractive name that comes with it.”

A rare find: the skull of a hominid child known as Australopithecus afarensis, who palaeontologists say lived at a key stage in primate evolution more than three million years ago. (AFP)
A rare find: the skull of a hominid child known as Australopithecus afarensis, who palaeontologists say lived at a key stage in primate evolution more than three million years ago. (AFP)

Lucy got her name because on that November night when Johanson’s team discovered the bones, a tape cassette was playing the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

And what was everyday life like for human-like species back then?

“We assume that Lucy lived in forest areas and was a vegetarian,” Johanson said.

She might have also eaten crocodile and bird eggs, he said, “and she lived more of a nomadic life while sleeping in nests up in the trees as protection against wild animals.”

In her Ethiopian homeland, Lucy is called “dinknesh,” which means the wondrous one. The find was the first proof that our human predecessors could already walk upright 3.2 million years ago.

Although some human-like bones have been found dating back six million years ago, worldwide, it is the name Lucy that has become synonymous with the origin of the human species.

Ethiopia is often mentioned in the same breath as drought and starvation. Its people have long been trying to throw off this negative image, and they have become proud that, thanks to Lucy, the country is also dubbed the “cradle of humanity”.

“There was a huge uproar when she was sent to the United States in 2007,” a taxi driver who gave his name only as Tewodros said. “Many people thought the government had sold Lucy to America.”

Some of the cities in which Lucy was displayed were Houston, Seattle and New York, and the interest was huge. At the same time, the bones were studied further. Now the studies are to be continued in a complex built in the national museum in Addis Ababa.

“The new Ethiopian laboratories meet the highest standards,” Johanson said. “I have no worries whatsoever about Lucy.”

From next Tuesday, the roughly 1-metre tall primate would be unveiled to the public. A five-day special exhibition would make it possible for people to see the original.

After that, however, the skeleton will once again vanish behind thick walls for its own protection. What Ethiopians would have then is a copy of her in the museum – along with the knowledge that Lucy is finally back on her home soil. – Sapa-dpa

You’ve got mail, Somalia

Somalis may soon be receiving letters from abroad for the first time in more than 20 years after a deal was struck with the United Nations’ postal agency – the latest step towards ending Somalia’s isolation following two decades of civil conflict.

But the challenges to bringing the Horn of Africa country back into the global postal community are manifold – there are no functioning post offices, only the main roads are named and most houses do not have a number.

Add to that the ongoing struggle with al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, who still control much of the countryside, and parts of the coastline infested with pirates, and it is clear the UN’s Universal Postal Union (UPU) and its partners have their work cut out.

The Swiss-based UPU said in a statement last Friday that international postal services could start operating again in Somalia within the next few months.

Somalia’s Minister of Information and Communication Abdullahi Hirsi signed a memorandum of understanding with Emirates Post Group this week for Dubai to act as a hub for handling mail destined for Somalia, it said.

(Pic: donovanbeeson/Flickr)
(Pic: donovanbeeson/Flickr)

The UPU, which brokered the deal, said its 192 member countries could resume sending mail to Somalia once the arrangements were finalised.

About 2-million Somalis live abroad and 9.9-million in Somalia, served by a postal network that is “basically inexistant”, the UPU said, having dwindled from 100 post offices in 1991.

UPU spokesperson Rheal LeBlanc said Somalia had created an office at the airport to handle mail moving in and out of the country, initially to service the government, embassies and universities, “but they seem to have plans to phase in postal services across the country over the next few months and years”.

Hirsi said his country would need help getting the post going again.

“We ask for all means of assistance as we have to start from ground zero,” the UPU statement quoted him as saying.

In the latest sign of optimism that Somalia was emerging from its violent recent past, Britain opened an embassy at Mogadishu airport last week after its previous mission closed in 1991 as civil war broke out. – Reuters