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Supporting Africa's Secret City

Will Eritrea’s capital be the cultural glue that ties the country’s past, present and future together?

February 7, 2004

Will Eritrea's capital be the cultural glue that ties the country's past, present and future together?

Poverty in a country like Eritrea cannot be measured solely in terms of material poverty — such as the lack of possessions, food, water, clothing or shelter. It must also encompass cultural poverty if tangible and lasting improvements are to be achieved.

Eritrea is one of the world's poorest countries, where the average annual income hovers around $100 — and where foreign consultants working in the name of development can earn over $25,000 per month.

A recent border war with Ethiopia cost a reported $1 million a day to sustain.

In that context, criticism is often leveled at organizations protecting the cultural heritage of poor nations. They are charged with the self-indulgent preserve of peacetime, while emergency assistance is concerned with survival.

While these efforts are indeed essential, the importance of cultural preservation lies in long-term development. Without it life may be safeguarded — but with little regard for cultural continuity.

The effect of neglecting cultural sensitivities is now being exposed globally, as the course of events in Kosovo and Iraq demonstrates.

The role of the foreigner as helper quickly transforms into one of parasite, with the distance between foreign organizations and their local counterparts growing inexorably as missions seek their exit strategies.

Far from condemning emergency relief, this merely raises a question over current perceptions of 'aid' and to what extent 'aid' is both sensitive to — and responsible for — cultural preservation.

Part of the problem may be the timeframes required to measure the success of cultural preservation, which often far exceed the limited schedules of today's mega-donors.

Cultural preservation cannot be ascribed an annual figure to demonstrate improvement. And it might sometimes only involve maintaining the status quo in the face of widespread change.

When successful, it underpins the broader aims of development, linking the past with the present — and the present with the future. This cohesion gives rise to institutions that we take for granted, but are so often lacking in countries receiving aid.

Eritrea, for example, is home to a wealth of modernist architecture from the 1930s. But it also has had to confront the profound problem concerning the accessibility of information across cultures.

That so little international examination or support of this, or any of Eritrea's magnificent cultural relics, has been attempted is astonishing.

In this context, it is only Eritrea that loses out as a result of this dearth of investigation. An organization called the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project of Eritrea (CARP) is attempting to redress this issue.

It is ironic that one of the most obvious cultural assets through which Eritrea can attract international interest is the unique architectural heritage left by the Italians before their departure in 1941.

Although this architectural marvel was created during one of the darkest periods of African history, the legacy is one for Eritrea to appropriate and utilize within its own contemporary culture and for its own development.

Throughout much of Africa, opposition to the espousal of colonial legacies has been vocal. In contrast, many cities in South America and Asia, for example, have preserved elements of their colonial character — and incorporated them successfully into contemporary culture.

Asmara is adamant to break the traditional African hostility to an acceptance of the continent's colonial history.

Indeed, what are cities if they are not the very embodiment of the evolution of culture over time — a historic record of a country's experiences, good and bad?

The implications for Eritrea evidently go far beyond extolling its colonial architectural heritage. The possibilities for all manner of initiatives to encourage development (largely through tourism), awareness and education are now more attainable than ever before.

Through the appalling legacy of fascist colonialism, Eritrea is learning to utilize this inheritance for its considerable benefit.

One immediately positive derivative of this initiative is that Eritreans are getting their first opportunity to learn about the history and development of their own country and especially their capital city.

Like most post-colonial countries, the roots of Eritrea's drought in education, knowledge and information go back to colonial times.

In 1985, when the Western media was fixated on the appalling famine ravaging Ethiopia, little was stated of the fact that the problem was tied up in the bloody internal conflict of which Eritrea's legitimate struggle for independence was a part.

Nearly two decades later, many of the world's major aid agencies are back in the region tackling the same problems. What can we say has developed in this time?

"Asmara — Africa's Secret Modernist City," is the first international publication with such wide coverage to be written about Eritrean culture since the country became officially independent in 1993 — or, for that matter, ever.

The book was inspired by the relative dearth of information concerning African history and culture. It is an attempt to address this problem in the context of Eritrea — Africa's youngest country and one of the world's poorest.

With almost no natural resources, countries like Eritrea must seek ever more ingenious means of attracting income if they are to successfully preserve and improve their human, social and environmental conditions.

For Eritrea, the book represents an opportunity to promote the more positive aspects of its culture to the international community.

This is all the more important since the only previous attention it could expect was focused on war, famine or poverty (the threat of which continues to weigh all too heavily) — hardly a precursor to sound development.

Slowly but surely, Eritrea is learning to exploit the Western fascination with Asmara to support other development programs.

The latest of these is a project to provide every school and library in Eritrea with a copy of “Asmara — Africa's Secret Modernist City,” together with a range of locally produced books providing insights into other aspects of Eritrean culture. The idea for this came from CARP in an attempt to provide the children of Eritrea with better access to their own cultural past and is being supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK and the World Bank.

“Asmara — Africa's Secret Modernist City” will likely be viewed by Western audiences for what it only partly constitutes — an architectural book about an extraordinary African city.

But let it not go unnoticed that for Eritrea, the task of producing a book such as this is not only infinitely more complicated than undertaking a similar project in a more developed country.

It is also infinitely more valuable, since it represents a single step in attempting to redress a debilitating imbalance that exists between developed and developing countries.

Although a book project like “Asmara — Africa's Secret Modernist City” may not be earth-shattering in its wider significance, it tells of good news from Africa.

That is a welcome rarity in itself and represents an attempt to seek alternative approaches to development that have not been given much hearing, starting with those that know best: local citizens — those most desperate for progress and most to lose from sustaining poverty.