[dehai-news] The Ghosts of Famine and Drought I could not find in Eritrea, Part I

From: Dawit Habte <goblel_at_hotmail.com_at_dehai.org>
Date: Sun, 23 Oct 2011 20:45:16 -0400

The Ghosts of Famine and Drought I could not find in Eritrea, Part I


Here are few news items about the drought in Eritrea that had saturated the international media few months before my trip to Eritrea: 1. Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, July 19, 2011

“…there may be many more in need of assistance in Eritrea, where a repressive regime fails to provide data on the humanitarian needs of its own people….We urge the Government of Eritrea to cooperate with the UN agencies and other international organizations to address the issue of hunger and food shortage in that country.”


2. Daniel Howden, Africa Correspondent, The Independent, 30 July 2011

“Concerns are mounting of a possible hidden famine in Eritrea while international aid agencies scramble to fill a "black hole" in information coming out of the isolated Horn of Africa nation.”


3. Luc Van Kemenade, The Huffington Post, July, 30, 2011  

“Eritrea, a nation of 5 million people that borders Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, has also seen failed rains and widespread food shortages…. Satellite images show that the Red Sea nation has been hit by drought conditions similar to those in Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.”


4. Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, August 10, 2011

“We believe there is a famine in Eritrea, but we’re deeply concerned that none of us know because they have barred UN agencies, barred NGOs. It has become a black hole in terms of governance and humanitarian ground truth.”


5. Staff Writers, Agence France Press, August 30, 2011

“In Ethiopia's Endabaguna refugee camp, rows of gaunt Eritreans clad in rubber sandals give vent to their exasperation after days of trekking and dodging soldiers in an attempt to escape failed crops, hunger and an autocratic government.”


6. Martin Plaut Africa editor, BBC World Service, September 4, 2011

“The drought and famine that is devastating the Horn of Africa is affecting more than 12 million people…Yet one country in the region, Eritrea, says it has escaped the crisis, reaping a bumper harvest earlier this year…But evidence is now mounting that the real situation in the secretive country may be rather different, with up to two in three Eritreans going hungry.”


 Part I: The home bound journey and the pleasant surprise

The misinformation and misgivings that are laid out in the preamble of this note will hopefully help you appreciate the details of my observations in Eritrea. To some this might not be that impressive, but as for me, the height and density of wheat, barley, maize (corn), and sorghum plants I saw on the roads outbound from Asmara, the peace and ease of travel across the country, and of course the number of young children I observed playing soccer in the streets of Asmara were some among the many that impressed me the most in the two weeks I stayed in Eritrea attending my sister’s wedding.

Two weeks prior to my departure, I had a long phone conversation with one of my relatives who wanted to send a laptop to his son in Eritrea. He had lots of misinformation of what is required to import a computer into Eritrea. I don’t want to go into the details here but some of it, I guess, may be is misinformation from his sources, and the rest could be misunderstanding on his part. Nevertheless, we agreed that I will help him choose a decent laptop and take it to Asmara and that his son would also be responsible for the required import tax at the airport in Asmara.

The Saturday before my departure to Eritrea, September 10, 2011, a group of Dehai friends were waiting at ECCC with a set of soft and hard copies of science, math and engineering books to send to Eritrea, books one would not find shelved with the Agatha Christies, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Ian Flemings. They gave me clear and stern instructions on which 3-4 books to take and which ones to leave if weight was going to be an issue. Initially I was shocked by all the weight they expected me to carry, but I was also impressed by the quality of the books, particularly the software engineering ones and was determined to do everything under the sun to make sure all these books reached their destination. In addition they gave me a hard drive that could help start a digital library. For those familiar with the ECCC, we were sitting on the first booth by the window, on the right side when facing the bar, away from the stage. As I was thinking of my trip and all the weight I had to haul, my friends were e ntertaining themselves with some uninhibited, open-ended jokes that only those familiar with Dehai Retreat bonfire would appreciate. As much as I had wanted to stay and enjoy their company, I had to leave to continue packing.

Sunday September 11 was less eventful than the day before. Considering I was traveling for mere two weeks, I had very little personal effects to pack. But, no matter how you see it, there is no such thing as a small Eritrean wedding. As such, the two suitcases I am permitted to carry on international flights were asymptotically reaching their legal weight limit with some wedding articles that I never knew were needed when I volunteered to carry books. In other words the space and weight left for the books was fast approaching zero, nada. The curse and blessings of books is that they can be heavy while taking little space. Because of this I decided to carry all the books as part of my carryon luggage. Don’t forget I am also carrying laptops (one mine and the second one my cousin’s)! I informed my uncle who drove me to the airport to stick around in case I was told I could not carry them all. I wanted him to take back the non-critically needed books. I was lucky; I was waved in without any problem. That wa s a big relief. The books as well as my other luggage made it safe from Washington DC to NY City then Frankfurt and finally Asmara. I didn’t feel the weight of the books until I had to carry them down the airplane stairs at the Asmara international airport, Monday evening. But this was of little pain; the heavy burden of ensuring these books made it to Eritrea has been lifted off my shoulders.

At the Asmara international airport, the standard routine passport checkup and entry visa issuance process went smooth. While waiting for my luggage to arrive, I went to the customs section of the airport and told the officer on duty that I wanted to declare a laptop that I had brought with me for someone. She told me to sit at the couch across her desk while she finishes the paperwork. Instead of waiting there, I asked her if I could go outside to get some Nakfa to pay for the tariff to avoid coming back to the airport during the weekdays. She told me it really was not up to her but I could ask the guards. I went to the exit of the airport and asked one of the guards what I had wanted to do; he told me to proceed through the door but to get back as quickly as I could. I went outside to find my cousin who was supposed to wait for me with the expected customs money; but he was nowhere to be found. I collected the approximate money I thought would be needed for the tariff from my dad and other relatives who we re waiting for me and went back. By the time I got back, the customs’ officer had finished filling the necessary information about the computer and was waiting for me to pay and sign a paper. While signing the paper, I jokingly asked her how much the damage was. She responded with a smile: “don’t worry this time you will only pay fifty five”, or something to that effect. Wow, I thought I was lucky. I was expecting north of eight thousand Nakfa and here I am being asked to pay only fifty-five hundred nakfa. That was a huge relief. Except, my experience in the streets of Nairobi, Kenya coupled with my experience in Asmara’s shops had taught me to never take a first offer at its face value. Everything is negotiable with the soothing words “eti Haqu de’a?” I tried to negotiate down (again jokingly) by asking her to give me some break. She politely smiled and looked away and instantly, I saw the number on the paper I was signing; it read “55 Nakfa”. I was not sure what to think at the time. I asked her what had happened to eliminate the import tax on computers. (From past experience I knew that 55 Nakfa was a nominal “stamp” tax, not an import tax.) The customs officer explained that a new regulation had been issued declaring laptops and other computers as “necessities” and not “luxury” goods any more. And as any other “necessity” goods, laptops and other computer hardware are exempted from import tax. To me this was a significant change.

You see, back in 1999 – 2004, I had tried to explain to a number of individuals that by lumping computer technology with “luxury” goods, all the government did was put the advancement of technology at the mercy of merchants who had no idea of the value of the technology they were trading. Once a merchant in Eritrea imports some computer hardware, he/she will keep the hardware in stock for up to 4 years and try to sell it at the price set when the hardware was initially purchased; oblivious of the fact that the value of the hardware had significantly depreciated in price as well as quality. By declaring computer hardware as “necessity” goods and eliminating the detrimental import tax, the quality of computers in Eritrea will significantly increase and a lot of people will think twice before considering selling outdated hardware to the good folks in Eritrea. Going back to the laptop, after paying the fifty-five Nakfa nominal “stamp” tax and collecting the two checked-in luggage, I went outside an d found my cousin with the rest of the family. My cousin told me that he had brought the money his dad had told him to bring and asked how much the tax was. I told him about the elimination of the import tax on computers and the only money he owed me was the fifty-five Nakfa stamp tax I paid on his behalf. He was one lucky chap; he had his laptop a spare of thousands of Nakfa meant for import tax.

To be continued...


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