Monday, February 25, 2013

A conversation with David Stanley


David Stanley

Issayas: Would you tell us briefly about yourself?

David Stanley: Since 1979 I’ve authored numerous travel guidebooks to the Pacific Islands, Alaska, Canada, Cuba, and Eastern Europe for Lonely Planet and Moon Handbooks. My travels have taken me to 184 of the 193 United Nations member countries. I’m now retired and currently live on Vancouver Island, Canada.

Issayas: How did you hear about Eritrea?

David: Since a trip around Ethiopia in 2009 I’ve been keen to visit Eritrea. And when I came across the very reasonably priced 10-day tour package to Eritrea offered by Undiscovered Destinations in the UK, I booked immediately at

Issayas: When and which places to did you visit in Eritrea?

David: In December 2012 I visited Asmara, Keren, and Massawa with a driver/guide from Explore Eritrea Travel & Tour Agency in Asmara. Of course, I enjoyed the good restaurants, cafes, and architecture in Asmara but Keren was the highlight of my trip. I was able to arrange an extra night there and it was well worth it. The markets of Keren are among the most colorful in Africa and the surrounding countryside is beautiful. The crumbling Ottoman buildings and streets of old town of Massawa were also fascinating.

Issayas:  Many non-Eritrean visitors to Eritrea talk about the plethora of colors in Eritrea. Do you agree?

David: Easily, the most colorful Eritrean city for me was Keren, be it in the dress of the people, the exteriors of the buildings, and even the variety of animals. The countryside along Filfil Road between Keren and Massawa is said to display a delicate green but much of the way was cloud covered the day we passed through. I suppose one could also say the food and drink served in Asmara is colorful.

Issayas: What is your impression of the people, country etc.?

David: Having visited all but six of the 51 countries and territories of Africa I say with some authority that the Eritreans are among the friendliest, most helpful, and most hospitable people on the continent. I roamed the markets and back streets of Asmara, Keren, and Massawa without a guide and never felt threatened. I was also very impressed with the honesty of the Eritreans and was never aware of being charged “tourist price”. This combined with all there is to see and do makes Eritrea a unique travel destination just waiting to be discovered. Here the cliché really does fit the reality.

Issayas:  The pictures you took are impressive. If there were so many things and places to take, how did you choose what to take?

David: Before leaving for Eritrea I used guidebooks and the web to compile a list of things to see in the places I knew I’d be visiting. I got to most of them and took the usual photos but I also snapped lots of street and market scenes. Almost everyone was happy to have their picture taken and I was never asked for money.

As an aside, I’d like to comment on the phrase often repeated in Western media that Eritrea is the “North Korea of Africa.” Having spent three weeks in North Korea in 2010 I feel I’m qualified to compare these countries. And for travelers, the two have very little in common. In North Korea, one is not allowed to leave their hotel without a guide. In Eritrea, no such restriction applies. In North Korea, one must ask the permission of one’s guide to take photographs and there are strict guidelines. In Eritrea, the only time I was asked not to take a picture was outside the Presidential Palace, for security reasons I assume. In North Korea, tourists can only eat at the restaurants where their guides take them. In Eritrea, tourists can enter virtually any restaurant or café and order whatever they wish. I also found local Eritreans quite willing to talk with me in a relaxed and open way. In North Korea, tourists can only speak with their guides and hotel staff or people who have been selected to mix with them. Those who use the canard the “North Korea of Africa” when referring to Eritrea are either completely ignorant of reality or have bad intentions. For travelers, Eritrea is probably as different from North Korea as it is possible to be.

Issayas: David, thank you for your time.

David: You're welcome.

All pictures are courtesy of David Stanley.

Below: Asmara, Eritrea

Below: Massawa, Eritrea


 Below: Mendefera, Eritrea

Below: The ruins of Adulis, Eritrea

 Below: Dekemhare, Eritrea

Below: Keren, Eritrea                                                        

Monday, February 18, 2013

Guest Writer: Abraham T.Zere

                                      Guest Writer                                 

Abraham Tesfalul Zere

                      Joining Africa Connects Eritrea

                                                    by Abraham T.Zere  

Eritreans face difficulties recommending books to friends or even to the young Diaspora generation who cannot not read books written in the indigenous languages. Although Eritrea is very rich in oral and written literatures, most books remain inaccessible to international readers. Thus, many Eritreans find it difficult to introduce their new country that is relatively unknown internationally. Equally, they cannot substantiate their discussions about Eritrea with credible secondary sources. Charles Cantalupo, a name frequently mentioned in relation to Eritrean literature, has now contributed his lion’s share in connecting Eritrea to Africa and the world.

Joining Africa From Anthills to Asmara (Michigan State University Press, 2012)  not only connects Eritrea to international readers, but it also contextualizes or keeps Eritrea in the loop with other African countries. A long tradition of Eritrean and Ethiopian highlanders trying to dissociate themselves from other African countries has created a space and separation between Eritrea and much of the rest of the African continent.  Furthermore, Italy’s infamous colonization of the region has prevented the creation of a conducive educational environment for Eritreans to introduce themselves and their literature to other African countries, thus exacerbating Eritreans’ isolation and aloofness.  To move beyond such a legacy, Joining Africa attempts to connect the dots to introduce the new nation as it has never been seen before.

Cantalupo’s effort to reveal Eritrean literature to international readers so that they can begin to recognize its unique and powerful beauty reaches back over fifteen years. He translated two books of poetry by the late Reesom Haile, We Have Our Voice (2000) and We Invented the Wheel (2002).  With Ghirmai Negash, Cantalupo translatedand edited the first poetry anthology in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic, Who Needs a Story? (2005).  Again with Ghirmai Negash, he translated the Eritrean epic poem “Negusse Negusse” (2008)  He wrote a critical analysis, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (2009).  He co-organized and initiated the famous “Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures in the 21st Century” conference in Asmara (2000), where he also co-authored a major outcome of the conference, “The Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.”  Subsequently, he wrote and directed a documentary on the same event, and he has been presenting  papers on Eritrean literature at different conferences and universities around the world ever since.

 Also the editor of Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts & Contexts (1995)  and The World of Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1995), Cantalupo firmly stands on Ngugi’s position that African literatures should be written in indigenous languages to sustain  both the languages themselves and to lead to the production of their most significant literary achievements. 

Joining Africa’s first chapter documents Cantalupo’s earliest experience in Africa:  a visit to Egypt, which developed out of a kind of religious pilgrimage he had made to Jerusalem for consolation on the death of his first wife. Slowly, he is charmed by Africa and embarks on trips to Senegal, Togo, Morocco, and Kenya. Unlike his Italian  fellow tourists who say, “Sporchi, sporchi, sporchissimi (dirty, dirty…)” when on safari in Kenya, Cantalupo interacts and befriends the locals.  Not that he is above acting like a tourist in search of adventures, especially in his earliest travels; but he matures, in part, at least, due to his dual roles as a poet and a professor who observes with open eyes and respects cultures and traditions not necessarily his own.

He makes friends and connections quickly.  For example, at a three-day conference that he organizes in 1994 on Ngugi was Thiong’o at Penn State University, Ngugi recommends that he should meet the Eritrean publisher, Kassahun Checole.  It is the beginning a relationship that richly unfolds throughout much of the book and continues to thrive to this day.

Kassahun suggests, “While you are in Israel, you should take some time to go little farther and visit my country, Eritrea.” Cantalupo does, landing in 1995 in a country he knows almost nothing about – including its being colonized by his Italian  forefathers – but that immediately captivates him for the rest of his life.  Soon after he returns to the United States, with Kassahun Checole, he initiates the idea of an African languages and literatures conference that would bring together African writers and intellectuals from all over the continent and the world who write in indigenous African languages. Ngugi supports and joins the initiative, inspiring Cantalupo to start writing proposals and approaching all kinds of foundations, corporations and other institutions, including other countries and the UN to make such a unique and monumental gathering possible.  Subsequently, for the conference to take place in 2000, it literally has to live up to its name, “Against All Odds,” or it never would have happened since the obstacles that block its path become all but insurmountable.  At this point in Joining Africa, Cantalupo’s work becomes inextricably woven with the history of Eritrea itself.    

Dense and beautifully narrated, Joining Africa similarly takes note of many important historical landmarks in Eritrean history and literatures. A professor of literature – including English, African, and comparative literature – Cantalupo repeatedly associates and compares Eritrean literature with many examples of world literature. Avoiding the boredom of too many facts, he deftly presents critical historical developments so that a reader feels no sense of being lectured or talked down to but
is instead led through a maze of fascinating information as readily as if it was the subject of a Google search.  Moreover, the narrative moves lightly and quickly  as, for example, in the following brief anecdote, compressing a wealth of painful and sensitive Eritrean history into two few lines.

          Deliberately responding in English, “my pleasure,” I was beginning to
          feel self-conscious speaking mostly Italian when it was the language
          after all, of oppressive and murderous colonial regime,despite its
          making Asmara look like its own little “nouva Roma.” Italian colonial
          rule took over the Eritrean economy, denied Eritrean children an
          education beyond fourth grade, and kicked Eritreans off the sidewalks
          so that the Italians could walk there by themselves. (102)

Cantalupo goes back and forth, swinging between historical events and actual anecdotes to illuminate their meaning as readily yet fully as possible.

The “joiner” Cantalupo, as Reesom Haile jokingly calls him, playing with the literal meaning of the Tigrinya word, “getamay,” joins and not only takes but gives far more.  At times the book can read enchantingly as fiction, and a reader can lose track of the real person who seems never to tire of exploring the diverse and even enigmatic Eritrean character.

It is particularly highlighted on Joining Africa’s front cover, which has six hands joining to eat the traditional Tihlo, symbolizing the spirit of togetherness and making the  guest comfortable to join them.  On a larger scale, the book itself depicts a friendly and welcoming Eritrean people who are rich in oral and written traditions.

 The book also narrates the lighter and humane side of many famous people. Closely linked to Cantalupo are:  the man of few words in the book but whose presence  makes a major difference in Cantalupo’s work and life, Ngugi wa Thiang’o; the visionary Kassahun Checole; the composed and focused Zemhret Yohannes; the performer and distinguished poet, the late Reesom Haile; the foremost Eritrean literary scholar, Ghirmai Negash, and many more distinct personalities who constantly appear one way or another.

At times Joining Africa reads like a thriller, twisting and turning, while at other times the book is comic, provoking laughter.  Once a reader starts Joining Africa, he or she  won’t want to stop, encountering important diplomats, politicians, and UN officials one after another, whose various antics border on the unbelievable were they not so serious or silly, depending on the situation.  For example, a reader cannot help but laugh at the French diplomat who remarks to Cantalupo at the end of the Against All Odds conference – whose primary aim was to motivate writing in indigenous African languages –  that France does not “have a problem with African  languages” in West Africa since, “[e]veryone speaks French.”

Joining Africa exhibits a unique and powerful credibility because its narration of Eritrean history can withstand the most rigorous fact checking of what it presents.  Furthermore, even though Cantalupo knows very little Tigrinya, he repeatedly quotes Tigrinya words, phrases, and sometimes full sentences.  Moreover, the precision and accuracy of what he chooses to quote builds a readers sense of confidence in his text.  Narrating a period of Eritrean history in which a new nation has known intense  joy as well as disappointment, Joining Africa goes beyond being a personal memoir of Charles Cantalupo.  It can be read as a post-independence, historical and literary memoir of Eritrea.

The book could be purchased from amazon. Here is the link:

I would like to thank Abraham for this article.

The guest writer of this article is Abraham Tesfalul Zere. Abraham has been working as teaching assistant in the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature in Eritrea for seven years in Eritrea. In addition to his regular duties in the department, Abraham has worked as a freelance journalist for different local media outlets and as an editor for Hdri publishers. Currently Abraham is pursuing his graduate studies in African Studies Program, Ohio University with specialization in African literature.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A converstion with mutli award winner fashion designer and architect, Zekaryas Solomon

Part II

Zekaryas Solomon: award winner designer and architect

 Issayas: I love your designs. Are your designs already on the market?

Zekaryas: Thank you Issayas. I am glad you like them and thankful for supporting. Until now I have been designing for private clients.We are working hard to get the  Zekaryas Solomon ready-to-wear collection for 2013 and hopefully all is going to work out as we are planning it.

Issayas: Eritrea is entering a stage called "zla/taking off".  As I've mentioned earlier, your work is a great asset for Eritrea. Have you thought of as to how your work could be incorporated with the development project of Eritrea? For example, your designs to be mass produced by Zaer textile Corp. or other Eritrean textile factories.

Zekaryas: What a great news ! I have been following the news about the new development program over the Christmas time. I am very happy and proud about it seeing how our country is developing whilst we have seen all over the world crises and similar economical and ethical problems. Of course I have always been thinking to do some cooperative work with some Eritrean industrial companies. As I have said before, I haven't started to mass produce my designs.  All were done by myself in my studio, but this will be the future plan as I always wanted to create job opportunities and homemade quality products. The other thing is  that everyone has been pushing me since the 2nd Investment Conference that was held in Asmara at the end of last year to go back home and teach fashion as I am doing it here in London.

Issayas: What is your future plan? Do you plan to design women and children cloths?

Zekaryas: My future plan is to market and expand my designs / Label worldwide. Women's wear is already done after creating two men's wear collection my last collection was women's wear called: (elegance & dynamic) and of course accessories (bags and  tie’s) for men and women. Children clothes I wouldn't mind but as a young designer first of all you haven't got the time and budget to design  all kind of designs you have to concentrate on one or two things to do them very well with the time you can expand. In the far future may be who knows.





Check out  Zekaryas' work on the following:

Issayas: I would like to thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule to my constant bugging. You are a great role model for young Eritreans. I would like to see your products around the world.  Wish you all the success. We'll continue this conversation as your dreams continue to flourish.

Zekaryas: Thank you, Issayas.

Pictures are all courtesy of Zekaryas Solomon.