Out Of Africa

Unlike some financial journalists, this writer does not down Pimms in the sunset on the Med. No whimsical musings here from cool and trendy beaches, against a backdrop of idle Yachts at mooring and the idle rich at play.

For this writer is in Eritrea, on the horn of Africa, neighbouring Ethiopia and close to Somalia. The country has been involved in the longest war in African history - an independence struggle and then a border dispute with Ethiopia which has eaten up most of the last 50 years. Military service, even for women, is compulsory, and most of the country's youth (its future) are on standby at the front.

A lack of exports means severe hard currency shortages and petrol rationing is hampering an economy already on its knees. Eritrea, like much of Africa, is waging a war on poverty and disease.

Ask a local, and he will tell you that the weather is the country's food. For some, it literally is. The warm climate is perhaps the only thing this country has going for it - although, in some parts of the country during summer, temperatures reach 120F degrees and it is simply too hot to venture outside.

No thought here, then, of flash cars and large houses. No concerns over pay rises and big bonuses - to simply be alive today is a bonus in itself.

But the internet has arrived, along with the nation's first Five Star Hotel (used mainly now by diplomats, visiting Arabs and members of The United Nations Peace Keeping Force). There are plans to build a huge casino complex in the port - to attract visitors who are unable to gamble in their own countries, mainly for reasons of religion. Trendy jazz bars are now sprouting up all over the capital. In Eritrea, it seems, two worlds do collide.

It is hard for a 'well off' Westerner, even this one who has been a visitor to Eritrea for many years, to comprehend the contradictions in this country. It is struggling to escape from a time-warp. The poverty and strife are all too apparent, but the endless possibilities for the future also loom large. Eritrea has an opportunity to reinvent the wheel of progress. To develop a free commercial market structure without the attendant excesses of greed and avarice. But it won't. There are already signs that Consumption will soon be King. Come back in 10 years and most Eritreans will be like the rest of us. Better off financially, yes, but driven to acquire material goods as a means of self-validation. A pity, but also an inevitability. Whatever, it will surely be a shame.

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