Flies and Photos in Tessenei

One week after settling into Eritrea, I engaged in a six-day tour around the country led by the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS), which doesn’t operate under any ministry governmental organization. The tour’s title “Zura N’ Hagerka” means “Tour Your Country,” and in three words the journey was restless, unpredictable and illuminating.

 For just 9,900 nakfa, I and 27 other diaspora went to factories that processed the country’s milk and dug its coal, and somewhere between those stops we visited the Italian, English and Eritrean war cemeteries there since the 1950s. All places that wouldn’t be granted to us if it hadn’t been for NUEYS, and its platform. We even got a chance to dance with youth in Tessenei, after I proudly stood up (after the person next to me) and told everyone I graduated with a journalism degree last year. It was part of the ‘homecoming’ experience, to drink boon (even though I’m not fond of coffee), stay in their town a little while, and interact with them.

Along the routes we took, I and others visited four towns including Tessenei, which I presented on a map below.

My first night in Tessenei – a market town about 28 miles bordering Sudan – struck me as a place of migration. Life felt a little different – raisins in the rice, glass bottled Coco-Cola (not plastic like I got used to drinking in Asmara), and I even noticed men walking casually, together. I would later learn an uncle also goes there to sell clothes he cops from Asmara. My aunt did the same thing a few times. Tessenei seemed to fuse of modern and traditional customs, Muslims working alongside Christians, civilians living in huts, and the reliance on horses used to transport food and goods.

Until this drop in town, I hadn’t been recording my observations. That all changed the night I found myself in a situation with the flies of Cosina Hotel.

As the dusk slowly fell on us, we reached the hotel around seven in the evening. After checking in, my roommate and I was assigned to the last room on the second floor. I noticed a problem before even sticking the key inside the door. I saw a shattered mosquito blind to the left, which failed to shield the balcony door. Mind you, I spotted a mighty spider web at the door’s corner (but I digress).

A street view of parked tour bus in Tessenei, Eritrea on July 28, 2014.
A street view of parked tour bus in Tessenei, Eritrea on July 28, 2014.

When opening the room, a hundred or so flies met us at the center of the room, and flooded our bathtub. I couldn’t think of a better excuse to scream, yet I didn’t. Although the idea of resting there for two nights seemed unbearable I charged through my displeasure and joined forces with a few other girls in a similar situation ready to take action.

My roommate, an Eritrean-Canadian, whom was very level-headed about the ordeal took up her discomfort with our floormates. We, then, realized we were at a disadvantage and had to reconsider about approaching management since this really was an issue about the lack of hotel maintenance and not at the fault of any crewmen on the trip. We quickly understood the flies (a few alive; most were dead) was everyone’s problem, and thought this could only weaken our argument.

When thinking about how to turn our room into a fly-free zone, I found a broom stashed in the room’s dresser and swept the insects into the runway of the halls for about 15 minutes. And when I couldn’t hold my bladder any longer, I took my toilet paper and handled my business in the insect-infested bathroom. (That’s the day I calmly yanked two bugs off my neck.)

As the sun arose, and so did we (in our new room), talk of which room held the most flies ended and I began to shoot photos of people in Eritrea for myself and an Instagram account I asked to be featured in a month ahead of my arrival.

I wanted to capture the diversity of Eritrea, its nine ethnic groups, what they looked like and if there was a way to show how they lived, that would satisfy me, too. I’m returning to a statement I had written earlier about Tessenei’s qualities. Huts or agdo, herders, merchants, migrants from neighboring countries and if that didn’t work, at the least, I thought it was Ramadan and I was curious to know what life felt like this time of the year.

I told Yohanna, my roommate, about developing my photographs and more importantly the things I shoot. She’s taking up political science, but some of her thoughts mirrored mine and the next morning we set out to do some street photography two blocks away from Cosina.

That wasn’t successfully. 

When I asked an elderly merchant dressed in white if I could take his photo. He declined and showed me why which said more than he could’ve by verbally telling me. He waved his hands down, gesturing his attire – the long white robe, known as a thwab. From his view, Ramadan wasn’t the right time to be in anyone’s photo. So, in spite of backing off, this didn’t avert my operation or hinder me from approaching other Muslims.

I took my chance when asking Azieb the same thing. The difference is that this time I had been alone. After sitting in front of the hotel for some time, I spotted another merchant on the same block of Costina. I figured that having a female over a male store owner in a photo was worth more in an industry largely male. A lot of the zuria’s sold at ‘shuq’ (market) in Asmara are owned by men and the tailors were often their younger male relatives.

A boutique owner maintains her storefront between shopper drop ins on July 27, 2014 in Tessenei, Eritrea.
A boutique owner maintains her storefront between shopper drop ins on July 27, 2014 in Tessenei, Eritrea.

Azieb symbolized a country, as few as 4.5 million people, that respected the right of a woman to work. And yeah, it’s always a fuzzy-inducing feeling to watch your grandmother protect a tradition of decorating a mogogo or grow Meshela on her half an acre land. But what’s equally empowering is a woman who runs her business.

When approaching Azieb, she stopped her store work to hear me. “Is it alright to take your photo?” I said. “Why take my photo, there are other [people] around?” she retorted. My reply was simple – I told her that I fancied her dress. Plus I thought the mannequins clothed in similar wear behind her made a modest backdrop.

In retrospect, this scene influenced me to question my place on the homeland and how strangers might perceive me because of it. I didn’t think about the shyness most Eritreans present to foreigners, and how Azieb’s questions could’ve easily been a result of her unwillingness to pose in a photo out of perception and not based on fear. She had nothing to lose, and I everything to gain. It’s another example of cultural clashes, where Americans find taking photos with strangers or to strangers naturally than someone in Eritrea. I also believe that my passable, and not fluent, Tigrinya worked in my favor in cases where the person communicating understood my ignorance to such cultural norms and perceived me as less threatening.

 

As a participant of the B group of Zura N’ Hagerka in 2014, a six-day tour organized by the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, I got the chance to experience local life, as well as get a look into the past by visiting monumental sites including the Al-Sahaba Mosque in Massawa, St. Maryam Dearit in Keren, a milk farm in Elabered, and many others. Click on a marker to find the towns|stops made on the tour along with a brief reaction and accompanying image.

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