How to Navigate Ketema as a Diaspora in Eritrea

Asmara is home to 13 neighborhoods, but there’s one everyone hears about. Maekel Ketema translates to “Middle of the City,” or it’s alias, Ketema, is home to a slew of cafes and iconic vintage photography that natives and diaspora see everyday including Cinema Impero in Asmara, built during Italian occupation in 1937, and the stark lining of palm trees, “Arko Ko Bey” down Godena Harnet.

Ketema is more than a meeting point for locals, a shopping district for outsiders or a farmer’s market on Saturday morning’s. It’s a junction between the traditional and secular Asmara – a place where school girls including my mother wore skirts to school in the ‘70s, to now where women wear tight denim and chuck taylor’s and publicly smoke cigarettes. It’s the Times Square of Asmara – [the neighborhood] in the city that never sleeps – and a free market where expats, educators, tourists, and beggars make their money and play.

Like many diaspora, I spent the summer frequenting Ketema on solo and group walks. Living with my aunt’s family in Barbereket gave me a bird-eye’s view of life in Ketema and my experiences there have compelled me to post a two-part list of tips aimed to guide diaspora on navigating this special place.

1. Cab drivers will charge you the “diaspora” fee.

No, that’s not a real fee – I made it up. But there might as well be one at the rate cab drivers charge foreigners during “beles season” or cremti. The advice keen to foreigners traveling in the capital is to board the non-contracted cab that charges 10 Nakfa. What you don’t hear is that the contracted cabs are the ones you’ll likely find stationed on two roads in Ketema; the block west of the Cathedral and a block east of Impero. Since I was already in the center, I walked everywhere, yet there were times where I had to rely on transportation. Cabbies quoted me at inconceivable prices whether alone or with family. The contracted cabs are 70 Nakfa and your foreign money silently raises that fare to 80-100 Nakfa, and depending on where you are and the hour of service, your fare could fall between 200-300.

2. Hawey, Did you just brush past me?

I credit my high school’s location, Chinatown in New York City, as the years where I got used to bumps, shoves and shoulder knocks. Honestly, all of those unflattering encounters with strangers happen anywhere in NYC, but my brush ups with native Eritreans felt slightly uncomfortable at first. I experience it at shuq, and in expected crowded areas like the bus and on the dance floor of a club. What differs in Asmara is the response you’ll likely receive. Nothing, but a cold stare. No “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” because those habits aren’t ingrained in society. Don’t catch a hissy fit. Don’t get overwhelmed. And don’t be quick to react.

3. Shops Close During Lunch Hours.

In America, shops close when they can’t afford to stay in business. In Asmara, shop owners close their business everyday. As an American who (once) spent senselessly in brand name retailers like Macy’s and H&M, I haven’t encountered problems with working hours until I wanted to buy a chiffon and several sharba’s in Ketema. While normal operating hours are between 8:00 A.M and 8:00 P.M., shops in Asmara close around noon (lunch time) and re-open at 3, or sometimes 4:00 P.M. Keep this in mind when you decide to run errands during those hours or need to connect with government offices because the door will likely be closed.

4. Sometimes, the bus is not an option.

Asmara is a metropolitan city, and Ketema looks and feels the most city-like. So I challenge you to exercise your judgment as a pedestrian and practice caution while on the public bus. Firstly, it’s crowded throughout the day. Also, there’s a sense of flight in everyone there which is exacerbated at the bus stations. Know the buses are crammed and everyone around you will try their hardest to board and exit before you do. (Don’t think anyone will show their sympathy or compassion for you as a foreigner waiting to get on.) One advantage is bus routes are abundant, and once you configure how to get from one neighborhood to another, your options increase. But please walk if you can and take a cab if you have the money. Travel with other natives you know. But under any circumstance, don’t rely on the bus because sometimes, it is not an option.

Writer’s note: More tips to follow in a subsequent post.

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