Scarred by decades of conflict and occupation, the craggy African nation of Eritrea has weathered the world's longest-running guerrilla war. The dogged determination that secured victory against Ethiopia, its giant neighbor, is woven into the national psyche, the product of cynical foreign interventions. Fascist Italy wanted Eritrea as the springboard for a new, racially pure Roman empire; Britain sold off its industry for scrap; the United States needed a base for its state-of-the-art spy station; and the Soviet Union used it as a pawn in a proxy war.
In I Didn't Do It for You, Michela Wrong reveals the breathtaking abuses this tiny nation has suffered and, with a sharp eye for detail and a taste for the incongruous, tells the story of colonialism itself and how international power politics can play havoc with a country's destiny.
About the Author
Michela Wrong has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She has written about Africa for Slate.com and is a frequent commentator on African affairs in the media. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, won the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Nonfiction. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
I Didn't Do It for YouHow the World Betrayed a Small African Nation
By Michela Wrong
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Michela Wrong
All right reserved.
The City Above the Clouds
'That thin air had a dream-like texture, matching the porcelainblue of the sky, with every breath and every glance he took in a deep anaesthetising tranquillity.'
Lost Horizons, James Hilton
Whenever I land in Asmara, a novel read in adolescence comes to mind. It tells the story of a small plane whose pilot turns hijacker. Crash-landing in a remote part of the Himalayas, he dies of his injuries before he can explain his bizarre actions to the dazed passengers. They emerge from the wreckage to be greeted by a wizened old monk, who leads them to a citadel hidden above the peaks, a secret city whose existence has never been recorded on any map. They are welcomed to Shangri-La, where, breathing the chill air that wafts from the glaciers and surveying the world from a tremendous height, they begin reassessing their lives with the same calm detachment and cosmic clarity as the monks. But as time goes by, they learn they must make a terrible choice. They can stay in Shangri-La and live forever, for their hosts have discovered something approaching the secret of eternal youth. Or they can plunge back into the hurly-burly of the life they knew and eventually die as ordinary mortals, grubbing around down on the plains.
Flying in from Cairo, where even during an early-morning stopover the air blasted radiator-hot through the open aircraft door, one always had the sense of landing in a capital locate where, by rights, it had no place to be.
Even in the satellite photos Eritrea, a knobbly elongate( triangle lying atop Ethiopia, its giant neighbour to the south seems an inhospitable destination, a landscape still too raw for human habitation. The route the planes follow takes you over mile upon relentless mile of dun-coloured desolation, mach beautiful only by the turquoise fringe where sand meets sea' a beauty that you know would evaporate if ever you ventured down to sea level to brave the suffocating heat. A spray of islands, the Dahlak, show only the faintest dusting of green. The rolling coastal sands, which show up from outer space as a strip of pearly-pink, run from the port of Massawa north-west to the border of Sudan. To the south-east, where a long, thin finger of land points towards Djibouti, the rock turns a forbidding black. Volcanic lava flows have created a landscape grimmer than the surface of the moon. This is the infamous Danakil Depression, said to be the hottest place on earth, where summer temperatures touch heights feared by even the whippet-thin Afar tribesmen. Behind this flat coastal strip, the land billows up to form a magnificent escarpment, the ripples of hills deepening into jagged waves of dark rock, a giant crumple of mountain creased by empty ravines and bone-dry river beds. It is only in the triangle's western corner, where Eritrean territory juts and bulges into northern Ethiopia, that rivers - the Gash and the Barka - flow all year round. Here in the western lowlands, the gradient finally levels off, wrinkles smooth away and the arid sands cede to the deep green that spells rain, the shade of trees, the blessing of crops.
But it is not the bleakness, but the altitude that makes Asmara's location as improbable as that of Shangri-La. The Italians who colonized Eritrea at the tail end of the 19th century fled the stifling heat of the Red Sea by heading into the ether, up towards the kebessa, or central highlands. Coming in to land on the wide Hamasien plateau, there is none of the familiar routine of diving through a carpet of white fug to emerge in another, greyer reality. Defying the laws of gravity, planes bound for Asmara certainly go up, but to passengers aboard they barely seem to bother coming down. You hardly have time to register the neat concentric rings -- like worm's trails -- left by farmers' terracing, the rust-coloured plain, the long white scratches of roads, before the wheels hit the ground. At 7,600 ft -- a mile and a half high -- the capital lies at the same heady altitude as many of Europe's lower ski stations. The crisp mountain air is so thin, landing pilots must slam on their brakes and then keep them, shrieking, in place, to prevent their aircraft overshooting the tarmac. Take-offs seem to go on forever, as the accelerating plane lumbers down the tarmac in search of air resistance, finally achieving just enough friction for the rules of aerodynamics to kick in before it careers into the long grass.
Go to the edge of the escarpment, on the outskirts of town, and you will find yourself on the lip of an abyss. You are at eye level with eagles that launch themselves like suicides into the void, leaping into a blue haze into which mountain peaks, far-off valleys and distant sea all blur. At this altitude, only the most boisterous clouds succeed in rising high enough to drift over the city. Pinned down by gravity, they form instead a sulky cumulus eiderdown that barely shoulders the horizon. So for much of the year, the sky above Asmara is clear blue a delicate cornflower merging into a deep indigo that holds out the promise of outer space. In Western cities at night, the orange glow of street lamps washes out the stars ...
Excerpted from I Didn't Do It for You by Michela Wrong Copyright © 2005 by Michela Wrong. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
“Contemporary history on the grand scale. I was entertained, informed and angered . . . A splendid achievement.”
“Vivid, penetrating, wonderfully detailed. Michela Wrong...has excavated the very heart and soul of the Eritrean people and their country.”
“A gripping political thriller.”
“Engrossing, vividly written in the style of the best thrillers...It should become the standard work on the region.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As a soldier stationed in Asmara, Eritrea. I was very interested in reading this book. I can only say that the author did her homework and I was very impressed on how much new information I gathered from this book. My heart goes out to the Eritrean people and hopefully one day Eritrea will be a truelly free and Independant country. I only add to the facts that US Military personnal stationed at Kagnew Station, worked hard at their mission and respected the Eritrean people.
One day, several months ago, I wandered for the first time into the small African history section of my local used bookstore and ended up buying "I Didn't Do It For You", mostly because the attractively designed cover caught my eye. Even if I bought it for shallow reasons, I'm so glad I did--this was a fantastic, eye-opening read.Wrong details the odyssey of Eritrea, the youngest country in Africa, and the subtitle of the book is depressingly accurate. Eritrea was basically invented by the Italians in the late 19th century so that they could have their own colonial empire, carved out of the northern bit of Ethiopia and the southern bit of Egypt. The country was subsequently ransacked by the British during WWII, illegally annexed by Ethiopia while the UN looked the other way (no surprise there), ignored by the entire Western world as it fought an ultimately successful 30-year-long guerilla war for independence (with first the U.S., then the Soviet Union, then Israel supplying Ethiopia with billions of dollars worth of military equipment and training), only to stumble back into war with Ethiopia after only six years of peace and prosperity as the poster-child for a possible African renaissance. The book was written in 2004 and I immediately looked up Eritrea's Wikipedia article to see what had happened in the last four years, only to find that, among other indictments, Eritrea is currently ranked dead last on Reporters Without Borders' Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Despite the horrible effect that the Eritrean government (ironically composed of some of the very freedom fighters who liberated the country in the first place) has had in the last 10 years, Wrong still holds out hope that the dogged pride and determination of the Eritreans will help the country bounce back. It was a nice note to end on, and the book itself is incredibly interesting and well-written, but the emotional effect of reading it can be summed-up by one of Wrong's own comments: "And you were left in a sulky gray fug of ambiguity, sure of only one thing: everyone had behaved badly, everyone was to blame."
A fascinating piece of journalism and history: a reporter who really gets to know the country, and talks with representative figures along the way. Except for an overlong section on American troops stationed in Eritrea during the Cold War, the book was consistently interesting, and engagingly written.
A phenomenal book, Michela Wrong not only writes about the history but makes the reader feel as though they are watching it firsthand. A great book for anybody that wants to understand how our nation and the West in general, tends to live in the now, ignoring in full, the context of what is happening. This book is so good that I have purchased it and given it as a gift, definitely a must read!