Eritrea had been independent for less time than I had worked for the US Department of State when I arrived there in February 2004. I knew very little about it, only that it gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.
My stay in Eritrea was short–just four months. But by the time I left, a piece of my heart was firmly embedded in the country.
It all started one Sunday afternoon when I went with my friend from the embassy, Jewel, to a barbecue at the Israeli ambassador’s house. When we arrived, Jewel noticed that one of the tires on her car was flat. Always practical, Jewel decided there was no need for us to delay our arrival at the barbecue to replace the tire; we could find someone to help us change it when it was time to go home.
She was right. And it was her timing that made all the difference to the rest of my stay in Eritirea.
While Jewel pointed out to the volunteers where her spare tire and jack were, I stood back on the sidewalk, just watching. That’s where I was when a group of young boys approached. There were eight of them. They were carrying a t-shirt, each of four boys holding onto a corner of it as if it were ready to catch something. One of the boys approached and asked me for help. Since none of the boys appeared to be injured, I asked what kind of help they needed. He pointed to the shirt and said they needed money to buy uniforms.
At this point, I thought about my options. A) I could just shoo them away, telling them I couldn’t help, B) I could give them some money towards their uniforms, or C) I could spend the time I was going to have to wait for the tire to be changed talking with them.
I choose C.
The smallest of the boys, Dawit, was the only one who seemed comfortable speaking English. He translated as we talked.
First, I asked what kind of uniforms they needed. They explained that they wanted uniforms for their soccer team. I asked the boys their names. I only caught a couple of them. Isaias, Daniel, Habtom.
I asked how much money they needed for uniforms. They said each uniform cost 100 nakfa (Eritrean currency, the equivalent to $7.00). I asked how I could be sure they would use money I gave them for uniforms. After they couldn’t answer that question, I asked if I was going to have to trust them. Dawit nodded vigorously at that. Yes, I would just have to trust them.
When I noticed that the tire was nearly changed, I gave the boys 300 nakfa so they could buy three uniforms. And they went off down the street. But a minute later, Dawit and Habtom came back. Where did I live, Dawit asked. I told him I lived in the United States. But he wanted to know where I lived in Eritrea. I didn’t know my address. Someone from the embassy picked me up each morning and someone else dropped me off at home after work. When I explained that I didn’t know my address, they reluctantly went away.
But a minute later, Dawit and Habtom were back. This time, Habtom handed me a pen and asked me to write my telephone number on his hand. That I could do. And they rushed away again.
I never expected to hear from or see them again. But the following Saturday, Habtom called. Since he didn’t speak English, I was about to hang up when I heard him say, “Habtom 300 nakfa.”
The next voice I heard was an Eritrean who spoke English and who told me the boys wanted to meet me the next day to show me their uniforms.
Every Sunday for the rest of my stay in Eritrea, I met with the boys of the soccer team, as many as 16 of them at one point. I watched them practice, took photos and videos as they played, and after practice they walked with me to my house where I gave them refreshments and we watched videos together–Finding Nemo and Bend It Like Beckham were their favorites.
That first day, only four boys had uniforms. So I bought the rest of the boys uniforms, too. And boots, and soccer balls, and better boots when the first set fell apart after a couple of games, and a second set of uniforms. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my money or my time in Eritrea. I still can’t.