K is for Keren

Lisa, a teacher from Texas at the Asmara International Community School, introduced me to Keren, Eritrea. Or perhaps it was Keren that introduced me to Lisa. It happened in the Keren Public Library.

Once a month, Lisa and her daughter went to the Keren Public Library where the US embassy had set up an American Corner. These spaces in public places exist in towns too small for an American consulate, where information about the United States is made available for the local population. Often a computer terminal connected to the Internet is the centerpiece. No American staff members work at American Corners. Instead, a local staff member from the place, often a library or a university, agrees to assist those visiting the American Corner find information. In many American Corners, discussion or cultural programs are hosted.

Maryam Deira Chapel
St. Maryam Deari Chapel

Keren is the second largest city in Eritrea, situated within 60 miles from Asmara. It was the site of many battles during World War II and the Eritrean War of Independence. One attraction in Keren, St. Maryam Deari chapel, located inside a beobab tree, marks the site where Italian soldiers hid during a battle with the British in 1941. The tree was hit, and the hole in the tree can still be seen, but the soldiers survived.

Sandra at the camel market
Sandra at the Keren camel market

Another attraction, at least for me, is the camel market, held each Monday.

But my fondest memories of Keren are of Lisa and her kids at the Keren Public Library. One Saturday each month, an embassy driver picked up Lisa and her daughter for the trip to Keren. Lisa invited me to come along. We got started late that Saturday so I asked Lisa what would happen if we didn’t arrive on time. I worried that the children might leave if we weren’t there on time. She assured me that nothing would happen until we arrived. She, it turned out, was the program in Keren. The children all waited for her. And when it was time for her to leave, they stayed at her side, holding her hands, her arms, her shirt, attempts to keep her there longer.

Armed with a cassette tape player, cassettes of songs used in American early childhood education programs, children’s books, and posters containing enlarged drawings from some of the books, Lisa performed with a group of 20 kids ranging in age from four to 14. She called it a class. I felt it was much more.

She got them all up on their feet to sing and dance along with the songs. Even the older ones enthusiastically joined in as they sang “I’m a little teapot, short and stout . . .” They all placed on hand on a hip with “Here’s my handle . . .” and raised the other hand with “And here’s my spout.” After they sang the song, Lisa asked questions about teapots, tea, and anything else the children’s answers raised.

My favorite part of the program involved Lisa handing out posters of the drawings from the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do  You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. The children with the posters lined up in the order the animals appear in the book, and they held up their posters for the rest of the children to see when Lisa mentioned their animal as she read the book.

After Lisa finished reading the book to them, the children with the posters recited the book pages themselves. All of the children recited the first part of each page, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” The child holding the drawing of the brown bear then answered, “I see a [black bird] looking at me.” And so it went, not necessarily in the order of the pages in the book. The variation ensured that every child in the room listened carefully to know which animal they next would ask the question. A second set of children then took their places and repeated the exercise.

As I watched the performance, I conjured up a continuation of the lesson for Lisa, one where the students might have to give up the rhyme of “see” and “me” by replacing “you” with “he,” “she,” or “we” in the question and then replacing “me” with “him,” “her,” or “us,” as appropriate.

On the Saturdays Lisa wasn’t in Keren, she conducted two of the same classes in Asmara at the American Cultural Center. She repeated the class each Saturday so that all of the more than 100 children who wanted to take part could attend one.

Lisa’s program wasn’t something the US embassy asked her to create. It was an idea based on her passion for sharing language and learning with more than just the two dozen children in her elementary school classroom at the Asmara International Community School. She started out hoping to establish a children’s story hour like in libraries in Texas she had brought her daughter to before her daughter reached school age. She asked for permission to invite the children of US embassy employees. On that first day, a dozen children arrived. The next week, she was surrounded by children who lived in the neighborhood who asked if they, too, could join the class.

Reading to children and encouraging them to learn to speak English was not Lisa’s only passion in Asmara. She noticed many children in her own neighborhood did not have shoes. Lisa approached the owner of a shoe store in Asmara and arranged to pay him for shoes in exchange for a coupon she printed and gave to children whenever she saw one without shoes. Each month she received a bill for the number of pairs of shoes she had given coupons for.

Lisa’s willingness to immerse herself into the lives of the people, especially of the children, of Eritrea inspired me to take the time to talk with a few boys I met on the street in downtown Asmara a few weeks later, a conversation that led to my sponsorship of a neighborhood soccer team, documented in E is for Eritrea.

Thank you, Lisa.

E is for Eritrea

Team USA in Asmara Eritrea
Habtom (at left), Dawit (seated, center) and the other boys of Eritrea

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.