Sunday, 7 April 2013

Government Whale


Asmara, Eritrea

“I'm going to head down South in a few days,” I said to Mike.

We had convened, at the request of our friend (a half-Tanzanian/half-Yemeni businessman named Sharif) at a place on Harnet Avenue that I had christened 'bar nonce” on account of the some rather dubious posters of children decorating the walls. One featured a young, semi-naked boy pulling the front of his shorts away from his waist, while a similarly-aged girl peered down into the void with her mouth agape.

It was ten in the morning. Mike and I were drinking small glasses of sweet black coffee. Sharif was flush with cash and was making steady progress through a bottle of Asmara gin.


“I want to visit the tomb at Qohaito. If they're allowing tourists into the buffer zone then I'd like to see the Aksum settlement at Senafe.”

“Mark, you should come back to Massawa with us,” said Sharif.

Eritrea is strewn with ruins that date back to the ancient Kingdom of Aksum, which rose to prominence around 100 AD and faded into antiquity just before the end of the first millennium. Over the centuries the physical remnants of this empire gone quietly to seed were disassembled and used as field boundaries in arid terraced plots. In some places you will see the odd stump of a stone column protruding from a vegetable crop. Other sites are better preserved and a cursory effort has been made to protect them

“You will need a permit to travel.”

“I'll get that. I need to see if they'll grant me an archaeology permit first.”

The following afternoon I walked to the National Museums Office, which turned out to be a large, two storey building. When I entered I found the ground floor unoccupied. There was no indication as to where I should go. I wandered around the place, tentatively peering into empty rooms, unsure whether I should even be there. In one corridor, populated by taxidermied examples of African wildlife I encountered the skeleton of a whale, laid out on the tiled floor. A small gang of cleaning ladies were poking their mops under the ribcage.

I eventually found the office I was looking for on one of the upper floors. The woman who arranged my permit asked me for my email address “so that I can make conversation with you.” I never heard from her.

On my way out of the building I paused to take some photographs of the whale. By now the cleaning ladies had gone and the ground floor of the building appeared to be deserted.

As I snapped away with my camera, the silence was suddenly broken by a booming voice from behind me:


I turned around and saw an Eritrean man in his late 50s, with wild frizzy, grey hair, standing halfway up the staircase.

“I was just taking some photographs of your whale.”


I tried to calm him down but he was absolutely incensed and my apologies only served to fuel his rage.

“WAIT HERE,” he said angrily, disappearing back up the stairs.

I decided that, under the circumstances, I would not to wait and slipped out of the museum before he could return.

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