It was a warm Tuesday night in the fly-blown, Eritrean border town of Teseney. I was making my way back to The Luna hotel where I had been living while I recovered from a short illness. The hour was approaching midnight and the part of the town where I was walking had bolted its doors and shuttered its windows. I moved along darkened, unpaved streets, where the only noise was the sound of my footsteps and the occasional sharp drone of a mosquito as it grazed past my ear.
I had spent Sunday night wracked by a sudden fever. As I lay in the dark convulsing, the thin top sheet, which was made from some slippery artificial fibre, slid off me in a torrent of sweat. I shook so hard that my body went completely rigid and I passed out. When I came to, I could feel an immense pressure bearing down on my chest, as if a heavy weight had been placed upon it. The pain was so intense that I could hardly breathe.
I gradually became aware that the source of my discomfort was an emaciated barn owl that was perched on my chest. It was a sickly looking specimen. A thin layer of feathers plastered its scrawny, malnourished frame and there were pinkish blood stains around its beak. Its talons, which were grotesquely out of proportion with the rest of its body, were buried beneath my skin like tree roots. It stared down at me through slitted eyes. I lost consciousness soon afterwards. When I awoke the following morning, I was so weak that it was past midday before I could stand upright and stagger, like something newborn, to the tap in the courtyard.
There was a short-cut to The Luna along a rubble-strewn street. I always went that way, not because I wanted to save time, but because it was familiar to me and I knew that there was no chance of me straying off course. Teseney is a small town, but one where I found it very easy to lose my bearings.
Halfway along this street there was a one-storey circular house with a conical roof. It closely resembled the mud and stick huts that are the traditional dwellings in the desert villages in this part of Africa, though this replica was roughly three times the size and made of concrete. An ornate, but rusting, old-fashioned postbox, possibly dating back to the time when Eritrea was an Italian colony, was cemented into the wall.
Using the weak beam of my pen torch I plotted an improvised course between the broken chunks of masonry that littered the ground.
I had just passed the round house when I heard a man shout something from behind me. At first I assumed that he was addressing somebody else and I ignored him.
He called out again. Even though I could not understand what he is saying, there was something in the tone of his voice that amounted to a challenge, or a barked order, I paused and slowly turned around to confront the human silhouette that was framed in the darkened vista at the far end of the street. For a few seconds we both stood completely motionless, as if we were each attempting to fathom the other's intentions. Finally I broke the deadlock with a dismissive wave of my hand:
“U-we, U-we.” (“Yes, Yes”)
I pivoted on my heel and carried on walking. This seemed to anger the man who shouted at me again. Once more I turned around. This time I began to walk toward him. In response to my advance the silhouette raised an object in his hands to shoulder height.
It was at this moment that a human figure darted from the round house and positioned himself between the pair of us. He spoke words in Tigrinya that appeared to pacify the man in the shadows. All three of us converged in a pool of light outside the building, at which point our situation became clear: The man who had been shouting at me was a soldier. My rescuer and mediator was called Michael; it turned out that he spoke very good English.
“I am the postman. I saw you walk by and thought I would help you,” he said
He told me that the street upon which we were standing was “forbidden.” I countered that I did not realise this and meant no harm or disrespect. Michael translated what I had said for the soldier who appeared satisfied by my explanation. We all shook hands and there was an all-round palpable sense of relief.
I asked Michael if he would guide me back to my hotel.
“You can come into my house and rest for a while,” he replied.
Michael's home consisted of a single, sparsely-furnished round room. It contained a pair of beds, a portable black and white television, a chimney stove, and some small tables and chairs. Besides the two of us, the three other occupants were Michael's wife, a two month old baby boy who occupied one of the beds, and who would cry periodically, and a slightly older boy, aged 18 months.
“I must put my trousers on,” Michael said, as we entered.
I realised that, in the confusion, I had failed to notice that he was dressed in nothing more than a shirt and a pair of boxer shorts.
At the time of our meeting, Michael was 24 years old. He was the postmaster at Hy Kota, which lies a short distance outside Teseney, along the road to Barentu. It's a 20 minute journey from his home that he makes either by motor scooter or by bus. His family fled Eritrea in 1974, during the Ethiopian occupation of the country. He was born and grew up in a refugee camp in The Sudan. In 1997 he returned to Eritrea.
I was about to say my goodbyes when he asked me whether I would like to join him for coffee. I accepted the invitation, to unspoken annoyance of his wife – something that I only picked up on later. Michael disappeared briefly to tell the soldiers that I would be staying with him for a while. In his momentary absence, and despite the lateness of the hour, his wife began to prepare a meal that consisted of chopped poached eggs, tomatoes, onions, bread rolls and a bowl of salt. There was also some kind of brown paste which I avoided.
The older of the two children seemed delighted by the unexpected company. He toddled around the circular abode, throwing a large metal washer into the air ahead of him and then running over to retrieve it. When he became bored of this game, he hid the washer under the pillows on the unoccupied bed. He ran over to Michael with his palms stretched-out in front of him, while turning his head from side to side in an exaggerated fashion. Having established the absence of the washer, he ran back to retrieve it. When he returned to us, Michael kept him amused by tracing our names onto his left hand with his on the finger. This seemed to delight the boy who willingly offered up his other hand and both feet.
Later, he became over-excited. He spilled the bowl of salt and careened into a pile of bottles, hurting his foot.
After this, his mother, who, despite her generous hospitality, was clearly irritated at being kept up so late, began assembling the framework for a mosquito net over one of the beds. I took the hint and readied myself to leave.
“It's very late. I thank you and your family for your hospitality but I should go.”
Michael offered to accompany back to the hotel. We had walked a short distance when he paused and looked apprehensive.
“I have left my ID card.”
“You might get into trouble. Do you want to go back.?”
“No, it's okay.”
Outside the Luna we exchanged addresses.
“Thank you for helping me.”
“Send me English stamps,” he said as he walked away.
Upon my return to England I wrote to Michael twice. I never heard anything back from him. I hope that both him and his family are well.