Mind the gap (year)! – in defence of the travelling explorer or: my first encounter with Asmara

Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

It has become all the rage: visit a slum to find yourself. Hug orphans in some poor African country – and you do something good and have fun at the same time. Oh, and it should not be forgotten – you pay a hefty sum to the organisation that has arranged your good-doing, with only a tiny amount going to those you are keen to help. Three weeks to help out in an orphanage in Argentina? That would be Euro 890 (without your flights and cost of living). No lack of takers, and the organisations that offer such services have mushroomed over the last few years.

The gap year culture has been critiqued from various sides – not least by organisations who claim to do serious development work and only send those out who have relevant skills and experiences, and I do not wish to add to those critiques here. Nor do I want to repeat the well rehearsed argument that many gap-yearers behave like a new brand of colonialists – which is true in many cases but not what I aim to engage with here.

And already before the current gap-year-wave it was the case that orphanages in particular were a magnet for do-gooders. I remember in Rwanda in late 1994, how American church based organisations descended on various orphanages in the country, thus creating a demand for the latter leading to a situation where children with parents or close relatives still alive were put into orphanages for a while. Such tendencies seem to have increased all over the globe with the gap-year culture, as demand for cuddling orphan children is bound to produce the needed supply.

What I want to do here is to advocate for a tradition that is much older than the ‘gap-year’, and encourage youngsters who just finished high school or other forms of school-leaving age activities to explore the world on their terms, to follow their curiosity and do so in a way that does less harm to the planet and its people, in particular those regarded as ‘vulnerable’.

Such a way of travelling and exploring, not with its value for a future CV in mind where ‘international volunteering’ seems to have become one pre-condition for a successful career, is bound to prove valuable for any future life trajectory even if in often roundabout ways. I was reminded of this when I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book on Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. It prompted me to rethink how I became involved in Eritrean affairs in the first place.

It were the early 1980s, I had just finished the German equivalent to A-levels, and set off travelling, initially with a friend, with little money but a lot of curiosity. Setting of by train and through hitch-hiking, a very common way of getting around then, I eventually found myself living in Cairo, partly working as an extra for an Egyptian cinema production that needed European-looking people for some disco scenes. At some point I ran out of money, and did what many fellow explorers in a similar situation did back then: took the bus to Eilat in Israel to work in one of its hotels for a few weeks. In need of accommodation, I ended up renting a room in the flat of an Eritrean who, like many of his fellow countrymen, worked in the construction industry.

Mike, as he shall be called, had fled the Eritrean liberation war that was then in full swing, as he was reluctant to get involved in politics of any kind, and wanted to join his sister who was living in Italy. At the time, his UN-issued laissez-passer papers allowed him to go as far as Israel. Israel then was the dead end of a long journey, and quite a community of Eritreans in similar situations had gathered in Eilat. Mike, during the three months I came to share a flat with him, instilled in me vivid imaginations of a beautiful city in the Abyssinian highlands, Asmara, and when we eventually parted company it was with the words then common among Eritreans dispersed throughout the world: ‘Until next time in Asmara’, an expression of hope that one day Eritrea would be free and we could all gather there. In relation to Mike, who over the coming decade I lost touch with, next time never came – even if during my first visits to Asmara in the 1990s I kept looking our for his tall figure, and always expected him to somehow show up on the passeggiata, the routine evening walk on Asmara’s main street, one of those Italian traditions that have survived in post-liberation Eritrea.

Thus, while it took me about a decade to eventually set foot into Eritrea, it was the time I spent with Mike and his friends that left a profound imprint on my future life, even if I did not anticipate this during the time we spent together. When I returned from my travelling explorations to study in Berlin, I became involved with the Eritrean diaspora community there, and eventually, and after quite a few detours, I would become a scholar of Eritrea and the wider Horn.

And while I never met Mike again, our encounter in 1984 made me return to Israel to conduct research among new cohorts of Eritrean refugees there between 2010-2013. Coming full circle one could say – even if I never anticipated that my vagabond years would become such a meaningful guide to my life as first a journalist and then a researcher.

My book chapter that inspired this blog, ‘Until next time in Asmara: A City of Aspiration, Despair and Ambition’, has been published in the book Architecture in Asmara: Colonial Origin and Postcolonial Experiences. Volgger, P. & Graf, S. (eds.). DOM Publishers, p. 432-439.

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