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Another Africa classic from Michela Wrong
on 15 January 2005
Michela Wrong's first book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, an account of the Congo's decline, was rightly acclaimed a classic by the Economist. She has triumphed again in her account of Eritrea, a book of many themes and as many virtues: it combines the best of travel writing, biography, history, current affairs, all embraced by a poignant love story, for Ms Wrong fell head over heels for this rugged, beautiful land. Above all, the former journalist who worked for Reuters news agency and reported on Africa for the Financial Times, has produced a fascinating psychological profile of Eritrea, the brave, belligerent and infuriating Horn of Africa state that waged a 30 year guerilla war for independence from Ethiopia. It is a case study of the harm done by colonial rule, and an indictment of the role of Italy, Britain, the US, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and a scathing condemnation of the conniving United Nations. But Ms Wrong never lectures us. She combines intellectual rigour with wit and sharp insight as she trawls British government files. And with wonderful flair, she describes the incongruous, such as her account of Eritea's last Italian, living out his remaining days in the Red Sea port of Massawa, spitting out his contempt for family and friends, lashing out at his ducks as he sits surrounded by rusting 'fridges. Equally entertaining is her description - "bugging, blowjobs and beer" - of the exploits of the US servicemen who eavesdropped on much of the world from their listening post at Kagnew, on the outskirts of the Eritrean capital of Asmara. But there are broader concerns that emerge as Ms Wrong sets out the lifestyles of the feckless young US servicemen. The contrast with the heroics of their Eritrean contemporaries, many of whom died in their struggle for independence from Ethiopia, could not be more striking. The Americans had neither cause nor convictions. Their Eritrean contemporaries had both, in huge doses. Alas,like many love stories, there is not a happy ending. Ms Wrong does not try to conceal her distress as she watches Eritrea's decline from inspirational model for Africa into authoritarian state. This splendid book provides a powerful rebuttal of those historians who claim that on balance colonial rule was a good thing; and it should be compulsory reading for British ministers who now urge us to "celebrate" our colonial past. As Ms Wrong warns: "Eritrea should serve as a cautionary tale ... We forget the roles we play in such far-off outposts at our peril".