The small east African nation of Eritrea ranks among the world's poorest, but it has a treasure that sets it apart: a capital city built above the clouds. Asmara sits on a plain at seven thousand feet, at the edge of the Great Rift Valley. If you drive east, just beyond the last street, the land suddenly drops, and a thousand rugged peaks are beneath you. Moist air from the Red Sea gathers in the valleys, forming white, promising clouds for a country that, year by year, is desperate for rain.
We lived in Asmara from 1993 to 1996. Afternoon drives were our main family diversion. When we parked our car to stretch our legs, we first stopped a local shepherd boy to ask, “Are there any landmines here?” Eritrea had recently won independence from Ethiopia in what was then called Africa's longest war, and the damage of those thirty years was everywhere. Tanks rusted on the roadsides. Shepherd boys were among the wounded. Our children could not race along a path freely.
Captivated expatriates described the Eritreans as dignified, hardworking, handsome, courageous and hospitable. Outside of Asmara, herders and farmers lived much as in biblical times. In the city, young men and women craved exposure to the Western world from which they had been cut off. They had grown up in a besieged city—once described as the world's largest prison—and their older siblings had either escaped abroad or been killed, one by one, in the war. Relief groups were hurrying into the country to help rebuild. Missionaries forced to flee decades earlier returned, gray-haired and still in love with the slender, dark-eyed people of the land.
While my husband taught, I carried my own small load, never more literally than on my weekly trip to market. I shopped mostly on foot. I knew my favorite vendors by name. Their one-room shops were crowded if three customers stepped in at once. Hefting five or more bags and baskets, I took home kilos of potatoes, cabbages, oranges, beef, bread, lentils, and imported canned goods. By noon my arms ached. I was dusty. The sun felt too direct, and I wished I had help.
Help stood on the street corner one Saturday. Catching sight of me from half a block away, a small boy ran up and blocked my path. He looked up expectantly, as though we were long familiar with each other. I smiled and tried to pass on my way. He grabbed the handle of one of my bags and tugged for control.
I saw that he was barefoot. As poor as the nation was, the children of Eritrea usually wore shoes. Almost every family could afford the kind of sandal worn by the liberation soldiers, manufactured from cheap rubber. But this boy's toes pressed against the hot cement. The edges of his soles were ash grey.
“Hansab, hansab—Wait.” The boy's arm went slack for a moment; he stopped to listen to me speak his own language. “What is your name?”
“Binyam.” I let him take two of the bags—his weight in potatoes alone—and we walked together to the taxi stop. “Here is far enough,” I told him.
I had exactly ten birr left in my pocket, and I needed it all for my fare home. I wondered what to do with my unsolicited employee. Very carefully, he set my bags at the curb. His clothes were torn and unwashed. The dust of the streets had settled in his hair, so that the overall effect of his person was of a field in drought.
“Where do you live?”
“Akria.” It was a neighborhood far on the north edge, where no foreigners lived. I had been through it only once.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?”
I said, “Binyam, I want to give you something. But I do not have it with me. If you come here” —I told him a familiar street address and explained it was a church meeting place—“tomorrow morning, I will have some shoes for you. I want to give you shoes. I want you to hear the stories, too. Your name is in the Bible, did you know that?”
Binyam came to the church, and I met him at the front steps with a pair of shoes. They fit him perfectly; as I had guessed, he wore the same size as my five-year-old son. During Sunday School I watched for a look of pleasure on Binyam's face and for a new pride in his posture. He didn't seem particularly interested in speaking with me; he quietly took his place among the other children and sang songs and listened to the story. It was good for him, I thought, to be off the streets and in this crowded, happy room. Afterward I invited Binyam to come every week.
He came just once more; he came in the same dusty clothes, and he came barefoot. When I asked him, “Where are your shoes, Binyam?” he looked away and moved into the group of children out of my reach. All that hour I was distracted by his feet. When he did not attend the next week or any week afterward, I could not get him off my mind. The absence of the slight, shoeless boy was bigger than his presence had been. I kept imagining scenes of great turbulence for Binyam. Had other boys beaten him for his shoes? Had his father punished him for taking a gift from a condescending foreigner? Maybe he had to sell them, for food.
Many expatriates published articles on the virtues of this new nation, and many, like us, hoped to stay and work for years, for the good of the people who had welcomed us. But the day came when the government, made up of the guerrilla fighters who had battled for independence, declared that all foreign relief agencies were illegal. The national press reminded the people that by their own will they had won independence and by their own hands they would rebuild. The country was kicking off its shoes, and few outsiders knew where they went.
The people were left as poor as ever, but the government newspaper reported great jubilance and patriotism and a bright road to progress. There were more battles fought along the border. There were arrests, imprisonments. We dismantled our life in Asmara and were never able to return.
Binyam would be nearly thirty now. Unless he has escaped, he is likely doing hard labor in national service, from which they say there is no exit. It is all incomprehensible to me. I can only picture an insistent child in the heat and dust, determined to take my burden. I wonder what he might have carried away, if he had come back to hear the story of his name. It is open in front of me now, full of transience and loss and the promise of provision in a new land: And they journeyed from the House of Bread, and there was but a little way to go. And the woman travailed, and the midwife said unto her, ‘Fear not; you shall have this son also.’ And so it was, as the woman's soul was departing, that she called his name Bin-oni, which means son of my sorrow. But his father called him Bin-yam, son of the Right Hand.