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November 02, 2009

On the air in Eritrea


I've just returned from a brief trip to Asmara, Eritrea, where I had the chance to interview Isaias Afwerki, the country's only president in 16 years of independence.

The Ministry of Information gave me less than a week to prepare, and Isaias isn't an easy interview. He's famously prickly and doesn't seem to think much of journalists. As the story goes, he expelled a wire-service reporter from the country a few years back after the reporter repeatedly referred to Eritrea as "the tiny Red Sea state."

But for me the most difficult thing about the interview was that it was taped live by the presidential media service, with three cameras and an array of lights. Before Isaias walked into the room, while I was looking over my notes, one of the cameramen startled me by straightening my tie. When the interview began, I was given a countdown as if I were a seasoned TV personality.

When I got the wrap-up sign, nearly two and a half hours later, I briefly contemplated signing off with "You stay classy, Asmara." (Not really.)

The staged aspect threw me off, but it was stranger after the interview aired on EriTV, the country's only TV channel, and I started being recognized in my hotel, in the street, in the immigration line in Cairo after my flight out. In a deeply repressive and suspicious country, this would have been an excellent way for Isaias to ensure no one spoke to me -- except that few people wanted to speak with me, anyway.

I'd been told to watch out for Isaias's footwear, and sure enough he was wearing his trademark sandals. Although the 63-year-old ruler hasn't created a cult of personality there is, among his supporters, an almost cult-like appreciation for his lack of pretension, which measured against his African counterparts makes him seem positively ascetic. His photo doesn't hang in every store window, he hasn't constructed an over-the-top presidential palace, and when he travels through Asmara in the presidential car (a sensible sedan) he rides shotgun.

Later this week we'll be running my story as well as a short video I've produced with clips from the interview. Stay tuned.


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no name

For all his modesty and so called self rightous attitude,the man is paranoid as they come living in his own twisted delusional universe.It's a shame the poor people in the country have to be a victim of his ill short comings,where the middle class is lucky to live off one meal a day.


Having worked in Eritrea and knowing the president on a personal level, he is the most difficult person to comprehend! To ones face he can be absolutely charming and will agree to normal demands. However, his ministers and managers do what they wish and one never gets the assistance assured previously by the president!


Can you blame him? Why does Eritrea always get referred to as a tiny Red Sea State when Djibouti never is? After all, we are some 400% larger than Djibouti. What is being implied? What is the journalist inferring and/or having their reader infer?


As they say “Deeds are fruits, words are leaves”
People can criticize the man, but he walks the walk, in spite of all the skulduggery that is plotted against Eritrea by the so called international community.

As far as RSF is concerned, I would not quote them with out mentioning they are sponsored by (USAID and NED), which will put their opinion in the dubious category.
RSF itself admited that Washington supports it through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an agency created by the administration of Ronald Reagan with the aim of promoting the agenda of the White House around the world.

I eagerly await your article.


hey, you're a part of popular culture now


Quite frankly reporters tend to take cues from each other. If a few describe Eritrea as a "tiny Red Sea state" the rest will do so also regardless of any of the other possible descriptors one could use.

The fact is that Eritrea is a Red Sea state; now it's size... that's a subjective/perspective thing. Eritrea really isn't "tiny," but if not that, what is it? "small" "slender" "petite"

A fact based description rooted on total area size might by best.

"Eritrea is roughly 6 times smaller then France... but it's 6 times larger then Israel (which, coincidently, is never called "tiny")." or ...maybe...

"Eritrea; it's bigger then Cuba, but smaller then North Korea..."

My view is that Eritrea is Eritrea. What reporters choose to call it matters little in my mind.

Reporter with American Idea borders

You're a horrible journalist Shashank Bengali. Your article was written long before you entered Eritrea.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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