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The Culture of Recycling and Second Hands: The Unknown ‘Vintage’ Treasure in Asmara

Second hands shopping in Idaga Harradj
A few days ago, while I was enjoying time with a friend over a macchiato, I started talking about my love for vintage or second hands products. While I went on explaining its meaning, I could see his reluctance when it came to buying second hands clothing. Well, he still has not seen the fabulous dark-wooden furniture I bought recently! While trying to convince him on the beauty of vintage products, a friend of us both came to greet us and we could not see anything else than his vintage costume that he (we are guessing) probably took out from his grandfather’s closet. Since then, we call him the ‘vintage guy’ (he does not know of course). Here we go with a great example of the meaning of vintage in real life. After our little moment of laughing, I then decided to just walk around at the market area, harraj to be exact, where you can buy second hands items.

Harraj: the vintage treasure

Those who know me are aware of my weak spot for vintage items such as bags or furniture, thus, when I went back to harraj to look for some second hand materials for the house, I started to think of writing about it.

Many people in this urban setting perceive this idea of buying second hands as a sign of economic constraints. Actually, they are wrong. Indeed, harraj is a fabulous place for people like me who like to buy the little thing, which has a story behind and at the same time carries certain uniqueness. In fact, while walking around in harraj I started to talk to some of the sellers who have been working there for as long as my age as one of the men told me. Harraj is a famous place, which existed before independence and continues to be the center of second hands market in the country. As three of the sellers were talking, I learned that people come from all over the country, from Tesseney to Massawa, to buy their furniture. When I asked about the image of Eritreans on buying second hands, one of the sellers told me “it is portrayed negatively” or “is the place the poorer population would come to.” But they do not see the higher value on this old collection. They would instead go for new expensive gears with a much lower quality. The charm in antique products is hard to find, as there are, nowadays, industrialized and duplicate versions. The charm and quality in many old items merit their recognition. Actually, the term vintage was initially used to describe the year or place in which wine, especially wine of high quality, was produced and in our time, vintage refers to something classic, ageless, timeless and of high quality. This idea of vintage is booming in many countries where vintage shops are growing in big cities such as Paris or London. Certainly, the global economic crisis of the last 10 years has also influenced people to sell their old belongings or to buy in second hands shops. The good part about harraj is its central location but also the multitude of choices and services available. Indeed, sellers are also painters, renovators and any request made by clients to repair any items is very well taken care of.

Curious as I am, I was wondering if there was an expert in antic items here in Asmara. So when I asked around, everyone told me, without hesitation, to meet a man called Sahle. He is one of the first sellers in harraj who has now moved to Edaga Hamus (a neighborhood in Asmara). After a few geographical orientation issues to find his place, I was finally in front of an unknown treasure chest in Asmara. I went into a courtyard and noticed a vast hangar at the back. I slowly walked in, not knowing what to find, and surprisingly, I was welcomed by endless antic items. I was greeted by a young man, Robel, Sahle’s son, who is now taking care of his father’s business. His father worked all his life in renovating and finding new treasures that everyone apparently ignores. He was more than happy to show me around and while I was listening to him, I admired the passion and expertise he had on every object he was describing.

There was furniture from the Turkish period to the Italian time, including from the period of the Kagnew Station (US military installation during the Cold War era). All the different epochs of Eritrea’s history are gathered in this hangar. Robel works everyday to maintain and renovate them while also making new creations such as a newly made wardrobe with a unique design. In fact, the good part about vintage is that each item is unique and cannot be duplicated as Robel explained to me. “Many took pictures and tried to duplicate some of the furniture, however, it is impossible as the skills and knowledge are not usually met”.

In addition, many expatriates and Eritreans living abroad find this place through mouth to ears. On the other hand, the local population has still not agreed on this trend and still chasing for the so-called latest fashion available without considering the quality and durability. The beauty of the vintage items is how abandoned things have been given a second chance in life by Robel and his likes.

Medeber: The Culture of Recycling

The idea of buying second hands is also a way of recycling materials and respecting the environment by lowering the amount of waste. The idea of recycling materials is well understood among Eritreans. Hence, I had some old metal and wood stocked for years and I had no idea of what to do with them. One of my uncles then told me that I could sell them in medeber. When I went to medeber, which is located within the market area in Asmara, I stepped behind the door of this old building still standing tall where you can see ‘medeber’ written in Tigrigna and another world opened up.

Medeber is famous for tourists who are amazed to see women and men working in rebuilding, reshaping and transforming a simple metallic item or a broken table into a new door or a cooking stove or any other possible materials valuable in our day-to-day life. Medeber is a well-organized place divided in sections according to the type of materials or items created. This recycling area exists since 1900 and its legacy continues today. As a matter of fact, at the time of the Italian colonization, Eritrea was known as the most industrialized place in Africa and medeber is one of the pieces inherited from this time.

While I was taking pictures, a man named Paulos approached me asking to take photos of him. Of course, I took this opportunity to talk about his work. Paulos has been working for more than 20 years in medeber and he is specialized in metal works. He established his little office there. While talking, I realized that many other workers came over to greet me and they were as curious as I was to know who I was. At some point, I thought they were the journalists. Selam, who is in her early 30s, took me inside her little ‘office’ and she talked about how she grew up in that environment and how she started working in an office but decided to leave her office job and return because her “heart was in medeber.” A little boy was actually proud to show me his creation, a metallic door. This boy, Medhane, 11 years old, stressed that after school he spent time there with his father and that was how he learned it.

As Selam said, there is no difference with my male counterparts, we take care of each other as brothers and sisters and if I need help, they are always available.

I was amazed to see how they managed to transform an item in such a short time. Amanuel and Filmon, who have been working there for the past 10 years, were working on a metal sheet and transforming it into a cooking stove (brazier). When I asked Filmon how he could do that, his answer was simple: “Well, what are your skills? For you writing and researching must be easy as that’s where you are competent. For me, this is my capability. We all have our own area of expertise”.

The centenarian medeber is still alive and continues its recycling legacy. The amount of work has however lowered the past years due to the difficulty in import permits of raw materials and the stagnation in terms of building construction. Nevertheless, this has not influenced the attitude of these workers. What I observed was nothing but that beautiful model of collectiveness and hiwinet (‘comradeship’). The generosity and love among them is becoming rare to witness in this city and it is, for visitors, a very refreshing moment. After over an hour spent in medeber, I decided to leave with promises of returning for a sip of tea together.

While richer countries are fighting to find a place for their waste, others decide to re-use them for the benefits of the society as a whole. The great potential in terms of recycling but also in vintage items cannot be ignored. And certainly, in the years to come, many Asmarinos will start adhering to this idea of having an item that is unique, full of history, and in higher quality – as the original meaning of vintage applies to describe a wine of quality.


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