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You Need Two Hands to Clap

If you get up early in the morning, say six, and come to down town Asmara, some of the people you see already at work, apart from cart drivers delivering milk and vegetables to Asmara, and men and women in their white clothes on their way to church, and others to the Mosques, are the city’s diligent street cleaners.

They are busy cleaning the streets while the city is still asleep. By the time the majority of the city’s inhabitants have breakfast, they have half-finished their day’s job. Clean streets greet Asmarans when they finally, open their shops, restaurants, offices, and are ready to start work.


One of the things I enjoy about Asmara, apart from its weather, is its cleanliness. Many parts of Asmara are spotless, not even a ticket, which Asmarans are fond of tossing away after they get off a bus, in sight. Very clean. This, coupled with the fresh morning air, transforms your mood. Under the spell of the morning magic, the drowsiness of the night before lifts, the cool air and the refreshing environment completely turning your day around. In such situations, you feel that nothing can spoil your mood, and that feeling makes your day.

If they aren’t already, Asmarans (at least) have one reason to be grateful about, as we say in Tigrigna, “Return a good deed, if you can, or tell about it, if you can’t”. According to Haddas Ertirea (25 July 2019), on the 23rd of July 2019, around one thousand people from Government departments such as Police, Prison and Rehabilitation Services, Immigration and Nationality and the Security Services participated in the cleaning of streets in Asmara. According to the Organisers, the event was planned and carried out as part of the events organised to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the establishment of Sawa Military Training Centre and the beginning of National Service. The event was carried out, the organisers said, to give acknowledgement and respect to the women engaged in cleaning the city, and their work.

Sometimes, the cleaners are so busy in an activity I have considered not necessary, cutting away green grass growing by the curb. “Why do they have to cut the grass away?”

I have frequently asked myself. “After all, this is a rainy season. The grass will grow again in no time. Secondly, in its green colour, grass adds beauty to its surroundings.”

Grateful about their work, I have thought about them, their work, how the absence of their contribution could hurt our beautiful city. “Do they, at least for one minute, stop and think their job is a source of joy for many?” is one of the questions that has frequently crossed my mind. “That they considerably contribute to Asmara’s cleanliness? Does their work fill them with pride?”

I know in the 1980s, Asmara had such an army of street cleaners, mainly composed of old men. Based at Edaga Hamus, these men, who have completely disappeared from our streets, handing over the responsibility to women, cleaned our streets. Armed with wheel barrows and long brooms, swept our streets and kept it spotless. I am not sure why we have no men sweepers.

Though I have not read anything on the history of the Asmara sanitary workers, I think it had its roots during the Italian period. Yishaq Yosief, in Zanta Ketema Asmara (The Story of Asmara), recounts of an Ethiopian sanitary inspector, named Inghida (nicknamed Abashawel), under an Eritrean administrator of Abashawel, during the Italian period. Shawel, by the way, was the name of Inghida’s horse, and Inghida used to employ his horse’s name, “I am here! Abashawel, the owner of Shawel!” as people did and often do in Eritrea. Gradually, Abashwel replaced Inghida, the man’s name and also took over the name of the place. When the Italians assigned Kentiba Desta administrator of Abasahwel, the area (not the horse), Inghida was made sanitary inspector of the area. He was a very strict man, and fined the suwa sellers, and the prostitutes when they poured water into the street, and dumped solid garbage, which made the women very unhappy and complained about his actions. In a light-hearted mood, he responded to their complaints this way in verse:

“Hji dyu wai, wai

Qedemyu zinebere

Ab Arberebue kienkua

Hade Hade Emni Mdrbay”

“No use complaining now,

You wasted an opportunity in the past

When you could have thrown

A stone each at the coming Italians

From the cliffs of Arberobue”

Yishaq Yosief doesn’t tell us about sanitary inspectors in other parts of Asmara. It doesn’t make much sense to assign such sanitary inspectors only to one part of the city. Therefore, it is possible that there were other sanitary inspectors in other parts of Asmara. It is also possible that Asmara needed an army of street cleaners to maintain its cleanliness, and, therefore, the need for such workers arose.

These cleaners are doing a commendable job, but as we in Eritrea say, you can’t clap with a single hand. Or as other people say, you need two hands to clap. A few days ago, I saw some people busy cleaning streets, and digging around trees. This is a praiseworthy work but not enough. A city belongs to all its inhabitants, and its cleanliness depends on the efforts of each of its residents. Cleanliness is not an activity but a culture, a habit, a way of life.

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