Silence. Sky bright, soils dusty, stony, the grass straw-dry as I walk aimlessly and alone. Along this mountain-top plateau, where cactus and farming villages populate small hills, arid landscape surround abrupt, rocky-outcrops.

matara eritrea

Shepard with flock in the arid surrounds of matara in southern Eritrea

Away on the distant cliffs, a stone village and church, iron roof and circular-cross shining in the scorching, mid-day sun. I shade beneath a lonely tree in a semi-desert expanse. I drink from my waterbottle, then walk on.

Across a village-silence she calls. She speaks no English but beckons me to come, to drink tea.

matara eritrea

Mamayta outside her home

I wander down the dusty track to the flat-roofed adobe house: it’s rough, stacked-stone walls blotched with sheep-shit patties – drying into firewood.

She has come down from the roof-top to invite me inside. Entering through a creaking, iron-sheet door, reveals a darkened interior; cool like a cave.

As my eyes adjust – daylight gushes in from two small vents in the rafters – I see smooth-timber beams from brushwood ceiling to hardened-clay floor.

The walls have been mud-plastered then white-washed. Wide aluminium bowls, mats and woven, wide-trimmed straw hats, along with four wooden rakes / harvesting implements hang from wooden pegs in the wall.

She takes down a sheep-skin, and places it on a solid-clay bench that doubles as a bed and seating.

matara eritrea

The woman who offered me eggs …

The young woman then goes into the separate rear (blackened fireplaces and charred pots) to return with a gas-bottle element and kettle.

She wears blue slippers and a floral, blue-white-green-grey dress, with a white shawl slashed across one shoulder. Silver earrings are the only jewellery.Her face is young, smiley, inquisitive. Her hairstyle is typical of women in the Tigre region; black hair plaited back tightly across her skull with splaying, bushy pigtails. Her name is Mamayta.

Mamayta brews the tea, mixing leaves and boiling water over and over.

Communication is limited to charades until another girl enters; she speaks slight-English.

matara eritrea

Boys stare at the stranger as a train of mules wander – robotically; they know the routine well – towards the communal village well to refill.

She’s twelve, and says Mamayta is 15, that she has two brothers and a father in the fields, or at market – this I’m not sure. But that her mother is dead, this she makes clear. (Mamayta has assumed that role.)

Then enters a young man. And then a white-robed, bearded old man. He is blind and using a stick. Mamayta guides him to the fur-lined, earth-bench beside me.

I am told he is the village priest. We shake hands.

matara eritrea

Looking to the village well and in the distance that dirt track leads to an asphalt road and then turns left near the foot of that mountain, towards the Ethiopian border

Everyone I’ve encountered today, young shepherds, men guiding mules, the woman offering me hard-boiled eggs, all have wanted to shake my hand.

Mamayta hands me a cup of black tea and from a bowl she encourages me to eat, as she places a cup in the blind priest’s hand. In the other hand he is given a snack of pounded wheat – like a dry rough ball of dough.

During this time Mamayta stares and smiles, offering more tea, then injera. I tactfully decline her offer; they have so little, yet seem intent on offering me everything.

Following three cups of sweet, strong tea I thank Mamayta, and say good-bye to everyone.

matara eritrea

All that remains of an ancient Axumite town – foundation ruins and a solitary stelae in Matara, Eritrea

The sun is sudden outside.

Mamayta returns to her rooftop chores – sorting grain. She waves – bye. And then … she and the village drop from sight as I wander across this stony, dusty expanse, passing brown sheep grazing on dry grass, past 3 camera-shy shepherds and beyond the waterhole, where kids gather with plastic containers.

I encounter two girls hauling large plastic vessels as they balance on their heads baskets of dry dung. I help them carry a few litres of water for a few kilometres. They thank me.

Then I continue alone across the cactus and sand, sun-shining over this barren-but-beautiful land.

Travels in Eritrea – 1995

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