Ultimate recycling: 'Nothing is trash'

The Baltimore Sun

ASMARA, Eritrea -- A rhythmic clamor of pounding hammers, buzzing grinders and clanging metal reverberates from the stone gateway of Eritrea's oldest open-air market.

At first glance, the dusty bazaar behind downtown Asmara appears to be little more than a junkyard of rusted car parts, broken appliances and scraps of steel.

But this isn't where old metal comes to die. It comes here to be reborn.

Used artillery shells are recast as combs for beauty salons. Empty vegetable-oil tins morph into coffee pots. Greasy petroleum barrels get new lives as bread ovens.

"Nothing is trash," said Abdulqadir Fereja, 77, waving a hand at his giant pile of splintered door frames, metal chair legs and aluminum roofing. He has been selling at the Medebar recycling market for more than 25 years. "It all gets used. We don't waste a thing."

Founded by Italian colonists nearly 100 years ago as a trading depot and animal way station, Medebar today is home to scores of tiny workshops, where mostly self-taught artisans turn garbage into goods.

It's a tribute not only to this nation's historic resourcefulness but also to its isolation. The culture of conservation and recycling was born of necessity.

Italians were the first to learn to make do with limited resources in this Horn of Africa country on the Red Sea. Separated from the wealth and materials of Rome, colonialists melted scrap metal to make horseshoes and farm tools.

After World War II, Eritrea was briefly ruled by Britain, which dismantled many of its factories, bridges and other infrastructure and took the materials to its own colonies, such as Kenya. Ethiopian rule followed, and a 30-year struggle for independence left the nation marginalized and neglected.

Today, Eritrea's isolation largely is self-imposed. The government's distrust of foreigners and desire for self-reliance has led it to seal the borders and cut off most foreign trade. That has caused shortages of food, electronics and other consumer products, and difficulty importing spare parts for anything foreign-made.

Once again, Eritreans, rich and poor, are flooding to Medebar.

"This place is just part of our lives," said Aracia Keidane, at 88 a 44-year veteran of Medebar, as he used a hammer and vise to twist old sofa springs into clasps used on traditional dining tables. "This is how we survive."

Day and night, workers in blue overalls can be found toiling in workshops and narrow stalls. The market's winding dirt alleyways are lined with piles of raw materials: hubcaps, car axles, tires, oil cans, gasoline barrels, soup cans and logs. Many work by hand with little more than a knife and hammer. Others operate heavy machinery, including electric saws and smelting furnaces that look as if they, too, were constructed from scraps.

The final products are displayed on tables in front of the ramshackle shops: pots and pans, cookie cutters, candlesticks, water tanks, curling irons, church bells.

"It's cheap, and the quality is usually quite good," Yordanos Yehdgo, 36, a smartly dressed Asmara homemaker, said as she scrutinized a selection of kitchen strainers. "And if it breaks, you can bring it back to have it fixed."

She said she was waiting for the handle on her coffee pot to be repaired.

No job is too big, too small or too odd for Medebar. There's an umbrella repairman who will delicately solder a broken spoke. Carpenters will fashion a door from wood scraps. Auto experts can smelt a new plate to squeeze another year from a car's carburetor. One couple recently requested a meat rack, made of pipe and construction rods, to hang goat and cow carcasses brought to their wedding as gifts.

The most famous of Medebar's fabrications probably are the rubber sandals made from old car tires. During "the Struggle," as Eritrea's fight for independence was called, fighters wore the handmade footwear because they couldn't afford military boots. The sandals were repaired by simply softening the rubber over a campfire.

Later, the sandals were enshrined in a giant war-memorial statue downtown. Today, President Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled since 1993, is more apt to be seen sporting sandals than Western dress shoes.

Seated in front of a pile of well-worn Korean-made tires, Welde Gabriel, 67, uses fast hands and a sharp knife to slice the rubber into soles. If he cuts with care, he can make several dozen pairs from one tire, each pair selling for about $3. His 16-year-old daughter works by his side, learning the trade.

In better times, Gabriel preferred leather. "But you can't find leather in the shops now," he said. "We have no other choice."

Medebar's stores have been a family affair for generations, with fathers passing down their workshops and trade secrets to sons, and sometimes daughters.

"The Italians taught my father, and he taught me," said Belay Debessia, 71, who sells ladders made of old water pipes.

Eritrea's socialist-leaning government increasingly is seizing control of private factories and industries, but Medebar remains a pocket of free enterprise.

Tedros Tekeste, 17, started making ovens from oil drums when he was 13 and now smelts shovels and hoes out of the steel of car frames. He works about five hours a day after school and earns about $13 a week, which pays for schoolbooks.

"There are no other jobs," he said.

Debessia, who has worked at Medebar for 40 years, said the market's heyday was in the 1970s, when it attracted buyers and sellers from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. "Those were the boom days," he said.

But the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia brought Eritrea's economy to its knees, ushering in a period of stagnation that has trickled down to the recycling market. Without access to foreign markets, even the price of junk is rising.

Petroleum drums that once sold for $4 now cost $24, if they can be found at all. As a result, the prices of the bread ovens have tripled.

"These are the saddest times," said Haile, the umbrella repairman, who uses only one name.

In addition, some worry that the government's conscription of nearly all young people into a vast national-service program is robbing Medebar of its next generation of workers.

Eyob Tadde, 23, learned how to make picture frames from his father and always dreamed of taking over the small shop. But after graduating from technical school, Tadde will be deployed into a public-service job. The program, officially for a standby military force, is supposed to last 18 months, but in reality it can go on for much more than a decade. The salary is $1 a day.

"I wish I could stay here, but I don't know what my future will be," he said.

In recent years, Medebar has become a place of old men and teenagers. Old-timers wonder who will take over their shops.

"All our kids are gone," said Kahsaie Solomon, 57, whose children all are in national service. "We're here alone."

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