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I Didn't Do It for You
Cover of I Didn't Do It for You
I Didn't Do It for You
How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation
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Scarred by decades of conflict and occupation, the craggy African nation of Eritrea has weathered the world's longest-running guerrilla war. The dogged determination that secured victory against Ethiopia, its giant neighbor, is woven into the national psyche, the product of cynical foreign interventions. Fascist Italy wanted Eritrea as the springboard for a new, racially pure Roman empire; Britain sold off its industry for scrap; the United States needed a base for its state-of-the-art spy station; and the Soviet Union used it as a pawn in a proxy war.

In I Didn't Do It for You, Michela Wrong reveals the breathtaking abuses this tiny nation has suffered and, with a sharp eye for detail and a taste for the incongruous, tells the story of colonialism itself and how international power politics can play havoc with a country's destiny.

Scarred by decades of conflict and occupation, the craggy African nation of Eritrea has weathered the world's longest-running guerrilla war. The dogged determination that secured victory against Ethiopia, its giant neighbor, is woven into the national psyche, the product of cynical foreign interventions. Fascist Italy wanted Eritrea as the springboard for a new, racially pure Roman empire; Britain sold off its industry for scrap; the United States needed a base for its state-of-the-art spy station; and the Soviet Union used it as a pawn in a proxy war.

In I Didn't Do It for You, Michela Wrong reveals the breathtaking abuses this tiny nation has suffered and, with a sharp eye for detail and a taste for the incongruous, tells the story of colonialism itself and how international power politics can play havoc with a country's destiny.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    The City Above the Clouds

    'That thin air had a dream-like texture, matching the porcelainblue of the sky, with every breath and every glance he took in a deep anaesthetising tranquillity.'

    Lost Horizons, James Hilton

    Whenever I land in Asmara, a novel read in adolescence comes to mind. It tells the story of a small plane whose pilot turns hijacker. Crash-landing in a remote part of the Himalayas, he dies of his injuries before he can explain his bizarre actions to the dazed passengers. They emerge from the wreckage to be greeted by a wizened old monk, who leads them to a citadel hidden above the peaks, a secret city whose existence has never been recorded on any map. They are welcomed to Shangri-La, where, breathing the chill air that wafts from the glaciers and surveying the world from a tremendous height, they begin reassessing their lives with the same calm detachment and cosmic clarity as the monks. But as time goes by, they learn they must make a terrible choice. They can stay in Shangri-La and live forever, for their hosts have discovered something approaching the secret of eternal youth. Or they can plunge back into the hurly-burly of the life they knew and eventually die as ordinary mortals, grubbing around down on the plains.

    Flying in from Cairo, where even during an early-morning stopover the air blasted radiator-hot through the open aircraft door, one always had the sense of landing in a capital locate where, by rights, it had no place to be.

    Even in the satellite photos Eritrea, a knobbly elongate( triangle lying atop Ethiopia, its giant neighbour to the south seems an inhospitable destination, a landscape still too raw for human habitation. The route the planes follow takes you over mile upon relentless mile of dun-coloured desolation, mach beautiful only by the turquoise fringe where sand meets sea' a beauty that you know would evaporate if ever you ventured down to sea level to brave the suffocating heat. A spray of islands, the Dahlak, show only the faintest dusting of green. The rolling coastal sands, which show up from outer space as a strip of pearly-pink, run from the port of Massawa north-west to the border of Sudan. To the south-east, where a long, thin finger of land points towards Djibouti, the rock turns a forbidding black. Volcanic lava flows have created a landscape grimmer than the surface of the moon. This is the infamous Danakil Depression, said to be the hottest place on earth, where summer temperatures touch heights feared by even the whippet-thin Afar tribesmen. Behind this flat coastal strip, the land billows up to form a magnificent escarpment, the ripples of hills deepening into jagged waves of dark rock, a giant crumple of mountain creased by empty ravines and bone-dry river beds. It is only in the triangle's western corner, where Eritrean territory juts and bulges into northern Ethiopia, that rivers - the Gash and the Barka - flow all year round. Here in the western lowlands, the gradient finally levels off, wrinkles smooth away and the arid sands cede to the deep green that spells rain, the shade of trees, the blessing of crops.

    But it is not the bleakness, but the altitude that makes Asmara's location as improbable as that of Shangri-La. The Italians who colonized Eritrea at the tail end of the 19th century fled the stifling heat of the Red Sea by heading into the ether, up towards the kebessa, or central highlands. Coming in to land on the wide Hamasien plateau, there is none of the familiar routine of diving through a carpet of white fug to emerge in another, greyer reality. Defying the laws of gravity, planes bound for Asmara certainly go up, but to passengers aboard they barely seem to bother coming down. You...

About the Author-
  • Michela Wrong has worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She has written about Africa for Slate.com and is a frequent commentator on African affairs in the media. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, won the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Nonfiction. She lives in London.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 14, 2005
    Much like Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz
    (2001), covering the reign of Zaire's brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, this book taps at the world's conscience, asking who is to blame for the suffering and neglect of postcolonial African states; it takes Eritrea as case study—and victim. A veteran Africa correspondent for the Financial Times
    , Wrong writes in a pointedly digressive style full of narrative side roads that accommodate a daunting level of geographical and historical detail. Historical highlights include a colorful profile of the late 19th-century writer and Italian parliamentarian Ferdinando Marini that draws on his extensive memoirs about his tenure as the first civil governor of the region as an Italian colony. The early 1960s conflict, occupation and independence of this small neighbor to Ethiopia also make for a terrible, gripping story, including border disputes and bloody war with Ethiopia. A complicated history so punctuated with violence is not exactly easy to read about, but the author's extraordinary grasp of the postcolonial psyche and tormented national identity of this country makes it fascinating. Agent, Joy Harris.

  • New York Times "Eloquent and impassioned . . . [A] splendid account of modern Eritrean history . . . Scrupulous and honest."
  • New York Times Book Review "Engaging history . . . A vivid story of a nation repeatedly trampled by foreign powers until it won its independence."
  • Monica Ali, author of BRICK LANE "A gripping political thriller."
  • John le Carré "Contemporary history on the grand scale. I was entertained, informed and angered . . . A splendid achievement."
  • The Economist "Wrong's...original research is more illuminating, her eye more observant, her writing far more wry and witty."
  • Aminatta Forna, author of THE DEVIL THAT DANCED ON WATER "Vivid, penetrating, wonderfully detailed. Michela Wrong...has excavated the very heart and soul of the Eritrean people and their country."
  • Anthony Sampson, author of MANDELA: The Authorized Biography "Engrossing, vividly written in the style of the best thrillers...It should become the standard work on the region."
  • Daily Telegraph (London) "A fascinating and tragic story . . . Wrong's account [is] gripping."
  • Washington Post Book World "A highly readable, well-researched depiction of the region's serial exploitation by a parade of foreign predators."
  • Los Angeles Times "With rich prose and the passion she brings to the subject of [Eritrea's] independence... Wrong provides a very readable journalistic."
  • The Progressive "If you want to understand the world...I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU provides the best starting point."
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How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation
Michela Wrong
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