'I Didn't Do It for You'
By Michela Wrong.
Michela Wrong's exhaustive look at the African nation of Eritrea is unfortunately not about the Eritreans. It's about the people with power over the Eritreans: first Italians, then British, then Ethiopians and Americans together.
Located along the Red Sea, Eritrea is the tiny strip of land that separates neighboring Ethiopia from the coastline. It also has an illustrious history of getting trod upon: It was the first country on which Italy cut its colonizing teeth, World War II Britain occupied and practiced apartheid there for a bit, and Ethiopia–with complicit help from the United Nations–annexed Eritrea as a colony and stripped it of its economic infrastructure. The United States built a base there to take advantage of the world's best shortwave-radio reception, picking up signals from half the globe (think WWII, the Korean War) and analyzing the Soviet Union's missile network. The U.S. also looked the other way as Ethiopians systematically massacred Eritrean villagers. The tiny country also holds the dubious honor of enduring the world's longest-running guerrilla war.
As a history of colonial rule in Eritrea, Didn't is an impressive document, encompassing years of in-depth research and uncovering hundreds of buried records. What's missing, however, is the story of the Eritrean people, which does not appear until several hundred pages into the book, when Wrong finally provides her first in-depth interview with a native countryman.
But beyond the thorough accounts of Eritrea's ever-changing ruling class, Didn't doesn't answer the question of what it was like for people living under colonial rule. Nor does it attempt to define who Eritreans are beyond the male freedom fighters, exiles and administrators. It's the failure of historical nonfiction in the classical sense: The people of a country are ignored in favor of those with power and money. And ultimately, Eritrea falls prey again, as yet another outsider rewrites its history.–Rachel Shindelman