They may be suffering drought, famine and tyranny; they may be constantly on the verge of war with their far more numerous neighbours, the Ethiopians; but the people of Eritrea only seem to care about one thing. Their country has run out of sugar. Nobody knows how it happened. (There is no free press in Eritrea, so no one knows much for sure.) One theory is that the government, aiming to prevent sugar wholesalers from making a profit, introduced so much new red tape that they stopped importing the stuff. Prices tripled. Rationing was introduced. Soon sugar became unobtainable at any price. Eritreans are used to hardship, but this has made life intolerable.
Sugar is the only luxury many Eritreans enjoy. Qat, a hallucinogenic plant popular in neighbouring countries, is banned. Alcohol is expensive. The state television is not worth watching, even if you have electricity. Eritreans get their buzz from strong, sugary coffee. They consume it with great ceremony, much as genteel Japanese people do tea. Even the simplest homes have the necessary paraphernalia for a coffee ceremony. The ritual is held twice a day in most homes, and can last for hours. Beans are ground and roasted, then brewed over a small charcoal burner. Tiny cups, half-filled with sugar and topped up with thick, black coffee are handed round, along with sugared popcorn. The process is repeated three times. It is rude to leave early.
Sugar is an essential part of Eritrean life. Women bring lovingly gift-wrapped bags of it to weddings and baptisms. In the parched and barren countryside, children are weaned on sugared water. Veterans of the country's 30-year liberation war recall that even when other supplies dried up, there was somehow always sugar for the troops.
Given all this, it seems extraordinary that the government should now allow it to run out. Sadly, since its current policy appears to be to stifle private enterprise, sugar will probably not be the last thing Eritrea runs short of.
The Economist February 21st 2004
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