Medeber Market in Asmara, Eritrea, is ground zero for recycling and manufacturing in this small country along the coast of the Red Sea. Metal, wood, and plastic is brought there from around the country to be transformed by (mostly) men, working in rows of small independent shops. “Fire sparks, lots of loud noise, people shouting, screaming—it’s intense,” says photographer Ayla Hibri, who took these photos in Eritrea at the end of 2014. “And afterward, everyone goes to the coffee house and drinks cappuccinos.”
Eritrea is an unusually closed-off country; by some measures, it’s second only to North Korea in its remoteness. It was an Italian colony from the late 19th century to 1942—hence the cappuccinos—before descending into decades of conflict and eventual Ethiopian rule. The country gained independence in the early 1990s but quickly became a dictatorship, with the same president in power since 1993. Eritreans must serve indefinite terms of military service, which usually translates into years of forced labor. Asmara, the capital, is still full of art deco Italian buildings, well-preserved despite the years of upheaval and war. The recycling shops at Medeber also started during colonial times, when Italian goods were too expensive for most locals to afford: they had to work with what they already had. And they still do today.
When Hibri visited Medeber, she was fascinated by the handmade welding masks worn by the workers. Some are plastic, while others are metal; some have goggles incorporated into the design, while others are just a piece of cardboard with eyeholes cut out. Some workers wore only sunglasses, and no one wore gloves or other protective gear. She remembers the market as a male-dominated, chaotic place, where people were constantly hauling around heavy objects and the air was heavy with the smell of burning. “I was protecting myself the whole time, but they seemed completely at ease,” she says of the workers. When the men weren’t posing for photos, they were “very focused, very in the zone,” welding together gates and doors from pieces of scrap metal.
“Asmara is not a very comfortable place, financially or economically. There’s a lot of DIY—that’s why they end up doing these masks,” Hibri says. “But the workers are very, very proud. They have a lot of attitude, and they were very open to posing for me.”