Andrew Goss

The inspiration that led to Cold Coffee in Asmara

THE STORY BEHIND Cold Coffee in Asmara was initially suggested by my wife. Claire had worked in Eritrea for four years as a nurse, overseeing health programming in remote areas to the west of the capital Asmara, where the mountains sweep to arid plains all the way to the Sudanese border.

The country lies just above the Horn of Africa, sandwiched between Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Its location so close to Arabia, just across the Red Sea, makes it a fascinating region where Arab, African and European influences collide. It was a former Italian colony, until 1943, when dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown. The territory then came into the hands of the British. But independence was elusive, resulting in a long war with Ethiopia, its neighbour to the south.

The post-war scenario, chronic food insecurity and a people craving peace following the prolonged conflict and eventual independence seemed an interesting setting for the novel – and would allow me to spotlight a range of issues common across the developing world. They include poverty, disease, food insecurity and access to education. Sometimes poor national governance too. Conflict or natural disaster are all too often common bedfellows. And now we have the worry of the increasing impact of climate change across the globe and on some of the poorest, most vulnerable communities in the world.

But it was the stories Claire told of real-life situations she had encountered during her time in Eritrea that fired my imagination. So I began my own research. It was a country which remains relatively inaccessible today, with a Government suspicious of outside agencies since the end of its protracted war for independence, which left the country’s infrastructure on the brink of collapse.

I knew too of the flow of migrants that cross the border into the Sudan to embark upon the migrant trail to Europe to reach safety, a dangerous 5,000-mile journey. It includes those who set out on foot across the desert with little more than a bag of cash and the hope of somehow finding a better life, away from conflict, or persecution, turning their back on everything they have known.

Usual suspects

In the case of Eritrea, in addition to the usual suspects that stand alongside poverty and disease, a primary reason for taking that desperate step of leaving the country in the hope of finding a better, safer life was – and still remains - an escape from enforced military conscription for indefinite periods. Sometimes young people are taken by the military for periods exceeding ten, or even 15 years. And some never return to their families.

I have met and been inspired by some who have made that long migrant trek over many months by any means possible here in my home city of Leicester, in the heart of the UK.

Hidden hazard: millions of mines still lie beneath the hard earth in Eritrea

Some came via Calais, which I had also experienced as a volunteer in the ‘Jungle’ encampment, home to 10,000 men, women and children seeking a new life in Britain, until it was destroyed by fire, then bulldozed into the mud in 2016. Juba and Daniel are fictional characters, but stand for countless thousands of migrants who continue to risk all in the hope of a better life.

As for John Cousins, he seeks his own peace as an aid worker in Eritrea following a traumatic conclusion to his previous mission in Pakistan among a people hoping to rebuild their country. It is here that hopes for respite from his own trauma and begins lay some of his own ghosts to rest. I’ll let the reader decide how much of that story is drawn from my own experience.

Strong themes

The book tackles some strong themes. They include child poverty, health and educational challenges in poorer countries. The trauma Cousins experienced in Pakistan is explained. But does he find the redemption he craves for in Hannah Johnson, who has her own secrets? I will allow the reader to discover as the story unfolds.

However, in closing, I will add that among the darker issues the novel includes I believe Cold Coffee in Asmara is essentially love story. It tells of loss and redemption and ultimately of hope. I hope too it allows the reader to travel to north-east Africa and imagine a life far removed for their own. And that they too can feel something of the challenges that many people less fortunate in the world are forced to endure.

One may argue it need not still be so in this day and age. Again, it is for the reader to draw his, or her own conclusions. But I hope they enjoy the journey!

Finally, people often ask how much of what I write is true. My first novel, The Humanitarian, contained many experiences I myself had endured, or witnessed in Pakistan, following its devastating 2005 earthquake, though the characters were entirely fictional.

The same might be said for Cold Coffee. Both

novels are a blend of fact and fiction. That is, they are based on factual events and lives that are lived today. It is the characters that are often a mix of different people I have encountered on my own travels as a humanitarian aid worker.

James Miller McKenzie never existed. Nor did Sir Charles. Or even Hannah Johnson. But they are based on people I have known and the experiences I have witnessed.

Just like Lula, the camp vagabond ‘adopted’ by Cousins and Johnson. Yet she holds a special place in my heart, because I have known hundreds of children like her, who are hungry to learn, if only they were given the opportunity. I hope therefore the novel provides an insight into a world that exists, but few of us are able to experience firsthand. Happy reading.

Andrew Goss March, 2024

“A beautifully written novel with a flow of words and themes to fill the mind. It's a story of love and redemption in a hostile environment. It is one which reading groups will enjoy and those of an enquiring mind will find much satisfaction in its chapters. It leaves me feeling educated and privileged to have been with such stoic and resourceful people on their journey.”

Miller Caldwell, Novelist and humanitarian, Dumfries, Scotland

The story behind

The Humanitarian

THERE WAS A sudden, unexpected earthquake that struck northern Pakistan. Its arc of destruction ranged from the mountains of Afghanistan in the west, through the Himalayan sub-ranges into Kashmir and India to the east. That much is true.

   It hit Pakistan hardest, where it claimed the lives of 80,000 and left millions homeless. Entire villages and townships were raised to rubble, including schools, hospitals and government buildings. Roads were torn from the slopes to which they clung and bridges were shaken into the valleys below. The entire infrastructure of the north-west was swept to destruction in less than 30 seconds that Saturday morning in October 2005.

   Among the online reports I read at the time was the harrowing account from the town of Balakot, which lay close to the earthquake’s epicentre, co-authored by The Telegraph South Asia correspondent, Peter Foster. He has recently commented: “It was the most brutal story I ever covered. Worse than the 2004 tsunami or either Afghan or Iraq conflicts. Just thousands of people left to die basically…”

   I myself travelled to Pakistan to report for a local newspaper first week of January 2006, when the region was still reeling from the catastrophe and the emergency response phase was in full swing. Initially I was to visit for ten days, travelling from Islamabad into the ‘quake zone. Many villages had still not been reached, such was their remoteness in what was then North-West Frontier Province and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Real events

It was during this time that I first met Frank Lyman, the operations manager in Mansehra working for World Vision Pakistan, who was heading the international agency’s emergency response. I was also later to meet Abdul Waheed Khan and his associate Syed Latif, who worked for Bright Education Society, a local NGO.

   And yes there was a Black Mountain tribal area. It had not been reached since the earthquake, due to its remoteness, its autonomy and its history. Information on this area was therefore scarce, almost non-existent.

  A map was discovered. Wylly’s 1912 account of the warring tribes and their suppression by the British Indian Army, more than a century before the earthquake, is accurate. And there was a significant aid distribution to the area following the disaster, which was eventually made possible.

   Certainly The Humanitarian is a novel based upon real events. I will leave the reader to decide how much of the story documented within its pages is true and how much is fiction. It is fair to say that the central characters never existed. Yet the story is drawn from real people and situations witnessed first-hand. 
In this sense, it is true to its theme and those

who were part of the emergency response at that time in Pakistan.

Shahbaz, the shepherd boy never existed. And yet there were thousands like him caught up in the aftermath of the earthquake.

   The same can be said of any number of Pakistani villagers portrayed in the novel, such as Shahida Bibi. Her story was typical of many female-headed households in the north-west and the suffering they endured and still do.


As for the aid workers, that collection of ‘mercenaries, missionaries and misfits’ portrayed as part of the humanitarian community within the book. I have shared time with many of them across South Asia and West Africa. People as different as Jim Maddison and Gail Stevenson.

   And I acknowledge the debt of shared experience and of inspiration. For most of them do good work in extreme circumstances, often at great personal risk. My thanks therefore must go to Frank Lyman, to Syed Latif – and to Abdul Waheed Khan, who made the ultimate sacrifice for his compassion. 

A true humanitarian. My own involvement in Pakistan was largely ‘accidental’. I had no intention originally of staying beyond the initial ten-day journalistic assignment I had embarked upon. As it happened, as it often does in life, things did not turn out as I had foreseen. What is true is that my experience in Pakistan changed my life. I hope for the better.
   I had never experienced mass human suffering close-up. And yet I was impressed by the resilience of those who had literally lost everything. Insurance is a rare thing in Pakistan and there are no support mechanisms as we know them in the developed world for those who have fallen on hard times. Never had I encountered such kindness from those who were suffering so acutely. It was a truly humbling experience, which I will never forget.

The need

What of my own story? I ended up travelling to and from Pakistan for the best part of the next decade, spending prolonged periods working in the mountains or living in Islamabad. My son, Jalal was born in the federal capital and spent his first year in Pakistan, before we relocated back to the Midlands in the UK. But a few years later, back we went, drawn once more to ‘the land of the pure’ and to resume the work which my then partner and I considered unfinished.

   Of course, for most people who have experienced humanitarian work and seen the need and circumstances of those held in the grip of poverty the mission is never complete. There comes a realisation that whatever one achieves it is not enough. It is like a small drop in an ocean of need. Because the need is so very great – and the world so very slow to change in this respect.

   I left Pakistan for the last time at the end of 2014. But it is also true that I think often of the people I came to know and love in the mountains of Pakistan. The time I shared with them had a profound impact on my own life. And the dream remains that one day I will be able to return…
                               Andrew Goss July, 2020