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You are here: Home Articles The Mother Tongue – A Diasporian Crisis: Part I

The Mother Tongue – A Diasporian Crisis: Part I

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On a hot Saturday afternoon somewhere in a western US city, my friend and I are standing in front of a Tewahdo Church chatting about everything, when suddenly out of nowhere his three sons jump in to greet us. “What’s up, guys! Where’ve you been?” asks their dad, eager to introduce me to them. “At the Tigrigna School,” answers one of the boys. “Good, good, very good! and how was it?” asks back their dad. “Boring, boring, boring,” they answer, screaming almost in unison. There is nothing my friend can say or do other than forcing himself a disappointed grin and shake his head disapprovingly. Not the best time to get introduced; might as well get inside the church and cool down.

Somewhere in the busy streets of New York City a twentyish slim, pretty lady of fair complexion flags a cab. Eyeing her from the rear view mirror, Alem senses she is an Eritrean and starts talking to her in Tigrigna. “Selam, Kemey wi’e’ilki ‘zagwaley?” No answer. He keeps trying, this time easy and slow. Mute response. He gives up and asks her in English if she understands Tigrigna. Her answer, short and simple: “No, my parents did not help me learn the language. They did not prepare me for such awkward moment. I wish they did.” It was an answer which left the driver shaking his head, and start thinking about his own kids.

Somewhere in Texas an Eritrean mother brags about the level of Tigrigna her son has reached. “Oh, he is much better than most of his friends! He is good at listening and understanding, and even uttering a few words”, she tells me. “Go ahead, and ask him whatever you want.” Few weeks later the boy is in Asmara to stand the test of his mother-tongue. His grandmother asks him: “me-as d-ea metsi-ekum z’wedey?” His answer, gesturing with his little fingers: h’ade me-a’alti, klte me-a’alti; his way of saying: qdmi tmali, ‘the day before yesterday’. The same boy answers: wu’u’uy kelbi, when asked what he prefers for an afternoon snack; his way of asking for a ‘hot dog’. To his delight he earns a plate with a piece of qategna, a freshly mogogo-baked piece of tsl’qha (mini-einjera) sandwiched with spicy t’esmi and hot awaze, and a light affectionate kiss stamped on his forehead punctuated by “asena de’a shkorey!”; a notable, well-deserved reward for his humorous choice of words.

Ghebremeskel takes a long awaited trip to his remote home village somewhere in Eritrea. His three handsome teen-aged boys born in the US accompany him. It’s their first trip; they are all excited and eager to meet their grandparents and other relatives. The kids do not understand a word of their mother-tongue. Ghebremeskel and his wife didn’t care to teach them. “Oh, it won’t be any problem,” they would say, “the kids can easily pick up their mother-tongue once they are in Eritrea. What’s important is that they make the trip safe and meet their grandparents.” It’s true their grandparents are equally excited and eager to meet their son and grandsons, play with them, touch them, chat with them and show them around, in their mother-tongue, of course. Fast forward to the day of departure to the US, hardly a word of Tigrigna is exchanged between grandparents and grandsons and the day of return flight arrives. Ghebremeskel approaches his father for a farewell blessing. “Listen, my son,” his father says, “your mother and I are extremely grateful for everything you did for us – thank you for the house you built us, thank you for the cattle you bought us, thank you for the clothes you bought your siblings, thank you for the warm, snow-white ‘kutas’ you adorned us with, a million thanks for everything.” He continues with a stern and firm voice. “Listen, my dear son, there is something disturbing I would like to tell you. During your stay your mom and I were unable to communicate with your children. Why do you deprive them of their mother- tongue? Can’t you see that we had no emotional attachment with them? This shouldn’t have happened. Their mother-tongue is one of the important heritages which ensure their identity. Take some time to teach them their mother-tongue, for without it, they are simply lost and don’t belong here with us. Next time you decide to bring these lovely kids along make sure they can speak their mother-tongue fluently; and not only speak it, but read and write it as well; if not, please don’t bother to bring them along on your next trip. Get this into your heart, do promise us. Lbi gber ‘zwedey, tsa’eda ytsnah’ka.” Ghebremeskel gets the message, loud and clear, and departs with a blessing he badly needs.

I meet an Eritrean teen-ager boy in my neighborhood in Chicago running to a store to carry out some errand for his mom. “Kemey’lekha, Simon?” (How are you, Simon?) I ask him. “Tsbuqh,” (Good) he answers, hesitantly, with a shy smile. “Adiekha kemey ala; deh’an’do khweyna?”(How is your mom, is she feeling better?), I continue, trying to engage him in some sort of conversation and shaking his hand. His answer, short and to the point, “e-we.” I keep asking him about other members of his family, eager to hear some extra Tigrigna words from him but all he could come up with is a bunch of “e-we, e-we, e-we,” obviously, reluctant to continue the conversation with me. Of course, nothing wrong with that; that’s good enough, not a big deal at all; it’s just that the traditional formal Eritrean way of returning a greeting, yimesghen, does not exist in the vocabulary of the boy.

An Eritrean resident in Boston, US, visits Adey Tabotu Ghebreqal who just came from Asmara to see her daughter, three grandchildren, and may be for some medical checkup. On this particular day mom and dad are out and Adey Tabotu is the baby-sitter – the baby-sitter with no means of chatting with the children. The visitor presses the security code to apartment 802 and waits to be buzzed up. Upstairs Adey Tabotu hears the sound, grabs the phone and struggles to punch the right button to let the impatient visitor in, when the eldest boy stops playing his video games, shouts at his grandma, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”, buzzes the visitor up and rushes back to his games. Once inside the apartment the visitor hugs and kisses Adey Tabotu, with ‘enqua’e deh’an metsa’ekn’, (welcome) but notices that she is sad and in a moody state. She didn’t seem happy. “What’s wrong with you, Mama Tabotu? Tetseli’uekn d’yu? Deh’an dikhn? Tell me, is there something wrong; are you ill or something?” he pleads with her. “I’m ok; it’s just that one of the boys called me ‘stupid’, “Weriduni gwal Gebar, anes ‘ntay behalit, but that’s ok, he’s only a child, “deh’an, aih’zelun’ye, wedey ‘ndiu.” Presumably Adei Tabotu must have picked up the word ‘stupid’ from somewhere and it would not escape her ears; she was almost sure what she heard. But, unfortunately, for her there is no difference between ‘stop it! stop it!’ and ‘stupid! stupid!’ Poor, old lady, what does she know? The absence of the mother-tongue (qhwanqwa-‘de) disallows proper communication and totally messes up a pleasant day for visitation.

A young Eritrean student is pursuing his college studies at a prestigious Norwegian university. He is requested by his professor to deliver a talk on the historical development of the Tigrigna Language, his mother-tongue, to his classmates and members of the Foreign Languages Club of the languages department of the university. He accepts the challenge with a shock and calls his dad, not for advice, but for throwing the blame on his parents for not forcing him to learn his mother-tongue. A few harsh words are exchanged between father and son – the father, blaming his son for refusing to attend Saturday Tigringna lessons during his elementary years; the son, accusing his father for not pushing him enough. A nasty argument builds up between them, which, of course, does not remedy the situation; it’s too late, very late. Regretfully, the son is forced to turn to internet websites for help and finally ends up with a low-level presentation graded by his professor as inadequate.

Aboy Sereqe, a resident of LA, meets a 15-year old Eritrean boy playing in the vicinity of his neighborhood. “Abah’agokha geza’do’lewu, ‘zwedey?’ asks Aboy Sereqe. “Yelon,” answers the boy. “Yelowun, eyu zbhal, z’wedey,” corrects Aboy Sereqe. “Abah’agoy, h’ade’yu, klte aykonen,” answers back the boy, obviously confusing single-plural forms of words with singular-plural grammar usage for seniors, unique to the Ge’ez language.

A group of Eritrean teen girls and their mentor are hurrying up a flight of stairs in a Dallas Tewahedo Church. They are on their way to attend their weekly Tigrigna lesson when I meet them. “Deh’an’do h’adirkn, zen’deqey?” I greet them, with a smile, as I squeeze myself between them on my way downstairs to attend ‘qhdasie’. They respond with shy giggles, covering their mouths. “Kemey h’adirkn zen’deqey?” another attempt on my part is met by louder, extended giggles. Embarrassed by their behavior, their lady mentor rests one palm on her cheek, turns to them and, utterly amazed by their action, reprimands them saying: “Ewai, antn yimesgen’kwa ayitblan, e’e’e’!”. I’m sure once in their classroom they must have started the day’s Tigrigna lesson with a rehearsal of the basics of formal Eritrean greeting.

One hot summer day in 2008, I enter a Staples store in Chicago, with a Tigrigna Reader clutched under my arm-pit. I am browsing the stationery section, when a young man in his mid-twenties offers to help. An ID tag pinned to his breast pocket, reads ‘Anwar, Assistant Manager.’ Anwar is an Eritrean, born, raised and educated in Chicago. He worked his way up from a regular, low status job to an assistant manager position. He notices the Ge’ez letters on the Tigrigna Reader and excitedly says: “Hey, wait a minute, let me see what you’ve got there, these looks familiar, can I take a look!” and, with eyes wide open, starts browsing the colorful, illustrated letters, words and sentences. “Wow, wow! are you selling this? I’d like to have one.” I ask him if he could read me some words. “Nope, sorry, no clue at all,” he shakes his head. He reminisces the trip he made to his parent’s homeland Eritrea in 1994. He recounts to me some of the bitter, unpleasant memories he experienced on his trip because he could not speak or understand Tigrigna, his mother-tongue, and regretfully comments, with a sigh: “Let me tell you something; I’ll admit refusing to learn the language when my parents begged me was a grave mistake and it proved to be a huge setback on my trip. A little of this stuff would have surely made my vacation more interesting and enjoyable. No point regretting it now; but, I’ll make sure my younger brothers don’t follow my steps. I don’t want to see them in the same shoes. Thank you, sir, have a good day; please allow me to get back to work.” I left with the feeling that the everlasting seeds of the mother-tongue got sown on the appropriate ground.

Early in the year of 2002 I attended an annual church celebration, ‘ngdet’, in the outskirts of Chicago. The mass, ‘khdasie’ was in full swing as I entered the church full of men and women clad in snow-white national costume. About fifty angelic-faced boys and girls, ages 4 to 15, clad in neat choir garments, took to the stage to sing church hymns accompanied by drums. With papers in their hands they sang out loud and clear in Tigrigna. “Wow!” I whispered to myself, “this is awesome, they must be good; reading words and singing tunes in their own-mother tongue, they must have very good teachers.” Deep down in my heart I felt some sense of joy, satisfaction and admiration. Over lunch I shared my admiration with a resident church member. “The kids were wonderful; it was a pleasure hearing them sing in their own mother-tongue.” I said to him. “How long did it take them to read Tigrigna alphabet and sing songs?” The man laughed and politely said: “The songs on the paper were Tigrigna songs written in English alphabet.” “You’re kidding me; you mean they were not reading Tigrigna alphabet? No, that can’t be right!” I almost shouted with disappointment and disbelief. He replied that the school committee is working hard on it and hopes that it may get better in the future. I blamed myself for being so naive and getting easily tricked.

Year 2008, seven years later, I drive to the same city to participate in the annual ‘ngdet’ with high hopes of finding improvement. This time most of the choir members got taller, new members were added and a bigger crowd attended. But, shockingly, I find out that the Tigrigna songs they sang during mass were still written in English letters. “Oh, my! This can’t be right.” I muttered to myself in disbelief. “Seven years to the day and the kids are still reading Tigrigna in Latin alphabet? How can this happen?” Here is a church with a big congregation, parents of lots of children, every year hosting Eritreans from far and near, entertaining them with music, food, and drink, holding auctions for fund raising and yet does not care to teach its children their mother-tongue. How can we let this happen? Using English letters to teach Tigrigna to our kids should be temporary method; it’s meant to equip us with transitory provision to facilitate the teaching of the mother-tongue and not, like the Oromos of Ethiopia, adopt it for good as a permanent method; somewhere, somehow it should be dropped. Otherwise, the continual use of English alphabet to teach Tigrigna letters may gradually nurture a phidel-phobia situation, ‘ra’e’di fidel’ in the young minds of kids.

Need I write more? Am I overwhelming you? May be not good enough. Well, I could go on, and on and on. Anybody got similar mother-tongue stories to throw in? I am pretty sure there are tons of them out there. All the players in these incidents are Eritrean children, offspring of Eritrean families who migrated starting from the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and on to the ‘90’s to every corner of the globe. This article is about them and their right to their own mother-tongue. All these incidents have actually happened and, as you read, they are still happening in the Diasporian world of Eritrean boys and girls residing anywhere from America to Australia. That’s why I prefer to write in the present continuous tense. None of them is a fabricated or exaggerated incident and none of them is intended to underestimate or make fun of anyone. They are true incidents meant to alert and educate.

What we have is a mosaic of incidents regarding the Tigrigna mother-tongue displaying different aspects of Eritrean life – home and abroad, secular and religious, young and old, child and parent, male and female, student and teacher, mother and father, grandchild and grandparent. You may find some of them to be amusingly funny; but remember that all portray a sad situation of the mother-tongue encountering most Eritrean families. They convey a strong message of concern to all Eritreans - embassies, parents, educators, church elders, community and civic leaders, political organizations, academicians, and individual citizens, practically every Eritrean, with or without children, and irrespective of political or religious inclinations. These seemingly jokey incidents are intended as messages of ‘wake-up-call.’ Every Eritrean should heed this warning call because a whole generation of Eritreans is getting deprived of its rightful heritage, its mother-tongue, which is getting plunged into a fathomless abyss of possible extinction, and that, believe me, at a frightful speedy rate.

Of course, most parents believe that Eritrean children need their mother-tongue and definitely know what meaningful role they should play in performing their task. But then there is a small part which tries to neglect its duties and responsibilities reasoning out as follows: “But what’s the problem, what’s the big deal, what are you talking about; we do well without the mother-tongue, I don’t see its importance for my children, kids of other immigrants don’t mind their mother-tongue, why should we; I want my kids to master the English language (or any other language), that’s what they are here for, not for their mother-tongue; we don’t have time for this; they’ll catch up later; my children are Eritrean-Americans or Eritrean-Swedish or Eritrean-French, this does not concern them; this does not make sense to me, and if it does, I don’t have children now, my children are all grown-ups and on their own” and countless other excuses, for which I have no room here. But be assured that such individuals exist everywhere and tend to, intentionally or not, contribute to the demise of the mother-tongue. More on this, coming up – keep on reading.

It’s true that the giant American melting pot had been churning, stirring and melting immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa etc., for decades until they abandon the mother-tongue of the country of their origin and acquire the English language. In fact, in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s, usage of immigrants’ mother-tongues was discouraged because it was generally believed it interfered with the teaching-learning process of the English language and as a result would make school children slow learners. This theory was refuted in the mid-1980 after a research on bilingualism proved that any immigrant’s mother-tongue is a plus on the child’s educational development. However, most European immigrants of third generations and beyond have done away with their respective mother-tongues and embraced the English language as their mother-tongue. Willingly or unwillingly, they have completely thrashed their mother-tongue, and yet, many of them have not rested from tracing back their roots or visiting their ancestor’s lands.

My colleague, Mr. Ted Poprawski, a second generation Polish immigrant, carries a Berilitz Teach-Yourself-Polish Manual in his back-pocket. He has made plans to spend his summer vacation in Poland, his ancestral homeland, visit relatives he never met, visit his grandparents’ graves and what not. For over a year he had been browsing its pages during his breaks. “Ted, how’re y’doing?” I’d ask him, whenever I see him glued to the manual. “Hooph,” he’d answer with a sigh: “I wish I’d done it much earlier; it’s killing me; this is no different from teaching tricks to an old dog; I’m afraid it might be too late for me and I’m starting to have second thoughts about all this.” The ignorance of the mother tongue clearly diminishes the interest, enthusiasm and excitement one may have about one’s own country.

I don’t think it would be fair to include Eritrean migrants in the same category as other immigrants because our migration has occurred under totally different time interval and different circumstances and be that as it may, we must learn from the mistakes committed by the Europeans and strive to pass on the legacy of the mother-tongue to future young generations.

Let me try to re-enforce the importance of the mother-tongue by giving you some details from the experience of European immigrants. A few lines borrowed from an article published 3/7/2004 on the Guardian Unlimited, a UK newspaper, clearly stress the importance of the mother-tongue under the title ‘Two Languages are Better than One”. The article, written by a Hungarian journalist mom, starts by pointing out that bringing up children to be bilingual gives them all sorts of advantages. She confesses that even though as a parent she could speak and write the Hungarian language, she had no desire to teach her two sons their mother-tongue. Now her children, aged 26 and 32, bemoan the fact that she never taught them Hungarian, their mother-tongue. Vacationing in their own home country, it proved very difficult to connect to their ancestral traditions or chat with their relatives. “How, I got it wrong!” their mom regrets.

The same article points out how Loli Farell, who is Spanish but married to an English businessman, taught her two daughters Spanish while they were growing up. Now, in their late twenties, they are fluent in their mother-tongue and totally immersed in their culture. Their mother-tongue added another dimension to their lives.

The article points out that experiments have shown that bilingual children are better at taking the perspective of another person, that is, having more than one cultural identity heightens their ability to put themselves into someone else’s shoes. Commenting on the advantages of multilingualism, the article concludes that multiple languages can be a source of great wealth for children, their families and society in general.

There are countless reasons why Eritrean children like other immigrants’ children need their mother-tongue. It can rightly be said that their mother-tongue builds an emotional and psychological bridge between them and their parents and places them on the same page. Bilingual upbringing of children enhances understanding between parents and children as well as between children of the same mother-tongue but with different acquired languages.

Here is an actual incident. I start a Tigrigna class for twelve Eritrean-Swedish students, aged 9 to 13. The first day I pose a question to the students: “Why do you want to learn Tigrigna?” A number of varied replies follow. “My parents told me to do so,” answers the first student. “Because I am an Eritrean,” answers a second student. “So I can talk to my mom,” adds another student. But it is the answer of a student at the back of the room I find quite remarkable. “Next summer,” he answers, “my cousin from Germany and I from Sweden will meet in Eritrea. My cousin and I have agreed to start attending week-end Tigrigna classes in our respective places so we can chat in Tigrigna when we meet.” That’s what we call an inspirational and motivational reply.

How clear and simple can it be? Here are two 12 year old Eritrean kids one from Sweden and the other from Germany setting up an elaborate tactical plan. They are crying out to parents and teachers for help. Their message to all of us is loud and clear. “Give us our mother-tongue, help us get rid of the fake identity and restore our real identity, help us seek our roots, help us understand Eritrean culture and traditions, help us understand you and be on the same page as you; teach us our mother- tongue so we can know who we are and where we are heading to; we are ready to listen to you if you give us quality teaching; we need your help, please help us.”

A columnist for the “Meftih” paper, published in Canada by Ato Aaron Berhane, puts it very clear in its 6/7/2007 publication. The writer stresses the importance of the mother-tongue to Eritrean children by outlining some of her own childhood experiences as she and her siblings adjust to different languages throughout their diasporian life – Tigrigna in their homeland, Arabic in the Sudan, English and French in Canada. She points out the advantages and challenges of maintaining one’s own mother-tongue, traditions and identity. She gratefully mentions with some pride the help and support provided by her parents underlining the house rules with regard to the language used at home despite the fact that she feels a bit of guilt and shame for not being able to read or write Tigrigna. The article continues to remind readers that the culture, history and ethnicity of any country can best be maintained through the mother-tongue which binds its citizens to their ancestral roots, heritage and, eventually, the soul of one’s own existence. In closing, she extends words of encouragement to parents and community leaders to unite forces in keeping the Tigringna language alive by opening week-end language schools.

Once upon a time during the Dergue era a group of language experts sat for a meeting in Asmara. The Ethiopian coordinator requested the participants to come forth with suggestions to improve the education system given to Eritrean elementary schools at that time. Among the many suggestions was one which angered the coordinator: “Give students the chance to learn some subjects in their own mother-tongue.” Of course, at that time doing away with Amharic and replacing it with Tigrigna, Tigre, Bilen, Saho, Kunama, Afar, etc. was not only unthinkable but the mere fact of suggesting it was risky and may also end you up in trouble. Now, independence gained and school children in Eritrea synchronized to their respective mother-tongues, Eritrean students in Diaspora are not fully reaping the fruits of independence; they have remained way back when it comes to their mother-tongue.

Unfortunately, the narrow-mindedness that was prevalent during the Derg time is still around, albeit, in a different form and mentality. Moving to Chicago in the year of 2001, I approached an acquaintance about starting a week-end Tigrigna school. “That’s a good idea, go for it; but, wait a minute, which group do you have in mind?” He asks. “What do you mean by group? I was thinking more of the kids, you know ‘deqna’ ” I elaborated. “Yes, I understand, but kids of which group?” That’s what we call selfish motive, putting self-interest before your kids’ interest.” “Don’t waste your time,” another one would try to disappoint me, “Many have tried it before independence and failed; it simply does not work; it never worked then; why would it work now; get better things to do; drop it, please.” I departed with a heavy heart. As everybody else, we Eritreans have the right to differing political views or religious beliefs. It’s our basic human right. However, that should not interfere with the native language training of our own children. Let’s not politicize Eritrean mother-tongues. Let’s not confuse views with duties. Let’s act together mustering all our effort and resources collectively, not individually, because our children’s mother tongue is our common denominator and it’s best done in groups. The mother-tongue is not an island.

Imagine yourself enjoying an evening stroll back and forth Godena H’arnet in Asmara, filled with Eritrean youngsters from all corners of the world to enjoy their summer vacations. Or take a break from your stroll and rest on the steps of the mini-arena of the Cathedral. Or pull a chair at the patio of Bar Moderna and order Cappuccino. Wherever you are the air is filled with a mosaic of international tongues, gibberish to your ears – a bit English, a bit Tiglish, a bit French, a bit Dutch, a bit Swedish, a bit Finnish, a bit Italian, and a bit German etc.. It sounds like an international competition of languages is taking place. The actors are the sons and daughters of Eritrean parents residing abroad; they have very little means of communicating with their homeland peers; they don’t care two hoots about their mother-tongue. They come with confused minds and leave sowing seeds of confusion. What’s going on, you’d wonder.

Let me take you back a few years to a discussion a group of Eritreans had about the Tigrigna mother-tongue. Most of the participants had positive opinions and suggestions about why and how to teach it and what to do to implement those suggestions. In fact the group almost finalized brilliant plans to start a campaign among Eritrean circles when one of the participants reiterated sarcastically saying: “Neza melemenit mai zeytkhewn ke’aa zi’khulu!”, a nasty degrading comment. In the Tigrigna language ‘melemenit mai’ is an expression dismissing the language as utterly useless, unfit for the achievement of even the smallest insignificant thing – begging for a tin can of water. Well, in the world of the narrow-minded critique, he seems to have forgotten that it’s the tin can of water that quenches the thirst of a weary and exhausted traveler after a long day’s journey and keeps him moving with sustained life. Little does he know that unlike the acquired language the mother-tongue is about identity and heredity; it’s about unity and harmony; it’s about pride and legacy; it’s the essence of your roots.

A few years ago I had the opportunity of meeting a respectable Swedish couple in their eighties at a graduation lunch. I was told that the husband was one of the numerous Swedish pioneers who helped in the Tigrigna Bible translation and served as a missionary in different parts of Eritrea. A little while later, we sat for a meal during which time the respectable pastor started talking to me in my own language articulating every word fluently without the slightest accent or stammer. Taken aback by the clarity and fluency of every Tigrigna word he uttered, I asked him with utmost reverence: “Aboy Kesci, kemey eilkum de’a qhwanqwa Tigrigna zeyresa’ekumwo?” Dabbing his lips with a napkin, he answered: “Ewe ‘zwedey eta nay qedemkum Tigrigna’kwa ayresa’ekwan, eza nay h’ji Tigrignakhum gn berti’a’atni ala,” his words flowing out with no difficulty and full ‘laza and me’aza.’ He was elaborately distinguishing between two types of Tigrigna - before and after independence. He then continued with fatherly advice: “H’adera de’a deqkhum qhwanqwa’om keyrs’e’u mharwom.” My heart was heavily smitten with a sledge hammer. It was both a challenge and an inspiration. Here is a respectable gentleman, I said to myself, able to differentiate between Tigrigna languages of two different eras and giving me the lesson of my life in my own mother-tongue. What a task awaits the rest of us, I thought to myself.

Three Eritreans friends in their early twenties are in San Diego to attend the Eritrean festival. Taking a break they are having fun in the sweltering heat of the beautiful beach, swimming in the waves of the vast sea when an elderly American lady in her mid-seventies walks towards them and introduces herself politely: “Hi, I’m Kathy, nice to meet you, having fun?” shaking their hands firmly. “Nice meeting you, too, Kathy; I’m Ghrmai, I’m Mewaeel, I’m Gulbet,” the three friends return the greeting one at a time. “Hey, you know what, you’ve got remarkable names!” remarks the lady with some admiration. She then abruptly switches to Tigrigna and asks them: “Trgum asmatkum’do tfelt’wo ‘zomdeqey?’ None of them dares answer. “Well,” the nice lady switches back to English “you are Mr. Dignity, you are Mr. Age, and you are Mr. Power,” pointing her finger at each one of them. “Wow!” they exclaim admiring her, “we never knew this; we were never told, how did you find out that,” and keep staring at each other. She continues offering them some motherly advice in their own mother-tongue: “Ezom deqey qhwanqwa adiekhum de’a temeharu, kedliekum’yu, ayt’h’meqhu.” Here is an former Peace Corp American lady who volunteered to spend her young years teaching English language in Sena’afe in the late 1960’s and now, in July of 2009, in the beaches of San Diego, US, the same lady lecturing Eritrean youngsters about their names, in their own mother-tongue, clearly and fluently, with full confidence, to which they hardly reply because they do not understand an iota of what she is telling them. C’mon, dear Eritrean youngsters, what’s going on? Courage up! Wake up! You can do better!

A Washington D.C. conference gave me an opportunity to meet a respectable gentleman, Mr. John Stauffer of the American Team for Displaced Eritreans. During break we had chance to chat. “Come over here” he led me to the back of the hall, pulled his laptop and browsed over page after page of a Tigrigna Dictionary he was finalizing for Eritrean refugees. John is a former Peace Corp member who served in Eritrea, probably, during the sixties; and now here he is in our midst engaging in Eritrean issues, fluent in Tigrigna, writing a dictionary for our people while you and I bicker over political issues and contributing zero to what he is doing. Feel guilty? I do.

Imagine yourself sitting in any kind of Eritrean meeting – communal, parental, youth, religious, political, festival, social – anywhere, any time. “Deqna bahlom keyet’f’eu, bahlom k’e’aqbu, bahlom kekhbru, Ertrawnetom keyrs’e’u, men-netom keyet’f’eu, haimanotom kikhtelu.…bla, bla, bla…”, and those are the everlasting, endless vows and pledges you end up hearing, year in year out - nothing new, nothing different, same slogan, ‘wech’o ente gelbet’kayos wech’o’. Wishing for something nice or making elaborate vows, pledges and promises does not accomplish the desired task. It’s going to take much more than that.

We Eritreans do a superb job rushing our children to festivals, pulling them to the guayla stage, cramming them into vans headed to soccer matches, taking them to social parties, getting them to participate in national costume shows, encouraging them to follow us to church and Sunday School, supporting them to develop their musical or athletic talents, financing their trips to the homeland, supervising their graduation ceremonies, allowing them to hang out or sleep over with friends during birthday anniversaries, dragging them along to barbeque outings, and a lot more – all these, not only in the name of love and care, but also in a relentless effort to uphold our culture, traditions and customs.

We have already seen how incidents in which parents’ negligence in teaching kids their native language backfires on them. Here is another true incident that happened in Chicago. Yodit is an outstanding girl, a girl everybody would like parent. She completes her high school studies with flying colors, at the top, in all subjects; with the highest honor a school district can reward, and easily gets a well-deserved spot at a prestigious college with all the benefits of a full scholarship. Her parents are over joyous, buy her plenty of gifts – expensive dresses, a laptop for college and even throw a party for her friends. And that’s not all she deserves; mom and dad call her privately to their chambers. “Listen, dear daughter; we’ve arranged a trip to Eritrea for you; here is two-way ticket. You’ll be accompanied by other Eritrean boys and girls going for summer vacation to Asmara; you’ll be staying with your grandparents. Enjoy. Have fun.” Yodit declines the offer. “Mom, dad, thank you for the offer; I love you but, with all due respect, I cannot accept it now.” Mom and dad are dumb-founded and lost for words, they ask her: “Why,.. what do you mean…why…what’s the problem?”, not having a clue what answer to expect. Yodit answers in all courage. “I was born and raised here; I’ve never been to Eritrea; I don’t speak a word of the language; I don’t see how I’m supposed to enjoy this vacation; I’d rather learn the language first and then make the trip later.” For Yodit everything went well; she was a big time success but there was a missing link; somewhere, something was wrong – her native language. Without it she felt incomplete. Mom and dad never cared to bridge that gap. They kept procrastinating it until it got wide, too wide. The baby monster they nurtured had grown to a full size and now it’s here to haunt them for the rest of their life; might as well start thinking about the rest of the kids.

Now, how does anyone maintain one’s own culture, custom, identity, tradition without having a good grasp of one’s own mother-tongue? Help me understand how citizens of any country are able to respect their country’s past history, traditions and customs without immersing themselves in their own mother-tongue. We Eritreans seem to have it all backwards, harnessing the chariot in front of the horse, ‘seregela ab qhdmi feres mqwhran.’ The way I see it, one’s own mother-tongue should get priority because it is indispensable to sustaining and maintaining solid contact with one’s own history, culture, tradition and what not. In other words, your mother-tongue is the only key to unlock the mysteries of the culture of your fathers and forefathers. Can you learn about the traditions and customs of an Eritrean ,‘mera’a’, wedding rituals using, say, the German language? Or, can you clearly explain the exotic rituals of an Eritrean coffee ceremony, ‘awol, kal’ay, bereka, dereja’ using the Dutch language? Or can you understand the work and ingredients an Eritrean mom would put into brewing the national beverages, ‘suwa and mies’, in Swedish? What about all the exotic spicy delicacies your mom uses to make you, ‘ t’esmi, berbere, awaze, shro, korensho, h’lbet, etc..,can you understand those in French? How about the ‘ lqhso’ in a ‘h’azen’ place, can you formulate the heart-rending words you hear during crying and wailing in any other acquired language? And all the spices of Tigrigna language - ‘msalie, gt’mi, werqn-sm’e’en, azgneni, tsw’tsway, qhnie, h’nql-h’nqlitey’, ziema, derfi, awlo, masse etc.., flowing out of the mouth of respectable, wise senior citizens and ‘wat’ot’, see if you can express them in any other language other than the alphabet of your mother-tongue? Try, you will see you can’t go far. Or could it be that we are simply dismissing the fact that our children are entitled to the legacy, ‘wursha’ of such literature? Shouldn’t Eritrean children get the priority of getting educated in the wealth of their culture?

I cannot come up with a good estimation of Eritrean children in Diaspora, but I’m sure a number in the hundreds of thousands should be fairly reasonable and that is a sizable chunk of the country’s population that cannot be ignored. Depriving them of their mother-tongue is equivalent to robbing them of their rightful legacy by applying a scorched earth, ‘dh’rey sa’e’ri aytbqola’ policy; or like the ostrich burying our heads deep in the sand, pretending nothing is wrong, playing the ‘ayr’ei, ayse’me’a’ attitude. It won’t be long before a sense of shame and guilt lurks into our souls and torments us.

Eritreans have plenty of stories to tell, stories about their independence struggles, stories about their past and present, stories about their unique alphabet, stories about their colonial periods, stories about their religions and political activities and stories about different aspects of their livelihood and that is best done in their native tongue. It’s as a Somali-American mom once put it: “when dealing with my children, my only ‘me’ comes out best when expressed in my native language.” I, once, asked a class of Tigrigna students if their moms talk to them in their mother-tongue. A jolly kid, putting up his hand, was quick and loud to answer. “Yes, my mom calls me ‘sdi’ (ill-bred) when I pinch my baby sister.” Inappropriate as it may seem, what else would this mom call her son in English; to make her point she’d rather settle with a spontaneous, ready-made Eritrean version rather than search for an English or Swedish word. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be ‘her’, the Eritrean mom; anything else would be fake and unreal.

Eritreans all over the world play good and generous Samaritans when it comes to sacrificing their time, money, energy, and other resources to help and support fellow countrymen in times of different social needs such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, graduation ceremonies, etc.. In spite of such good qualities, very little is done when it comes teaching our kids their native tongue. Where do all those resources and noble deeds disappear when it comes to dealing collectively with issues of our children, issues such as teaching them their own mother-tongue properly? Those noble deeds ought to continue further, especially in matters of common interest. Or, to borrow the words of my friend Tesfaldet Bocure: “ Is it necessary for someone to die, or for someone to get married or baptized, or for someone to organize some sort of ‘wegah’-tbel-leyti’ party so as to drag Eritreans to meetings and conferences to discuss seriously issues regarding their children’s mother-tongue? Wouldn’t there be other options? ”

Have you ever wondered why, compared to many other nationalities, there is extremely low zeal among Eritreans for their mother-tongue? Or, if there is some, why it melts or weathers away so easily? Wherever you go and whoever you ask, people in general seem to agree about its validity for future generations. Then, why isn’t the matter handled seriously enough to produce some tangible result? Why does it get a very low profile status when it comes to implementing ideas and suggestions regarding the mother-tongue? Is it parents’ carelessness or teachers’ incompetence or students’ disregard, or a bit of each? Is there a remedy, a solution of some sort to this problem, or is it hopeless? What can be done? My next article, part II, will deal with some of the answers to such and similar other questions and suggest possible solutions to problems. Tigrigna versions of these articles will also appear in due time.

In closing I would like to adapt a Bible passage from Genesis chapter 11 to stress the seriousness of the mother-tongue issue. During ancient times people used live in one place enjoying one language and one culture. One day, to display their potentiality, ability and greatness, they decided to construct a city of skyscrapers, gigantic edifices rising high to the heavens. Soon they got down to business and with concerted effort they realized their dream in no time. The huge skyscrapers almost touched the heavens. And the Creator opened the windows of heaven and saw what the children of men were up to. He was not happy. Right away, he ordered his angels to disrupt and confound their speech. A builder would ask for a piece of lumber only to get a brick while another worker would ask for concrete block only to get waeter; another builder would get hay for stone, etc.. Their common language got all muddled up to the point of complete misunderstanding. They had to stop and get scattered over the face of the earth. The city they abandoned got the name ‘Babel’, meaning ‘the city of muddled, confused language’. Considering the numerous languages spoken by Diasporian children, sooner or later, Eritrea may be turning into a Babel City. We need to save it from such a predicament. Let us call a ‘time out’ from everything else and proclaim some sort of global ‘mekhete’, a wide-world campaign, a concerted ‘wefera’ to get every Eritrean engaged in the just cause of reviving the mother-tongue. Today, let us enter a pledge, a serious pledge, to bring about a change. Let us girdle our loins, ‘ajona ntea’at’eqh.’ and open up a new chapter for our children.

…. to ponder…

Your mother-tongue……. your own property

Your home- tongue……. your own dignity

Your father-tongue…….your own heredity

Your country-tongue…….your own identity

Without it …….you are incomplete

   

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