Decolonizing the mind: A shift in thinking

By Seyoum Tesfaye

I had an opportunity to present (the abbreviated version due to time constraint) on June 28, 2014 this article at the third ELF Reunion held in Atlanta, Georgia as a part of the panelist on the subject of Decolonizing the Mind. This is the complete article.

I believe the noble endeavor to collect and document the history of ELF and its gallant fighters is one of the most constructive undertakings in present day Eritrean Diaspora. I intend to present my observation of the process and its implication in the near future. I have been lucky enough to attend the second and third reunion held in Atlanta since it was open for the public. I felt I was in an open university with an insight into the nature of the liberation front that had the capability to transform former Eritrean commandos at the service of the Ethiopian government into liberation fighters. This achievement and other thousands of heroic deeds have to be recorded in detail and made a part of the true National History Archive.

Unrecorded history is like un-harvested wheat- it withers away. ELF’s rich history must be salvaged before we loss the nationalist actors and brave fighters who rallied a nation to the cause of freedom and Independence.

To those who truly understand the fact that this project is a race against time, the initiative and its organizers deserve an appreciation, encouragement and support.

Decolonizing the mind: A shift in thinking

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
― Nelson Mandela

As I understand it, our conversation is going to be on how to Decolonizing our mind.

Let me start by asking two questions:

Who or what is colonizing our mind?

How do you decolonize a mind?

We all are prisoners- the kind that is not contained in 5 by 10 feet jail room but living a routine“ normal life” full of daily duties and chores that occupy our precious time.

We are busy with daily responsibilities; so busy we do not even have the time to appreciate the change in seasons. We drift like a helpless leaf being swept away by a gushing flood or a strong wind. The years go by reinforcing our version of account of events and our tendency to strongly favor our interpretation of everything we have experienced. We are hooked into our past. More dangerously we are stuck in the past. We are colonized by our past. We rarely command our mind.

Our mind is an “occupied territory” nurturing anger, fear, disappointment, hope, aspiration, illusions, big hopes, small disappointments and so on. It is a landscape full of peaks and valleys. Our mind is an unsettled battle field bulging with memories that refuse to recced or be vacated, and deadlines that want to control and shape our remaining lifetime. The struggle between our entrenched past and uncharted future colonizes our very mind. It controls our thought process.

We are always at war with ourselves and millions of adversaries- some real and some imagined. We are our deeply held biases. We are the sum total of our thoughts.

In the most profound sense we are our mind.

The mind creates its own memory with characters and detailed narrative that we might not even recognize. If we are lucky enough to notice we are barely familiar with the rough outline of the narrative. We suspect the details postulated by our mind but most of the time dare not start a tedious campaign to disaggregate the scenario manufactured by our mind. It is better to live with a discomfort we know than dare transform our way of thinking: earnestly decolonize our mind. We somehow learn to live with the fiction our mind has spawned.

Our hair grows gray but our mind prefers a clear cut black or white, a winner or a loser scenario- simplification is easier to accommodate for the mind than simplicity. The later needs the purposeful active participation of the “owner” of the mind. Simplicity requires calm awareness – insightful thinking.

Decolonizing the mind starts with insightful thinking.

Especially if you were lucky enough to have been part of an epic social movement in the past it will own you and consume you: It colonizes your mind. It will follow you to the grave. It is your second shadow the one that does not need a sun to manifest its presence. You earned it by investing your youthful years when you were invincible and malleable. The cause governed your life and demands your very breath as a vindication of your commitment. You were ready to pay the ultimate price but you were condemned to live longer with your memories: neither a martyr nor a victor but a reluctant immigrant in search of fertile soil with an umbilical cord stretched for 10,000 miles.

The magnificent struggle to define and nurture Eritrea’s soul is looking for an indigenous Tolstoy with ability to elucidate the grandeur of the vision that consumed three generation’s commitment and be so detailed to register the struggle in minutia. Until then you are the original bank bestowed with responsibility of keeping the memory alive and transforming the memory form oral narration into a digital national archive.

The memory wants to control your past and future- by making the present irrelevant. It permeates the inner recesses of your life. It does not let you rest or get comfortable. It affects all of your relationships without you being aware of it. It defines the circle of your friendship and affiliation.

The first task in decolonizing your mind is being aware that it is colonized- without being too offensive or defensive about the reality. That is the easiest task.

You have gathered to decolonize your mind- out of sense of collective responsibility and as a way of unburdening your historic mind so that you give yourself the gift of healing in the process and a wealth of information to the people of Eritrea – present and future. You are still preforming a national duty: an admirable national character. Thank you for never relinquishing this character trait.

Midlife is the best conduit for examining your foot print on this earth and unburdening a crammed mind. You face the ugly truth of impermanency: you shall pass too not heroically as your comrades did in the battle field but as result of the war of attrition waged on your life by the forces of consumer society.  Your desire for legacy and duty to posterity become an irresistible itch -urge.  Scratch you must. ELF’s soil is very deep and rich. You are just scratching the top soil. Without ELF there would have never been an Eritrea. Wherever you are there is ELF and there is Eritrea. This is our transnational reality. Frankfurt, DC. Melbourne, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa there you are. There is more to be done even when the burden of Diaspora living has imposes too much demand on you.

A shift in thinking becomes the order of the day. The scholars call this a paradigm shift. The ideological dogmas that defined the parameters of your youthful political commitment do not have the structure or syntax needed for the kind of decolonization you are venturing into. You do not strike a revolutionary blow to free the mind from entrenched beliefs and values- you peel a layer at a time and do it methodologically and wisely. You have to deal with the sedentary naysayers and dispatched hacklers when you assume a duty of this magnitude.

Transfer your recollections on paper or digital archives –give them an independent address away from your mind. Put facts ahead of truth; leave the interpretation to future scholars and historians. Unburden your mind without ulterior agenda except recording and sharing your direct (first hand) experience. The underlining motive is self-defining: ELF’s epic history and your individual role in it must be recorded and bequeathed to the next generation.

Tell your story- let go of your attachment – create more mind space for new experience, for your new role as seasoned citizens with a purpose: to use your narrative as a healing tonic and as means of building a national archive.

National reconciliation starts with a shift in thinking. It starts with reconciling your present with the past. It starts by telling the whole story and leaving the verdict to time and future generation.

I like to bring to your attention as to what Hannah Arendt (Isak Dinsen: 1885-1963” Men in Dark Times) says about the relationship of telling your story with reconciliation:

“The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.

You will find inner peace and calmness by letting go the memories you have saved in your mind for over four decades. The ruling party has betrayed the past and the present. Leave alone allow former ELF members tell their story it is not even loyal to its own history. The leader decides the fact and truth: alpha and omega. You are lucky in so far that you have the space to speak about your role in the struggle, recollect to the best of your ability   who, what, when, how and even why. What an opportunity.

Part of the transformation is developing a new way of thinking that corresponds with the responsibility that is demanded of us with our unfinished national tasks. The foreign enemy has left our shores. We have a flag but no freedom. We have a house but we have not build an inclusive home comfortable enough to carry open discourse about our history.

Your commitment to the cause of freedom is a given. Those who doubt this and venture into innuendo are only exposing their inability to grasp realty or feel that the task of writing history must be done by archeologists after all the primary sources have departed. Stay the course and do the best you can. More will come forward and do their share. Worthy efforts are not appreciated at the beginning. Still the gathering to remember, record and share must continue.

At the center of unfolding and recording your stories is the desire to let go and live in peace; to help the new generation to emulate the best and shay away from the shortcomings of the generation before them.

Lewis B Semdes Says:

“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

This ought to be our new paradigm.

I only add one more suggestion to Lewis B Semdes words: the memory of the past can be used as an agent of change to resolving our complicated national crisis by the very act of telling the truth and honoring the youth that gave up their life under the banner of ELF. The powers- to- be( the so-called winners) have no need to tell the truth- they confuse their propaganda for fact and “their” interpretation of the vast heroic struggle as the ultimate truth. Your way is the citizen’s way; empowering the veterans to share their narrative without official authorization.

Here are few of the items to consider in transforming our way of thinking. No doubt most of you are aware and already practicing the essence of these suggestions:

·   Be forward looking – use the past as reference not a weapon to continue the fraternal conflict

·   Be less polemical and more instructive- sharing and teaching

·   Choose integrative thinking over fragmenting rhetoric

·   Push for inclusiveness at the cost of ALL exclusionary – absolutist paradigms

·   Move away from vertical style of leadership to a horizontal relationship that will reflect respect for our diversity in all its aspects

·   Assume a proactive posture over the tendency to be reactive

·   Substitute I when you speak- instead of “We” – claim self-ownership and let others express their view unfettered

·   Always chose public service over contention for power

·   Avoid “us vs them” discussion- it is divisive and counterproductive

·   Stay committed to the cause-to the people of Eritrea- that helped you move mountains  and are still sustaining your desire to do your share –

Great causes do not come often- once or twice in a century. You have been in the thick of one of the most under recorded but extremely intensive national struggle in Africa. You have no apology to make to anyone nor do you need permission from those who hijacked Eritrean national politics to meet to discuss and record your contribution to the cause of Eritrea.

Thank you for your service and for never giving up to-do the right thing. You are doing this for your immediate children, fallen comrades, for the people of Eritrea and for your own peace of mind. Nothing is more glorious than this. You cannot please everyone but you must stay the course and register the glory, the humanity, gallantry, comradery, the debate, the argument, strategy, tactic, the victory, the advance, and the retreat –all of it. It is your history – It is the history of the people of Eritrea. The deed has been done but the recording might be a day late and a dollar short. Better late than never!

Generations of Eritreans will be the beneficiaries of your past and present commitment and unflinching loyalty to the cause of independence and freedom.

I like close my remark with a statement by Nelson Mandela:

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

With respect,

Seyoum Tesfaye

June 28, 2014

Atlanta GA