Having read ‘No Country for Young Men’ and few more articles, a good friend had the following to say: “Why are you so reluctant to put in elements of hope in your writing? I am sure you are fully aware how much sacrifice Eritreans have paid for a just and better future. Don’t you think they deserve some hope?”
Another friend calls and starts talking about a report on the young and renowned Eritrean long distance runners and cyclists.
“Have you come across the latest report?” he asks.
“Do you have any idea what they are saying about the Eritrean cyclists?”
“Here is the link,” he says.
Anyway, we kept on talking and somewhere along the line, he said, “The good, the hardworking and the humble are being forgotten in all the quarrel of politics. They [the cyclists] are all 20-year olds working hard for their own and everyone’s pride. They don't even know what everybody is talking about.”
A couple of weeks earlier, I met yet another friend whom I haven’t seen for some years. She had spent her holiday (more than 4 months, she said) in Asmara and arrived in London a few days back.
“I really enjoyed it!” she says, with a glowing face.
I ask her how things are in Eritrea.
“All is well,” she says, “people are used to it.”
“What do you mean… used to what?” I demand to know.
“Hard life and all sorts of problems… you know, you can’t imagine how strong and resilient they are!” she says. “And there are,” she goes on, “too many beggars in Asmara.”
“And why do think that is?” I ask.
“Most of them are from the countryside,” she says.
“Maybe life is too hard for them over there,” I say.
“Not really… it’s only because they want to have a taste of urban life style,” she says.
She obviously has forgotten that she fled to the West to save her skin a long time ago or was it because she had an unconscious urge to upgrade her status by being part of a much more ‘advanced’ urban environment?
She spent so many months in Asmara and she had nothing of substance to relate. All she could manage, other than stories about beggars, losers and choosers, was something along the lines: I met so and so, he is fine… he has 3 children… oh! they are so cute… do you remember his wife? She is not well but she is strong. They are still in the same house… don’t you remember the place?
When it comes to their country, it is really surprising why Eritreans cannot laugh, make a joke or look at themselves squarely.
The conversation goes on and on but no trace of any critical thinking or the kind of empathy or anger people would normally exhibit when they witness or hear about gross injustice. I know for sure that she is a government supporter because I know what she does for a living. I felt as if I was talking to an emotionally dead being. On my way back home, I felt numb and couldn’t even get angry. My intuition must have picked up her vibe and I asked myself: is that probably how she feels inside? I felt like I was surrounded by a blank and stagnant space right in the middle of the rush hour.
This is probably the kind of stuff that makes me feel hopeless. Maybe I better meditate and bask beside Bisha Goldmine Project – a curse to some and a blessing to others - to lift up my spirit.
How is it possible to slow down this demolition of a country by an insidious and dark design?
The first time I came across the word ‘dissonance,’ I found it difficult to decode the meaning behind it and it just makes it worse when you put ‘cognitive’ right in front of it – as in cognitive dissonance. The other day however, thanks to my friend from Asmara, I managed to split ‘dissonance’ in two – ‘dis’ and ‘sonance’ – and realized it was all about ‘not being synchronized in sound’. In our case, it would translate to ‘not being able to listen to each other and talk out of synch – in a continuous state of cacophony. It is symptomatic for all kinds of settings: ‘Eritrean’ friends, family members, communities, civil societies, veterans of the armed struggle, opposition groups or government organs. This fragmented sense of dissonance which cuts across almost all sorts of social settings has to be recognized as a disability and be treated as such.
It should come as no surprise then when Eritreans inside Eritrea are forced to listen ad infinitum, deafened and disabled to even lift a finger while Eritreans in diaspora can speak but unable to effect change despite all the benefits they have at their disposal.
Selam Kidane opens her latest article ‘Silence of the Lame’, with the following:
Last Saturday there was an Eritrean prayer event in London, where I live. Many people I know and grew up with (including my husband) were present because the day was declared as a day of repentance and national reconciliation. If there was repentance and national reconciliation was its fruit then I must have been looking at either wrong event or the wrong nation! The event was in fact a celebratory event…as I come from a nation that has little to celebrate and I ask for forgiveness if I come across as a killjoy!
Then again, why should we be surprised when Eritreans, from all denominations, abuse or misuse the word ‘unity’ in all their endeavors? It has being going on for decades now. It is used as a platform to promote their own agenda while turning a blind eye to issues that demand immediate attention. ‘Let’s agree to disagree’ is a cliché but our type of dissonance is on another level. It has more to do with an inheritance of a deeply disturbing and traumatic history. Some would probably say, “That is your opinion.” Well, there we go again.
In contrast, the opposite of dissonance is assonance – a state of affairs where there is an atmosphere of accord or a sense of calm in an environment where people feel at ease to listen, think and try to respond back sensibly. If one grew up or lives in a culture where denial is a way of life and full of over-zealous individuals hell-bent to impose their worldview or whatever they presume to be ‘the truth’ on another, where can one find the hope for a better future? In a way, it explains why some or most Eritreans are resigned or discouraged from playing any role to change their predicament.
Willful blindness is the latest catch phrase that attempts to explain the damage an attitude bent on denial can do across all sectors of social interactions. It is willful blindness – our ever-so grateful host – that brought us here in the first place.
To come back to my first friend who insisted I write about hope, here is what I think.
Hope, like everything else, doesn’t operate in a vacuum and, unfortunately, the history of Eritrea is full of it – vacuum, I mean. Every time Eritrea arrives on the verge of achieving something it worked for with its undying hope, one can see the ‘method in its madness’ to the point of abandoning ship. The whole journey is littered with so much hard work, dedication, misplaced trust, sacrifice and perseverance and almost nothing to show for it except an internationally recognized political map that eventually proved to be a curse. Moreover, you have denial, willful blindness, sheer ignorance and a massive burden of a traumatic history combined with the chronic inability to identify or make a clear distinction between self-interest and national interest. Eritrea looks like a battle-field tormented with hopelessness – unable to wage war or settle with itself.
Democratization – phase 2 of the life-long struggle – was shelved to kingdom come. The current government officials, their followers or true-believers if you will, know exactly how to blend it so well. It seems all is warped, like a tangled ball of metal, in one word – Eritrea. It has polluted and pulled our lives to a grounding halt like a bulwark we cannot remove or disassociate ourselves from. We are so used to it to the point of being disabled to figure a way out. We might as well bask beside it!
And my friend is in a desperate attempt to dig out a fountain of hope from all that?
For starters, let’s cut out this epidemic of denial or habitual practice of willful blindness and over-indulgence in selective memory. In fact, talking about memory, Eritreans have their memories scattered like body parts in a roadside or suicide bombing. Is that probably why Eritreans find it difficult to gather these fragmented memories and have it wrapped and consigned to a mummified sarcophagus of history?
Even a droplet can disturb the silk-like peace of a stagnant lake.
Well, we have to acknowledge what the armed-liberation struggle for the independence of Eritrea went through 30-long years and why it is almost beyond belief. Let’s also not forget the massive relief, the end of war and the hopeful spirit that engulfed Eritreans then. Hope was more than a given and few had the ability to suspect otherwise. Indeed, what was missing or in short supply was a cool head and that is exactly when willful blindness kicked in.
Recalling the degree of trust bestowed upon the Government in Transition, it was almost next to impossible to question its policy or hold it accountable to literally anything it chose to take action on. Twenty years on, imagine the foul air of mistrust people breathe in and out everyday.
Is that not an inevitable consequence of willful blindness?
Yet again, after all the mind-boggling experience Eritrea went through to become a nation state, a state of fear rules and we seem to have no idea how to disentangle ourselves. Of course, the main culprit here is the government which, like the Gaddafi regime, wouldn’t hesitate to maul down anyone who goes against its hold on power and its privileges. It has managed to create and establish an almost seamless and fake sense of hope and solidarity among those who lost their faculty to think. The opposition, on the other hand, seems to have grasped the gravity of the situation but doesn’t have the know-how or the strategy to upgrade itself to a higher level and make a dent in these dire times. Why not open some active space for the younger generations who have the capacity to find the way forward? After all, they are the real embodiment of hope itself.
Sooner or later, they are the ones who will inherit Eritrea with all its challenges.
The political, social and economic upheavals that are blowing like sandstorms in North Africa and the Middle East bear testimony to all that reality. If the Eritrean opposition is really interested in reviving hope, they should tap into this human resource before it is too late while developing strategies to capitalize on every opportunity that enhances their objective. What the Government of Eritrea did and is still doing to young Eritreans in particular and the country as a whole is a lesson worth learning from. Figuratively speaking, they should be armed with latest surge of the information age.
For seeds of hope to materialize and grow, empathy is one of the key ingredients simply because that is what makes us human. Sympathy, as in pity, does the opposite. The drive for hope has to be reinforced with a cool head. Otherwise, we will all get overheated and evolve into an emotionally disabling nationalism and mentally crippling sense of invincibility – a combination that generates a non-pragmatic approach to resolving problems. If one cannot feel the pain and injustice committed on another and is incapable of taking action proportionate to their level, what hope is there for hope to thrive?
Meanwhile, there is this article in one of the government-run websites about an old lady in Asmara who handed an ancient 400 kilo stone with Sabean (Yemenite) script to the Eritrean National Museum. It reads:
Ms. Asgedech Aradom, 82, who handed the artifact to the [Eritrean National] Museum said that Eritrea is endowed with rich ancient relics and called on the general public to collaborate in their preservation, caring and providing information to the concerned party.
The mother told ERINA that she was influenced by her husband who was interested in preserving artifacts, and that she has been preserving the inscriptional relics for about 40 years in her home.
The director of artifact display in the national museum, Mr. Lalmba Tsehaye, and the head of PR in the institution, Mr. Haile Berhe, respectively expressed appreciation to Weizero Asegedech for taking such an initiative and explained that the task of collecting and preserving artifacts could not succeed without the collaboration of the public.
Who or what is to be preserved in Eritrea – the dead or the living? The people of Eritrea have almost become like an artifact to store, burn or bury. Although it is, in some instances, compulsory to go back to the past to recover hope for the future, there is absolutely no need or demand to go to stone-age. In a nation where the foundation of the social fabric is intentionally or unconsciously dismantled, what is there to expect anyway?
In her recent article, ‘Eritrea: Africa’s Human Rights Black Hole,’ - from so close and not that far distant world - Kathryn Cameron Porte writes:
The situation in Eritrea wasn't always this dire, but the future doesn't look bright. Immediately after the 1993 independence, there appeared to be hope as a glimmer of representative government and basic freedoms were present. However, after the two-year war with Ethiopia ended in 2000, paranoia overcame President Afewerki and his government. This paranoia has led to a government committed to maintaining an entire population mobilized for war and a president whose policies are rooted in heavy-handed dogmas used to control all aspects of lie with force, violence, and fear.
Incidentally, although the hope we were all looking for to emerge from within Eritrea looks unlikely, the forest fire that has engulfed North Africa and the Middle East is probably the flame that might gradually play a part in igniting a wind of change in Eritrea. All it requires is exposure to the outside world and to current events that are almost within reach. It has been on a slow-burn from within, now is the time for a breath of fresh air or some real oxygen. In other words, for hope to take root and for Eritrea to emerge from this desperate state, it has to be opened up or oxidized.
In the case of Eritrea, open media will do - for starters.