You, the Eritrean people, have fought hard for your independence, given so much, lost so many and were punished for so long for your victory. You have been through the dark days.
BY RAZIA AZIZ
Dear People of Eritrea,
I am writing in solidarity with you as you celebrate Martyr’s Day whilst navigating the uncharted waters of the coronavirus pandemic.
I first learned of the Eritrean liberation struggle in the 1980s when I was a student of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. I read with awe and wonder of the decades’ long efforts of the EPLF fighters to win independence for this African country of a few million people – less in number than our capital city.
As pro-feminist and anti-racist, anti-colonialist students, my peers and I admired from the side-lines the way in which the EPLF facilitated women to fight alongside men: the fact that women were nearly one third of the fighters – and obviously many of the supporters behind lines – was an inspiration to us. The British Army has never achieved this level of equality!
You should know that your struggle was, and is, legendary amongst progressive people all over the world, and that the blood of the martyrs has watered the soil of hope for oppressed people everywhere.
So you can imagine I had no hesitation when my dear friend from Waniney Small Business Management Training Center invited me to Asmara to teach a Module on Managing People to professional learners from the Workers’ and Youth Associations and the Ministry of Defence on Waniney’s leadership development course. The whole trip was a wonderful and humbling experience, as well as a professional challenge.
It may be hard for you to imagine what it was like for me to touch down at Asmara International Airport. I have lived in the UK most of my life, though I was located in Lagos Nigeria as a child. Since moving to England, I have travelled to a number of places in the world – Egypt, India, Pakistan, Morocco, US, Palestine, Israel, Canada, and many countries in Europe. Asmara was unlike anywhere else I have experienced.
I was immediately struck by the youthfulness of the customs staff and the small quiet international airport – a big change from Addis Ababa where I had changed planes. The sense of quiet followed me throughout my trip: I don’t believe I’ve ever mingled with people who are so gentle in the way they talk to each other. I don’t think I heard a single person, (except a rogue Italian man!) raise their voice in the whole ten days I was there. This peaceable energy, the human pace of life, the gentleness and warmth of the people, the slim handsome healthy physique of Asmarinos, the absence of traffic pollution and litter, the respectful physicality of people’s interactions with each other.
Asmara itself is a beautiful place. Yes, the classic Italian architecture is in a state of progressive decay, but the city placed high up on the plateau is distinctive for being walkable, humane, lacking in the extremes of poverty and ostentatiousness and the frenetic and aggressive edge that tarnishes so many capital cities elsewhere in the world.
Touching down in this place even for such a short time, it is evident that the martyrs did not die in vain. Theirs is a living legacy which has so much to show the world about the value of family and connection, of social equity, gender equality, education, fair sharing of resources, eating the good things of the land without adulterating them or soil, not allowing profit or corporations to hold sway upon the lives of people.
The sense of safety I felt as a woman and as a visitor on the streets of the city and was a revelation. No one was in a rush. No-one was engaged in a hustle – aiming to part me from my money or my mobile phone. People greeted me as one of their own and forgave readily my lack of knowledge of the region and grasp of even basic Tigrinya. It’s hard to explain what I felt because it was as much the lack of certain things as the presence of others. The absence of arrogance, pushiness, acquisitiveness in the character of people I met, alongside the commitment to service. The absence of the internet and the (perhaps consequent) value placed on family and friend relationships. The absence of fast food, conspicuous consumption, shopping malls, supermarkets, 4G mobile phone signal and all that comes with it – all those things that in the countries I have traveled in, whether North or South, are the source of addiction, the fuel for competitive individualism, the erosion of the soul of the society – produced a kind of psychic quiet which I have not experienced elsewhere, except in remote rural areas.
I loved the markets brimming with a multi-colored array of fresh homegrown produce, the wholesome taste of home-cooked food, the lack of commercial propaganda (otherwise known as advertising…) the shared taxis, the clean rarefied mountain air, the endless macchiatos!
I do not mean in any way to paint a romanticized picture: I fully recognize that some of what I enjoyed about Asmara was what many Eritreans, particularly younger people, find so very frustrating – from my global north perspective, the absence of supermarkets, traffic, 4G, super-fast broadband, reliably potable tap water were all part of the charm of being in Eritrea – but I am sure many Eritreans would love to change all of these things! Who am I to say they should not? After all, it may be for many of these things – and the drive for betterment – that you are losing so many of your younger generation to the ‘glittering prizes’ of life in the global north.
I recognize the grinding reality of economic hardship. But I also want to say that is so much you have that others cannot buy: most importantly a culture of mutual respect. This is nowhere more apparent than in the relationships between the genders. It is impossible to dig deep into gender relations on a flying ten-day visit. But I can say that as a woman I was struck by the relative absence of sexist or misogynist micro-behaviors I experienced or witnessed in my short stay. I always felt viscerally at ease with the men I encountered – they were warm and tactile without the sense of reservation, imposition or hang-ups which I have encountered in so many places in the world; and the women fiercely intelligent, strong, capable; and both genders capable of unaffected grace and tenderness of speech and action.
Of course, the prominent role of women in the struggle and women’s position in the leadership of the country is the ‘headline’ we all point to – but the mark upon today’s society of women’s advancement in and through the struggle is not just documented in the remarkable photographic gallery locked away from the acquisitive glare of the camera lens at the Eritrean Women’s Association in Asmara – it is written in the blood of the women fighters in the annals of the nation, carved on the faces of the women roasting peanuts on the streets, beating in the hearts of the girls gaining education and jobs alongside their brothers, woven in the crafts of the micro-businesses in rural areas which are supported by the women’s association.
You, the Eritrean people have fought hard for your independence, given so much, lost so many, and were punished for so long for your victory. You have been through the dark days. I was privileged to have a chance during the leadership course to pay a visit with the students to the historical village of Zagr, the location of a bitter and bloody showdown between the EPLF and the ELF. As we walked out from the emerald green of the village into the open hills and stood and paid homage at the place of rest of fighters of both sides, it was clear that the journey of healing and reconciliation from the wounds of the past has only just begun.
You have had decades of adversity. You have taken care of your families, tended your land and wildlife, retained the cultural and religious diversity of your peoples and kept your country educated, healthy, and strong to the best of your ability in the context of great adversity. You have toiled for decades to raise life from the land, build your nation, and find a place in the sun.
Now the time has come when you have achieved after a tortuous journey basic recognition and acceptance into the family of nations. Now is the most hopeful – and the most dangerous – time of all. You emerge at the time of climate catastrophe, the rise and fall of superpowers, the opening of long-buried historical injuries to the light of awareness. Now is the era of pandemics and pharma giants, information wars that split our minds and souls, the rise of fascism bigotry and hatred – and the opportunity for a genuine transformational revolution in consciousness.
As you emerge blinking into the fray, you will no doubt see that there is now only the narrowest of bridges between here and a future that will do credit to your patient labors of love. And as you seek to go forward, it is important to attend to the things that weigh you down which are in your power to address.
As I said to Mebrak before leaving Asmara, the quietude of the people and the place of Eritrea is not all wholesome – there is an invisible weight upon the shoulders of the women and men, an invisible cloud bearing down in the street and over the fields, a burden that is particularly heavy on the shoulders of the young.
It had taken me nearly to the end of my stay to start to understand it. But by the time I left, it seemed to me that, among the many strategic, policy and tactical challenges you will face in the world of corporate domination and ‘real politik’, there are four specific foundation stones you will need to lay in the heart of your nation in order to build your house of dignity in the sun. You do not need to lay these alone: your friends all over the world will be there to support you if you but call to them.
The first stone relates to the question of reconciliation and healing. It was when I heard some of the students on the course telling me about their parents’ and families’ suffering in the struggle that I started to understand: the great trauma of decades of war had hardly begun to be talked about, let alone cleansed and healed. This is a trauma in the body of the nation, the people, each community, each family and each individual. This cleansing and healing must take place if the generational weight is to be lifted from the shoulders of the people. It starts with recognising and telling what really happened, documenting and sharing it as part of the history of the country, each community, family and individual. It progresses with a great listening, speaking, grieving, reconciling and letting go. The other great weight, is ironically, the weight of the greatness of the martyrs themselves, particularly on the shoulders of the youth. How can they ever live up to the heroic deeds which are recounted, written about, sung and spoken?
The second stone is the importance of renewing the progress of gender equality. Women in Eritrea do not yet enjoy equality with men, and gender equality will go into reverse if your foot is taken off the pedal at this crucial moment.
Gendered violence, physical or sexual, inequalities of access to education, income, position and leadership still exist, and – as in every other nation on earth – often do so ‘under the radar’ and in the fine grain of society. If you tackle this issue proactively, fearlessly and together, working with (rather than denying) your differences – the way you approached the liberation struggle – the women of Eritrea will once more repay the nation handsomely with the quality of their courage and leadership.
The third stone is the stone of heroes. Every nation has its heroes, and their deeds seem so far beyond the grasp of ordinary people. Yet the EPLF fighters were ordinary Eritreans, who were inspired to extraordinary things by their love of their country and of each other. This love existed alongside their imperfections as people.
They were not superhuman. When we see in the hero something we feel we lack, we are disempowered. The youth of Eritrea need to know that true heroism lies within them and is deeply needed for the success of the future of their country. They do not need to be unfavourably compared with their parents’ generation – they need to be seen for their talents, uniqueness, potential and promise: for the hope they can bring for future leaders who can not only help Eritrea navigate the narrow bridge to a socialist future amongst the nations of a collapsing corporate capitalist world system – but can help the world find a new way forward in the midst of climate catastrophe, destruction of the natural world, war, pandemics and unconscionable inequality driven by rampant greed, consumerism and individualism.
On martyrs day my humble plea to you is to honour your martyrs not as perfect Heroes, but as flawed the ‘every man’ and ‘every woman’ who dug deep to find in themselves the true gold which lies buried deep in the heart of every person alive: their own courage, love, inspiration, resourcefulness, determination and commitment – and did it together. Let not their remembrance place an impossible burden upon the next generation. For now is the time to look to the future and look to fresh minds to find a way to imagine something other than a global catastrophe.
And the fourth, and most important, stone of all is the earth itself, your piece of our home planet. Eritrea is a country of a great wealth of natural resources. Whilst humans have born the war- and sanctions- imposed penalty of economic hardship, the plant animal and mineral life that comprises the country’s ecosystem has flourished quietly, grateful for the relative absence of polluting and exploitative violation of its right to coexist peacefully with the human species.
Your unspoilt Red Sea coastline has been a haven for thousands of sea life species. Mining has not yet hopelessly poisoned the water table. Your air is still breathable. Your soil has not yet been thoroughly degraded by the mass industrial use of fertiliser pesticides herbicides, your animal herds not yet thoroughly poisoned by widespread use and abuse of hormones and antibiotics. You have the most valuable of all assets in the land and species that sustain the diversity of life. You eat goodness. Your immune systems are healthier from good nutrition, sunlight and exercise. Please remember this when the promise of rapid ‘development’ becomes an imminent reality. Be prepared to enter the value of the earth and her resources as ‘infinite’ and ‘indispensable’ in your cost-benefit spreadsheets. Work with her and she will reward you.
Finally, dear people of Eritrea, this is my prayer – a prayer from a friend who wants only happiness for you, and who has had the honour of being allowed in for a while to spy a small window on your greatness and your shadows: that your big hearted country will find the spirit within and amongst you to inspire the young women and men who today aspire to leave for foreign shores. Your greatest challenge is to raise up these young people to the mountain plateau to gaze at the stars and know their worth in the firmament of the human ecosphere and the great biosphere of the planet.
Speak to them of their beauty and intelligence; light the tinder in their hearts so they can see in the blaze the power of their dreaming, the gifts they carry from the ancestors, the call to them of the future generations, the love the land holds for them and the width of their horizons. Then hand them the baton and watch them run. Let them lead you on.
Peace, strength and great blessings on Martyrs Day.