January 2006


On Hamas winning the Palestinian election:

“The U.S. can’t promote democracy but then reject the results of this democracy.” (Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League)

We usually situate ourselves politically by how we dress, do our hair and makeup, what shoes we wear, our accessories, etc. I was recently shopping at a local H&M and saw the girl in the brown sweater with the big Africa-carved out earring near the Men’s section. Her earring caught the light and you could see it from every corner of the store. It was brilliant! I asked her where she got them and she said a friend made them in New York City. She then told me that another friend, who also works at H&M, has the inside peice to the earring.

We then had a short photo shoot in the changeroom. What fun girls they were, with great personalities. They also said they were happy for thier pictures to be posted on my blog. Thank you ladies!!!

What a recognizable fashion statement Africa has become! I don’t think I would have recognized the same earring if it was “North America” or “Asia” or “India”. I would have recognized, however, “Palestine”. So there has to be a relationship between CONFLICT and FASHION STATEMENT. The more contested a place is, for whatever political reason, the more it becomes a symbol. The rich places in the world are never on people’s t-shirts or dangling from their ears…!

This entry could have just as easily been called ” 3 Things I love about being Human” or, “3 Things I love about being an African” but since being human is mediated very generally by time, space and communication, I thought that being specific is the only way to post this entry and make sense -what do I love about being an Eritrean? Now this is not merely patriotic manifesto or nationalism boiling inside of me, although I can’t say I’m immune to such base emotions.
I’m human, all too human, so read on…

1. Tempered Pride
Eritreans are full of pride but it is tempered in the sense that the people have a deep love for God. The way I’m talking about pride here is not in the sense of being nationalistic only, but also in the tendency Eritreans have to believe that life on earth is temporary, and spirituality is the only way to find true meaning.

2. Tacticians
Due to our uncoveted stature in the world economy, most Eritreans are tactical about almost everything they do. You could ask a pretty simple question and everyone philosophizes about how to answer, thinking instead, “What does she want from me”, “Who is her father”, “What is the implication of responding this way instead of the other.” I think it might be the paranoia of having endured decades of Italian and Ethiopian colonialism. Of having been second class citizens on our own land. What being tactical means is essentially the art of evading the question or the deed before seeing how it can benefit our own situation. This can be called the self-interest principle, referred to ad nauseum in academic theories in almost every discipline, but Eritreans have a gift, I believe, for subverting the intent of self-interest and making it seem like a communal interest at stake. We are always aware of how ugly the expression of self-interest is when revealed bare so there are a plethora of euphimisms used to disguise what we really mean. Some ways of disguising are referring to an imagined “we”. For example:

Q: Do you have enough money for the month?
A: We are always fine, thanks to God.

The real answer could be that the person just got a full-time job, has no money, or just won the lottery. And you would never know.

The thing about our tactical ways is that they are deeply rooted so that even a close family member may not exactly understand what you mean since your answer is sufficiently general so as not to burden them with your problems.

Being tactical is closely related to having a tempered sense of pride in oneself and ones ability to
live well despite all difficult circumstances.

3. Empathy

Let me relay a story here to explain.

One day my mother and I were out doing some errands and, having left home in the morning, did not get the chance to eat during the day. We had one last thing to do and that was to go to my mother’s friend’s place to drop something off. By this time it was close to 8 pm and we were very hungry.

So we step into the traditional Eritrean home, ordained with pictures of Asmara, photos of the children during their awkward years with buckteeth and funny hair-do’s and the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

My mother’s friend is a single-parent with 3 children in the teen years and on child under 13. After some initial conversation my friend’s mother offered us dinner. And I thought “Yes, I’m so hungry” but, knowing it would be rude to respond until my mother said something, I waited for her to answer. I knew that my mother would never say “Yes, we are very hungry, thank you for offering” but I expected her to say something like “Oh, that’s okay, we’re about to go home, we can eat there…” so that her friend would push more to offer food, putting us in the position of having to offer so that we don’t feel rude.

Instead, my mother said “No, we’re not hungry, thank you”. I hope I didn’t betray my emotions with a quizzical look on my face but I was seriously confused. I wanted to scream, “YES WE ARE STARVING RIGHT NOW AND WE COULD PROBABLY EAT YOUR CEREAL THAT I SEE CLEARLY ON TOP OF THE FRIDGE IF THERE IS ANY LEFT IN THE BOX. “
But, instead, I sat there and nodded in agreement with my mom.

The lady said politely “Ok, then…” and after a few more minutes of conversation, we left.

In the car I asked my mother after a few minutes (trying not to seem to eager and disappointed) about why she said that we weren’t hungry even though we really were. This is a friend of hers, and we have eaten there many times, so I didn’t understand the need to lie. My mother just said to me briefly that if the friend really had something prepared to give us she would have offered in a way that we couldn’t say no. She said that her friend might not have enough food and since she had four children, might only have enough for them that day.

She went on to say that when someone really wants you to eat in our culture, they go into the kitchen and prepare it before asking you. That way you can’t say no because they are already preparing it, and it means they really want you to eat.

I have seen my mom perform this, preparing food unasked and bringing it out to unsuspecting guests, but I just thought that was mostly her choice, not necessarily a cultural norm. But there are strong cultural norms around giving and receiving and they all involve empathy: understanding the other’s situation and balancing it with their life obligations to family.

I really love this story because it shows how subtle culture really is. Culture is not a country or a national anthem, ritual at weddings. Culture is an inflection in a voice, a way to accept or reject offerings, a way to tell another you understand them without saying it in so many words. We have many cultural signs as Eritreans that allow you to state what you mean without actually stating what you mean, all to maintain the blanket of friendship. (But of course this has its downside because cultural inclusion is based on the degree to which people understand and comply with these norms, and cultural exclusion is the consequence if you don’t…making you the butt of jokes for years to come in the best scenario and ostracized completely from community in the worst scenario.)

There are some things I’ve been thinking about non-stop for over one year now since I began writing a lot about international politics, education and development issues in my program…


This concept really interests me. The idea that we can have two opposing characteristics in our personalities, two diametrically opposed desires, just pure contradictions all over the place.


And to think it always boils down to a decision. That we indeed choose to act on one impulse over the other – although we’re equally aware of both of them. That we literally need to cut off one idea, life choice, value, belief, habit in favour of another. (De-cide, means a de-cision as in incision, precision, to cut one thing off for another) .

…and now to my dilemma:

The thought-experiment I’ve been entertaining for over a year has to do with my relationship to power. Do I become a strategist or a tactician? Do these insinuate or expel one another; imply or mutually exclude? Strategists are those who live and exist in the realm of power- of institutions, of corporations, of economic planning or free markets. Strategists are rigid, discerning and detailed, organized and territorial. Maintaining “order” in all that they do, Strategists are capable of making plans because that is their privilege: thier gift and their curse. The gift of planning is that in addition to planning for success you can plan for the opposite which is failure – ‘risk management’ or ‘damage control’ as its called by many strategic entities in the global capitalist environment.

Tacticians on the other hand don’t make plans. They live toward, in between, along, underneath, around and away from the plans of others. Most of us are tacticians. Unafforded the gift of privilege to make us strategists – or to live in a world that encourages and praises strategy- tactitians are manipulative, smart, adaptable, creative, deterritorialized. Tacticians need to know both worlds- the world of strategy and the world of tactics. The great thing about tacticians is that since life is unpredictable, their adaptive nature makes it easier for them to cope with change. Also they are able to beat Strategists at their own game because they know it so well. Tacticians know the game of strategists so well because they have tried all their lives to either benefit from it, destruct it or both.

Just so you know what I mean:

Birth into certain social categories and life experiences designate me to the category of tacticianista. However, we are all able to make choices, as I made the point earlier and decide where to go. What if the opportunity of strategist was available? Think abstractly with me here.

If you are invited into a closed boardroom of CEOs who were about to decide on a wide-scale health policy option – weighing its pros and cons on public health, discussing the economic benefit and drawbacks to taxpayers; with all of the said ‘experts’ on hand


You are invited to work for a grassroots organization that aims to at least marginally affect the outcome of the decision that the health analysts will eventually make.

You see how it represents a different way of being political? And many times you can’t do both due to a “Conflict of Interest” clause in most organizations.

I think my answer is that being strategic or tactical are not mutually exclusive options. They are both modes of being when we are presented with specific problems of how to react; depending on our social position at our time it makes more reasonable sense to choose one mode over the other.

Looking at people’s options for how to act in context-specific situations helps me to understand the ostensible contradictions in life. For example,

How a person once expelled from the nation due to his role in inciting terrorism in the African National Congress (ANC), can then become president.

Nelson Mandela created MK Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC in the late 1950s. As Mandela put it:

“[…] I and some of my colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our demands with force…” (Meli 1988: 146)

As the South African government strategized with their military commanders to disarm the ANC, the ANC tactically created an armed wing with the help of populations outside of South Africa such as Zambian nationals and other South Africans.

Other quotes revealing the tactical ANC:

“Acting as a borderless welfare state, the ANC supplies food, clothes, housing, transportation, and health care to its more than thirteen thousand constituents living outside South Africa…”

“The violence seems random and spontaneous rather than managed and purposeful.. (Davis 1987: x)

“The difficulty one faces when it comes to detailing the armed activities of the ANC is the lack of record of them, because of official concealment of these activities.. (Meli 1988: 191)

So the ANC was exiled yet continued to operate. As President Mandela then became one of the prime strategists of the nation, with international recognition and a plethora of resources to make systemic changes in South Africa.

How a person can be jailed for economic fraud and then return to being an economic giant.

Martha Stewart, for example. How is it that she makes a tactical decision to plead guilty, go to jail and then come out as one of the most creative entrepreneurs in the world today? It is a mix of tactically seeming law-abiding and regretting a crime; then using jail (and post-jail) time strategically with her network of business associates. Now strategies are her modus operandi.

Hope this all makes sense to you because to me, understanding whether a person is being tactical or strategic is one of the best ways to understand his/her motives and intentions for acting in the world. This is a meta-theory, in a way, because it encompasses diverse actions, decisions and situations and requires context-specific information in order to discern what actions should be placed under what categories.