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.)