Interview ||| Home Is Where the Heart Lies: The Eritrean Diaspora

Home Is Where the Heart Lies: The Eritrean Diaspora

By Billion Temesghen |

It is rare for any community in the diaspora to be spiritually linked to the homeland as much as the Eritrean diaspora. We try to understand why and how while talking to Professor Ghideon Abay.

Professor Ghideon is a highly regarded professor in America. Born and raised in Eritrea, the professor left in the late 1970s. A devoted Eritrean patriot and activist, Professor Ghideon Abay is our guest for this edition. We analyze the strong bond Eritrean Diaspora keeps to its homeland: its meaning and importance.

  • Before we go to our main topic of discussion, would you please introduce yourself to our readers?

I was born in Asmara two months before the beginning of the armed struggle in 1961. I studied here in Asmara and Medefera until high school and did my undergraduate in Kenya I studied mathematics. I went to the US for my graduate studies and settled there. The freedom to play around is what I cherish the most from my childhood. By the time I was in 8th grade the Ethiopian “revolution” started so life was hectic. In 1974 when the coup d’état happened I was in 8th grade and life back then was devastatingly hectic so we had to move to Medefera; after that it was life of fears, killing, torments and insecurity.

  • Why do and the Eritrean diaspora have such passion for your country even though you have been away for a long time?

You have only one identity in life. The more you respect and the more proud you are of your identity it is granted that you’ll have a peaceful life. Just because I live in the US and I try to pretend to be “western” as much as I can because of whatever luxury I am surrounded with prompting me to deny my identity as an Eritrean does not mean I actually lead a peaceful life. However coming from of a country where the majority of the people sacrifice a lot for the nation it is extremely inspirational.

The youth that fell for independence and against latest invasions, and the youth selflessly building the nation sacrificing lives, limbs and opportunities are for us an inspiration to lead a life of dignity. Whatever progress the country is making rides on the backs of the youth willing to stay and work hard. So if we have to recharge and have a life worth living, we take our inspiration from you: the youngsters of yesterday and today.

We in the diaspora have two choices: to either be lost without an identity, and America is full of African Americans who came on slave ship and aren’t able to trackback their origin homeland and rely on scientific probabilities of DNA tests telling you you’re some percent Ghanaian, Angolan and some other percent West African, or to be inspired and be lucky enough to have a place we equally call home even if we live continents away.

Eritreans abroad are lucky. No matter in what form and for what reason I left my country, I can still come back and be at home anytime. I can meet my family and be part of my people. This is my home country where my ancestors had walked, where my brothers and sisters fell for its protection and sovereignty and where our younger generations are sweating to build.

The heavy burden of nation building is being done here in the country on the shoulder of our young ones; what we Eritreans do in the diaspora is miniscule. For us it is like being told to wash our hands and join the meal you guys worked hard to put on the table.

So in few words for us in the diaspora, and I am not unique, Eritrea means a lot. We don’t feel that identity crisis other communities feel because we have a home.

What does MEKETE mean?

Unfortunately Mekete is a unique Eritrean term that none of us has been able to find an equivalent terminology in English or any other language for that matter. It is a word that reflects the efforts we Eritreans undertake to counter the challenges we face inside the country or abroad. So I refrain from translating it, but basically, it means standing for your homeland in every aspect of it. There is, in fact, all types of Mekete.

Political Mekete

Basically exposing the lies told about Eritrea in the western world is one of the forms of political Mekete Eritreans abroad take on. The task of Eritreans in the diaspora is to tell the world that the image portrayed of Eritrea is a distorted one. We strive to portray the true image of Eritrea. As Eritreans, do we see shortcomings of this country? Yes we do. However, at the same time the shortcomings do not describe us. They don’t describe a population that works hard, and that is committed to its history and a future vision of prosperity.

Also, we get to be an example of how our society has deeply rooted humanitarian values as we lead a communal life style even there amongst individualist communities. It is up to us Eritreans to tell the truth about Eritrea. Many enemies of Eritrea and their collaborators, whom never set foot in Eritrea, are willingly glad to distort our history.

Mekete is standing against all odds. It starts with racism. Many westerners don’t believe Africans are worth anything. Any hopeful, self-reliant community must be crashed. So when they see the Eritrean way of living as a people to them is anathema; a harassment.

Mekete in the economic front

We live in the diaspora, so people who have not been there think we live in luxury, but we don’t. Particularly the diaspora women are the ones that face more trouble as the rights and respect women have in Eritrea don’t exist over there, or they are rather overshadowed. Our children live in a foreign land and no matter how good they speak the language they will still be outsiders. So living abroad and contributing some small amount of pecuniary assistance is an aspect of Economic Mekete. Are you buying Eritrean products? Do you support Eritrean business abroad? Do you hire compatriots if you perhaps run a business? We try to support each other.

Mekete in the cultural aspect

We are now in the second or third generation of Eritreans in the diaspora. The successful efforts we make in teaching our children their mother tongue for their own sake because we don’t want them to get lost in this big melting pot is a cultural Mekete. By the way, this big melting pot I talk about doesn’t melt Africans. If our children know where they come from, they will know to set their trajectory in life thinking about their origins, their country, their people and their culture. So, when you know who you are, that is when you will be confident no matter where you go. It is a cultural Mekete when our children come here and they don’t feel like strangers, when they want to come here to go to their home village and speak in Tigre, Bilen or whatever ethnic language with their grandparents. It is a successful cultural Mekete when our children go back to the US or Europe and proudly talk and stand for who they are.

Eritreans in the diaspora are scattered all over the world in big numbers. How do you network?

The schemes are versatile, we use the social network, the so called ‘palm talk’ is a great medium. But other than that Eritreans have communal organizations. There is YPFDJ for the youth, there is National Union of Eritrean Women branches of many countries, we have communities that branch out to bigger ones and we keep a good linkage with one another. The fact that we stand in one common principle makes our union strong even if we live in different countries and we come together when we’re needed, for example, for peaceful protests. I think it is our union which makes the Eritrean community abroad one of the strongest despite the fact that we live in different places.

Professor, before we end, I also know that you have been actively involved with post graduate studies in Eritrea.

Post graduate studies have always existed in Eritrea, it is actually nothing new. Maybe now there might be plans to expand the programs and make them available to more students and so it has become a common talk, but for long EIT has been undertaking several post graduate studies. The ultimate and closest goal is to have national professors able to teach our young students. With all due respect to the hired foreign professors teaching in Eritrean schools and colleges, I believe that having our own professors is definitely the way forward for the educational sector of our country. Whenever I come here to teach I go back with many new things that I learn from my own students. I don’t I think I have ever felt as much enthusiasm as that of Eritrean students anywhere else in the world throughout my experience. Eritrea is backing education in marvelous ways enabling every national to be educated and productive; and it is definitely pleasing.

Thank you prof!