By: Ruth Abraham – ERINA
Dessalegn Aberra Elias is an Ethiopian social media personality and activist with millions of followers on his popular YouTube channel known as Mehal Meda. Dessalegn’s works aim to bridge divides and promote peace, understanding, and unity. He has managed to garner increasing attention and influence because of the powerful messages and deep insights that frequently characterize his episodes. Recently, Dessalegn traveled to Eritrea to take part in the country’s 30th Independence Day anniversary. I caught up with him to hear about his stay and general impressions about the celebration.
- Mr. Dessalegn, thank you very much for agreeing to share your experience. How was your visit in general?
You’re welcome. It was extremely wonderful and surprisingly interesting. I enjoyed every minute of my entire two-week stay in the country.
- Could you tell me some of the places that you visited?
I toured the whole Asmara over and over again. I could not get enough of it! I got to visit Adi Halo, Gergera, Massawa, and a big dam along the road. I also toured the plastic factory in Massawa and many other development sites along the way.
- What about the 30th Independence Anniversary? Did you attend?
Of course, I did. It was amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was so real that I thought ‘this could not be a live show’. The flow of the programs, the songs, and the sincerity of the people who participated felt unreal. The shows were creative and also full of pride and deep emotion.
- What unique things did you observe in the celebrations?
First things first, I could feel the energy that was emanating from the people out there. There was something about the way they sang their national anthem. I was like ‘These people truly love their country!’ That is not a common national trait. And when the President went down to the stage to meet the student dancers, my amazement reached its threshold.
- Who is Dessalegn Aberra?
I was born and raised in the southern rural part of Ethiopia; I lived most of my life in Hawassa. Then I went to the United States of America seven years ago. I worked there as an accountant. Then I started practicing journalism because it was my hobby. I share my ideas on social media mostly Facebook and YouTube. I became more active by the day and quickly began to amass a lot of followers. The good thing is that even though I am an Ethiopian, I am not only followed by Ethiopians. I have diverse followers including a lot of Eritreans.
- What is the core objective of your channel?
The objective is to promote peace, understanding, and unity. As you know, my country has a diverse cultural, religious, and social structure. Though it is being worked on, the system is still kind of divisive. That is why it is necessary to use media to fight the possible divisions that arise from the difference in ethnic values. So, in my programs we discuss trending issues by inviting knowledgeable and relevant personalities. A lot of people participate through phoning-in, including Eritreans. Any type of hate-speech or anything that degrades the values of personalities is not tolerated in the discussions. I have interacted a lot with Eritreans because of the shows and that helped me to question and reconsider many of my pre-established perceptions or assumptions about Eritrea.
- Pre-established perceptions?
What I mean is that for the last twenty years we have been told that Eritreans are a “war loving” people. And that the government is even worse. Whatever happened during those years, it was blamed on the EPLF. For instance, say there were disasters or problems in society. These problems were blamed on the Eritrean government and people. Even when Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed agreed to come to Asmara, we doubted that he would come back alive. To my amazement, the people accepted him openly and cheered for him. The sheer size and passion of the crowd took my breath away.
For me, the  peace agreement brought to light the hidden emotions and realities of the Eritrean people. I told myself that something must be wrong with my eyes and I thought, ‘so, these people are actually cheering for peace; maybe I was wrong’. Then President Isaias came to Ethiopia and gave a speech at the Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa. That was another point of realization that Eritrea is the opposite of what our former regime claimed it to be. Then I decided to do my own research and I approached a lot of Eritreans. The first few people admired the government so much that I thought that they must be from the Embassy. Then I asked them to introduce me to someone that does not work for the Embassy. I met this man called John and we had such a wonderful conversation. But things did not change, whether it is someone from the Embassy or not, it was largely the same attitude. Then I decided that the people of Eritrea love their country and trust their government like no other. They contribute whatever they can and are all ready to talk about their country. I believed some of the things that they said, but some others didn’t make sense to me. One of the things that they kept talking about was the peace and security in Eritrea. Nowhere in the world is there such a peace as they said there is in Eritrea, not even in the US. That is why I was eager to see for myself.
- What did you find on the ground?
When I got here, I had two big things I needed to certify. One is how peaceful Eritrea was and another is the fact that everyone is equal, from leaders to the general population. A minister is not set apart in Eritrea. Instead, they are just a person serving the people at their level. In my country and basically even everywhere else in the world, leaders are utterly privileged. Not only them, but anyone who is close to them is somehow benefited. That being what I live around, it was hard that the country and people that I thought were rogue had the peace that I have never seen before. I began to reformulate and reconsider my perceptions, beginning to agree that the country might be peaceful and not like what I have been told for years. When I arrived here and started observing the situation and the dynamics of the people’s social life, I found out that what they have been telling me is less than what I experienced. They didn’t tell me the whole story. I explored then that the peace in Eritrea is not a situation, it is a culture. It is unique and built into the system of each individual. It is not easy to craft that kind of state, it is too natural.
- You said you visited some of the major development sites in Eritrea. What common thing, among all of them, attracted you the most?
There were two major things that blew me away. One is the efforts of the country to preserve and wisely use water. At all the sites, I could see how much the government and people realized the importance of water, particularly given that the country is located in the sub-Saharan Africa. Everyone is striving to preserve water at all costs. That could be the reason why water policy in Eritrea is very well planned and executed. I never realized the importance of water; I mean, I know the general importance but not in the Eritrean sense of water preservation. It is a priority in the country.
The other surprise is the amount of young people involved in all the development sectors. Especially Adi-Halo’s workshop, it is a den of young creators and aspirers. That was a big surprise. I hear a lot of young people fled the country which I know they don’t fail their nation wherever they go, but I did expect to see less young p e o p l e . In a nutshell, I see a lot of good things happening in the country but the development has a uniform pace in all areas. The advancement is not only concentrated in the cities but extends to the furthest and most remote parts of the country. I talked to many young people in the development sites and to my amazement, they do not just talk about the work they do. They are aware of the challenges from outside and promise over and over again, to thrive with resilience. One of the young people that I talked to said “I do not work for money. I can go somewhere and earn money but I cannot go anywhere and earn a country”. That was well said. Everyone I talked to spoke about the regional issues at the moment openly and I stopped being amazed at the project infrastructure. The human infrastructure in the country is more marvelous. People from a lot of countries do not pay heed to the dynamics of the political situation of their nation. These people are pressed on by sanctions and unfair international treatments and war, but they are still very composed. I feel like Eritrea is a unique and quiet country.
- Do you think Eritrea’s self-reliance policy aligns with what is being done on ground?
I was wondering about this the whole time. Self-reliance is in everyone’s mouth. One of the many things that surprised me is the usage of highly political words such as self-reliance, resilience, and thrive. For me, that is abnormal, because, we usually hear such words from politicians and leaders during grand ceremonies and speeches trying to work their way into people’s hearts. This in itself is an integral part of the Eritrean culture. But here, ordinary citizens are declaring self-reliance. I did not expect the country to be any different than a war-wrecked land because of the wars and the sanctions. I saw those development sites and I asked myself ‘what if there was peace in the region and these people did not have to face all the pressures, unfair international policy, and sanctions? What could they have done?’ Everything was beyond my expectation.
People in rural areas have access to services and opportunities, which reflects the government’s focus on equality. This is opposite to what has been the norm in Ethiopia for a long time. In my country, a city is built and is well advanced in a couple of years. It is good for the media but the rural areas are lagging in terms of development. People then migrate to the urban areas to get a better life and that crowds the cities. With 85% of the population in the rural areas, however, the Ethiopian government should copy this policy.
Another shock was the Eritrean women, their concept of equality and the way that they carry themselves in public, at work, everywhere. It is out of this world. Most women around the world beg for their equality. The women here have earned it, not only through armed struggle but even now, I could see women in all sectors of the development of the nation. I visited the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and I saw their history since before independence. Well documented! It was a shock to know that the struggle recognized the concept of equality and worked towards it while fighting battles.
- How was your impression of Massawa?
I felt at home! All the people that I met were super welcoming and the hospitality in Massawa is…I don’t have words for it. They make you feel like they know you forever, like you are at home. The sea is like no other in the world; it is in its natural state, very clean and original. The fish there has an exceptional flavor. I toured the whole city and I think Massawa is not just a city, it is a treasure. Eritrean and world treasure. I saw that every building has its own taste of the Eritrean history from before the rise of city states. It needs to be preserved as a world heritage site. I admire the government for keeping the city in its original state. All the history it ever has entertained is engraved in the walls of the buildings. I hope the new generation will take on the tasks of holding onto these world treasures. The former regime in Ethiopia has destroyed a lot of historical records. It heavily invested in wiping the entire history and writing it in a way that they see fit. When you go through the records, you can feel that something is missing. In Eritrea, when I go around looking at things and reading the records, it has a smooth flow. I could read, see, and feel it. That’s how I know it is a full package. I visited the museum and in just a day, I felt like I learned a lot about Massawa and the Eritrean people as a whole. The way the documents are handled is very precious, leaving you no choice but to believe it.
- As a social media personality and activist, what do you think is the role of people like yourself in harmonizing your own people and the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia?
Social media is a powerful instrument. You can kill or heal using the medium. I am trying to use it to heal the differences and conflict in my country and between our two countries. I try to see the truth and pass it on so people can decide based on the truth and not propaganda. Nowadays, you do not need to have a comprehensive knowledge of things; one can witness the truth and share it to the world. Let’s just use social media properly and we can solve many problems. I think that if used wisely, the medium is an amazing gift for this generation. I know Eritrea now because I heard about it in the medium, came to see for myself, and I am sharing it with the rest of the world. That way, we can use this gift to unify. Enough is enough. This region deserves peace, prosperity, and harmony. We are no different from those who are living in peace. They have their differences but they worked through them. It is not good to fight for no reason. At this point, we have no option but to understand each other because we now have everything except peace and collaboration. And as neighbors, we have the responsibility to commit to peace and harmony inside and between our countries. We should use whatever means at hand to nourish a peaceful environment and pass it on to the next generation. Social media is one of the best tools.
- How do the youth respond to your activities?
People are tired of listening to constant news of war and conflict. This channel, Mehal Meda, is pretty new but the scope of influence and feedback is increasing. This is proof that our people are peace loving and that they will respond to anything that comes with good intentions and civility.
On the other hand, there are a lot of extremists and war loving people and they have equal access to social media. It is a battle in which we cannot claim to have won one’s heart because there are always new evils and divisive ideas that we have to tackle. So it is an unending battle. And now that I have seen Eritrea, I feel more responsible to share how peaceful and welcoming its people are.
- In one sentence, how do you describe your visit to Eritrea?
It was a life changing visit. And if I may add, I am astonished by the peace, hospitality, law abiding culture, and nice weather. The whole experience makes me feel good and I want to visit the country over and over again.
- What is your last message to the Eritrean people?
I love Eritrean people! I feel connected to them and I am not the same at all towards Eritrea. I understand the people of Eritrea much better now and I want to plead with them to maintain their strength, keep fighting and liberating this region, and show us that things never stay the same. I visited the famous Tank Graveyard in Asmara and it shocked me. I cried when I saw it, but I was like, “these people are something else, you cannot break these people”. I have seen what the current and the past generation can do and I cannot wait to see how the next one will turn out. I hope it carries on the legacy of past generations. So, I want to say just keep being Eritreans, the rest you can get through.