“No laundry today!”

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

It was not strange, nonetheless in that instant I experienced it more than ever.

I got up bright and early with an unpleasant smell of my fetid teeth, dirt and lethargy. Lately I went through flashbacks, as a consequence even after quite a few years I have got wonderfully crisp pictures of that day in my mind. It was more or less a few days after my mom came back home stepping clear of a surgical procedure. I starved and on that day I noticeably felt it so deep. Above all I couldn’t stand the dirty clothes I was wearing.

“No, I can’t, tomorrow is Saint Mary’s day.” This is what a laundrywoman (to be more accurate a washerwoman) in her thirties replied on that day, when my mum asked for her service. My heart went out to her. “Oh! Poor Mebrihit” I uttered under my breath. I hope her better future, at least because if it wasn’t for her I would be the last person to be gripped by this point at issue. Now I can’t sweep this issue under the rug and move on.

As a matter of fact scholars have long sought to uncover the iron-clad link between culture and wealth and the German sociologist, economist and politician, Max Weber, is a classic example. In his “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, Weber attempted to demonstrate how the newly emerged protestant faith enabled the accumulation of wealth and, hence, capitalism. To all intents and purposes scholars have also sought to prove the link involving culture and poverty. As such, apart from individual, economic, political and geographical deficiencies, poverty has virtually to the same extent been related to cultural defects and this is the area I am interested in thanks to Mebrihit. Experts in the culture of poverty posit that poverty is crafted in and across generations by the diffusion of a set of beliefs, values and moral codes. This might comprise religion, value placed on work and education, concepts of wealth, competition, justice, time, etc.

In my last year as a college student I did research in a group of five and found that the role of culture in generating, or at least maintaining poverty, in Eritrea is unwavering as it is the case in many other developing countries. The traditional method of production in agriculture is one of them, but that is not up for discussion in this article. I would rather focus on the non-material culture. To be specific the value placed on work and time.

In her interview with an Eritrean media outlet and the BBC in 2014 and 2015 respectively, I watched the UNDP representative in Eritrea Ms. Christine U m u t o n i admi r i n g t h e E r i t r e a n work spirit and cost-effective productive capability. Christine Umutoni hit the nail on the head with her idea. It is appropriate to give credit where credit is due. Eritrea and Eritreans have untold culture that should be admired, but it is not sufficient to conclude that Eritreans are in possession of spick-and-span culture. Attachment of the general public to holidays is, for example, one Achilles’ heel worth mentioning against such a conclusion. Isn’t it insane for anybody who lives from hand to mouth to be dreadfully preoccupied with holidays to the detriment of his/her occupation? This i s in no way meant to suggest those who have immense amount of money should be preoccupied with holidays.

The saint days Mebrihit was talking about are more than few. Without blowing things out of proportion, at least 46.7% or 170 days of a year are unavailable for work, if one is going to consider saint day as a period in which a break is taken or work is suspended. Let me level with you. This ballpark figure doesn’t even include Sundays and Saturdays, national holidays and international holidays which may or may not necessarily overlap with the days. In this case one would be too busy slacking off more than half a year even if most of them overlap. This is cast-iron fact unless some saint days are more important than others.

The clout of such holidays is more sinister in rural quarters, where exposition to modernity is relatively less. There is a generic aphorism among this populace which goes like this: “Sur HimamSa’al, Sur DikhinetBa’al,” loosely translated as “Root of Disease (is) Common-Coldness, (and) Root of Poverty (is) Holidays.” Despite this understanding, the people are still graciously committed to these holidays. For a month of Sundays, rural inhabitants have been ranting and raving w h e n f a m i l i e s work in saint days that such thinking now became second nature imbedded in them.

It is true that such non-material aspects of culture are tough to be measured empirically because of their abstract nature. It is for example grueling to yield or devise numerical figures concerning the blow of such holidays, both on the poverty-stricken individual distinctly, as well as the nation itself. But I equally accept as true that not only a man/woman of letters but also a layman comprehends the impact of poor Mebrihit’s decision to suspend work for nearly half a year.

Poverty is a matter of decision. It is one’s own choice to be impoverished which means that if one so wishes one can overcome poverty. At the national level experts feel that without development-oriented values and mindset, nations will find it difficult to develop efficiently. If one of the reasons for poverty in Eritrea lies in values and beliefs of the disadvantaged communities, alongside other programs the government’s poverty-eradication efforts need to intensify in order to alter or replace the dysfunctional culture that undermines productive work. Education is definitely one way to achieve this end.