Sharing a Bit of Everything

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Man is a social animal, says Aristotle. It means that man is created to congregate with others, whether during hunting or large assemblies. But strangely enough, the philosophers who made similar statements in the past preferred to live alone, away from the society they tried to change. Far from the crowd.

Man is a gregarious animal. In this, he is like the monkeys and the wolves. But there are people who live like the leopard. They hunt alone and hide their kill. They want to be left alone and enjoy the fruits of their labor away from the glances of men. They are suspicious of their own species and consider the world as an enemy bent on destroying them.

“He who eats alone, dies alone,” says a Tigrigna proverb. If you don’t try to share your food and your pleasure with your friends and relatives while still alive, don’t expect people to come to your funeral when you are gone. Among the few that might come are certainly those who want to make sure you have are no longer breathing.

In the beginning, when man used caves for cover, everybody was concerned with themselves and nature provided for all. Gradually, hunting created ties between tribes that did not take time to barter their kills. The rudimentary aspects of business flourished to give place to inter-tribal and cross-border trade. This, in turn, contributed to social intercourse, intermarriage, and the emergence of social life.

During all this time, the culture of sharing kept societies intact. Even war, drought, and various natural disasters could not destroy the social fabric that held villages together.

Extended families played an important role in the production of mentally and physically healthy children. Psychiatry had to wait millennia to gain popularity.

Then along came capitalism and its institutionalized greed. Every man for himself and God for us all.

Those who couldn’t make it were marginalized. If God couldn’t help them then there was something seriously wrong with them. What was it that caused them to get left behind in the race for riches?

In an age where poverty was a curse, the poor families of 19th century England and France had to send their children to slave in the factories that sprouted all over the countryside. With the meager salary they received at the end of a long day, many turned to stealing, murder, and prostitution. Prisons were constructed in response. When these became crowded, sailing ships took the worst to overseas colonies. “Good riddance,” sighed the capitalists, smoking their pipes in their countryside mansions.

The colonies, of course, were inhabited by people who liked to share. Unfortunately, they met people who considered sharing as primitive and even associated it with stealing.

In traditional Eritrean culture, when a guest comes to your house, you offer to share everything you have with them. Hotels are Western inventions. In the past, travelers in this country simply dropped by and spent a day or two with an unknown host. Unbidden guests were most welcome, not when they left, as the Bard put it, but from the moment they arrived.

Take our ngdet for example. That’s the time to really appreciate the culture of sharing. You simply walk into a house through an open door and take your seat. A women comes and hands you a large cup and fills it with suwa. Another lady comes along and hands you a plate of food. You look around. All are strangers. Strangers in a type of paradise. Everybody seems to be happy. The minstrel starts to sing. When the wine is in, the wit is out. And so everybody throws inhibition out the window and starts to dance.

In Eritrea, the culture of sharing extends to the world of the spirits. The old maid, who is a bit melancholic, sips her coffee alone in her tiny room. She sets out more cups of coffee than are necessary. Why? The empty cups are meant for the good fairies.

Eritrean tradition dictates that we set out leftovers after eating lunch or dinner. Again, the food is for those in the spirit world. They watch intently. However, sometimes the “hidden” eyes turn out to be those of hungry children who have been waiting for their father, the breadwinner of the family, to fill his belly first.

During the armed struggle, the Eritrean freedom fighters shared everything they had, including their lives. When drought hit the country in the 1970s, the fighters put the lives of civilians before their own. They gave what little they had to civilians, seeking to save their lives.

It is somewhat sad to see that city dwellers are gradually subscribing to the capitalist philosophy of everyone for themselves and God for us all.

During the time of the Dergue regime, city dwellers had to migrate to the countryside for safety. The villagers who received the refugees from the cities did not like them at first. They couldn’t forget the fact that earlier on, when they went to visit their relatives in the city, the treatment they received from city dwellers smacked of capitalism. The culture of sharing was lost in city dwellers and now they wanted to find it in the country dweller. The result was misunderstanding and a lot of misgiving.

We city dwellers still find it difficult to share our food and our home with relatives or strangers. The problem is that whether we like it or not, our economic lives have greatly changed due to the new lifestyles we adopted with modernization.

It is something that we are unable to alter without jeopardizing our social and economic standing. About 70 years ago, Asmarinos used to share everything with friends and foes alike. That has changed, however. It is likely that the same thing will happen to the villages in the not too distant future.

We must try to preserve our culture, whatever the cost. It kept us together in the past, and it will keep us united in the future.

Again, I like to admit that it is a path surrounded by thorns.

Yonas went to Massawa about a month ago and met a longtime friend, Eseyas. Eseyas invited him to his house for dinner and offered him free lodging. Yonas accepted the invitation to dinner, but declined offer of lodging since he had already checked-in at a nearby hotel.

The dinner appointment was at 7 pm. After locating the house, Yonas knocked on the door. Eseyas appeared at the gate and led him into a room that had some old furniture and two beds. He suggested that Yonas browse a family album while he finished preparing dinner, spaghetti and a light salad featuring lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, dressed with oil and vinegar.

As Yonas began to eat, his host started to brief him on the expenses incurred in buying and preparing the food.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Fine, just fine,” Yonas replied.

“Do you know that if you were to eat the same meal in a restaurant, you would have paid about 300 Nakfa?” Eseyas asked.

“Exactly,” replied Yonas, as he tried to figure out what his host was getting at.

“Do you know that a kilo of tomato costs 50 Nakfa?” continued Eseyas.

“I know that everything is expensive nowadays,” Yonas stated.

“That’s without mentioning the wine I have bought for us to drink,” noted Eseyas.

Yonas had thought that his friend had invited him to dinner to share a meal. In fact, he was actually trying to share his economic insecurities, which resulted in thinking too much about money and food at the expense of love and fellowship.

He had been bitten by the capitalist bug.