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Tradition and Health: being healthy as a donkey!

You want to live to be a hundred? Well, do as they tell you. Drink more milk, and eat honey and of course honor thy father and thy mother, or even pray to God and give alms to the poor. What has honoring one’s parents and giving alms to the poor to do with one’s health? Because if you don’t, your life may be cut short whether or not you drink milk or eat honey.


For most Eritreans, health is a blessing bestowed by the creator, and those who think too much about their physical health are considered materialists. In general, there is no bad and good food. If you eat junk food with joy and gladness, you will get healthy. And if you eat unbalanced diet with anger and hatred in your heart, that food will change into poison inside your body and will shorten your life in the end.

A broken family or a nagging husband or wife will go a long way to shorten your life in this world. Whether you eat honey every morning or drink milk to your satisfaction, it is your family condition that finally determines your health.

But sometimes it is heredity and there is nothing you can do about it. The good die young and the evildoers live long enough to make others’ lives miserable.

In our tradition, comfort is sometimes seen as the cause of a lot of ailments. You have to rough it from time to time and don’t pamper yourself too much.

Mr. Tekle is past ninety, but walks like a young man, swears like a sailor and sometimes likes to flirt with the ladies.

“Mr. Tekle, what is the secret to your prolonged existence?”

“You generation of sugar consumers! I tell you, you will never make it past fifty.”

Mr. Tekle drinks milk without sugar, likes bitter coffee, eats Kitcha (Unleavened bread) with every meal and enjoys his Suwa once in a while.

“I can crunch a cow’s thighbone with my molars.” He brags.

In traditional Eritrea, people are advised to walk, work and lead a frugal life to stay healthy. In general, butter is to be avoided, while vegetables are welcome in the form of green paper and boiled legumes. And above all, roasted barley. Too much sleep and idleness is frowned upon.

The secret is however to leave everything to God. Don’t be a malade imaginaire. Don’t give much attention to your ailments. It will disappear by itself. Beside, laugh when it is time to laugh, and cry when the need comes (as when a lived one is gone). Be sociable, visit old friends and never miss a wedding feast.

Extended family life kept most of our grandmas and grandpas alive when they should have died a long time ago.

Addey Tsihay for example, was an authority in her son’s house. She always had the last word with her son and this imparted in her the will to live (although some members of the family would rather she departed this earth earlier).

Grandpa still scolded his son as if he was a spoiled brat. That’s why grandpa stayed healthy till the day he died. Such humiliation would however leave the married son depressed for a while. But when he also became grandpa in his turn, he scolded his married son and felt vindicated and very healthy.

In this way, a long line of aunts and uncles from the paternal and maternal sides proved their presence by interfering in the family life and gained a long and eventful life. And if you had been patient all the time, they blessed you as they lay in their deathbed:

“May the Lord prolong your life in this earth…..’’

Such blessing given at the right time triggered your metabolism and reactivated your cells, and they told you to use cold water for washing and cursed the smelly tobacco as a plant that has sprouted on the feces of Judas Iscariot.

Talking about cold water; in our tradition drinking cold water early in the morning is supposed to keep the doctor away. How’s that? Well, have you ever seen a donkey in a doctor’s waiting room? The donkey drinks water first thing in the morning and stays healthy all his life until he simply drops dead one day out of sheer exhaustion. By the way, the donkey is taken by some Eritreans as a symbol of health.

You ask any country-bred Eritrean about his/her health, and the answer is invariably; I am as healthy as a donkey. And also eat enough Kitcha for breakfast and enjoy the fresh air of a mountain. Avoid wet and humid places (they may be breeding grounds for mosquitoes or secret haunts for evil fairies) and share your food with your neighbors. Avoid comfort and don’t indulge yourself in the baser appetites of life (Like wine, women and song).

When you are satiated, stop eating. Anything done in excess entails harm and is detrimental to health. And be grateful for the food on the table.

You have perhaps heard of the old proverb that mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noontime sun; well don’t imitate both of them. And don’t allow children to play near a place where people respond to call of nature, and in particular when the sun is shining bright.

At breakfast, toast your Kitcha over a glowing charcoal or over a flame to sterilize or decontaminate it (in case there is no fire for decontamination, just kiss it and bring it to your forehead in the name of God and eat it).

And avoid drinking water after every morsel that does down your gullet, for it may happen that one day you may find yourself in a waterless place and it is lunch time. How are going to swallow that morsel of Kitcha your wife baked for your long journey to a relative’s village?

About forty or so years ago, there was a certain Eritrean Monk-cum-doctor who saw all your ailments floating in a flask filled with your urine, he would hold the contents against the sunlight and will admonish you for being unfaithful to your wife. Spectrograph of evil.

However, as regards the patient’s health, it was his want to forbid the eating of shiro altogether! Why of all Eritrean dishes did he pick shiro?

Many poor Eritreans of those days were a bit of offended by this ‘bourgeois’ medical instructions. Could it be that shiro which contains a lot of vitamins was responsible for gout or bursitis or even uric acid? It is just like an Italian mama who goes to see the doctor and he tells her not to eat minestrone if she wanted to stay healthy. Mannagia!

When all was said and done, there is the mahgoma which every peasant with minor ailment now and then has to undergo. This reminds me of the plays of Moliere where the physicians of the time prescribed bleeding for every minor or serious ailments.

According, to our culture the bad or tainted blood had to go. And this was done by sucking it out from the system through the use of horns which is placed on top of the skin which had been slit for the purpose.

As the ‘village doctor’ empties the blackish blood onto a container, the Oh and Ah of the people around, including the patient, testify to the success of the operation. Of what colour was the blood that has been let out from the patient? Black, of course…You see!

It’s the tainted blood in the body that causes disease of all kinds, and by St. Michael, it has to go, even if the patient had already lost much blood because of previous complications
Once I had this discomfort that is associated with a bleeding nose that comes at the most embarrassing moments. According to a country-bred relative who was staying at our house, I was lucky that the impure blood was leaving its post by its own free will, and therefore I had to let it go and stop worrying about the bleeding.

I told my relative it was probably a reaction to the continuous taking of Asprin meant to cure my headaches. He rejected my explanation by saying that if my nose was bleeding, it was because the body knew when to get rid of the treacherous blood.

Be gone, tainted blood! And may a life-giving blood flow in our veins once again.

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