Culture represents traditions, beliefs and customs which form the background of a particular so-ciety and distinguish it from other societies. It is an important source of a nation’s vitality and creativ¬ity and constitutes a key factor in uniting the nation, and in making it distinct. It acts as a profound force that affects the development of a country. It not only shapes human concepts and impacts their behavior, but also contributes to the betterment of their material as well as spiritual comfort.
Societies and groups have simi¬larities as well as differences in their traditional cultures. Others share similar historical, cultural and religious backgrounds. Some cultures are criticized for being obstacles to development while others are believed to be con¬ducive for development. By the same token, our traditional cul¬ture is similar to or different from other societies’, cultures, which of course make us distinctive from them. For example, hard work is affirmed as a virtue by Eritrean culture as opposed to necessity by American culture.
Eritrea is home to a culture that dates back to more than 3000 years. The ancient maritime trade links with Egypt and with other surrounding areas, the ancient coastal port of Adulis and other towns, the standing monuments of Metera, and Kohaito, the Geez language and its inscription and many other historical accounts are all telling examples of our past civilization. That said, I am not going to delve into the long history of Eritrea but to touch on some traditional cultures as a base for the development of the exist¬ing national culture.
Over the eons of trade and ag¬ricultural civilization, the com¬munity settled and lived in a cluster of villages with marked boundaries, where each village was obliged to respect the bound¬aries of the other villages. They developed traditions, beliefs and customs conducive to their well-being, democratically elected their leaders, set up government and ratified laws which were used as bastions of peace, harmony and order.
The people made their liv¬ing from farming, raising cattle and other domestic animals and also engaged in pottery works, embroidery, weaving and other activities, which are now facing imminent demise. Though some of our traditional practices and beliefs have receded into a dis¬tant memory, many have survived the passage of time and are still vibrant thanks to our ancestors’ efforts and determination. Our culture passed down generation after generation exerting tremen-dous influences on our daily lives, activities and relationships.
Since ancient times, traditional morality has encouraged members of the community to lend a hand to people in dire need. They are bound by tradition to succor each other at need and offer support to widows, disabled people, elderly people who remain without help¬ers, and they comfort mourning families for days and so on. These are just a few of many examples of the community solicitude for their people’s welfare. In addi¬tion, members are encouraged to be filial towards the elderly, fam¬ily members and the community at large. As such, elderly-care-homes are not available in Eritrea just because it is up to the chil¬dren to take care of their parents in their old age. All these have played a key role in maintaining unity, showing sympathy and love to each other.
Furthermore, the culture en¬courages members of the com¬munity to live by sweat and hard work. People often voluntarily participate in communal works which include tilling farming lands, collecting crops or build¬ing stone-walled houses for com¬munity members. Failure to fulfill this social obligation affects one’s reputation in the community.
Traditional festivals are said to have been around for over 1000 years. The community holds fes-tivals to celebrate bumper har¬vest, and safety for people and livestock. Apart from this, they celebrate New Year (Geez cal¬endar), religious ceremonies or rituals and gather from far and wide to attend such ceremonies. The festivals were accompanied by singing and dancing in which dancing is the most hallowed and important event in every festival. On the festive day, young boys and girls put on their traditional attire and girls would beautify themselves and do their hairs. The community would slaughter some cattle and drink homemade ‘beer’ to celebrate the festival. Many of the traditional festivals are still celebrated but some are lost in the mists of time.
For centuries, traditional fes¬tivals and holidays have been occasions for the community to reunite and get together. In ad¬dition, they provide them with a good opportunity to visit friends and relatives, which have a strong influence on their relationship. These and other social relation¬ships have built a sense of unity and belongingness and a strong attachment to family, community and land.
The communities were gov¬erned by several written custom¬ary laws which covered all aspects of the community’s life including village administration, the right of women to property, marriage, dispute settlement, family issues, tax payment, and allocation of resources (water, cultivable land, and land for building houses). Some traditional laws related to the allocation of land, marriage, funeral still have application in many parts of Eritrea.
Not only this. The law also pro¬tects the rights of animals. For example, when a cow gives birth a, it is allowed to enter a reserve-grass land, which is kept espe¬cially for dry season. One cannot load, for example, a donkey or a mule more than what it can carry. Violating this rights was punish¬able by law. When the Italians started to colonize Eritrea, they followed this and other traditional laws because they were unable to shake the foundation of centuries-old culture. The customary laws made the people obedient and respectful to the government, the leaders, the law and each other.
Our contemporary national cul¬ture is grounded in our traditional culture. It is a reflection, continu-ation and an extension of the com¬munity-based traditional cultures. The only difference between them is that the former is broad and deep in its scope and nation¬alistic in character and has shaped the present social, economic and political culture of Eritrea.
Our social culture is a powerful force in bringing together mem¬bers of the community and driv¬ing them forward with common goal. It has polished the unity of the nine nationalities who live in unity and cohesion through thick and thin. They have committed themselves to living together in peace and love on the basis of mu¬tual respect, mutual trust and mu¬tual understanding. As such there have been no conflict caused by cultural, religious and linguistic differences among the people.
Our culture has given birth to a dignified society that holds high the banner of dignity. It has cre¬ated a society that is ready to con¬tribute to and sacrifice for the bet¬terment of its people and nation. Our culture has helped the people to develop resilience in times of hardship and difficulties and bolstered our confidence to over¬come. Our society has developed the spirit of standing together in times of adversity and support¬ing each other in times of need. The culture created a society that considers it a shame to live off the efforts of others. Finally, the cul¬ture has helped us maintain strong attachment to our people and to our country. As a matter of fact, an Eritrean who dies abroad is of¬ten buried in his home country no matter how expensive it may be.
The economic culture, it has created a society that believes in the rights to choose the model of development that fits its national conditions. It promotes economic and social development in which the end beneficiaries are the peo¬ple. It fights to shake off depen¬dence and never clings to hope of foreign support, believes that any cooperation agreements with other countries should be based on equal terms; embraces com¬munity-based activities and sticks to the spirit of cooperation; par¬ticipates in all development-relat¬ed projects willingly and volun¬tarily and with greater vigor and vitality; and, struggles to build a shared future and mutual growth with its neighbors and never pur-sues its interests at the expense of others.
The political culture has cre¬ated a society that cherishes in¬dependence and values the price paid for it; never compromising on issues concerning sovereignty and territorial integrity and never budging its national interests, never gives in to bullying, injus¬tice and aggression. The society wants to base its relationship with other countries on an equal foot¬ing and non-interference in each other’s affairs. It believes that peace and stability benefit people of the region.
Where, one might ask, are the cultural legacies that need to be harnessed? The ones that are brief¬ly mentioned above are some of them. These and others have stood the test of time and bear the hall-marks of Eritrean culture. They have further developed to keep abreast of the changing world.
With this cultural background, we have to capitalize upon them to enhance economic development and safeguard our national inter¬ests. It is widely believed that if there is no cultural base underly¬ing economic development, such development is meaningless. To put it simply, we can achieve de-velopment through culture. Hold¬ing this belief, we should spare no efforts to harness our cultural resources to the betterment of our people and sustainable develop¬ment.