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Eritrea: Views and Musings

  • 1. More flash than substance?

Broadly, marriage can be defined as a group’s approved mating arrangements. It is usually marked by a ritual of some sort, such as a wedding, to indicate the couple’s new public status. Marriage is a vital social institution, and while there is tremendous cultural variety surrounding marriage around the world, several common themes may be found.

For example, all groups and societies generally use marriage (and the family) to establish patterns of mate selection, descent (i.e. the way people trace kinship over generations), inheritance, and authority. Social scientists have viewed and examined marriage from a variety of different theoretical perspectives, as well as explored the major elements of the family life cycle, including love and courtship, marriage, childbirth, child rearing, and the family in later life.

In Eritrea, marriage has long been viewed as a sacred societal institution and it is regarded as an integral component of the life cycle. While marriages within the country’s various ethno-linguistic groups often contain many unique elements, customs, and norms, one of the most important aspects of marriage in Eritrea is the wedding ritual. Generally, these are highly colorful, multi-day occasions that involve a broad array of traditions and customs, including religious ceremonies, music and dance, large gatherings, elaborate dress and jewelry, gifts, food, and other celebratory activities.

Through having attended many Eritrean weddings, I have come to regard them as rather enjoyable, fun-filled, highly memorable occasions. However, I have also observed another slightly troubling feature that characterizes many weddings. Specifically, it seems that wedding ceremonies are developing into increasingly large, extravagant, elaborate, expensive occasions. My countless discussions and informal conversations with many colleagues, friends, and others, which, admittedly, by no means represent rigorous empirical standards, suggest that I am not totally alone in making these observations. Notably, these types of trends are not restricted to Eritrea. In many places around the world wedding expenditures are often considerable and/or have been increasing.

In a lot of ways, these types of practices threaten to strip away the real essence of marriage. Rather than representing the genuine celebration of the union of two people and a bonding of families, marriage and weddings shift to becoming more about conspicuous consumption, defined as excessive monetary expenditures in order to display wealth, status, and economic power, and the unabashed display of great extravagance or luxury. Problematically, flashy weddings have begun to create difficultly to meet unreasonable demands and expectations for many families, often causing excessive spending (generally understood as spending beyond available liquid income), and leading to debt, considerable stress, and tensions with relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Moreover, such spending can provoke resentment among others throughout society or contribute to class differentiation – recall that Eritrea remains a low-income, developing country where many individuals and households face economic challenges. In this latter context, such expensive weddings also seem highly questionable, if not distasteful. Last, there are also valid concerns that the practice of excessive spending on lavish weddings can develop into a competition. Specifically, wedding ceremonies may become regarded as opportunities to “outdo” neighbors or relatives, in terms of extravagance and spending.

Do not get me wrong. Marriages and weddings are highly significant and wonderful. The coming together of two people (and their families) to make a lifetime’s commitment is something special and it is often a cherished moment in a couple’s history. It should be celebrated, and weddings allow family and friends to recognize, appreciate, and support the couple. Indeed, weddings ought to be special, elegant, stylish, and neat. Additionally, weddings, to some degree, can impact local economies in various ways. However, while keeping all of that firmly in mind, it is also highly important that we as a group and society do not forget the true, genuine meaning of the wedding or simply allow such a special occasion and important institution to devolve into an ostentatious display of consumerism, money, and wealth.

  • 2. Being taught and inspired

I thoroughly enjoyed the article, “Appreciating Teachers,” featured in the last edition of Eritrea Profile. The article, published to coincide with World Teacher’s Day (which was globally celebrated on October 5), was a touching tribute that expressed the author’s deep admiration for teachers and the important roles they play in the lives of students as well as within general society.

As I was reading the article, I was reminded of a series of conversations I had years ago with a widely-respected and admired Eritrean teacher. He had vast experience teaching, volunteering, and community building and there was little question he was highly dedicated to refining his craft and thoroughly committed to positively affecting the people around him. I can still vividly recall asking him what motivated him, why he taught, and the reasons he did what he did. His responses continue to resonate quite deeply.

“It isn’t for money! Teaching is about contributing and about making a positive difference. It’s about taking what you have and infusing it into a place that has a great need now! It’s a way to uncover and explore issues, and then actively work towards tangible, sustainable solutions.”

I have written and commented extensively on the remarkable history and wonderful commitment of teachers in our country. They have long played a positive role in society, making tremendous contributions and helping to initiate and lay the foundation for important positive changes. During the decades-long independence struggle, teachers were a vital part of a unique system of educational programs and institutions established within areas held by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Teachers, who often were wounded or disabled fighters, helped to educate other independence fighters and their children, orphans, refugees, and other groups traditionally excluded from opportunities to learn, including women, nomads, and the rural-based population.

It is hard to overlook the dedication and commitment exhibited by teachers (as well as students and others), even under the greatest of challenges and obstacles. For example, while Ethiopian fighter jets circled menacingly high above, incessantly and indiscriminately bombing and terrorizing, “classrooms” (which were really just the shade under a tree) were simply shifted to caves and lessons continued.

Even today, decades later, teachers across the country still inspire. They continue to play a positive role in imparting knowledge, supporting the realization of fundamental human rights, helping ensure inclusive and equitable education, promoting learning opportunities for all, and changing lives.

The article also allowed me to reflect on some of the reasons that I teach. Today, when people ask me why I teach in Eritrea, my response is generally, “I don’t teach because I love teaching. I teach because I love the people of Eritrea and I am inspired by them.”

One of my most cherished and inspirational memories as a teacher actually occurred not too long ago. It was just before I conducted a morning lecture at one of Eritrea’s colleges. Arriving several minutes before my 8:00am class, I was confronted with one of my students sitting in the first row quietly reading his notes. Smiling, I greeted him, “Nifue (Good lad).” As I was sifting through my papers and organizing my desk, I couldn’t help but recognize the state of my student’s shirt, which was drenched in sweat. “Entay da? Sport? (What’s up? Were you exercising?)” I asked him, motioning to his wet shirt.

Smiling somewhat sheepishly, he responded that he had just walked to class from home. His home was located over 20km away and he had departed hours earlier. Although like every other student on campus he had been assigned a dormitory room on campus, the night before he had walked home to visit his young child. Having checked upon her, he promptly returned to campus early the next morning, so as to not miss class. Wow!

It is true that, as teachers, we have the potential to teach and inspire. Quite often, however, we are the ones that are being taught and inspired.

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