Man is a social animal, says Aristotle. It means that man is created to congregate with his likes, during hunting or in great 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 madding crowd.
Man or humankind 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 eat the fruits of their labor away from the evil 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 breathed your last.
In the beginning when man used the cave for cover, everybody was for himself and nature provided for all. Gradually, the lucrative profession of hunting created ties between beastly tribes who did not take time to barter their kills.
The rudiments of business flourished to give place to intertribal and cross-border trade. This, in turn, contributed to social intercourse, intermarriage and the emergence of village-level social life.
During all this time, the culture of sharing kept the society intact. Neither war nor drought nor the ravages of natural cataclysm could destroy the social fabric that held the villages together.
Extended families played important roles in the production of mentally and physically healthy children. Psychiatry had to wait millennia to gain popularity.
Then along came capitalism with 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 certainly was something wrong with them. What was it that made them to be left behind in the race for riches and fame? What m a d e them solicit in the name of God the riches that men possess?
In an age when poverty was a curse, the poor families of the 19th century England and France had to send their children to slave in the monstrous industries that sprouted all over the countryside. With the meager salary they got at the end of a humiliating day, most turned to stealing, murder and prostitution. Prisons were constructed as a judicious response. When these became crowded, sailing ships took the scum of the Earth to overseas colonies, there to breed or to perish. Good riddance, sighed the capitalist smoking their pipes in their countryside mansions.
The colonies were, however, inhabited by people who liked to share. Unfortunately, they met people who considered sharing too primitive and even associated it with stealing.
In the traditional Eritrean culture, when a guest comes to your house you try to share everything you have with him. Hotels are European inventions. In the past, wayfarers in this country simply dropped by and spent a day or two with the unknown host. Unbidden guests were welcome not, as the Bard put it, when they left, but the moment they arrived.
Take our N’gdet, for example. That’s the time to really appreciate the culture of sharing. You simply w a l k into an open door and take your seat. A lady comes and hands you a goblet and fills it with suwa. Another lady comes along with something to eat. You look around. All are strangers. Yes, strangers in paradise. Everybody is 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 includes the world of the spirit as well. The old maid who is a bit melancholic, sips her coffee alone in the dark corners of her tiny room, puts more cups of coffee than is necessary. The empty cups are meant for the good fairies.
Besides, it is in our custom to grace the place with leftovers after eating lunch or dinner. Again, extraterrestrial eyes are watching to partake of the food. But sometimes the ‘hidden’ eyes turn to be those of the starving children who have been waiting for the lion like father and breadwinner of the family to fill his belly first.
During the 30-year armed struggle, the Eritrean freedom fighters shared everything they had including their lives. When drought hit the country in the 1970s, the fighters preferred their starving civilian brothers before themselves and gave little they had to save the lives of those for whose sake they were fighting in the first place.
It is, however, sad to observe that the town dwellers are gradually subscribing to that capitalistic philosophy of everybody for himself and God for us all.
During the Derg time when city dwellers mostly from Asmara had to migrate to the countryside following heavy fighting compounded by atrocities committed by Derg killing squads in the towns, the villagers who received the new refugees from the town did not like them at first. They couldn’t forget the fact that earlier on when they went to visit their relatives in the towns, the treatment they received smacked of capitalism with all its attendant individualism and self-interest. The culture of sharing was lost in the city dweller and now he wanted to find it in the country dweller. The result was misunderstanding and a lot of misgiving.
We town dwellers still find it difficult to share our food and our house with relatives or strangers (completely out of the question now). The problem is that whether we like it or not our economic life had been greatly changed due to the new style of living that we adopted as we joined the capitalist world.
It is something that we are unable to alter without jeopardizing our social and economic stand. About 70 years ago, Asmarinos used to share their food and life with friends and foes alike. Now, everything has changed. The same thing will also happen to the villages in the not too distant future.
The point is to try and preserve the good culture whatever the cost. It kept us intact in the past, and it will keep us united in the future.