Decorated by well-preserved elaborate architectural buildings and harmonious social environment, Asmara is an ideal place to live in. Besides its physical, cultural and social amusements, its street and building names grab attention.
The names reflect the historical and cultural heritage as well as the aspirations of the country. Before Eritrea’s independence, the names of the streets, buildings and public places of Asmara were alien, mainly Italian and Ethiopian. This article will provide some clues on the renaming of streets after independence and its contribution to social, cultural and historical identity formation of Eritrea. The impetus for writing this article came about following a discussion with my friends in Nakfa a couple of weeks ago.
After independence, the government of Eritrea replaced the colonial names of the streets and public places in Asmara with local names to Eritreanize them. The changes in names after independence were made in order to reflect the war for liberation, the heavy sacrifice made by the people and the national and cultural identity of Eritrea. The current names of the streets and buildings of Asmara not only denounced the worship of colonialism, but also gave a real meaning to being an Eritrean. The names of the streets, buildings, shops, bars, recreation centers, schools and hospitals tell stories of freedom, cultural dignity and identity of Eritreans. The renaming of the streets heralded the beginning of a new era while demonstrating the determination and self-confidence of the people to start afresh.
All the names created during the colonial period were replaced with new names that mirrored the history and shared collective memory of Eritrea. The streets of Asmara have now become historical monuments that embody the spirit of older generations and future ambitions. The names of Eritrean villages, mountains, rivers, islands, harbors, etc. are represented in the streets of Asmara. All the place names of Sahil, Barka, Danakil, Semhar and the highlands where the Eritrean freedom fighters were stationed and fought against the Ethiopian army are reflected in the streets and buildings of Asmara.
The streets and buildings of Asmara have become places that reflect a rich historical and cultural heritage. They have become historical monuments that communicate the experiences of the revolutionary (Sahil) and national service (Sawa) generations. For instance, ‘Warsay’ the name given to the Sawa generation has become a street name in Asmara. Many public places were also named after ‘Warsay’. This is one way of giving recognition to the patriotic act of the Warsay demonstrated in defense of the nation and preservation of its territorial integrity and its reconstruction.
The Eritreanization of the street names in Asmara can be considered a socio-cultural and historical production needed for nation building. Tegadelti (Fighters) Street, Sematat (Martyrs), Harnet (Liberation), Bdho (challenge), Eritrea Square, Bahti Meskerem (1st September), Shda Square, etc. are central to the historical production of collective memory. Such historically aware naming is one way of marking a particular national view and national memory on the place. If we interpret and contemplate over the street names of Asmara, they have substantive elements to support the nation building process. Through the names, the streets have gained the features of a monument and memorial and ceremonial spaces. Each street, apart from becoming a cultural and historical heritage, has a story to tell about the history of the country. If we take Bdho Street for example, it reflects the experiences and interactions with aggressors. Bdho means challenge, defense and resistance. If we recount the 59 years, starting from 1961 when Eritreans started armed struggle for independence, up to now (2020), the country was forced to spend 50 years in resistance and struggle against multiple forms of aggression. Bdho has become the tradition of the nation.
The street names in Asmara honor important places and events in the history of Eritrea. They promote the national history in the ordinary settings of everyday life. A place becomes an Eritrean only after it is identified by an Eritrean name through Eritrean language.
The renaming of streets and buildings in Asmara has dividends. Indigenous Eritrean names were restored and popularized, and the historical wrongs committed by successive colonizers were corrected. The names are important media of communication between the present and the past, which is crucial for our sense of identity.
Giving names is very important for Eritreans. They give names not only to identify someone or something but, more importantly, to convey a message. Likewise, the names of streets and buildings in Asmara have been given for meaningful communication, not mere identification.