My father enjoyed spending time outdoors, and whenever we had the chance, he would take me and my siblings outside of Asmara’s city limits to enjoy nature! So when I was ten years old, I sat on a small hill facing vast fields of grain, watching the tall stems and leaves sway back and forth as a slight wind blew and the sun shone, shaded by a few clouds, providing the perfect weather to be outside. In the far distance, I heard a chorus of voices singing together in call and response, “Izia intay alata” with another group responding, “niishto terifata.”
I stood tall and squinted my eyes to see more – my childlike curiosity intrigued me as I barraged my dad with questions: who are those people? Why are they singing? What are they doing? Why are they singing “We are almost done” and “There is only a little bit left to do”? As the group neared, men in their worn work trousers and shirts, and women wearing long flowing dresses with belts made of a long piece of cotton cloth clenching their waists, worked in a straight line with sickles and pickaxes in hand. Side by side, they bent from their waist in a uniform rhythm as they harvested the grain. Encouraging one another– “izia intay alata” – “niishto terifata” they sang melodically and in harmony, no sign of being overwhelmed by the vast fields of grain that swayed, waiting to be harvested.
My father, my most superb storyteller, said with pride in his eyes, “When you belong to a people, you are for the people and with the people always”. So, through community, men and women came together, extending mutual aid to ensure that all the crops were harvested. Even those who couldn’t join the communal work because of age, disability, etc., were assured that they, too, would have their fields harvested. In turn, they contributed by providing water, a meal, etc. Each did what they could.
It wasn’t work contracts or a promise of some money transaction that brought the people together; it was “wefera.” There is no singular English word that fully encompasses what this means. It’s the virtues of a community – seen in action. Wefera exists in all Eritrean communities and is not exclusive to farming. On that day, when I sat on the hill listening to the beautiful chorus, my father told me of the time he spent in his village as a boy when there was ‘wefera’ to build a house for a recently widowed woman. His job was to stand beneath a ladder and hand his uncle handfuls of straw to build a thatched roof. The widow sat on a small stool adjacent to the home that was slowly erected, making ‘kitcha’ (unleavened bread) for those working while encouraging them with repeated blessings for their hard work. Many village members took part in building the home – they took turns and did different jobs while gathering materials from those who had enough to share.
Whether harvesting, building a home, planting, building a road, digging a well, or any other community need – a call to action is made and responded to without question or negotiation. Like my father would share his stories of ‘wefera’, I often share the same with my American-born grandchildren. So many times, I ponder on how, in a culture where they live and every message they receive is about the value of “I,” “Me,” and “Mine,” I capture the value of “We,” “Us,” and “Ours.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with valuing oneself, generations have shown us that ‘wefera’ – a virtue woven and deeply entrenched in our cultures- promotes our relationship with fellow human beings, helping us act beyond our self-interest.
There is often a misunderstanding from those who come from cultures where ‘wefera’ isn’t valued as much as an independent approach to community needs. There are narratives around how much “easier” things would be if a single person or entity met a community need. It is quite the opposite. The relationships, trust, honesty, and integrity of people in communities ensure requirements are met. When we start viewing people as a means for transactional gains, we lose the virtue of ‘wefera’. We question whether it’s genuinely mutual aid – if I show up for someone, will they show up for me? Wefera encourages communities to create their power and exercise it ethically. One person doesn’t sit with all the power. One person doesn’t decide what the community needs. One person doesn’t receive without also giving. So as my grandchildren have recently taught me about hashtags #weferaforever – tell me about your stories of wefera!
At this time, my wefera is #Eritreafightscancer
EAH Magazine June – August 2023