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Cabbages and Kings and Why the Sea is Boiling Hot – VI

The time has come,” the Walrus said – “To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot – And whether pigs have wings”
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll 

 

The time has come to pause and consider readers’ reactions so far to this series. A few were made on this website and a considerable lot addressed to my email. I tried my best to respond thankfully to the comments, and if I have somehow failed in some cases I apologize for the oversight and hereby thank them at this juncture.  The most serious editorial flaws indicated were in one instance relayed to the Awate Team who kindly updated the text.  There was only one disparaging barely intelligible comment which had to be ignored. I found some comments worthy of further elaboration and explanation on my part and I hope the following will serve the purpose.

 

Affirmative Action

 

I mentioned[1] this term in connection with actions that need to be taken to make up for past wrongs and the glaring imbalance in the distribution of public offices, and more importantly to the uneven socio-economic development between highland and lowland Eritrea. I suppose “Affirmative Action” got the status of a catch phrase under the Ronald Reagan Administration. It includes specific programs ranging from employment and education to public contracting and health care designed to improve the social and economic position of women and minorities.  It aims “… to maximize diversity in all levels of society, along with its presumed benefits, and to redress perceived disadvantages due to overt, institutional, or involuntary discrimination …”  (View:  affirmative action)

 

The NAACP is considered as a campaign for affirmative action and various ethnic groups such as the Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) have been formed to lobby for the benefits under this program.  That it has delivered considerably towards its aims in the United States is beyond doubt.  Women earn now 57% of college degrees, hold 49.8% of jobs and make 75% of buying decisions in the American home[2].  The Afro-Americans have visibly crowded the mass media and hold prominent places in the American public life – a far cry from the reality as recent as 30 years ago.  The recent Nobel Peace Prize conferred on President Obama is also interpreted as a symbolic recognition of the success of America in this respect.

 

The Americans use the term affirmative action to refer to the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which in turn endorses the US affirmative action program.  Article 2 of the ICERD includes the following.

 

Parties are obliged “when the circumstances so warrant” to use affirmative action policies for specific racial groups to guarantee “the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

 

In short, affirmative action is a human rights endeavor that has attained international recognition and endorsement. Eritrea is a signatory of ICERD but predictably for the current regime does not recognize the competence of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a body of human rights experts tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Convention.

 

On the other hand opinion in the US is now evolving into the view that affirmative action has served its purpose.  The opponents, mostly white citizens, condemn it as giving cause to reverse discrimination, while some from the Afro-American elite deem it counterproductive in that it is weakening the black community drive for competitiveness.  I presume it must be within this context that Ali Salim rebuffed affirmative action as a philanthropic gesture or a hand out of privileges by one social group to another[3]. We do have “uneducated sehabti-gemel” in Lowland Eritrea, but it takes a mind preoccupied with dexterity in hyperbole to suggest that all Lowlanders are uneducated.

 

I qualified the term with “our version” to denote that affirmative action as practiced in the US, while relevant, is not measure enough. A practical application of affirmative action, say in employment, assumes the candidacy of two or more people who meet minimum qualification standards.   Priority is then given either to a woman or one from a minority ethnic group.  In our case Muslims are by no means a minority.  Furthermore in a country where illiteracy abounds and social and economic infrastructure are poorly distributed, concurrent steps need to be taken to ensure that all members of the society have equal access to the opportunity to be competitive.  In this respect I have mentioned in the same posting concrete measures undertaken since independence, not so much as to give the devil his due, but to reassure ourselves that it is not all that doom and gloom.  I would very much appreciate to learn if there is any thing better than affirmative action to rectify the current trauma of alienation – i.e. anything other than armed insurrection which I hope and believe is not implied.

 

Official Language(s)

 

Although weary under an excruciating summer Ramadan, my friend Saleh (Gadi) Johar felt he had to make a pre-emptive swing at my intentions, and declared that I had “views against considering Arabic an official language.”[4]  In deference to the physical and mental affliction he suffered from fasting long hours on end, I took no time to respond and ease his apprehensions.  He in turn reassured me he never doubted my intentions—he had to somehow keep the debate alive. La lutta continua!

 

Since the subject of official language has been debated for so long a time[5] I will try to be as brief as possible.  First of all we have to underline the need to establish an official language or languages, not only as an expression of our heritage and our identity but as a preemptive measure to ward off any Tower of Babel syndrome from setting in.

 

As recent as a century or so ago Tigrinya was considered by Eritrean priests converted evangelists as the “language of robbers and market people, of scandal hungry bitches and quarrelsome drunkards,” [6] and therefore not fit for translating “the Sacred Gospel of God” into. To them and the Coptic clergy of the time Amharic was the preferred language for preaching and propagating the word of God.  Well, since then not only the Gospels but also the whole Bible have been translated into Tigrinya, the language flourished under the British Administration, along with Arabic achieved the status of a national language under the federation, and has finally become the primary working language of the nation since independence.  On the other hand, Arabic scriptures and books were present in Eritrea for centuries, and it was only Arabic speaking people who had access to books on geography, mathematics, astronomy, etc. in their native language.  Moreover a great many of our Muslim compatriots have for a century or so been educated in the Sudan, Egypt and the Middle East and continue to do so now.   

 

No country ever had sufficient educated human resources.  Eritrea must be an exceptionally blighted nation which had to send abroad her children for higher learning for decades on end. After a short-lived blossom in which its only university was beginning to get international recognition it was closed down by a narcissist tyrant with an insidious phobia for higher learning and the educated.  Recognizing Arabic as an official language and putting in place conditions conducive and attractive for the infusion of the best of the educated lot into our administrative structure is not only a question of civil rights but a dire necessity in the drive for professionalism and meritocracy into a sad state of affairs – “mediocracy” is riding high in Eritrea, and Arabic is not an option but a must.

  

The federal constitution imposed on us is not necessarily justification enough to adopt the two languages as our official languages; that logic may render also Amharic as a possible candidate.  What matters most is the will of the people.  Although no polls or referendum of any sort has been carried out to this effect, it can be asserted that Tigrinya and Arabic are the preferred languages by a majority of the people.  This is reinforced by the fact that both are the primary languages PFDJ uses in its pronouncements through the Negarit Gazzette, the press, radio and television, in addition to English.  That makes all three de facto official languages.

 

Moges Tekeste in A Modest Proposal for a Way Out  (September 5, ’09 asmarino.com) makes a strong argument for making English the official language—just to close the debate once for all as the title suggests.  The importance of English as a gateway to learning, international commerce and foreign affairs cannot be exaggerated.  The increasing importance being accorded to it by our Arab neighbors and the rest of the world for that matter underlines this fact.  We have thousands of Eritreans born and brought up abroad with English as a first or second language. If we include English as a third language not only enables smooth assimilation of these potentially useful citizens but also for promoting the socio-economic development of our nation. After all English has always been with us since the British administration—in our schools, banks, news media, our insurance policies; and all our government laws and regulations including the constitution had to be translated into English and published concurrently out of necessity.  Just browse over the prominent Eritrean websites: it is the medium that is keeping the “sea boiling hot” and keeping us in touch with each other whatever our backgrounds.

 

I think fairness demands that we consider also what to do with the other native languages. To tell you frankly I can’t arrive to list them all offhand. Tigre is however by far rapidly gaining ground—not by the design of a super body but by the determination of the users to preserve and promote their culture. Songs, poetry, and literature in general are flourishing.  Books as momentous as the Concordance to the Bible have been translated. It has the added advantage of being the domestic language of a considerable portion of the pro-Arabic population. I have not heard so far of a campaign to make it an official national language. Languages have their own dynamism of rising and falling. Latin, the ruling language of one of the greatest empires in history, is out of circulation now except among a few etymologists and a certain portion of the Catholic clergy. There is no guarantee that Tigrinya itself will maintain its prominence a century or so hence, say in the highly probable regional integration in our part of the world.  All that can be said is that Eritrea would not be an impediment to the development of its diverse languages but an enabling and encouraging ground for the culture conscious in their endeavor.

 

It is recommended that Arabic, English and Tigrinya be adopted as official languages. After all the more languages one can learn the broader one’s outlook becomes. It only demands, among other things, that we need to budget for more certified interpreters and translators – a fact not to be overlooked.

 

The next part of this series will deal with further comments such as the Land Fetish and a proposal brought up to my notice by a reader – to transform Eritrea into a federation of states!

 

mengstm@yahoo.com

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[1] See Part II of this series

[2] TIME issue of Oct. 28, 2009 – Cover Story

[3] See Within an Arm’s Reach” of Aug 19 ’09

[4] Last but one paragraph of “Confusion: Opposition or Resistance” of 09-09-09 – he really knows how to choose the oddest of dates in the millennium to launch his diatribe against gossip mongers and kick-off the polemics of opposition versus resistance.

[5] Oops! Saleh (Gadi) Johar has come up with Like An Aged Wine to give the debate the intellectual coup de grace.  I hope he won’t object if I have my say.

[6] Quoted in Gustave Arẻn, 1978, Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia by EFS fỏrlaget, UpsStockholm, page 332

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