Eritrean Graffiti – A Tale of Life Under Tyranny

This article by Ahmed Raji “Events Monitor’ was originally published on on September 6, 2003..

 I look in the mirror and see a bunch of gray hair emerging – uninvited. A few months later it takes the form of a full-scale invasion. I am rather taken aback, for, even though I knew it would make its inevitable advent one day, I didn’t expect it that soon; certainly not with such ferocity!

Of late, I am starting to notice that things are changing fast around me. This is a paradoxical phenomenon in the land of the gobiye (the fabled tortoise[1]), where events normally proceed in a leisurely tempo. I look around me and see my office mate has developed a few fresh wrinkles around her eyes, my neighbor has suddenly acquired a stooped posture, and the old vintage suits donned by the men in my favorite cafe look even more worn-out.

In the Eritrea of today, where the burden of one crisis after another is mercilessly weighing down on people, the rapid deterioration in the material and emotional wellbeing of our society cannot escape the eye. The sudden increase in the number of beggars, the women in the late hours of the night – their infant babies sleeping on their backs – struggling to sell their meager merchandise of cigarettes, chewing gum and boiled eggs; the skinny boys you pass by on the country road, the villages that are devoid of any able-bodied men, the fields that remain unattended …

As the turtle continues its excruciatingly slow journey, the wagon of misery has gained momentum. While demobilization is put off indefinitely, leaving a whole generation of young men and women desperately counting the days in the wilderness, the entire population is aging in fast-forward, and standards of living have taken a nose dive. So, after all, not everything is slow in Eritrea. Is this, in some strange way, supposed to be consoling?

It is a time of conflicting desires, where a mother one moment wishes the clock would tick faster so her conscripted husband may return home, and in the next she dreads the very passage of time for it reminds her of the looming prospect of her only remaining child reaching conscription age. Oh, that ominous certainty!  “Come sit inside, you lanky, good-for-nothing,” shouts my sister, cursing the ill-timed, undesirably long-legged physique of my nephew. Although just 13, he was caught up in the round-ups of last summer before being released when the authorities grudgingly accepted proof of his real age, in the form of a birth certificate which his mother had produced. It is a sad irony that we have lived to witness a time when one curses, rather than rejoices at, the spectacle of watching one’s own child grow! How many of us are familiar with the fact that these days families deliberately tell their children to do poorly in the school exams to avoid progressing to the next grade, and thereby delay, as long as possible, their dreaded disappearance into Sawa’s dark recesses? A fact that every Eritrean knows, but, nonetheless, mysteriously escapes the attention of the engineers of the so-called education policy!

These unlucky youngsters cannot escape the watchful eyes of the party vigilante, either, who zealously monitor the comings and goings of the neighborhood youth and duly report to their bosses any ‘suspicious’ situation. One such zealot (the mother of a popular female singer) is terrorizing Geza Banda. She is known for making the rounds of the neighborhood houses in search of some incriminating evidence. And wo unto the family that is caught still sheltering a son or a daughter … “ናይ ድሓን ድዪ ደኣ እዚ ቆልዓ ክሳብ ሕጂ ጸኒሑ? ዕረፍቲ ኣይወደአን ድዩ?”

* * *

Many of you in the Diaspora must be wondering how, indeed, fellow Eritreans back home are able to cope with the hellish situation in which they find themselves. How do they carry on with everyday life? How do they survive life under tyranny? What makes them persist? Is it possible to be encountering, on a daily basis, every imaginable adversity – harassment, abuse, imprisonment, pain, loss of loved ones, economic hardship, uncertainty – and yet go on with daily life as usual? Is it really possible to live in a state of constant subjection to terror and intimidation without losing one’s sanity? (Surely enough, for many the pressure has been too much to bear. You only need to sit in a sidewalk cafe in Asmara and watch the world pass by, to realize the ever increasing number of such anguished souls roaming the streets). How is it possible to overcome or restrain the deep anger one feels because of injustice, without being able to openly express one’s indignation? Could it be that Eritreans have become masters of compartmentalized thinking?

Naturally, under such circumstances, people resort to various kinds of survival mechanisms (physical as well as psychological), and Eritreans are no exception. One such mechanism is humor. It is not surprising, hence, that political satire is flourishing in Eritrea. Some of the jokes are really sharp and imaginative. Consider, for example, the following:

A delegation of Eritrean elders (shimaglle) was sent to meet God to plead for rain. At the gates of heaven, the delegation addresses God. They report that for the preceding couple of years the rains had not visited their country and the harvest had failed that year too. God looked into his books and then reached for a map and asked the delegation where on the map their country was. The envoys pointed to Eritrea’s location on the map. Here, a sign of astonishment appeared on God’s face. He said rather perplexedly: “but I see green all over the place; your country appears to be lush with crops!”  “Oh Almighty God”, said the emissaries, “what you see is not crop fields; these are our children in green military uniform.”

In another witty line, a young man dies after an exceptionally arduous life in the military service. At his funeral, the commander of his unit loudly reads his obituary: “ስዉእ ብጻይ ብዝሓደሮ ሕማም …” (Martyr comrade, due to illness …) starts the commander, when the departed suddenly raises his head and interjects: “ሓንሳብ ኣብዚኣ መአረምታ፡ ብዘሕደርናሉ ሕማም ደኣ በል!” (Oh, wait. You should rather say: due to the illness we gave him).

I have my favorite one too, which goes like this: Three men, an Eritrean, an American and a German were chatting over a cup of tea. The German says “medical surgery in my country is so advanced the things that are happening are really amazing. We had this crippled child who underwent a groundbreaking surgery and a few years later he was jumping like a horse. And you know what, he has become a famous sprinter and Olympic medalist!”  “Wow!” said the American, “that’s quite a story! Actually, I know about a similar case in the US, which is not less startling. A child was born without hands. The doctors took bones and muscle tissue from his legs and gave him a pair of wonderful hands. And what’s his condition now? He is the middleweight boxing champion.” “Incredible!” said everybody in amazement. Then the two turned to the Eritrean and asked: “what about your country; do you have a story to share?”

“You will not believe what I will tell you” began the Eritrean with evident enthusiasm to show off the marvels of medical technology in his country. “A child was born without a head. Our doctors were puzzled as to what to do about him. One ingenious doctor finally suggested that a piece of “Akkat” should be transplanted in place of the missing head. Miraculously the trick worked and the boy survived. He grew up and went to school like all children”. “And how is he doing now? Is he still alive?” asked the startled listeners. “He is well and sound. He is actually doing so well that he has become President of our nation”, replied the Eritrean with a sheepish smile. [By the way, the last one is believed to have been hatched by high school students during last year’s summer campaign].

And how can I forget what has become a masterpiece of all contemporary political satire in Eritrea – the unenviable task, assigned to Eritrean families, of incessantly manufacturing new children for the ever-hungry Sawa! But ‘Nehmya’ has said it all, and I can only refer you to his brilliantly hilarious cartoons.

The absurdity of Government officials as they give confused and sometimes laughable statements to the media or in meetings, presents a rich source of political humor. Consider for example when the Minister of Education, Osman Saleh, called on foreign nationals to send their children to be schooled in Sawa, or Weddi Kasa’s lecture to Government employees as he compared patriotism in Eritrea to that in the United States. “ንሕና’ኮ ብልጫታት ኣለና። ኣመሪካውያን ካብ ፈቀዶ ዓለም ዝተኣኻኸቡ እዮም፡ ንሕና ኤርትራውያን ግን ምስ መሬትና ዘለና ምትእስሳር ካብ ጥንቲ ዝጸነሐ ስለ ዝኾነ: ሃገራውነትና ፍሉይ’ዩ።” In a seminar to party members, Zemehret classified most of the external world into two categories: those who envy us (ቀናኣት), and those who wish to control us! Such entertaining statements are abundant thanks to our politicians, which greatly facilitates the job of satirists.

Recently, a fresh impetus has been added to the Eritrean satirical scene from a source no other than Geometra Issayas. Yes, this is a title that Il Presidente has acquired lately by virtue of his well-publicized escapades in Massawa. A hat-clad Issayas, giving orders for demolishing houses, is by now a well-recognized fixture in the Massawa landscape. Not only that. The man is an authority in everything from road construction to horticulture, and from tourism to football. He is constantly seen dispensing his expert advice all over the place. An amiche friend of mine told me it reminds him of Mengstu’s last days, when things got mixed up in his head and started roaming the country in a helicopter, personally administering agricultural policy. He would land at some expansive plain and instruct his entourage: ከዚህ ወደዛ ማዶ ጣፍ ዝሩት፤ ከዛ ወደ ሰሜን ያለው ደሞ ስንዴ (plant teff from here all the way to the horizon, and from there northwards, cultivate wheat), and would quickly board his chopper heading for another unfortunate part of the country.

Not surprisingly, the most popular PFDJ slogan has received its fair share of sarcasm. The Hade hzbi, hade lbbi! (one people, one heart!) motto has now various extensions, one of which is: Hade hzbi, Hade lbbi, Hanti gazetta!, (one people, one heart, one newspaper!) in reference to the boringly desolate media scene, with the one and only newspaper reporting seminars, announcements of court cases and obituaries. Why would we need more than one paper anyway? Aren’t we one hzbi?

And no one has articulated the resentment that Eritreans feel for the PFDJ better than wed Jabr[1] who, as he roamed the streets of Barentu, used to exclaim: adig motu eb mendef, wo addam motu eb hgdef (donkeys die of food poisoning and people die because of PFDJ).

Remember the clenched fist, pointed skyward, which used to appear in the posters and pamphlets of the liberation struggle era? This fist has recently taken on monumental dimensions. In one recent poster, it is portrayed as a huge monster cracking through the ground – soviet-art style. Now there is a massive sculpture too, which Zemehret and his studious disciples always make sure that, every time there is a festival or an official celebration, it is dutifully placed in the most well-frequented of public places. Imagine a monstrous, clenched fist, complete with bloated veins, towering over your head as you take your usual stroll in kombushtato. Now, officially, this heroic fist is supposed to symbolize awet nHafash (victory to the masses) or bQltsimna (with our own muscle), or something to that effect. To the ordinary Eritrean, however, it’s just another tasteless and arrogant symbol of the PFDJ. Actually, folks give it their own sarcastic interpretations. This is one of them: አዚኣ አንታይ ምዃና ትፈልጡ ዲኹም? (Do you know what this symbolizes?) asks the now-famous line: ትኾርምየኒ ከየጣይሰኩም! ማለትያ (you’ll never be demobilized! Not under my watch!).

While we are on it, the long-awaited and elusive miTiyas (demobilization) has naturally inspired many cracks. ምጥያስን መንግስተ ሰማያትን ሰሚዕናሎም እምበር ርእይናዮም አይንፈልጥን (demobilization, like heaven, is only heard of, not seen), has now become a household maxim.

If demobilization was the ultimate illusion, social security has been a straight taboo for the last 12 years. By now, the fact that Eritrea is probably the only country in the entire planet without a system of social security is common knowledge. The subject has been mysteriously ignored by this government to the dismay of all salaried Eritreans both aged and young. Of late, the government started talking about studies (mexnaeti) that are underway to establish a pension scheme for public employees. “Aha, now that they are approaching retirement age, it suddenly dawned on them that there is such a thing as pension!” joked a friend of mine, when he was told about this.

* * *

Another tool Eritreans are using to release some of their frustrations is graffiti. Wall writings appear from time to time in different parts of Asmara, but are instantly removed by the police. An inscription in big letters with the words ይአኽለካ ውረድ! (y’aKleka wred! Enough! Step down!) and አይመረጽናካን! (aymerexnakan! we never voted for you!) was in sight long enough to be read by thousands of Settanta Otto residents before being whitewashed by the Security. Since then (and of course the bombing incidents against PFDJ premises), night patrols have been increased to cover virtually every street corner in the city.

Folks, however, still find avenues for writing their inspired captions. One handy venue is in the bathrooms of cafes and bars. A few months ago, I stumbled across one of them. It read like this: ኣንቱም መንግስትና ትብሉ ዘለኹም፡ ንዓና በሊዑ ምስ ወደአ፡ ናባኹም ስለዝኾነ፡ ኣይትዓሽዉ!  (Those of you foolishly cheering  “our government”, don’t forget that once they are done devouring us, they will turn on you). From there on, I made it a habit to look for new inscriptions hidden in unexpected places, and I found lots of them. Here is a sampling:

  • ዋርሳይ ዋርሳይ አይትበሉና፡ ጥራይ አጣይሱና (Don’t call us Warsai, just give us our release papers)
  • ምዓስ ኣዩ እቲ ሩፍታ?!  (when will we find peace at last?)
  • ስቃይ ይደምደም! (Let suffering end!)
  • ጸማም መንግስቲ! (Deaf government)
  • ህግደፍ = ኢሰፓ (PFDJ = EWP, the latter being the ruling party of the Ethiopian Derg);


My best moments (which I used to call my little window of free speech), were those rare occasions when I took a ride in the same bus as a very exceptional old man, I will refer to here as Abboy Hdru. The late hour bus journeys bound for the various outlying neighborhoods of Asmara are, indeed, fun to be on board. These are buses full of working men, who, after a long, exhausting day, would make the journey home in an entertainingly sarcastic ambiance. A vaguely flirtatious banter is going on between a group of boisterous men on one side and the ticket lady, cheered by two women passengers, on the other. The theme is the changing gender relations. ኣንታ ናይ ለምዘበን ሰብኡትሲ፡ ኣውደኣመት ምድሪ ዋላ ደርሆ’ኳ ሒዝኩም ከይተኣትዉሲ: ጥራሕ ኢድኩም?! ኣኽእሎ ጥራይ ይሃበን ኣንስትኹም! teases the conductor in response to a verbal punch hurled by one of her adversaries.  ወይ ዘረባ! replies the man: ደርሆ ሎሚ ትልከፍ እንተ ኾይና፡ እስኪ ባዕልኺ ፈትንያ፡፡

Obviously, some of these men had made a quick stop at one of the local liquor houses before taking the last available bus, which adds to the hilarity (and, of course, boldness) of their banter. Abboy Hdru was one of those. He looked in his late sixties/early seventies, a man burning with anger, yet hilariously witty. I gleaned from his various monologues that he had lost a son to the liberation struggle and had at the time several children in the front, some of whom he had not heard from.

ፍትሒ ዘይፈልጡ፡ ኣራዊት!  (They never understand justice. Wild beasts!) he would burst out. Now all passengers listen attentively, and despite the guarded, silent postures, cultivated by long years of state-administered terror, you can see a glow of approval in the eyes of everybody. It is as if Abboy Hdru is speaking for everyone; as if, in his rant, all the passengers have found their lost voice.

ሎምስ፡ ካብኦም ዝገድድ ጨካን ኣረሜን ረኺብዎም፡፡ ኣድግስ ካብ ምሟቱ ምጉታቱ! he would exclaim.

ትማሊ ኣብ ዝተኻየደ ሰሚናር፡ ህዝቢ ንኡስ ዞባ ሓመልማሎ … starts the news presenter of dmxi Haffash (the omnipresent, mandatory entertainment on all buses), when Abboy Hdru quickly butts in: ሓሰውቲ! … መታለልቲ!

The last time I saw Abboy Hdru was about a year ago. I never saw him since, and the 9:30 journey to Sembel has never been the same! I don’t know what happened to Abboy Hdru. Did the dawn visitors finally caught up with him, or did he fall under the burden of his own bitter sorrow? .. .. Abboy Hdru, Where are you?

[1] Our tyrant is fond of reminding us time and again that ours is a long journey full of sacrifices; we maybe proceeding at a pace akin to that of a tortoise, but our eventual glory is certain! (The tortoise is now securely placed in the pantheon of PFDJ mythical beings).


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