Liberation Theology & Intergenerational Discourse on Eritrea

African liberation theology: Intergenerational conversations on Eritrea’s futures. Ghirmai Negash & Awet T. Weldemichael. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2018. 135 pp.

Analysis by Beyan Negash*

Liberation theology & intergenerational discourse on Eritrea**

Negash and Woldemichael’s (2018) African liberation theology: Intergenerational conversations on Eritrea’s futures is at once about Eritrea and its people situated within historical trajectory that spans back nine decades. By taking the reader back almost a century, the authors are clear eyed in that their objective is to show the following: That Eritrea’s “exceptional” mindset that has had its intrinsic value during the protracted (three decades) war should stay confined in that historical frame of time despite the near unanimous public support it garnered in the duration it took for the sovereignty of Eritrea to become a reality; and by traveling back in time four-decades from this important historical marker of struggle for independence the authors layout for the reader to see the ill-fated experience of colonialism and its impact on the psyche of Eritreans.

Colonialism was no different in its barbarism and in its savagery though it may have certain characteristics that might make it unique, meriting “exceptionalism”. Examining the quarter of a century since independence, there, too, the authors argue no signs of “exceptionalism” as they exhaustively show oppression and repression of Eritreans by their homemade tyranny having all signs of malevolence that the rest of African countries continue to suffer from. The scratching of one’s wounds in order to claim exceptionalism is tantamount to a victimized mentality out of which there can be no cure (a subject matter of chapter 4 which will be addressed at the end of this analysis). Therefore, the book seems to suggest that Eritreans need to come to grips with this unembellished fact and come to the continent of Africa, to their roots and theorize, conceptualize, grounded in the unvarnished blackness of Eritrea.

Claiming African heritage rooted in Eritrea’s unique cultural and religious traditions can serve as the elixir that binds the multicultural, multilingual, and multi-religious society together. The latter is one thematic thread that runs through this book based on an antiquarian novel, originally written in 1927 in Tigrinya, which Negash (2013) translated. From The conscript, the authors reference the Catholic tradition, where truth-to-power are spoken in favor of the downtrodden in advancing the cause for social justice, hence for invoking “African Liberation Theology”. Once grounded in this, appropriating and claiming back the tradition would not be that difficult to see about theorizing and conceptualizing Pan Africanism vis-à-vis Eritrea, the last chapter of which grapples with this very issue. But, synthesizing the first three chapters is in order here.

At the outset, what a reader finds compelling is the effective use of temporality, that unique human attribute, the keen ability to travel back and forth in time instantaneously, which Heidegger’s (1927) Being and Time gives ample treatment of. This unique disposition brings forth ontology (the nature of our being) and axiology (the inherent values we see in tradition and religion, the subject of chapter 1). The former, because Negash & Woldemichael (2018) throughout the book advocate going back to the sense of being Eritreans rooted in their cultural and traditional religious practices that served the people for millennia. The latter, because values inhered in such tradition-centered within African way of seeing the world will induce stability, avoiding the risk of existential threat that the current trajectory seems to be headed towards. Therefore, the two strands of ideas that the authors inject to push Eritreans out of the ashes of thirty years war for independence (1961-1991) and its attendant notion of exceptionalism are: (1) appropriating philosophies of “liberation theology”; (2) theorizing through the Pan Africanism. Once these are accomplished, the authors hope will not only generate conversations between and among Eritreans, but also that Eritrea remains grounded in its African heritage.

But, of course, this is easier said than done. It requires scholarship, tenacity, exhaustive research, and African liberation theology: Intergenerational conversations on Eritrea’s futures has all that and more. The meticulous way in which Negash and Woldemichael (2018) develop their arguments to make their readers conceive along with them in that nuanced space of fine distinction in how colonialism impacted each country within the African continent distinctly is stated unambiguously: “The history of the African postcolonial landscape is far from uniform, as different independent states have made different choices with differing results. The record of successes and failures also differ not only between countries but also within the same country contingent on the successive governments that held power after independence” (p. 2). The blame doesn’t just stay on the colonial side of Europe but also on the colonized elites who subsequently inherited a nation-state to do right by their people. There, too, they show the failure of the postcolonial leaders on many fronts: “…the post-colonial ruling elite has fallen grotesquely short in the implementation of the nationalist aspirations for and promises of democratic governance, administration of justice, and the respect of human rights. That seems to be especially the case in the colonies that decolonized through protracted armed struggles” (p. 2). Hence, they seamlessly bring us – squarely – to Eritrea, elaborations of which are sprinkled in chapters 1, 2, 3, & 4.

Whereas Fr. Gebreyesus Hailu in The conscript (1927/1950) “lamented the silence of his community’s religious leaders in the face of colonial injustice” (p. 1) as he loudly cried: “our priests, why don’t you speak out” (as cited on p. 1) instead of in complicity acquiescing and pandering in favor of Italian colony against Libyan people (Africans). Similarly, in neighboring Sudan, a novelist grappled with the wrath of British colonialism and its aftermath likening it to transmittable disease. Tayeb Salih’s (1966) novel, Season of migration to the north, originally written in Arabic, was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies into English in 1969. In the introduction to the novel, Lalami captures this essence: “Colonialism is repeatedly described in language that evokes violent infection, a declaration of freedom from which will not suffice to guarantee good health” (p. xiii). This lack of having a common language by which, in this case, East Africans can communicate with, one could easily see how it was a hindrance from which the entire Horn of Africa still suffers from, if not the whole continent.

Consider the works of some of the notable writers from the neighboring countries: Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986) Decolonising the mind; Tayib Saleh’s (1969) Season of migration to the north; Hailu’s (1950) The conscript – resurrected from Eritrea’s ashes by Negash (2013). The list is too long to enumerate here, but the rest of Africa, from North to South; from West to the Central part of Africa, much as Negash was able to resurrect a novel written in 1927, it just leaves one to wonder what else might be lurking beneath the dust that the colonialists left behind when they left Africa. Just to shed some light, let’s consider the following literature markers:

Tayeb Salih captures the above notion succinctly: “He [the unnamed narrator in Season] criticizes [and] predicts the rise of an authoritarian bourgeois class that will pick up where the colonial powers left off, and describes the disappointment that soon followed independence” (p. xiii). In another thread in the book, the main protagonist, Mustafa Saeed tells the narrator this powerfully articulated, deeply held conviction and awareness of the damage that colonialism injected into Sudanese people: “The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say ‘Yes’ in their language” (p. 79). Not only such awareness but also that resistance to such wrath ought to be made inevitable is seen in Hailu’s Conscript and in Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the mind. It is worth noting further how Saleh’s main protagonist, Mustafa Saeed’s narration punctuates the far-reaching consequence of colonialism: “They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence … the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history. ‘I am no Othello. Othello was a lie.’” (p. 79).

This kind of political awareness is incommensurate with novels of the West, which tended to see Africans in need of civilizing. Consider Shakespeare’s (1622) Othello, where the Moore of Morocco is depicted as a strong military man but emotionally impish and childlike who is incapable of controlling his feelings of inadequacy when it came to his wife, where manipulability was easily tenderable. Edward Said’s (1978) Orientalism, seminal work of scholarship does capture this Hollywood typecast which the West never tires from depicting the Arab characters as morons, mindless, fanatics to which Clifford (1986) references in his analysis of Said’s work. The notions of “eternal and unchanging East, the sexually insatiable Arab, corrupt despotism, mystical religiosity…the paternalist privileges unhesitatingly assumed by Western writers…who know more than its mere natives ever can” (p. 258). Joseph Conrad’s (1899) The heart of darkness, in which Congolese Africans are depicted as brute savages is another example of inaccurate depictions, the worldview of which that the colonial West see their subjects. Negash & Woldemichael (2018) bring forth sources outside the continent of Africa and beyond. Suffice it to mention just two for the purposes of this review: (1) Edward Said’s (1978) Orientalism that challenges the West’s scholarship akin to what Negash & Woldemichael are helping Eritreans grapple with in this pivotal scholarly work, which will put Eritreans out of the stagnant morass we find ourselves in vis-à-vis our inability to go past the thirty-year war for independence. African liberation theology jolts the reader to wake up from that Rip Van Winkle-like stupor.

Negash & Woldemichael delve deeply in a matter of fact way through temporal means bringing their readers back to 2014 in which the Eritrean Catholic Church’s pastoral letter (p. 9) from within Eritrean proper spoke truth-to-power unambiguously to the state of disarray that Eritrea is in. Woldemichael, for example, acknowledges that “Eritrean priests and sheikhs proved to be reservoirs of inherited wisdom [which were continually] passed on to subsequent generations” (p. 11). But, this tradition was interrupted due to “European colonialism and modern intellectual[ism]” (p. 11), to which the Catholic Church seemed to be immune. The pastoral letter titled “Where is your brother?” the authors argue is what makes them conceptualize the African Liberation Theory.

The authors leave no stones unturned as they pull sources from Arabic language productions that Eritrean Muslim clerics in diaspora espouse. In fact, the strength of this book lies in the variations of the sources which the authors go at length to bring to their readers. Translated works of Tigrinya, eye witness accounts, etc. Such vastly sourced work of contextualizing and historicizing gives a window’s frame for chapter two; which in turn installs the door of knowledge for chapter three to put the final touch of the foundation of the house of discourse that they continue to build as they prepare their readers for chapter 4. Chapter 4, in my estimate, is the most compelling concept that merits and deserves a lengthier discussion, to which I now at once turn.

The last chapter addresses the question of collective Eritrean identity. What it is that Eritreans want their identity to be moving forward. The aim is clearly forward looking. Negash (2018) states it so in “what role the nation wants to play as a legitimate member of the African community of nations and the global community at large [while acknowledging that] Eritrea’s image today is essentially that of an angry, isolated, and alienated African country that is neither at peace with itself nor with the world” (p. 71). This notion of exceptionalism in its negative connotation as a nation bruised, wounded, and abused by the world at large in general and by its larger neighboring country Ethiopia, in particular, has been milked dry. The regime at the helm of power in Eritrea continues to play that victim role, keeping loyal diaspora followers in line.

What chapter four does is create a site of contention where Eritreans across generations to begin to think and theorize based on their African heritage common to the majority of other Africans: The colonial, postcolonial, and revolutionary struggles that characterize most of the African countries, which was and is the story of Eritrea as well. This is where the book shines in that, “…it is a necessary … Eritrea’s present and future identities are theorized through a Pan-Africanist critique that emerges from a broder understanding of the continent’s experience of decolonization” (p. 74). But, what this seasoned scholar does is akin to an epic poetry where it generally starts in medias res, in the middle, knowing he is having a conversation with an emerging scholar as a co-author, by extension to all Eritreans in diaspora who care to read his work. Akin to that of Dante’s “Inferno”, he appears to be saying “midway of their life’s journey” the country may have led them “astray”, but hope will be restored if these younger generation ground their Eritreanity in their “African” and “black identity”. He adds for a measure: “[a]…perspective of Eritrean selfhood, which is fractured, wounded, directionless, and sliding down the misguided path of isolationism” (p. 77), but it is in the acknowledgment of this where it all must start. He certainly owns up to that fallible state of being by making it as his own. Eritreans the author seems to suggest that we are finding ourselves “in dark woods, the right road lost” (I. 1-2), but there is time to yet for us to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps; we may have missed it in “one place” but we must continue the “search” in “another” as Walt Whitman’s “Song of myself” asserts. Searching within ourselves is where the answer to the enigma lies, not outside ourselves as the regime at the helm of power wants us to believe. Negash is adamant in his determination as he poses questions for all of his readers to grapple with:

“…How do we define our identity in relation to our history, in relation to Africa, and by extension to the new and old black diaspora – and the world at large? Can we, for example, unequivocally embrace our African-ness without being consumed by a sense of alienation suffered in the name of exceptionalism? It neither make up for the loss of identity nor provides real substance for building mature alternative for self-identification. Alternatively, can we develop different images about ourselves and the country by, for example, tapping into our useful and usable past constructively?”

It is in answering these blunt questions where we will be able to begin the healing process from that “exceptionalism” wound that should’ve expired with the realization of Eritrea as a nation-state in 1991. Alas, we are grappling with it now, because the Asmara’s colossal leadership failure at governance has taken the journey of freedom through endless twists and turns. There is a lot that can be unpacked from this chapter, let alone from the entire book. One can do chapter-by-chapter analysis and would end up writing a book about the book. Therefore, the hope and the intention here is for awate readers to grab hold of the book, it will be a treat to which you will go back to from time to time, because there is so much that can be said about it.

Suffice it to close this lengthy analysis with the following: At every epoch in the history of the West, there had been awe inspiring individuals who wielded the power of the pen changing the norms of the day, thereby, strengthening the lot of the individual, by extension the health of the nation. For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, fictional novel, considered to be magnum opus that challenged the Bostonians’ Puritan mindset of its time using legalism, sin, and guilt. Or Invisible Man does not only transcend several epochs at once, but also revives the picaresque as a window of opportunity to the middle-class life of America that was severely restricted to Black Americans. Among many authors that Ellison incorporates is that of Langston Hughues’ poem, “Let America Be America Again,” four lines of which read Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed/Let it be that great strong land of love/When never kings connive nor tyrants scheme/That any man be crushed by one above.” Eritrea, too, can be that country where Eritreans dreamed about, a country that can embrace its mosaic cultures, traditions, religions, genders, regions, tribes, ethnicities. This book certainly gives this reader that kind of hope.


*As sheer coincidence would have it, this writer and the co-author Negash share the same last name. No relation.

**Three things one will immediately find striking when grabbing hold of this book are: (1) The oft used metaphor in how one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover being subverted, ironically, by a book cover. Sometimes, books must be judged by their cover. In a society like Eritrea where people originate from mosaic cultural background with multiple languages spoken, multiple religions practiced, and multiple ethnic compositions to boot, it is only inherent for the cover page of the book to be reflective of such an assortment; of course, relative to the subject matter that the book tackles. Symbols and landmarks adorn the cover page that captures the mosaic nature of the people of Eritrea.  (2). The title of the book contains the term “liberation theology,” conceptions of which are well known in Latin America, hence the reader’s mind is transported there, but the seeds of intellectual curiosity are planted in the reader’s mind promptly. (3). And then, there is “intergenerational conversation,” embedded within the subtitle that the two authors are an embodiment of such conversation: Ghirmai Negash is the seasoned scholar and Awet Weldemichael is an emerging scholar in his own right, but again, this, too, transports one to an artistic intergenerational collaboration. In 2017, the Eritrean music scene, for example, was caught by the storm when a duo came out with a song, one seasoned and the other emerging, which has garnered almost four million hits on YouTube (here) so far. This reviewer has written an article highlighting the importance of such intergenerational collaboration (here) when the song first came out. Seeing such dynamism in the world of literature is riveting, the cover page alone brings forth multitude of questions, the first one of which is this:  How will Negash & Weldemichael (2018) be reconciling these variants, given the multiplicity of religions and denominations within each religion in existence in Eritrea? The juxtaposing of the cover page with the title leaves any reader not only wondering how that would be possible, but also prompting him/her to delve at once to the contents of the book, to which I suggest you hurry-on and do.


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