The Era Of Chaos: The Flag
In the previous portion, we read that the British trained and formed a local police force and made sure that the force they should not interfere or get involved in politics. In cities and towns carried guns but batons, on the countryside they carried guns. They were village men with village roots and the gun and what it could do affected them. The people led by the monk, the Sheik and woman were peaceful people at their core and were sensitive to anything associated with violence; and the gun was a tool for violence.
Still the British did not stop there; they also wanted to give the people their national symbol, a flag. Rather than do it themselves, the British asked the elders from across the land for ideas on what the flag would look like. Myriad of ideas started to flow partly due to the locals not knowing what a flag was and what it signified. Some wanted Moon and Crescent in the flag because it signifies their faith. Others wanted Cross in the flag for the same reason. As for the color no one had any idea but white was named more than anything else. A smart elder came up with an idea of a dove as a symbol of peace thinking both people of both faiths would agree. For every suggestion the British provided pros and cons until a group of intelligent Moslems and Christians suggested an olive branch on a blue background citing the sea and peace. Initially the women were quiet because they wanted to give the men chance to do something useful and memorable. Of course they were amused by some of the suggestions because not only were they divisive but also negligent. To the idea of olive branch they instantly felt in love and were seized by it. Why not? Blue color that signified water meant life to the woman who had to break her back and strain her knees to fetch water. Olive branch meant not only peace but purity to her for it reminded her of her favorite olive stem that she used to cleanse her teeth and freshen her breath. In that land what the women liked, the men liked and every one started saying it is the most beautiful thing “Nsa iya tsbkti” they saw in a long time. When the British sensed the consensus and happiness they subcontracted the flag making task to the local tailors who in no time produced hundreds of them, and the flag was officially raised for everyone to see.
Finally the British, who were relegated to a lower status in the world after the Great War succumbed to American pressure and allowed the king to start the process of annexing Eritrea.
The king could easily have got what he most wanted for his country: access to the sea. But once he got the nod from the Americans he became greedy and wanted the whole of Eritrea. Had his demand was only for sea access, Eritrean people would have happily given him a piece of land on the southern coast of the Red sea, close to Bab-El-Mendeb. Not that giving a piece of their land was easy but because naturally they valued peace and good neighborliness that would have overcome their temptation to resist. Both countries would have benefited by relying on one another’s strengths. Ethiopia was a big country with large population and had fertile land. Eritrea was a land of very skilled people that were capable of producing many items the Ethiopians needed. And above all both would have lived in peace and harmony, a rare commodity in the continent of Africa.
The British administrator was instructed by his seniors in Britain to facilitate the Ethiopian king’s ambitions. He was also given short timetable. He had to forget his humble and honest ambitions for the people of Eritrea because he needed his title and he was also trained to obey.
In short time he was able to identify the weaknesses in the Eritrean men. When he allowed them to form parties the men formed myriad of parties not on principle but on whims. He also observed them bickering on trivial things. He was intelligent and experienced administrator and he knew the root cause. He concluded the men were still lodged in village ideas and village sentiments. They were not freed from it. Even though there were few capable of surmounting the drag most were deeply immersed in it. Not that it was a bad thing in itself, but was a weakness that could easily be exploited. But the administrator was also aware of the woman and her strength. He was not able to penetrate her thoughts but he knew she was the thread that held the fabric of the society. He knew that even if she did not become an instant threat for sure she would be a thorn in the side in times to come. It was not only her directness and hard work that baffled him. Rather it was her inner strength, unflappable character and incorruptible faith.
The British administrator told the king everything he needed to know about the men and in particular the women. The king knew the woman. He had her history and stories. So the king came with a novel idea that he thought would convince the woman. He believed if he could convince the woman all Eritrea would be his own domain without resorting to violence or bloodshed.
His first propaganda was “Ethiopia the mother, wanted to unite with Eritrea the daughter”. The women took this as an affront to their motherhood and started campaigning fiercely by saying “we are not daughters of anybody. We are mothers.” What the king said could not be taken back because he was a king. Nobody dared give him feedback and some even lied to him and said, “The Eritrean woman liked it. She is in our side.” Believing what was said to him he encouraged them to continue the propaganda through every possible means and in all dialects. But the more the propaganda intensified the more upset and agitated became the women. The woman’s state of mind started to affect the men because any thing that upset a woman was magnified in the man’s behavior.
The men were already divided before the king started his usurpation plan. They did not realize how much and in short time they created chaos and mistrust among themselves. When they went their own way and formed myriad political parties they thought it was like forming a sporting club just like soccer where players shook hands at the end of a game. They never imagined politics was poison that seeped deep into man’s mind, body and soul. Man who could shrug off snake and scorpion poisons was unable to shake off the new poison. This new poison changed his behavior and removed him from his decent nature. It started slowly with feeling of aloofness because of either of playing a part in forming a party or simply by becoming a member. Then he thought he was walking on clouds. Overconfidence, inconsideration and lack of tolerance scrubbed what was remaining in his decency. To make matters worse, the king took advantage of the chaos by directing his cohorts to form a political party using some scrupulous and suspicious individuals as founding members. They named the party “union party”.
Every society has its ruffians and Eritrea was not spared of them. Membership in the union party swelled in no time due to bribery, intimidation, opportunism, confusion, submission, fear and every other man’s vices. The king also did not spare any expenses. No king wants to gamble and fail. So he deprived his country and people of their meager resources in order to bribe and buy vulnerable men to join the party.
The people of Eritrea due to their history of isolation from the outside world only knew few behaviors. It was not far fetched to say they had uniform, few and predictable behaviors. So for a normal behavior no accolades were given. If they liked a variant but good behavior they rewarded the person with vocal admiration and if they did not like a behavior they discouraged and stopped it.
With the advent of Italians came new behaviors, many bad and few good and most of them were seen in cities, towns or outposts, far from the villages. The men who acquired new but unacceptable behaviors had opportunity for guises or they could deny the accusations. But time was the final arbiter. With the passage of time some became brazen and many others became desensitized to their own behavior. Everyone hated and isolated the brazen individuals. New insults were created and some borrowed by the women to intimidate and isolate the miscreants: Iwalas, begamindo, wedini. To the dismay of the women, the Sheiks and monks many were not swayed and remained true to themselves. And later these were the individuals who felt pray to the king’s cunnings and plots. The majority of them became members of the union party and many benefited financially and politically later in their life.
Parallel to the mother-daughter slogan, the king also came up with dangerous propaganda aimed at creating a wedge between the Moslems and the Christians. To buy sympathy from the Christian population and rage from the Moslems, the king claimed that both countries were Christian islands surrounded by sea of Islam. That claim was a lie and a blasphemy to both the Moslems and Christians of both countries for in truth both countries were inhabited by both faiths and in equal numbers. Even though the claim in itself did not create a visible wedge, it saw a poison seed of mistrust and suspicion among the people of both faiths. The king’s gamble paid handsomely because the Moslems and Christians were approximately equal in number and in quarrels numbers matter.
For administrative purposes the Italians had divided Eritrea into nine provinces each administered by a commissioner. Three of the provinces were in the highland area. The boundary was an approximation of the ethnic tribes inhabiting the areas except in the highland. The highland people were almost homogenous so creating three provinces was an anomaly. The only explanation that could be given was topography. The Italians might have found it difficult to administer the ragged mountainous landscape and its inhabitants so by dividing it into three provinces might have facilitated their administrative tasks.
During the Italian rule, there was no provincial consciousness in the people. Village consciousness dominated every aspect of the people’s lives. A village was defined by its inhabitants who claim the village their place of origin and the land it owns. In the highland the land of a village was equally allocated to its inhabitants and also to avoid unfairness, ownership of the allocated land was rotated every five years. Due to this practice, equality was the primary consciousness in village life. Division or suspicion was abhorred.
All villages in the highland also had blood ties thanks to the women. A married woman left her village to live with her husband in his village thus carrying with her the genes of her village of origin. All women in a village came from other villages. And that was why talking bad or thinking bad about other villages was sacrilegious.
A village cannot be called Adi (village) without a Church or a Mosque. If it did not have church or Mosque then it was called Kushet (village without a church or mosque).
The land, the woman and the church/mosque were the three pillars that made the village. All consciousness of the villagers arose from the interaction of the three. Anyone who tried to separate the three was considered an enemy. The main reason why Eritreans did not carry everlasting grudge against the Italian colonization was the Italians, knowingly or unknowingly did not interfere with village life.
The soccer clubs were conned to change their names to the provinces by the British administrator and the king’s men. So the three big local clubs changed their name to the respective provinces. Then they were conned again to make the membership exclusive to men of that province. Where as before, soccer game was being watched as a beautiful game, its image started changing because hired hooligans began chanting offensive language to the opposing players and fans creating ill feeling, retaliation and physical altercations.
The behavior was openly and strongly condemned by the Sheiks, monks and city women to prevent the misbehavior from affecting their children or spilling out to the villages. When the news reached the villages who did not know a province existed, received the news with amusement. They were always suspicious of cities and city dwellers and the news confirmed their suspicion.
The women spearheaded propaganda frenzy using every available means, blood ties and genes not excluded, against the British and the king’s evil intentions and the feedback caught the king by surprise. The British administrator was not surprised with the women’s action, only its timing. So he advised the king to devise other strategies for if he continued with the same tactic his failure would be imminent.
The king was a smart man. At least he thought he was a smart man. He decided to scale back his overt interference but escalated covert activities inside Eritrea that included terrorizing remote villagers with arson and stealing village herds, in conjunction with diplomatic offensive in the United Nations. He badgered the UN members with “Eritrea is a creation of Fascism”, “Eritrea cannot stand by itself”; “Eritreans and Ethiopians have historical ties”; “ Eritrea will be swarmed by Arabs”; “ There will be religious bloodshed in Eritrea”; “Eritreans cannot govern themselves”; “ Eritreans will die of starvation”; “While tiny Eritrea enjoy its sea access, Ethiopia cannot remain landlocked”; “ If referendum is held today, Eritreans will vote to join with their mother nation Ethiopia” and many more. Finally under pressure from the USA and Great Britain the UN decided to hold referendum in Eritrea that would decide the fate of the young country and its people.
The question in the referendum was decided to be “Do you agree for Eritrea to unite with Ethiopia?”
Before the date of the referendum the king began flooding the country with Ethiopians in order to get numerical advantage. Most of those who came without knowing why were peasants from remote rural areas who could not read, write or speak the local dialect. They were camped on the outskirts of cities and towns. These rural men and women were amazed and scared at seeing electric lights during the night; city people, cars and trains during the day for the first time in their life. Their only consolation was seeing Eritrean women with Cross tattoo in their forehead. The locals were amused at first but slowly grasped the enormity of the situation for they understood what the king’s plot was.
In Norman circumstance the first reaction of the woman would have been empathy towards the poor Ethiopian peasants for she always taught and practiced kindness towards strangers. But now she saw them as enemies who would do anything to fulfill the king’s plan including murder, theft and other unthinkable vises not out of their volition but under direction of the king’s men.
With no delay she started disseminating propaganda directed against the strangers by saying “the peasants are here to usurp our land”; “The king promised to give them our villages and churches if they obeyed his orders”; “They look innocent peasants but are real criminals, murderers and rapists”. Hearing the concerns of the woman who never lied or exaggerated in her life, every Eritrean man, boy, monk, priest, and sheik went into tumult and rallied around her. Even some of those who earlier sold their soul to Ethiopian money, coffee, grain and future title promises recanted and joined her. Those who rehabilitated also brought her new stories they heard from some Ethiopians about the king sacrificing young children to appease the devil and also torturing people by pouring hot chickpeas into their ears and noses.
The second story did not scare her at all. She was a bold woman who was raised never to be scared of physical or emotional pains. But the first story shook her to her bosom. They could pour hot stuff on any body part but no one would overrun her village; usurp her land or hurt her kids her man and defile her church or Mosque while she was alive.
The woman might not have cared about national or provincial antics because she did not understand their meaning or values. She was value driven and pragmatic. What she saw she believed. What she believed she saw. She was rooted in the village and the village was rooted on her. What affected the village affected her enormously. What affected her land affected her deeply. What affected her faith and core values affected her very being.
Those who grew with her knew her. They respected and followed her example. She was not emotional and abhorred vanity. Her selflessness was beyond measure. She sacrificed her needs to sustain her family, her village and her church or Mosque. She loved without asking to be loved. She refused to take credit for everything good she accomplished. She gave the credit to Her God, her church, her mosque and the man.
The man of the village might sometimes be negligent in his doings and judgments but would not stand neutral if he detects hurt in the woman. In her crisis moments his true self emerged. To die on her behalf was a simple decision for him. He would move mountains to protect her values and beliefs. The woman embodied his being. Her presence gives him meaning to his life.
The referendum date came and passed. The referendum was held in cities and towns and not villages. But the British administration did what it can to inform all people of their right to vote.
What was the meaning of “vote” to people who conduct their life by consensus? And who was asking them to vote? Yes sometimes they had to obey their elder’s demands even if they did not agree. They would do it because they know and respect the elder. But to vote for something they did not know or understand was anathema to them. They grew up conditioned not to do, touch or use what they did not understand or know. No one could cajole them to deviate from what they learnt, accepted and believed as norm. They were direct people and would say no.
The result of the referendum was contested by both parties: The union party that catered the king’s interest claimed victory so were the other myriad nationalist parties that catered the interest of the Eritrean people. The UN observers also disagreed among themselves as to the result of the tally according to their affiliation or aptly to say according to the affiliation of their respective countries with the powers of the cold war era.
Nobody seemed to agree because it was an era of disagreement. As decorum dictated no one even agreed to disagree but on the contrary everyone either disagreed to disagree or disagreed to agree. The woman described the situation as “Ma’at”, meaning disaster and she attributed it to punishment from the heavens like the punishment to the builders of the tower of Bebel.
Everyone lost but not the woman. According to the leaders of the nationalistic parties, the parties with myriad names but same intent, the Eritrean people were denied their inherent right to govern themselves. The king was humiliated after squandering his country’s meager resources and getting nothing in return. Those who were sent to terrorize the countryside fled and went back to Ethiopia. Those who were captured were fairly punished.
The woman won because she still had what mattered most to her: her village, her church, her mosque and her land. She was not sure how long the lull would hold but at that moment she had what she had. But she did not let her guards off.
The woman also had a secret weapon: coffee. Because drinking coffee was always women’s social and spiritual event and shared practice performed many times a day in every household, was used by her as a platform for learning, sharing, analyzing and disseminating ideas, suggestions, news, rumors and other valuable social and communal information. That practice kept the woman well informed and up-to-date on every relevant issue. That was why the woman did not need to form or participate in a political party. She already had her natural party.
The men also practiced social events by drinking Suwa (alcoholic beverage) in groups conducted every evening, not at home but in local bars. But what can they discuss or share or learn when they were in an altered state of mind? The bars were also frequented and infiltrated by spies so the men were not secure. Since Islam prohibits alcohol, only Christian men frequented the bars. Their other half, the Moslems avoided the bars. Two men with the same political intent, dreams and aspirations were separated by discriminating practices and beliefs. Had the woman not been present it would have been a cake walk for the king to create a dangerous and permanent wedge between them.
Two different platforms produced two diametrically opposed results. The woman was in a relaxed mode when she discussed or shared issues with other women while drinking coffee and in a safe and familiar home setting and left (if she was a guest) or stayed (if she was the host) happy, trusted, trusting and more enlightened. Since the practice was non religious, women of different religions sit and drank coffee together. Moslem women together with Christian women drank coffee and discussed every relevant issue. No one could create wedge between them using religion as a tool. The home setting also was very safe. No spy could dare infiltrate a woman’s home.
Next portion of the series:
‘The Era Of Chaos: The Mistake Of The King’