Recycling old images and tired ideas is also at the heart of what Eritrean state media does. Unless covering President Isaias Afwerki (since 1993), the state media continuously re-use the footage and stories of the 30-year old independence war. Flimsy development projects are disproportionately hyped. Newsworthy events are routinely ignored unless they get out control, and then the Minister of Information only responds in a tweet.The Eritrean government attempts to control its narrative in two ways: outright denial and widespread policing, which promotes fear and extends to the diaspora. Whether in the news media or asylum offices of the West, the Eritrean narrative has been reduced to the bare minimum.
Here I want to challenge this stale narrative by using personal testimonies and small incidents that paint a clearer and more detailed picture of life in Eritrea. Personal testimonies make the elites nervous and agitated. Recounting small incidents is like taking snapshots from different angles. And as the viewer and reader, I rely on you to interpret and to create a coherent narrative.
In mid-February 2018, rapper Nipsey Hussle released his first studio album, Victory Lap, a paean to his complicated relationship with Los Angeles gang life. While making the rounds on American hip hop radio stations and podcasts, if he wasn’t breaking down gang codes or marketing his various businesses, Nipsey kept returning to his roots beyond his South Central, Los Angeles neighborhood: that of his Eritrean immigrant background.
Ermias Asghedom’s father had fled the ongoing war and settled in US. By celebrating his father’s background (his mother is African-American), Nipsey was partly reflecting what Boima Tucker described elsewhere on this site as “a resurgence of an unbridled enthusiasm for Africa in black America.” In recent times, American artists of African immigrant background have openly made connections to their parents’ homelands public and explicit. Issa Rae has done so on television, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya on film and Wale and French Montana have done so in music. The comedian Tiffany Haddish, another LA native, also has recently foregrounded her Eritrean background. Haddish recently traveled to Eritrea then wore a traditional outfit to the The Oscars. It is obvious that Haddish’s new found connection to Eritrea, has added to her confidence as a public figure. This is in contrast to a generation ago when the children of African immigrants to the US downplayed their family connections in fear of attracting ridicule.
In 2004, when he turned 18, Nipsey traveled with his father and brother, Samiel “Black Sam” Asghedom, to Asmara, the Eritrean capital and stayed three months. This trip would have a profound influence on him. Beyond just a celebration of his African heritage, it would become part of his personal mythology. It appears as inspiration for his brand of capitalism.
The death of a respected elder while in jail has prompted an outpouring of grief and anger on the streets of Asmara.
Last week, the respected elder Hajji Musa Mohammednur inspired aggrieved crowds in Eritrea‘s capital and shook the confidence of the regime. This was the second, and last, time he will have done so in the past few months.
This first occasion was when the well-known Eritrean figure was arrested last October. The 93-year-old had recently criticised a government decree to nationalise Al Diaa Islamic School, whose board he chaired. His detention was one of the triggers that prompted hundreds to take to Asmara’s streets in an uncommon show of defiance a few days later, leading to a brutal crackdown.
Speaking to parents and teachers before his arrest, Mohammednur had said he was prepared to sacrifice his life in resisting the state’s plan. The second time he stirred people to mobilise was last week when he did just that.
Mohammednur’s condition deteriorated during the months of his incarceration. In December, his poor health reportedly prompted the office of President Isaias Afwerki to instruct that he be released and put under house arrest. The nonagenarian refused to leave prison unless those arrested along with him were also let out. “You can carry my dead body out of here, but I am not leaving alone,” he is reported to have said. He died a few months later. Click here to read
Musicians in Eritrea used to have to sing the government’s praises to pass the censors. Now there are other ways to get heard.
In 2005, Eritrean singer Ghirmay Andom had just completed his latest album. As required by the government, he submitted the lyrics to his ten songs to the censorship office (officially known as “evaluation unit”) in the Ministry of Information.
The artist was hopeful that his uncontroversial songs of love and life would pass the censors and that he would be allowed to start distributing it. But when he finally heard back, all his lyrics had been rejected. Along with some more nitpicking comments, he was informed that: “When the country is facing lots of adversaries, it is unjustifiable to consistently sing about romance”.
Andom’s experience was far from unique. The government in Asmara has long tried to maintain a close control on artistic expression. It not only shut down the independent press in September 2001, but has also imposed a medieval practice of censorship on literature, art and music.
Before being able to broadcast or print their work, artists have had to endure long waiting periods to hear from the censorship unit, which consisted of a single official. Artists would not dare submit anything sensitive, and gaining approval was effectively reduced to appealing to the personal tastes of the censorship chief. Click here to continue