Feeling Enriched in Eritrea (Interview)

Eritrean intellectuals from Europe and North America are providing voluntary graduate and post-graduate lectures in the homeland. Shanet Zeru is one of them from UK who currently teaching Anthropology at the Adi-Keih College of Arts and Social Sciences
Eritrean intellectuals from Europe and North America are providing voluntary graduate and post-graduate lectures in the homeland. Shanet Zeru is one of them from UK who currently teaching Anthropology at the Adi-Keih College of Arts and Social Sciences

By Seble Ephrem,

AT a time when many Eritreans are choosing to leave Eritrea for ‘greener pasturesShanet Zeru is one of many other young people who has decided to return from the land of ‘milk and honey’. Here follows excerpt of the exclusive interview she made with Seble Ephrem in Asmara two weeks ago. 

Q – Shanet, without sounding as though we are prying into details of your life, can you give us a brief insight of when, how and why you have been living in the UK including your educational achievements?

I was born in Addis Ababa and moved to the UK due to the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict at that time. Like countless others who had also fled the war, we (my family and I) entered the UK and eventually became citizens. From age three, I resided in the UK with my family and was brought up in that strange mix of Eritrean and Western culture, which I consider overall to have been an advantage.

Entering the UK at such a young age, I joined the education system right from the start (nursery) and was fortunate enough to complete my B.Sc. Anthropology and M.A. Anthropology in Conflict Violence and Conciliation (a cumbersome title I know). I was not the most studious person when I was younger but I found anthropology to be very interesting – it has such a wide field of study that it is impossible to be bored! One minute you are learning about strange marriage traditions of the Zulu tribe and the next minute about body language in immigrant societies.

Q –  Having lived a life replete with all creature comforts, economic and employment opportunities, that the West offers, what made you decide to return to Eritrea?

Shanet with 2014 Anthropology Graduate
Shanet with 2014 Anthropology Graduate

There were, in all honesty a number of push and pull factors. In short, I have always felt that as great as the UK can be, it did not ‘satisfy’ me and a number of things were increasingly bothering me. A combination of weather, lifestyle, a preoccupation with material wealth, growing crime rates and time ever running away while I sat at my office desk were all push factors. I do not mean to give such a negative portrayal of the UK, I miss a number of things about it but I could not see myself living there long-term.

I chose Eritrea because it is my country of origin; both my parents reside here now and I have what seems to be an infinite number of family members here, so it was an easy transition in many respects. Apart from the basic logistics, I have visited Eritrea every 2-3 years for the last 15 years and so I was somewhat familiar with it. I love the vibrant culture, the family aspect, the daily sunshine and the beautiful landscape.

As an Eritrean, although I spent the vast majority of my life in the UK, I still considered Eritrea as my‘homeland’, just one that I was not so familiar with. I wanted to strengthen my connection andhave a better understanding of my background. I wanted to experience Eritrea first-hand, not from what others told me it was like or as what to be Eritrean means – I grew up with so many contradictions and differing opinions regarding Eritrea and being Eritrean that it was important for me to find out for myself – a form of self-discovery if you will.

I decided to return to Eritrea and work as an anthropology lecturer in the college of Adi-Keih for a year as a volunteer. In regards to the volunteering – Eritrea is a beautiful place with several challenges, so why not help if you can? I have worked in the charity sector for over eight years in the UK and so enjoyed community work, it seemed common sense to extend that work to my own country. It is hugely satisfying, interesting, challenging and has been a real eye opener – but I must say that I have absolutely gained a whole lot more this year than I could ever contribute!

People tend to think you are a martyr because you chose to leave such an ‘affluent’ country to live and volunteer in a ‘poor third-world country’ like Eritrea but that is really not the case – far from it. It was as much a personal gain to come to Eritrea as it was about helping others.

Q – What were your expectations of Eritrea, the people, the culture, the language, the way of life, especially vis-à-vis the negative Western media portrayal of this country and how different are they from your experience now that you are here? Any pleasant/unpleasant surprises?

There is so much to say in terms of my expectations and what I have found to be true. As I mentioned, I have visited Eritrea often and so I was somewhat familiar with it, but I now understand visiting a country in short spurts is hugely different from staying there long term.

I have also realised that Eritrean communities in the diaspora are still quite different than those in Eritrea, in regards to behaviours, traditions etc , this was somewhat of a wake-up call for me also, but anthropologically speaking it is interesting to see how communities adapt, grow and change when in new settings.

There is much more of a community feel here and people here are generally ‘nicer’ as expected, but I have also learnt that the Eritrean community is as complex and varied as the society I grew up with in London. I got to know people as they really are, the challenges they face, their opinions, experiences etc the fact that there is no ‘typical’ Eritrean. This in itself has been a very rewarding experience for me.

One of the things I have found is that I have much better understanding in terms of people’s ’intentions’ here, things I used to consider as rude or forward previously, I now understand is not the case for example if a stranger leans on you or takes you by the arm- something I would have considered as aggressive is actually due to the fact that people are much more tactile and affectionate here – something I have had to adapt to but really do appreciate.

The negative press surrounding Eritrea is really disappointing; Eritrea is definitely used as a pawn in the game of international relations. I remember trying to search for a blog, article or anything by somebody who has decided to volunteer/move back to Eritrea before I came, but the internet is just full of negative and often false information. There are a lot of challenges Eritrea is facing as a country but it is also very misunderstood. Life here is not paradise nor is it some war zone – neither depiction is helpful in terms of our development. I hope there will be a growing number of more accurate articles, texts, blogs, videos etc particularly from the Eritrean community.

Q – What are you doing now with your time in Eritrea?

I am currently teaching Anthropology at AdiK Keih College, and as it is quite far from Asmara I spend a lot of my time either at the college or preparing for my lessons. The rest of my time is spent with family and socializing in Asmara when I come down for the weekends. I have a number of things I want to get involved in, but am prioritizing my time during term time for now.

When I do get a little time and am more settled, I want to try and volunteer in other projects, particularly those in development and relief. As I am involved in ERA-UK (Eritrean Relief Association UK) this is a good opportunity to get more in touch with projects on the ground. I would also just like to continue learning about my culture, improving my language skills and overall immersing myself in this life for a while.

Q –  How fulfilling do you find your work?

I find it hugely fulfilling, primarily from the feedback and interaction I have with the students and other teachers – they are so grateful for any help that it really humbles you. I am able to do something I have not done before and in a very different environment, I am constantly learning and growing as a person; it is definitely one of the best decisions I have made so far.

Q – Surely having made such a major decision in moving away from the environment you grew up in, you must have some regrets and fleeting thoughts that you made the wrong choice? Challenges?

I am being completely honest in saying that there has not been one day in which I have regretted my decision but challenges…yes!

I think one of the greatest challenges is living in an alien environment and the differences in culture. It is the small things, things that seem easy to deal with for short periods of time (i.e. holidays) but can be quite taxing after a while.

Cultural misunderstandings happen daily, we all know the awkward moments sometimes when you are not sure how to behave in a situation of a different culture, and you may say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I sometimes miss the ease of knowing that the person I am talking to completely understands what I mean and the context in which I am speaking. But to be fair, this is also linked to the fact that I am not fluent in Tigrinya and so unable to articulate myself so well in the language plus there are always such a range of people I mix with i.e. other diasporas that this is not a serious difficulty. I have to say (although I never thought I would) I do miss the English accents, jokes and sarcasm. It is really nice to speak to someone who shares your background now and then.

Other difficulties are getting used to a different system of working and attitude to work, I am used to the fast paced life of London, having strict deadlines and set goals. Life here is not that way and as part of the broader web of societal difficulties at the moment, it can be very frustrating at times, not just for me but for the people here.

I cannot deny that the biggest challenge for me has not been my difficulties but those of the local people. The daily challenges they face and the country faces as a whole is at times hard to swallow. I wish I could do more. We are a very young country and development takes a great deal of time.

Other than that, takeaway coffee and the internet would make me happier

Q – How do you keep yourself personally and professionally entertained and humoured? Is there any fun in living here or is it all about hard work?

It is a lot of fun living here, I have a much better social life than I did in London, namely for two reasons, firstly, I can afford to and secondly, time goes by so much slower here than in London, I am very busy here but it is still less stressful and cumbersome than the UK.

There is much more of a social and friendly feel here, people always want to meet and have tea, hang out together – once you start getting to meet people, they introduce you to others and before you know it, you have too many people to possibly meet! But it is nice; I find big cities are paradoxically packed with people but can be very lonely. Here is the one place where I have a better (still to be improved) work-life balance.

Q – Do you have any thoughts/recommendations for anyone considering of moving to Eritrea?

There is so much to say in regards to this, I have met people who have moved here completely and I have always been interested in their experiences. Here are a few suggestions from my experiences and from those I have spoken to so far:

1) Be prepared to live in a completely different cultural setting, just because you have lived amongst the Eritrean community in the diaspora, or even if you initially grew up in Eritrea be aware you will still have moments of cultural shock; you’ll need time to adapt.

2) Have a clear idea as to what you want to do before committing to it. Talk to as many people as you can beforehand to get a broad range of perspectives – it is always good to listen to people’s experiences, even if you don’t agree with them.

3) Yes, your money will probably get you much further once exchanged but there is a limit. You cannot buy your way out of everything, this includes having electricity and water at all times- things are a little tough at the moment and so be prepared to ‘rough’ it, but also be aware that your idea of ‘roughing it’ is most likely a luxurious lifestyle for most people here.

4) All in all, you have to be flexible in terms of your expectations, your approach in dealing with things and even at times what you consider to be acceptable – if you are flexible not only will it make life a lot easier but more enjoyable. Please don’t add to the huge number of people that would rather complain about a situation instead of helping to find a solution, we have enough of those.

5) It is a simpler life and in my opinion much better in a lot of ways if you have the means to live here. The weather is beautiful and the people are friendly, focus on the positive gains of living in the country and deal with the negative ones calmly as they come.

Thank you, Shanet, for sharing your views and experiences on moving back to Eritrea after many years of living in the UK.

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A total of 88 students graduated from Adi KeiH College; 15 Anthropology students completed their final year – 5 graduated and the rest will do their national service before graduating.