23/01/2018 23:42 PM
The UN peacekeeper and free crayons
The paradox of humiliating and giving
All human beings know that humiliation cuts so deep, it is traumatic and is an abnegation of dignity and pride.
After independence, while visiting Asmara, my former colleagues at the Italian schools asked me if I could help with giving free note books and crayons to families in need, so they could prepare for the imminent school opening . All were Eritrean families.
We drove to a place around Fiat Tagliero and this large former storage room was set up with tables lined as L shape. I was given a place. On my left side four other colleagues were sitting. From the entrance towards me.
We were asked to line up the note books – piles of them – a lot of colored crayons and pencils too. A large box was then sitting at the place assigned to me. It contained a huge amount of money/Nacfa. The orientation explained each of our tasks.
So families outside lined up on a line that so quickly became a belt around the corner.
The Nun sitting at the entrance checked a list as soon as the parent (mainly mothers) gave her ID card and the student’s registration.
The following person gave note books, the following one gave crayons and pencils and I gave 150 Nacfa per family.
All is good right? What made my blood literally freeze in my being is that each parent and student had to kiss our hands.
I refused to give my hand for a royal kiss or a Jesus Christ kiss. I was appalled. I stared at the mother’s face and in my mind in that mother I saw myself after Berhane loss. For some free schools’ materials each year I would submit to such humiliation? I told the Nun presiding such day, that this was stigmatizing humiliation. The difference was that these mothers had no idea of humiliation because they had no self-realization of failure. They were poor Period! Humiliation is traumatic, but the saddest part for these mothers was that they had to hush-up the trauma of being poor and if they were told that they had to kiss the hand of ANYONE to get free crayons for their kids to be in school they would do it and they did! These mothers’ loss of status and dignity was the outcome of war and the poverty that followed.
One of those not at the receiving line, saw tears in my eyes and with no words from me, she said “after all, they are not asked to kiss our feet..” I felt like smashing her head to the wall. But that would have been useless because the lining up for free school material would go on. It is still going on.
Few days later, I was at a restaurant with friends; they were asking me to look at the decoration done by a young Eritrean woman. But my attention focused on a UN Peace keeping soldier originally from India. One of his legs stretched out of his assigned table. The waiter – an Eritrean of course- was standing to attention while the Peace keeper was screaming at him “I did not ask this…what? I can’t even understand your accent” all while pumping up his chest so the logo of the UN on his clothing would show better.
He did not need to show the UN logo to intimidate and humiliate the Eritrean waiter. The waiter's job and his poverty was what made him stand to attention and made him pay close attention so not to trip on the UN peacekeeper’s leg stretched out of the assigned table.
Now, this peacekeeper made me smile because most Indians talk very fast and with heavy unclear accent. But again he was wearing the UN logo and he could add embarrassment to humiliation. I always wonder if the waiter was a former Freedom fighter that gave freedom to Eritrea but also the opportunity to this Indian man to fly all over and make himself seen because of the UN logo on his field jacket.
There is a lesson in all situations. I learned that humiliation is a weapon used by the weak and self-centered persons. They exist only by denying and destroying the status of another human being. Humiliation is beyond offense and it is visceral.
We all are born with a “status”. Being someone’s child, someone’s friend, a status of education or employment. When we are humiliated, this status is undermined and it is not easy to recover if we add poverty to it. To be humiliated leaves human beings speechless, we swallow air because our throat is dry. We are voiceless. The women lining up for school’s material and kissing the hand of 4 women out of 5 were simply mothers humiliated by other mothers. Kissing those hands are as humiliating as kissing the feet of a person because kids are in need to go to school.
Standing to attention when a UN peacekeeper shouts that his soup was not to his taste and keeping the head bowed was degrading for another man. This Eritrean man in better time would have picked up that UN peacekeeper with his right hand fly him over to the ceiling to land him on his left hand and then to the floor.
But poverty and humiliation are twin sisters. Temporary authority is the birth place of humiliation. A country not ruled to protect its’ own citizens is the eternal cradle for pampering humiliation. A mix of arrogance and power is a form of social control. It is very often used as a tool of oppression.
In categorized societies, the so called “elites” go to great lengths to protect and uphold their status, while the common is raised with the understanding to submit to an order of degrees of disparagement. When a society becomes more educated and egalitarian, this institutionalized humiliation will be resented and it is to the interest of all to eliminate it before resentment explodes to violent outbursts and a civil war erupts.
Eritreans are proud of who they are. They are proud of being poor, they are proud of being rich. They are proud of being Eritreans. We are proud of our honor. Humiliation is not allowed to be a symbolic part of our society. Because it is poignant to revisit that day in Asmara and see the Eritrean mother kiss hands and receive not more than the equivalent of US$ 5 in school's material! Those mothers’ humiliation and that waiter humiliation was to deny them their very own humanity!
My heart is still shriveling, I am still haunted by the degree of humiliation I saw in my own free country and our very first government should prevent such perpetrators to be the agents delivering the head bowing and the hand kissing. By eliminating this unequal power. Above all, by eliminating poverty from Eritrea.
January 23, 2018
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