Visiblizing Eritrea — Africa is not a Country: Eritrea is.

Eritrea is invisiblized by its detractors.  U.S. foreign policy, Western strategic alliances and media propensity to cover Africa only when and where there is a dramatic crisis, conspire to invisiblize countries like Eritrea.

Eritrea is a country and a people worth celebrating.

Eritrea is a country and a people worth celebrating.

The scholar and linguist Noam Chomsky sees an insidious Western agenda in such invisiblization.  In a book he co-authors with Andre Vltchek he suggests that “Western misinformation has been clearly targeting countries that have been refusing to succumb to Western dictate.”

Even significant achievements of Eritrea and its people are little noted in the Western press.  When Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon this year, headline reports were that he was the first American since 1983 to win the race.  He surely is an American.  I had to dig deeper to find that his heritage was from Eritrea—surely a significant aspect of his great achievement.

Despite efforts to invisiblize Eritrea, one thing is certain: Eritrea is. As Eritreans around the world celebrate this month the 23rd anniversary of their hard-fought battle for independence, the reality of Eritrea’s existence is one that some countries still need to accept.

Eritrea is little in the news in the West.  Eritrea isn’t seizing fishing boats off its coast and holding them for ransom.  Eritrea isn’t harboring terrorist groups planning attacks on Western targets.  Eritrea isn’t seeing extremist groups murdering shoppers in malls or kidnapping school girls.

I weary of explaining to intelligent fellow Americans what Eritrea is.  Eritrea is the country where I grew up.  Eritrea is where my heart still resides.  Ignorance of not only Eritrea, but the African continent, astounds me.  It is a sad truth that there are those in the U.S. who think that Africa is a war-torn impoverished country. To be very clear: Africa is not a country.  Eritrea is. It is neither war-torn nor impoverished.

There is more than banal ignorance in the invisiblization of Eritrea.  U.S. foreign policy is shaped as much by the countries and people we tend to ignore as it is by the relationships that we court.  The U.S. has courted a relationship with Ethiopia with dubious benefit. Eritrea has been largely ignored at the price of missing out on a relationship with a stable country in a troubled region of Africa.

If the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, who I greatly respect, were to privilege me with a meeting, I would humbly suggest that Eritrea isn’t does not make for good foreign policy on the Horn of Africa.

Eritrea has its faults.  It cannot and should not be exempted from the scrutiny that the world gives to all countries in regard to human rights and basic freedoms.  But, invisiblizing the country is a non-starter for a conversation about human rights.  Accepting that Eritrea is provides a starting point for such a conversation.  In the interest of honesty, our own record on human rights must also be scrutinized.  The U.S. history of horrific human rights violations at Guantanamo and drone-attacks-without-borders has tarnished our credibility to be the arbiter of other nations’ human rights record.

When we acknowledge that Eritrea is, we will see a country that has the potential to be a stable and stabilizing presence in the often chaotic and war-torn environment of the Horn of Africa.  It is a country rich in diverse languages, cultures, and traditions.  While there has been criticism of Eritrea’s lack of tolerance for multiple religious groups, it is significant that this is a country where the religion of Islam and the Orthodox Christian church have co-existed for centuries.  In the capital city of Asmara, there is a Coptic church and a mosque within stone-throwing distance of each other.  But, there are no stones being thrown.

The achievements of Eritrea in the areas of infrastructure development, health care, and education are rarely mentioned in the Western media.  Since its independence, Eritrea has made significant progress on its own development agenda without assigning control of that agenda to outside groups.

It is time for the U.S. to accept Eritrea—as most nations of the world do—as an important member of the family of nations.  A first step toward Eritrea might look like shared acknowledgment of the integrity of Eritrea’s borders established under international agreements.  It would honor the Eritrean people to recognize on this anniversary the price they paid for their independence with scant support from the outside world.  The Eritrean people, who have fought so hard to earn their independence, will never sell that independence to the highest bidder.  Without a doubt, Eritrea will continue to chart its own course.

Eritrea is a country and a people worth celebrating.  Find an Eritrean community to celebrate with—if not in Eritrea–in Sweden, Europe, England, Canada, and in every major U.S. city.  These are our neighbors—your neighbors.  Get to know them.  Your life will surely be richer!

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Dr. Samuel Mahaffy, was born in Asmara, Eritrea and grew up in Senafe, Eritrea.  In his work as a consultant and facilitator to more than five hundred nonprofits and NGO’s, he has found ways to support refugee and migrant communities from the Horn of Africa living in the U.S.  He earned his Ph.D. from Tilburg University in the Netherlands through the Taos Institute of which he is now an Associate.  Samuel Mahaffy regularly blogs on topics related to peacemaking and Africa on this website and on the Peace and Collaborative Development Network (http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/). Follow him on Twitter @samuelmahaffy.  This blog post was first published on the Peace and Collaborative Development Network at http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blogs/visiblizing-eritrea#.U3_QsWcU-M9.

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