Engaging in activism is often a personally tasking experience. It requires a lot of personal sacrifice. As activists we have to manage our own feelings and responses about issues that we care about, as well as deliberate on the views of others, both in our activist communities or organisations and in the public sphere.
In order to do the above prescribed tasks we need to keep our responses and attitudes in check all the time because one area where we repeatedly fail as Eritrean activists is in managing our own emotions and the differences of opinion that crop up amongst fellow activists.
Our approaches to activism have been questioned by many observers time and again. Why do we fail to become true agents of change; or achieve the required level of social creativity - to rise above obstacles that continue to trip us? Are we capable of dissolving our ego and then think and act creatively in relation to our future as Eritreans?
In order to remain relevant we need to transform the self into an actor through the process of reflexivity. In other words, reflexivity helps us to liberate our potential from self-destructing demeanours, structures and discourses, and encourages us to play part in the creative production of society.
What drove us to become activists in the first place?
Political reality in Eritrea is not a simple matter to describe. It is constructed by intrigues, lies, deceit, coercion, false hopes and paranoia. Most of all, it is tightly interwoven with people’s emotions.
In order to understand what drove us to become activists we need to have a picture of what Eritrea is like these days first.
The image of Eritrea, internally and internationally, is quite dismal. One can say that Eritrea is in trouble due to its politics of ‘self-harm’, which is causing the society to crumble. In other words, Eritrea is a sinking ship. One example that is making the country go downhill is the fact that Eritreans continue to flee the country. Why?
For many Eritreans, especially the educated class, the lustre and passion which shaped their patriotism in the past are simply not there anymore; and that is due to the drastic wrong turn the country has taken after independence. .
The fading of the Eritrean dream, the division among the leaders, disharmony of policies, the grinding down of its economy, the depopulation of towns and villages, the erosion of civil liberties, the self-centredness of its leaders, the misrepresentation of facts on the ground, divergence of ideals among the general public, lack of standards and morals in government circles, the indoctrination of false disciples, the systematic dislodging of the conscientious citizens, misappropriating public properties, hindering the return of exiles and so forth are some examples of the wrong turns the government has taken since coming to power. That is how the government turned people’s goodwill into a lost cause.
In the beginning we thought the government that emanated out of the ashes of our martyrs would remain a paragon of virtue. Alas, we were wrong. There were times, generally speaking, when Eritrea meant the world to Eritreans. But surely times have changed.
The current leaders gambled on the success and gallantry of our martyrs and squandered the honour and respect people had for themselves. As the leadership elite became people with status and power, they got carried away with power plays and their own interests. Now their sole motive is to stay in power by all means – a struggle for self-preservation.
The Art of Reflexivity
We know, as a minimum, what has been achieved so far in Eritrea; the sovereignty of the country which is intimately intertwined with our political personality. It is an integral part of our existence – a complicated existence, that is.
As we seek to remain loyal to our heritage we are being tested and torn apart by the fact that very heritage is being exploited by the powers that be. That very dissonance created a distressful situation within us we decided to confront our demons by saying enough is enough. As sociologists of knowledge would say, that is when we decided to incorporate our thinking into our emotions and actions.
Therefore, that is how activism started in Eritrean communities throughout the world – to stop the government from taking our support for granted.
Unfortunately, in our struggle for justice and democracy we started to see adversities emerging that, every now and then, have impinged on our activist composure.
The adversities that have been emerging have dented our resolve and are prompting us to stand back and look at our struggle and examine if our view of reality is tainted by our desires.
Social scientists say that reflexivity is a circular relationship that is created within us; put differently, it is the interplay between cause and effect. Since it takes us through the process of rationalisation of our actions, we can say that it helps us to enrich our capacity to look within ourselves and strengthen our willingness to learn more about our fundamental nature, purpose and essence.
We know that we should neither allow the current frustrations get the better of us, nor influence us to doubt that very foundation of our identity. To overcome those frustrations and to stay the course we need to regularly assess ourselves through the art of reflexivity.
Let us start by making a point that it requires a great deal of patience, wisdom and a discerning outlook to wage a fair struggle against injustice which incorporates reflexivity.
Psychologists point out that reflexivity changes our perception of reality – that is to say, it empowers us to think outside the box, influences our reading of our surrounding reasonably well, helps us discovery other ways of thinking and develops our consciousness.
But we are a bit reckless in the way we carry ourselves around. Unfortunately, scheming, backstabbing, bullying, succumbing to pressure and so forth are rather accentuated in our campaigns.
As we come face-to-face with many of our current problems, some tend to question the very Eritrean identity that has carried us through until now; some apply historical denialism to justify their distorted sense of patriotism; some fall victims to short-sighted political stunts; others are simply deluded by self-interest … etc. All those scepticisms, repudiations, infightings, reticence, allowing ourselves to be stage-managed, are all signs of a movement that is lacking closer inspection of what we as Eritreans really want.
As already mentioned above, seeing within us helps us not to go off course and get stuck at the cul-de-sac of things. We also happen to believe that lack of examining ourselves not only does it lead to further frustration, but it also has some bearing on the way we come to harbour acrimonious attitudes towards other players in the same camp who choose to employ different modes of struggle.
Committed Eritrean activists lack this crucial quality; with that defect it is hard to be magnanimous. Experience has taught us the importance of refraining from overestimating our contributions and not undermining the efforts of others is the better course to pursue. As activists we should strive to master the art of looking into the mirror of the collective and critically assess our own reflection. If we are to remain significant players in this struggle, before heaping praise upon ourselves and reassigning blame unto others, then we should take a look at the negative aspects of our activist composition.
Failing to keep the balance between ourselves and other fellow activists, and more importantly, between us and the neediest of our people, then we are missing the point of our struggle altogether. Isn’t the unbridled attitudes we espouse towards our way vs. their ways menacing?
This brings to mind what Dalai Lama said about such stances: if you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them. There is an important lesson in that simple dictum: it highlights the need to acclimatise our ways to that of others and become more socially (and politically) responsible activists.
Finally, that leads us to pose a few more questions pertinent to reflexivity. Why do we have to allow things we cannot do interfere with the many things we can do as activists? Are we afraid of failure perhaps? Or are we disguising our failures by attacking others? Well, whatever the reason might be, we do not think failure is a mortal sin; what is mortal might be our failure to change our ways. The more we learn about ourselves, as well as think of the experiences we gained over the years as activists, the more we should struggle to avoid the arrogance of thinking we know what’s right for other activists (or groups) who are conducting their own campaigns as they see fit. In this case, the least we can do is to go back to basics – to learn and re-learn the art of reflexivity until we master it.