Sunday, 26 August 2012

Eritrea - How to Speak Eritrean?

Slightly smaller than England, but with the population of Ireland, or roughly the same size of Ohio, but with the population of Wisconsin - Eritrea is one of Africa's (and the world's) 'newest' countries, officially gaining its independence in 1993, after a long and bitter struggle against neighbouring Ethiopia.  I've put the word 'new' in inverted commas as, arguably, Eritrea has been a nation for quite some time.  For most people of my generation, Eritrea didn't exist as a nation, so I'm really interested to start at the beginning with this fascinating country and find out what Eritrea is all about.  Like a lot of you out there, my knowledge of Eritrea is pretty minimal!

A good news story?

So I've got some books, I'm listening to the Asmara All-Stars and Faytinga and trawling the Internet for information about this relatively unknown country.  What I've found on the Internet, thus far, paints a pretty dismal picture of a politically isolated nation, with an autocratic ruler and an appallingly bad record of press freedom - a far cry from the optimism of Eritreans, when their country achieved independence, almost twenty years ago.  I feel like I did when I was researching Saudi Arabia and (to a certain extent) Cambodia - it's hard to get the 'good news' story.  But I want to go beyond the more negative aspects of Eritrea, portrayed in the media and find out more about Eritrean culture, music, food and people.

Unity in Diversity

Eritrea independence day by thecomeupshow
One of the first things I've learned about Eritrea is that it is a nation with nine main ethnicities.  I think Eritreans can be proud of the fact that the ethnic diversity of their country has become one of its defining characteristics.  Not to mention the fact that Islam and Christianity peacefully co-exist in Eritrea, without any of the tensions that these two religions experience in many other countries around the world.  When I asked the question How to Speak Eritrean? the answer is that there is no such language as Eritrean.  People in Eritrea speak a variety of languages which represent three of Africa's major language families, Semitic, Cushitic and Nilotic.  (For my previous blog post on African linguistics, click on this link.)

So who are the nine nationalities of Eritrea?  Well, I've grouped them in my own way below:

The Majority

The Tigrinya and Tigre peoples are ethnically related and make up the majority of Eritrea's population.  They live in the heartlands of Eritrea, mostly in the north around Asmara, the Eritrean capital.  The Tigrinya and Tigre languages are both descended from the Ancient Ge'ez and are related to Amharic and (more distantly) Arabic and Hebrew.

Orthodox Christian church by thecomeupshow
Whilst closely related, these two languages are not mutually intelligible and, although commonly confused, the Tigrinya and Tigre peoples have very distinct cultures.  Most Tigrinya are Orthodox Christians, with a minority Muslim Tigrinya, know as Jeberti.  The Tigre, by contrast, are almost exclusively Muslim and, whilst Tigrinya has a long written tradition, using the ancient Ge'ez script (a version of which is also used to write Amharic), Tigre has a strong oral tradition and, despite the fact that the Eritrean government uses Ge'ez script to in Tigre publications, a lot of Tigre people prefer to use Arabic or Latin scripts to write their language.

With more than half of Eritrea's population being Tigrinya, it's hardly surprising that Tigrinya language and culture is the one that's most associated with Eritrea.  I've seen some lively debates on Twitter, with Eritrea ex-pats, now based in the US, reminding the world that Eritrea has more languages and cultures than Tigrinya.  Although they make up the majority of Eritrea's population, there are more Tigrinya people living in Ethiopia than in Eritrea.  By contrast, the majority of Tigre people live in Eritrea, with a smaller number across the border in Sudan.

The Cushites

Forming much smaller minorities are the Cushite tribes of Saho, Afar, Hedareb and Bilen.  It's believed that the Cushites (and the Saho in particular) may have been the original inhabitants of this region.  Their languages are more closely related to Somali than to Tigrinya or Amharic and they live right across Eritrea, from the Hedereb on the northern border with Sudan, to the Afar tribe, who live in southern Eritrea and are close to their kinsmen who live in the Afar state in Ethiopia.  The Afars have a particularly fierce reputation and were known as a warrior tribe, when Europeans first colonised the region in the 19th century. The Bilen people mostly live around one city, Keren, about 60 miles north-west of Asmara.  Most of the Cushitic tribes practice Islam, except the Bilen people, who are a mixture of Christian and Muslims.

The Nilotics

Eritrean Highlands by thecomeupshow
The Kunama and Nara (also known as Baria) are two small tribes who speak rare Nilotic languages and live in the north of Eritrea, on the borders with Sudan and Ethiopia.  Their languages seem to have been pushed aside by the more dominant African language families and, nowadays, Nilotic speakers are scattered in small pockets all over eastern and northern Africa, as far apart as the Maasai people of Kenya to the Songhay people of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Not surprisingly, Nilotic languages are very much in decline across Africa and Nara, in particular, is being replaced by Arabic or Tigrinya.  Interestingly, the Kunama still hold many animists beliefs and their supreme deity is called Anna. They're amongst the most ancient peoples of Africa but together, they make up less than 4% of Eritrea's population.

The Newcomers

The newest ethnic group to arrive in Eritrea (apart from the Italians!) are the coastal Rashaida people, who arrived in Eritrea in the mid-19th century, fleeing war in their native Arabia.  They make up less then 1% of Eritrea's population, speak Arabic and practise Islam.

Image credits:

To illustrate this blogpost I have used images taken by Flickr member thecomeupshow aka Adulis 'Chedo' Mokanan, a hip-hop and R&B DJ who is based in London, Ontario!  Adulis took a trip to Eritrea in 2011 and has shared his photos with us, using the Creative Commons license - you can see the whole album on his photostream and you can listen to his music on his website.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Dorset - the Final Word

After almost two months, it's time to say goodbye to my blog posts about Dorset.  It's been an interesting learning journey and also a busy time in my non-cyber life, as I've taken on a new role at work and that has kept me pretty busy (not to mention summer holidays!).

A summary of the themes

This has been my first series of blog posts about England, but hopefully it won't be my last.  Over the past couple of months, I've learned about England's Celtic heritage and the Celtic tribe, Durotriges who gave Dorset its name.  I learned a lot about Iguanadons and other 'remarkable creatures' such as Mary Anning, Dorset's most famous palaeontologist.  I learned about the different types of Doom Metal and Dorset's Wizards of Wimborne.  I learned how to make traditional Dorsetshire food, such as Tea Bread and Lyme Bay Fish pie.  I rediscovered Thomas Hardy's work and read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach - a truly beautiful novel.  I also learned about Dorset's radical past and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Tools for research

I read several books as part of my research for Dorset:

Some of the books I read as part of my research
Tracey Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures.  Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. (Extracts from) Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. (Chapters from) Patricia Ingham's Author's in Context: Thomas Hardy.  (The first few chapters of) Henry Pelling's A History of British Trade Unionism and, just for the fun of it, I also read PD James', The Black Tower, which is set in Dorset!

I also watched the following movies:

Bill Douglas' Comrades (1986), Roman Polanski's Tess (1979), John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), Michael Winterbottom's Jude (1996), Michael Winterbottom's Trishna (2011), which I saw at the cinema and Karel Reisz's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), which is also set in Dorset.  I'm a big fan of John Fowles, actually and it's a shame I didn't have more time to explore his work, but I try to concentrate on writers etc that are less familiar to me (eg. PD James).

Other Themes

As usual, there were other themes that I was interested in exploring - these were:

The history of the Olympic torch, as this passed through Dorset when I was researching for this blog.
The influence of the Sea on human culture.
The chalk figures on the hillside, like the giant at Cerne Abbas.
The concept of 'Fool's gold'
George III's fascination with Weymouth
The work of William Barnes
Brownsea Island and the scout movement
The Dorset culture of northern Canada

Dinner party trivia

And here are is some Dorset trivia which you can use to impress people at dinner parties!

A view of Portland by me
People on the Isle of Portland are superstitious about rabbits, to the point that they won't even use the word 'rabbit' when talking about them - instead they call them 'underground mutton' or 'long-eared furry things'.  Apologies to anyone on Portland who might be reading this blog post!

Sir Christopher Wren used around 6 million tonnes of white Portland stone, to rebuild London, after the Great Fire in 1666.

The Isle of Portland was at the forefront of railway development, as rails were used to transport stone and people from sea level to the top of Portland Hill.

Bermuda was once known as The Somers' Isles after its founder, Sir George Somers, who came from Lyme Regis.  Lyme Regis is twinned with Bermuda's capital, St. George's.

In the 1780's, Lyme Regis was equivalent in size and importance to Liverpool.

The Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt, was born in Bournemouth.

One of the first recorded Viking raids on England, happened in Dorset.  Dorset is also believed to have been the entry-point to England for the Black Death, coming from mainland Europe.

Sailing off the Dorset coast by me
Over half of Dorset is designated as an 'area of outstanding beauty' and three-quarters of the Dorset coast is a UNESCO world-heritage site!

There are no motorways in Dorset.

Poole harbour is one of the world's largest natural harbours - it used to be a river valley, until water levels rose, around 6,000 years ago.

37,500 people work in Dorset's thriving tourism industry.

The Bournemouth Symphony orchestra was founded in 1893.

The writer, John le Carre, was born in Poole.

The Final word

Writing this blog always gives me the opportunity to explore new things and read writers that I would never had read otherwise.  PD James is a writer I wouldn't normally read, purely because of her genre, which is 'detective fiction', something I rarely indulge in!  I'm not very good at whodunnits, as I usually fall for the most obvious red herrings and don't have the intuitive skills required to solve whatever mystery is at hand.

I enjoyed reading PD James' The Black Tower and she seems to be a very good writer of detective fiction.  If this month's Bournemouth Daily Echo (Dorset Police clear-up rate one of the worst in the UK), is anything to go by, the characters in PD James' novel wouldn't have had much help from the local Dorset police!

Perhaps there is less crime in Dorset than in other parts of the country?  Or perhaps, it's no coincidence that crime detection rates are falling at a time when the county's police force is faced with cut-backs.  It's a far-cry from Thomas Hardy's idyll of rural England but, I guess, even Dorset will have to deal with the challenges of 21st-century life!

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me - please feel free to re-use them under the Creative Commons license:

Attribution (especially to this blog)

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Dorset - A Hot Bed of Radicalism?

For a county that routinely returns Conservative MPs to parliament, Dorset has a surprisingly radical history! As far back as the 1640's and the English Civil War, when Cromwell's army was fighting against the Royalists, the Clubmen of Dorset decided to have their own war, against both sides, in a bid to protect their families and property.

The Monmouth Rebellion

The Duke of Monmouth by Willem Wissing
When Charles II died in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth, who is rumoured to have been Charles' illegitimate son, lead a rebellion against James II, which started in Lyme Regis in May and ended with the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset in July.

It's no coincidence that Monmouth chose Dorset as his landing point - he was a Protestant claimant to the throne, who was opposed to the succession of James II as a Catholic King.  Dorset has long been a Protestant stronghold and I'd imagine that many of the participants in the failed 'West Country rebellion' were Dorset farmers, who found themselves being 'transported' to Barbados (see my blog post about the Red Legs of Barbados).

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Dorset also holds an important place in Britain's Trade Union history with the famous case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  In 1833, a group of agricultural labourers, from the village of Tolpuddle just outside Dorchester, they were sentenced to transportation (a lovely euphemism - makes it sound like a relaxing rail journey!) to Britain's new colony in Australia.

Their crime?  Being members of a Friendly Society - which was an early form of trade union.  This wasn't illegal in itself, but the landowner who brought the case against them was determined to get a prosecution and his lawyers managed to find an archaic law about 'swearing secret oaths' which was used to find them guilty. Their real crime was that they had demanded reinstatement of their wages, after the landowner had cut their pay to a level that meant they were barely able to support their families.

In those days, being transported to Australia was a fate worse than death and the case of the Tolpuddle labourers caused uproar and led to the largest demonstrations of working-class people that had ever been seen in England.  I'm sure this rattled the nerves of the ruling classes, coming at a time when the British Trades Union movement was finding it voice.


As part of my research, I watched Bill Douglas' film Comrades (1986). It's quite a beautiful movie and tells the story really well, although it is quite long (around 3 hours).  It was mostly shot around South Dorset and, as well as dealing with the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Douglas uses a narrative frame that addresses the art of story-telling, through the character of the Lanternist.

British Trade Unionism today

Being a trade union rep, I'm a great believer in the role of Trade Unions in a democratic society.  I think it's fair to say that Britain was the birthplace of the modern Trade Union movement, but the situation for Trade Unions in Britain today is worse than it has been in some time.  It's estimated that less than one third of workers in Britain still belong to a Trade Union.  With all of the emphasis on capitalism, privatisation, competition and individualism, it feels a little bit like collective bargaining is going out of fashion.

Union demonstration outside the National Gallery by me
I dipped into a book called A History of British Trade Unionism (1963) by Henry Pelling where he starts off by saying that Trade Unions in Britain are stronger than ever, with almost 3/4 of workers being union members.  How things have changed over the past 50 years!  Not long after Pelling published his book, there was a great shown-down between government and the Trade Unions, in the 1970's, followed by attacks on the Trade Union movement by Margaret Thatcher and successive governments and a perceived loss of political representation, as New Labour effectively 'sold out' or rather, 'bought into' the establishment.

The Future of the Trade Union movement?

So the question for many trade unionists in 21st century Britain is Where do we go from here?  The answer seems to involve regaining political power and, increasingly, trade unions are thinking about turning the votes of people like me into an effective political force, by-passing the politics of Labour.

It's a story which is far from finished and, despite many setbacks, the Trade Union movement is still relatively powerful.  It's interesting to note that the Scandinavian countries enjoy the highest 'density' of trade union membership.  It's hardly a coincidence that the gap between rich and poor tends to be much smaller in Scandinavia and everyone benefits from a higher standard of living, not just the 1%!

Tolpuddle March in 2004 by Tom Roper
Compared to a country like the United States, where a mere 1 in 10 workers are members of a Trade Union (or Labor Union),  US society appears to be increasingly wealth-divided, with little or no provision for workers who lose their jobs or fall on hard times.

Tolpuddle in the 21st century

Although it seemed to lose momentum some years back, this year's Tolpuddle Martyrs festival saw a record number of people turning out to march, commemorate, sing and make political speeches.  Although I've never been there, I'd love to visit the Tolpuddle Martyrs museum sometime soon.

Wahhabis in Weymouth?

As I've been blogging about Dorset, I've been keeping an eye on news items from the county and I couldn't help but notice news regarding the arrest of Richard Dart, aka Salahuddin al Britani.  Dart is originally from Dorset and converted to Islam, which is a pretty radical thing, in itself, in Britain in 2012!  He appeared in the BBC documentary My Brother the Islamist and is accused of plotting a terrorist attack on Britain.  He has been living in West Ealing for several years, so we've probably walked past each other on the Uxbridge Road!  He's been portrayed in the media as a mad fundamentalist who wants to bring Shari'a law to England - I can't help but wonder how historians of the future will view people like Richard Dart?

Image credits:

The image of the Duke of Monmouth is by the Dutch portrait artist Willem Wissing - this image is in the public domain - the original painting currently hands at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The Trailer from the movie 'Comrades' is taken from YouTube.

The picture of the Trade Union demonstration outside the National Gallery was taken by me.

The photo of the Tolpuddle March from 2004 was taken by flickr member Tom Roper, a Medical Librarian from Seaford. You can see more of Tom's work on his flickrstream or on his blog.  Thanks to Tom for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons license.