Mi Réka . . .?
By: Saba Ghebremeskel
This is a primary research I conducted through interviews and my own observations. It is only a fraction of the vast, colorful cultural activities of Eritrea, which still preserves its peculiarity. Despite certain contextual commonality or minor alterations in the widely distributed Tigre ethnic group, the outcome of this research centers on the Tigre nomads in Sahel.
Communication is used to bring together various elements of information to one area, and to achieve an interaction that transfers messages within a given context. Messages can be conveyed through words, photographs, illustrations, electronic devices and so forth. This is the outcome of the various types of communication the world’s society exercised and developed throughout human evolution. We live in an era where the unrelenting technological advancements have rendered the world smaller and homogeneous.
Eritrea is one of the multi-ethnic group countries, which is located in the Horn of Africa. Its nine ethnic groups are settled in the lowland and highland areas. Their distinctive environment is a great factor in causing diversity in their cultures. As any other world society, they have created and developed their own ways and styles of communication.
“Mi réka?” and “Mi Semáka?” is one kind of communication practiced by the Tigre people–one of the nine ethnic groups in Eritrea. Literally, it is equivalent to: “What did you see?” and “What did you hear?” respectively. This can be generally recapped as “What’s up?” or, “What’s in the news?”
The Tigre ethnic group, which is settled mainly in the lowlands, covers a wide area of the country. They are extended in the main areas: Rora Mensaé, Afábet, Nakfa and Rora Habab up to Hager, Krora, Rora Maria, Barka, Northern Sahel, Semhar, Bejuk and Afta Zula. The Tigre ethnic group as many other ethnic nationalities of Eritrea practice both Christianity and Islam. Most of them are agriculturalists, and some, nomadic pastoralists. “Mi réka?” is a kind of communication that is exercised by all the Tigre ethnic groups, but this writing is mainly concerned with the Tigre nomads of Sahel.
They exercise “mi réka?” as their daily way of communication, where it plays a crucial role in their lives. This method of communication encompasses the process of maintaining as well as establishing a collaborative effort between at least two individuals. This process is part of everyday practice. The resulting alliance is based on reciprocity. It needs humble approach from both sides, honesty of the person and reliability of the information.
The Tigre of Sahel are pastoralists, who live in the arid land of Sahel. They lead a subsistence life based on rearing cattle, goats and camels; hence, they move from place to place in search of water and grazing areas. Their movement is decided depending on the information they gather. The maximum amount of time they spend in one area is about six months. “Sbk”, is the term they use for indexing transhumance trips from highlands to lowland plains–towards the coastal areas– and “sgm”, is the term used for reverse movement. Their other movement is the voyage from Sahel to Sudan, especially to places like Tocker and Kassala, where they buy their necessities. This type of cross-country transhumance is known as Agrh. It is obvious why the interrogative catch phrase “mi réka?” or, “mi semáka?” is widely spread among the Tigre nomads of Sahel. This very byword is the only access to information at their disposal. It is their compass–for it tells them where they are–it whispers them which path to follow–to trace new area–with unfailing food security. Therefore, it is “mi réka?” that allows them to survive.
Nowadays, a single or groups of families can travel towards their destination according to plan. But before the coming of Italian colonizers to Eritrea, the nomads of Sahel were obliged to travel in tribes that included groups of families. The reason is that the area of Sahel was full of bandits who lived off rustling cattle and camels. To face the bandits, the families were armed with swards, and the transhumance was carried out according to the information transmitted from their chiefs. Each tribe was administered by a tribal chief, who is known as “kentiebay”. These chiefs spread news to their tribes through “mi réka?” in an ordinary way. But the communication among the chiefs was implemented in a different manner. A special messenger was assigned to a chief, for the news was conveyed through a poetic art. He immediately learns the poem by heart and communicates it to the other tribal chief as is, memorizing every word of the poem. The other chief on his part sends back a response in the same way.
The reason why messages were sent in this way is, on the one hand, to be very specific, and to keep secrets through codes deciphered only by the chiefs on the other. In those days, there was a wide use of poems among the Tigre nomads of Sahel. To be a messenger was a special skill that gives a special place in the society. With the advent of Italians into Eritrea, the bandits did not have place in Sahel. So did the chiefs disappear. The poetic art for special messages also tailed off. But the age-old interrogative catch phrase “mi réka?” or, “mi semáka?” survived across generations.
When two nomads first meet on their way, one of them starts conversation by greeting “As salaam wa alaikum?” meaning “Peace be onto you”. It is an Arabic way of greeting adapted by the Tigre nomads. The greeting goes on step by step, after hoping that peace is with them, they carry on the perpetual use of their wish to one another, they ask for the health condition of everyone in the family including the herds. They inquire each other if everyone in the family is strong enough to face problems. This is an introduction warming up for longer conversation.
“Mn aya ínta? [Where did you come from?]” is the means of access leading towards the event in the news. The answer is not given directly, but he says he came from a place very near. Then continues the question, whether there is a good rainy season, if yes, whether the new grass for grazing has sprouted, and about its quantity. They also ask about the prevalence of mosquitos, and some other dangerous insects that could harm their families and cattle. They ask to ensure about the possibility of crossing rivers Anseba and Barka safely.
Slowly comes the moment of telling the exact names of the places where each of them came from. The reason seems to be related with psychological preparation they perform. As their life is full of movement, they simplify it by thinking that there is no faraway place in their voyages, because remoteness is related with the unattainable destination. Hence, every place is considered within reach.
Their conversation is so fluent and melodious that by hearing the nonstop inquiry and replay, one would notice the poetic sounds it has, which captures a human mind, inviting to enjoy it, even if one doesn’t understand the Tigre language. It becomes clear then that they have very reach vocabularies of greetings. To mention but a few: “Anf quduy” roughly translated, “Does your nose enables you to smell properly?” is one of the inquiries raised as a token of the good function of the olfactory hormone, and it indicates that the person is free from any disease. The word “fedab”, meaning courage, is used when they want to tell that everything is safe.
“Mi réka?” requires practical skills, and it also requires critical attention to messages, for it relies on the quality of individuals. Not all the individuals among the Tigre nomads gain the same credit, because the weight of the news depends essentially on the virtue of the informant. There are people whose news are considered full of fabrication, and those genuine people whose news are accepted and immediately implemented by the nomads everywhere. The immoral individuals are known and identified by every member of the society; therefore no one spends time to hear their fake news.
Furthermore, the continuous use of “mi réka?” helps them to develop a creative use of their language, and promotes certain ability of oratory. When the news is articulated by those skillful people, the recipient, attracted by the creative use of the language and by the depth of information, leans unconsciously on his stick, as if he is sitting in a chair comfortably. The news goes smooth without interruption. The traditional newsperson goes on raising his tone, and at other times, letting it fall, accompanied by the movement of his hands, to explain all details. The recipient accompanies him with continuously interposing follow-up utterances: “Aiwa, wa hare heni… ha… wa hare…” which means “yes, and then… yes… and then…” The eloquent ability of speaking goes beyond giving information, and the coherent storytelling coupled with rising and falling intonation give the impression as if a classical music is played to soothe a tired mind.
When the newsperson finishes, the recipient starts to ask very detailed questions. If the news is about a deer, which died crawling on the big stones of a mountain, and at the bottom, there were cattle and nomads, but fortunately none of them was harmed, the recipient inquires: To which tribe do the nomads belong, the quantity of the cattle that were there, what was the time when the incident happened, how well was the deer’s parts of body, to whom the meat was given, the skin, the horns, why…etc…. “The source informant answers: “Time was when the sun was sending its rays in a very oblique manner and announcing the end of the day, when the stone drove the deer to death, God miraculously protected the youngsters, who were looking after the herds peacefully. The deer’s meat was distributed to the dogs of your tribe, the skin to three nomads that were there, and I took the horns etc.” Satisfied by the news, they thank each other and continue their respective ways, sharing the news with the others.
Sahel is a very wide area characterized by a chain of mountains. Therefore, the nomads keep an eye on the water, or for some other purposes, cross its valleys and rise at the top of the mountain. If someone happens to be on the other top, even from a distance they ask each other about the news. They try to be as loud as possible to understand each other, and they devote a lot of efforts and energy. When a third person is incidentally present at the other top, he doesn’t hesitate to join them. They can understand each other by tracing the faintest voice that carries the message.
In the evening when everybody is home, they exchange information. The mother that has been there, looking after tiresome domestic activities informs her husband and kids, what she has heard and seen during the day. The kids also play their role by sharing what they have heard from their peers, and so does the father. Before they go to sleep, the husband asks his wife if she has noticed changes in the surrounding of their home, and to study the situation, he becomes quite specific: “Was the shadow of the tree bigger than usual? Was the tree swaying frequently more than natural?“ His doubt is, a wild animal could have climbed there and waiting until darkness falls, to attack and devour them, for this reason the appearance and the unusual swinging of the tree which is located at the side of their hut could give a sign of danger if seen critically. Thus the power of descriptive ability is really essential in their daily life.
The Tigre nomads of Sahel try, all their best, to interact with any one they contact on their way. Sometimes they could even meet people from other ethnic groups, taking in consideration their nature; they would never let them go without satisfying their quest for information.
One day two men from Nara ethnic group travelled across Sahel area to look after their lost camel. They were so in hurry, that when they saw from a distance two Tigre nomads, tried all their best to get rid of them. But later on they realized that the nomads would not let them go without sharing the news. The Nara men decided to answer them that they knew nothing because they came from the sky. But when the two nomads heard this they were even happier, they were pleased to know what was going on up in the sky. This was unexpected by the Nara men and they didn’t have a choice but to tell them what they have seen on earth and not in the sky. Both the Tigre nomads and the Nara ethnic group practice Islam, they both have general knowledge of Arabic based on Holy Quran lessons and the contact with their neighboring Sudanese people. These common factors give way a ground to the understanding of each other through Arabic based pidgin language (lingua franca). They apply it by using very limited vocabulary, without being interested in its fluency or accuracy; they use more Arabic words and mix it with their mother tongue and by inferring their semantic meaning. At last, they satisfy their thirst of information.
There exists a slogan among the Tigre nomads of Sahel; the person who has more information has more power. They believe that to gain information one needs to be fast and confidential. But sometimes they become victims of their own culture, because there is no secrecy among them. There are times when it becomes very difficult for them to find an area, where there is water and grass, for their families. After they have decided to move to a more secure place they need to keep the news secret, because other people can take the advantage of deciding faster and moving to that area. To avoid this, they socialize their children by teaching them the essentiality of keeping secrets. There is a story narrated to their children that survived through generations.
Once upon a time, a monkey, before moving to another place, went to survey an area, to know whether it is suitable to his family or not. Satisfied by his survey, announces to his family to get ready to move to an area where there is more water and food. While father and mother were engaged in planning how to move, one of their children went to fetch water together with his friends. Naturally they exchange information, and he tells them that they are about to move to a place full of water and food. He gave all the detailed information to his friends, when a father monkey from another family heard this, without wasting time took his family and moved there. But the previous monkey’s father was obliged to do another survey in search of a place where his family could move. Therefore the nomads tell this story to their children so they can learn how to keep secrets when it is necessary.
Nowadays, to get information is a matter of pressing the button of a radio, TV. Computer, etc… Similarly, to spread the news among the Tigre nomads of Sahel is a matter of uttering a word and it travels very fast throughout the arid land.
“Mi réka?” plays an indispensable role in the daily life of the Tigre nomads of Sahel. It is commonly shared and is the insurance for the survival of the nomads. That’s why, it is a moral obligation of every member of the nomad society to preserve it. “Mi réka?” through its powerful descriptive and artistic capability can be a food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, and medicine for the sick. It should be preserved, cultivated, nurtured, and left as a legacy for generations to come