When your Eritrean relatives live 6,660 miles away (Google gave me this number), and they are unable to visit you in America, your goal is to become fully present and relish every moment with them. I woke up every day with this mentality last summer when staying with relatives in my parent’s native for the first time in 14 years.
At first, I didn’t know how to approach any of them. How I’d feel in their living room. And whether it was safe to tell them I’d been waiting for this day to come. I also felt apprehensive about how my troubling, subconscious thinking would display on my face, and whether it would accurately reflect the insecurity and vulnerability that comes with being in a room with the elders of my generation.
I didn’t gravitate toward any member particularly. But meeting Regat – who didn’t wait outside the airport to greet me like the rest of them, but stayed behind to help another aunt and my grandmother furnish the room and prepare food – didn’t feel strange.
“Upon meeting Regat, I noticed her style of hug. It was firm and forceful; she looked like a short-legged woman trying to grasp something that was out of reach.
Like how I sometimes extend my arm for brown pasta on the top shelf of the cabinet.”
I immediately sensed her spirit animal a dolphin. Her playfulness, cooperation, and inner strength are some of the qualities I picked out in my aunt Regat days into my visit. I would be remiss if I don’t mention her smile and gift of gab. She is so clumsy that dishes and menkerker’s (see what that means here) fell from her grip on several occasions. This was usually followed by an annoyed reaction from someone in the family and her in hysteria. I remember one of the first questions she asked me, too.
“T’hatsenki?” she said with a quick glance at the gold ring wrapped tightly on my ring finger.
For a long time, I had grown comfortable with the idea of fooling Eritreans that I was or would soon be married.
I think Regat
talks herself out of mourning. She cherishes human interactions and laughs at her clumsiness despite what life has hurled out.
In 1989, Regat gave birth to her first child out of wedlock. In America, this used to be called “a bastard child.” Giving birth without holding marital status or without the intention of eventually marrying the father of the child is stigmatized in Eritrean society. I couldn’t get straight answers out of my mother as to how Regat found herself in this predicament. To make matters worse, she was a minor and had a teenage birth in the home.
I wouldn’t dare ask my aunt and have her relieve any painful moments of her life, either.
Born to poverty, Regat was now a single teen mom with a physical handicap. Regat discontinued her education altogether and leaned on the support of her parents who were then living in Asmara.
My mom explained once how infuriated my grandfather took the news. He is still a hot head today so I can imagine how fearful I would’ve been. But with the tenderness that most children pass on to humans, he and my grandmother forgave Regat and took in their first grandchild. With their help, Regat and her daughter lived comfortably despite unemployment and the absence of a father while the nation of Eritrea, itself, was only a few years old. I hear they loved Regat’s child enough to the extinct that my grandmother deemed my cousin her fourteenth child.
Regat put her child through the education system up to grade 10, which my cousin then completed her national service required of all pupils in the 11th and 12th grades. But in 2011, a year after service, Regat’s child saw a similar fate to many of Eritrea’s youth today in pursuit of economic welfare.
She left the country on a border run near what I believe was from my grandparent’s village of Adi Quala to its Tigrayan neighbors.
Who really knew if Regat thought her daughter would leave?
Who knew if Regat had any thoughts lingering in the back of her mind.
My cousin, Semhar, took the dangerous (and respectfully deceitful) way out of Eritrea. She allegedly confiscated a pile of money to pay her way across the Southern border along with her peers.
(Where the details get murky are here.)
She fell to her death into a lake that swept her away. She might have had a grip on the person in front or behind her. I hear nineteen others were with Semhar. And that Semhar was the only one who drowned. I don’t know who phoned my family so they could relay the most devastating information any parent could meet, but that harrowing phone call confirmed that the journey to raising a daughter in poverty a regret.
What I do know is that Semhar’s body was never found.
She may have been 21 years young when she lost her life.
She may have celebrated her 26th birthday today.
She may have found shelter somewhere in one of those European countries today.
She may have been able to send our grandfather money to build a toilet he’s been telling my mom over long-distance calling.
She may have made a courtesy call to her mother in Eritrea today.
But she knows our family would have come up with enough money to bury her.
She knows our family misses her dearly.
All I remember of Semhar was that she didn’t resemble her mother, my aunt Regat but shared a similar web of physical attributes mirrored in her younger brother’s face. Cerack, age 16.
At times, Regat tries to earn whatever she can by selling scarves and other articles of clothing. An uncle confined to the military in Eritrea replenishes Regat with items for her to sell on errand runs to Asmara. Regat usually sells them through word of mouth.
Regat resides in the Arbaete Asmara district with her son and my feisty aunt whose name means beautiful in Italian. They are overwhelmed with poverty and are grappling rent inflation in the neighborhood. I’ve only been to their place once and I’m embarrassed to say in print how much money the tenants are requesting from them given the size and conditions of the home, accessibility to public transportation, and the increased cost of living in the country.
The home is about the same size as my bedroom in the States. It’s a narrow room with twin beds on opposite sides, a television, duqas (stools) in lieu on chairs, and shelves for ornaments and pictures. About seven people could wedge inside.
I didn’t see a bathroom in my aunts’ bedroom-style home either. I think I peed somewhere squatting outside.
Sometime during my visit, I noticed half of my family dozed off amid Asmara’s heat heat that leaped in through Regat’s open door. Calm and not conversing as much as we normally have, the sun had successfully blocked all points of pity on Regat’s miniscule home. We just shared a family-sized shahani with enough injera/tayta to feed the mouths of five adults and three children. I even noticed a portrait of Semhar printed on a card with angels around her that said “Zekire seleste aqmi” in Tigrinya.
Could a parent who loses her child even stomach looking at a digitized print of her every day? I thought.
As our pallets were still salivating from the pungent berbere now in our bellies, I realized Regat wasn’t suffering after all. As long as she continued to walk in the faith of amlak, she was rich off the wealth of her vivacious family and self.
This blessing called family and self-love isn’t a given.
Even though I’m not physically near Regat, I am always with her in spirit. The faint sound of her jabber, laughs, limped walking and smile remains etched in my mind continents away.