Preserving Tigrayan Identity
“Genocide destroys the group by destroying what unifies individuals into one group, that is, by destroying their social identity. Social identity is destroyed by destroying features that constitute it—for example, shared language, cultural customs, relationships, and cultural artifacts.” – Rasa Davidavičiūtė
For the last two years, Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, has been attacked in a genocidal war. During this war, Tigrayans have been targeted by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in an extensive list of war crimes and brutal, outrageous human rights violations. Alongside these crimes, invading forces have attacked Tigrayan culture, heritage, language, and identity. One part of genocide is cultural warfare, and Tigrayans in the diaspora must pair their activism with practices that promote and preserve the Tigrayan identity.
In Tigray, a grandmother, her children, and her children’s children represent three consecutive generations of people who have been subjected to war, violence, bombs, and starvation. In June 2021, European Special Envoy Pekka Haavisto revealed the genocidal intent of Ethiopian leaders who said, in his presence, that “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.” The atrocities occurring against Tigrayans are evidence of this intent to get rid of Tigrayans and their identity once and for all. From statements such as “A Tigrayan womb should never give birth,” which are accompanied by sexual assault that leaves women infertile, to being banned from and beaten for speaking Tigrigna, the Tigrayan identity is being attacked in every aspect. Therefore, Tigrayans around the world must ensure they are actively advocating to end the genocide while participating in ways to preserve Tigrayan customs, history, language, and traditions.
The survival of the Tigrayan identity, culture, and people is undoubtedly impacted by the actions of Tigrayans in the diaspora. While fighting tirelessly to end the genocidal war, a responsibility exists to preserve the culture and cultivate a future where the Tigrayan identity will not be compromised. The value of community should never be underestimated. It is not untrue that individuals are capable of accomplishing high achievements, but only a community with shared histories, struggles, and goals can fortify an identity and pass on culture to future generations. For this reason, it is necessary to build sustainable communities that are thriving academically, in business and health, financially, mentally, and socially. Being strategic in networking both within and outside of the community and globally promoting Tigray’s name is imperative to the development and security of Tigray itself.
For decades, Tigrayans in the diaspora have facilitated spaces to celebrate and preserve their heritage through cultural shows and festivals. Long-lasting organizations like the Tigrai Development Association (TDA) and various alumni groups have made significant strides in uniting Tigrayans internationally while also supporting efforts for Tigray’s growth. Additionally, the diaspora has been pivotal in transforming education throughout Tigray, building schools and libraries to help the next generation. These are important to mention, as the institution of Tigrayan intellectualism and scholarship has been systematically attacked throughout the genocide, compromising students’ and academics’ livelihoods and the human right to education.
Initiatives throughout history made by Tigrayans in the diaspora have been crucial in preserving Tigray’s culture, identity, and heritage. Now more than ever, Tigrayans are fervently campaigning to end the genocidal war while finding new ways to protect the Tigrayan identity. Communities across the globe are taking advocacy and cultural preservation to new heights. Examples of this include the establishment of the Tigrayan Orthodox Church, the creation of global networks, and the growing number of community organizations and advocacy groups.
Fostering environments where mental health is genuinely valued and the trust and comfort of the people are ensured is vital to the existence of strong communities. Some individuals just need a place to heal, somewhere to tell people what they are going through. One of the most effortless roles for every single Tigrayan in the diaspora is to show up and support one another. There are serious and grave issues causing diasporan Tigrayans to lose their lives, and this must be addressed in conjunction with fighting against genocide.
Throughout the genocidal war, there have been relentless attacks on Tigray’s heritage. Deliberate attacks on heritage, such as bombing historical sites and looting ancient artifacts, are a form of cultural erasure and are recognized as war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Such attacks are attempts at eradicating the Tigrayan people and identity, and endeavors from the diaspora must be made to mitigate such cultural destruction. Culture nights and fashion shows, art displays, Tigray merchandise, Tigrigna classes, cooking channels, celebrating holidays, and attending academic conferences surrounding Tigray are examples of cultural preservation and strengthening the Tigrayan identity. Additionally, constructing healthy outlets such as soccer teams, basketball tournaments, women’s associations, and support groups promotes beneficial community-building opportunities. Supplying local communities with resources for civic engagement empowers Tigrayans to hold public institutions accountable for their responsibilities to their constituents.
There is a duty, especially in times of genocide, to uphold and preserve the Tigrayan identity and culture. Continue to engage, facilitate, and support each other. Get involved in your local community. Everyone has a skill, idea, or network that can contribute to the growth and development of Tigray in some way. Show up for the people of Tigray, who are tormented by the shadow of death each day. All resources must be utilized to save our families, friends, and home. As an extension of your family, you are an extension of Tigray.
Tigrayans reserve the right to exist proudly and unapologetically and will continue to do so as they have throughout history.
Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, October 2022