Eritrea is an East African country situated just above Ethiopia. At one point in the country’s history, it was annexed by Ethiopia, which led to numerous armed conflicts between the Ethiopian army and Eritreans fighting for their country’s independence. Many civilians were forced to flee Eritrea, and they ended up living in refugee camps. This is what happened to Sulaiman Addonia, author of Silence is My Mother Tongue, and his novel is the story of life in one such refugee camp.
The central character in the novel is Saba, a teenage girl with a passion for learning. Before fleeing to the refugee camp with her mother and brother, Saba had been attending school, with the hope of becoming a doctor someday. Her family took very little with them when they left their home, and Saba was forced to abandon her books. “So Saba stayed up days and nights before their departure, memorizing her favourite passages from the books she would leave behind.” Being able to return to school is the dream that sustains Saba during her time in the camp.
The reason Saba was able to attend school before she lived in the camp was because her brother, Hagos, can’t speak, so it had been decided that it was a waste of time for him to attend school. Saba was sent instead. Hagos gradually settled into a more traditionally-female role, looking after his mother and sister. He is beautiful and fastidious, and he and Saba share a special bond. His silence is a metaphor for the secrets that people in the camp never tell.
Saba constantly fights against attempts by her mother and the camp’s midwife, who has known Saba since she was a child, to mold her into a compliant young woman, who will form an advantageous marriage and be a good wife. One bone of contention is that Saba was never circumcised, the euphemism for female genital mutilation. Her grandmother, who had been something of a free spirit, had managed to prevent Saba’s mother from having the procedure done when Saba was younger. Now that Saba is in the camp, however, she has to fend off the midwife, who sees herself as the guardian of Saba’s morals. The midwife wants to perform the circumcision to make sure Saba will never be able to enjoy sex, which the midwife believes would lead to promiscuity.
Acts of a sexual nature occur frequently in the book. Sometimes, they are loving acts, tender or joyous. Other times, they are acts of aggression, violent or exploitive. And often, they are just transactional, a simple commodity. Saba’s life in the camp involves all of these different scenarios.
Throughout the ordeal of camp life, however, Saba never loses sight of her dream to go back to school and become a doctor. When aid workers come to the camp to distribute food and other supplies, she always asks when they’ll come with materials to build a school. She finds ways to earn money in the camp so she’ll have the means to leave if she ever has the opportunity. She even finds someone in the camp who can teach her English. Thrust into an untenable situation, Saba takes to heart the words of a young woman she’d read about in a British newspaper: “Dreams for a woman are no longer inherited but created.”
Lentils are a staple in the refugee camp, as they are in a vegan kitchen. In Eritrean cuisine, berbere is a spice blend often used to season the food, and it is mentioned numerous times in Silence is My Mother Tongue. When looking for something to cook for this post, finding a recipe on the Global Table Adventure website for Eritrean lentil stew that was seasoned with berbere seemed like the perfect choice. I found berbere, a mixture of roasted red chilies, cumin, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, garlic, and salt, at my local spice shop, The Allspicery.
The recipe was easy to make, and was very filling and flavorful. I served it over rice, which was often brought to the people in the refugee camp by the aid workers.
Women and girls in the book’s refugee camp spend time every day gathering firewood to fuel their mogogo stoves. These mogogos are in common use throughout Eritrea and require large amounts of firewood, which leads to problems of deforestation. When I checked the GlobalGiving.com website, I was happy to see that one of the organizations needing funding in Eritrea is building “ecological and energy efficient ovens for Eritrean families that would contribute to reduce wood consumption by fifty per cent.” The new ovens will also reduce the amount of smoke that escapes into the air during the cooking process, which will lead to a decrease in pollution and help prevent health conditions that are caused by the smoke. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/ecological-ovens-eritrea/.
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