SHIDA: The one that bore Eritrea’s triumphs and tribulations

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), hailed as the highest organizational expression of the Eritrean people’s liberation struggle, has few equals. Against all odds, it proved that with a conscious population, a bit of of ingenuity and unparalleled sacrifice, it was possible to defeat the largest army in Africa supported by the West and the Soviet Union. In 1991 it liberated Eritrea from the shackles of Ethiopian colonialism, after a bitter 30-year long armed struggle.

The EPLF won the admiration of both friends and foe alike for its extraordinarily disciplined corps, its decidedly self-reliant attitude and most importantly, its documented military successes, as well as its success in transforming Eritrean society. The Peoples Front forced military strategists and policymakers to step back and reluctantly accept Eritrea’s victory over Ethiopia. EPLF was not fit the typical liberation movement models of the time, and its successor, the Peoples Front for Justice and Democracy (PFDJ) is proving that, it too doesn’t fit the conventional African post independence movement that the west is accustomed to seeing…

The 1998-2000 “border conflict” with Ethiopia saw the mushrooming of various anti-Eritrea campaigns-designed to give the minority regime in Ethiopia a victory that it could not get on the battlefield. The campaigns to undermine Eritrea’s economic, social and political developments over the last 15 years have taken many forms. From its cultural institutions to its budding institutions of government, to its leadership and people-none was spared the constant orchestrated vilification and defamation by western academia, media and NGO community-including fundamentalist Christian extremists such as Open Doors, Compass Direct and the Jubilee Campaign.

There seem to be more articles and books published about Eritrea today, than in the entire 100 year history of Eritrea. Today, some western nations and the press in their employ, who had remained conspicuously silent during the Eritrean people’s bitter 30-year struggle for independence, and who had suppressed any information about the horrific crimes being committed against the people of Eritrea by successive Ethiopian regimes, are falling all over each other to produce a series of reports (all negative) on Eritrea. The Eritrean Diaspora is also the subject of at least a dozen “research papers”. While all that is great for a country that was ignored for so long, why not do a coherent study? Why the “cut and paste” and pass on nauseatingly repeated narratives for research? It is shameful and only adds insult to injury of a historically aggrieved, yet stoically magnanimous population. What gives?

Much has been written about the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and its extraordinary accomplishments during Eritrea’s struggle for independence. While there is some literature (not enough) written by the freedom fighters themselves, there are also a few notable books written by non-Eritreans such as the Australian author Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark and Towards Asmara, James Firebrace & Stuart Holland who produced Never Kneel Down and EritreaEven the Stones are Burning, Roy Pateman’s chronicle of the peoples liberation struggle. Post independence Eritrea saw the mushrooming of western “scholars” who are now publishing numerous “research” papers on Eritrea, its people and its government. One such foreigner is David Bozzini, a Swiss German political anthropologist, who insists on insulting the people of Eritrea, those living in Eritrea and even the Diaspora.

Bozzini, a Swiss national, goes through great lengths to undermine Eritrea’s National Service program. In that misrepresentation of Eritrea’s value system, Bozini is in fact shamelessly telling his readers that, “what’s good for the geese is not good for the gander”. After all, Switzerland is one of the most heavily armed state in Europe and one that has mandatory national service for its citizens. Admitting that his sources for what he calls “extensive investigations” were “more than forty conscripts and deserters”. The Sawa Training Center has graduated over 200000 Eritreans who are in service today, and Bozini wants his readers to believe the “over forty conscripts and deserters” were representative of Eritrean society. There are several “research” papers on Eritrea authored by this Swiss man-the one I want to write about is the one entitled, “Footwear for Liberation, Footwear for the Nation: War, Economic Policy, Plastic Sandals, and Public Discourse in Eritrea”.

Bozini’s contempt and subtle racism are exposed in his writings about the Shida-the black sandals worn by Eritrean fighters during the struggle for independence and now staple footwear in every Eritrean household, both in Eritrea and in the Diaspora. As he does with almost all his papers on Eritrea, he presents Eritrea as a country that is closed to the world-meaning the western world-as if it were entitled, to free entry at will. Bozzini prefaces his paper by telling his readers that:

“…Only very few studies about the Eritrean economy have been made in the last four decades. Due to the military and political situation, research has been seriously restricted. Economic data and indicators are either inexistent or unavailable for the territory that constitutes present day Eritrea for the time before and after independence in 1991…”

That is somehow supposed to excuse his poor research and analysis of the Eritrean economy. And Bozzini writes this about the Shida:

“…As in many other African countries, sandals are the population’s main footwear. Plastic sandals were among the few commodities produced in the first “Eritrean industrial park” run underground by the EPLF guerilla during the liberation struggle against Ethiopian occupation (1960-1991). Narratives about Eritrean freedom fighters repairing their sandals again and again are widespread. After independence, sandal production was integrated into the state-led economy and is today portrayed as self sustaining despite the obvious lack of chemical industry. Both production technology and fashion style have stayed the same throughout the last forty years. Plastic sandals have thus become a symbol of continuity and there are numerous stories speculating on their origin. Furthermore, they are central to political imagination…”

 Had he done his research, Bozzini would have found the origins of the Shida-no need for speculation. His intention is not to inform honestly, but to insult Eritrea by inference. Neither the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, nor its successor the Peoples Front for Justice and Democracy (PFDJ), nor the Government of Eritrea ever laid claim to the origins of the Shida as being Eritrean. But it didn’t stop Bozzini from speculating. Here is what he wrote:

“…two notions of the commodity chains along which the sandals came to Eritrea either identify them with the source of a socialist economic policy of Cuban root or with an Asian style liberalism of Hongkong origin…”

What he is really trying to say is , that they are of “Communist” origin. I suppose if they were of European origin, that would somehow make it okay.

Secondly, why is having no “chemical industry” in Eritrea relevant? The production of these sandals, however it is done, is more important in guaranteeing access to affordable footwear for the people…THAT is what really matters.

Bozzini is neither interested in Eritrea’s economy, nor the well being of its citizens. His paper has everything to do with denigrating an Eritrean national symbol-to reduce the Shida to a mere shoe-as a direct attack on Eritrean national culture and self designed nationhood.

As for the narratives on the revered Shida, allow me to present some from those who understand Eritrea and is struggles:

  • “…definitively symbolizes such self-reliance, collectivity and rudimentary survival. The monument celebrates, not an individual, or even a generic fighter, but a giant pair of sandals-shedas…such sandals worn by every Eritrean fighter during the long struggle with Ethiopia were made from recycled tire rubber, and gave fighters the ability to move quickly in the stony desert war zone. The monument shows what mythic proportions the conflict with Ethiopia has achieved in the minds of Eritreans; it has come to supersede the power of religion itself, in a society split evenly between Islam and Orthodox Christianity. This is an impressive achievement on a continent where Muslims and Christians are forming increasingly antagonistic group identities…Eritrea’s clarified sense of nationhood, rare in a world of nation states rent by  tribalism and globalization…”-(Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana addressing the House of Representatives on 26 March 2003)
  • “…The shida is far more than a cheap, plastic sandal in the Eritrean psyche. It is the footwear that Eritrean nationalists have worn since the 1960’s in their fight to attain an independent country… They had many benefits in the sweltering heat of the rugged border region. They were inexpensive and allowed air to circulate around the feet…A shida-making machine was set up near the front. When one of the straps on a shida breaks, it can be quickly fixed with a small flame by melting it back together again…” -(Marc Lacey-New York Times, “For Eritrean Guerrillas, War Was Hell (and Calluses)”-2 May 2002)
  • “…Most nations erect grandiose monuments to their historical triumphs. Eritrea put up a pair of sandals. The sculpted black metal shoes in Asmara’s Shida (Sandal) Square, recalling the footwear of Eritrea’s rebels, were a symbol of its remarkable 30-year independence war against its giant neighbour, Ethiopia, which ended with secession in 1991…”-(Andrew Cawthorne, Reuters, “ Tiny Eritrea makes big footprints in Africa”, 30 May 2008)
  • “…the sandals are a symbol of the thirty year long Eritrean independence movement…this type of sandal was worn by Eritrean freedom fighters, as it was made of inexpensive plastic and was easily mass produced. The sandal’s style kept the fighters’ feet cool during Eritrea’s blistering summers, and the plastic straps were easily melted back together if broken. A soldier fighting for Eritrean independence was easily identifiable to the general populace by his or her sandals, so the monument remains a tribute to the fighter’s struggle that needs no explanation…” (Sandra Joireman-Nationalism and Political Identity)

Much has been said about the Shida-the legendary rubber sandals worn by Eritrea’s liberation war fighters, a symbol of Eritrea’s determination, resistance and self reliance, but not enough. But how much can one say about a shoe? Lots…if one is to document the history of a people who fought against all odds…much more if the history of every individual that wore that sandal is to be told in full.

Bozzini’s assault on the Shida and distortions on the economic model pursued by Eritrea continued with this:

“…In line with the postcolonial elite’s economic strategy, the sandals are used as a symbol of nation-building because their endurance is the embodiment of what is necessary to progress. Besides this “mild shoe fetishism” in Eritrean nationalism, the plastic sandal is a commodity that allows Eritreans not only to walk but also to turn the nation-building metaphor upside down and identify the sandals as symbols of poverty and the enduring failure of governmental economic policy….”

There are no “elite” to speak of in Eritrea and members of the Eritrean government can hardly be considered members of an elite class in conventional terms and I don’t know why he chose to reduce what the Shida represents to Eritreans as a “mild shoe fetishism” is beyond me-unless he is once again trying to reduce an Eritrean symbol of dignity, perseverance and pride to a mere fetish. Bozzini has fears that the Shida would become a “symbol of continuity” and “political imagination”-as if these were the purview of a few nations in our world.

Cultivating a national culture, instilling pride in the new generation, preserving and teaching about the peoples struggle is not a sin-it is what must be done, so that the people of Eritrea are never again colonized-physically or mentally. The Shida, like any other national symbol of any other country is an important part of the Eritrean people’s shared history and experience. David A. Butz tells us that:

”  . . national symbols often do not only represent the general concept ‘nation,’ but also condense the knowledge, values, history, and memories associated with one’s nation. Further, it is clear that national symbols also hold the potential to represent the strong emotional attachments felt for one’s nation…”

I doubt that Bozzini would insult Americans for the “bald eagle”, “statue of liberty”, or France’s Eiffel Tower or the English national symbols…so why is it okay for him to insult that of Eritrea? Mr. Bozzini ought to tell us, what if any our proud culture, history and traditions are we allowed to preserve? And who decides?

Bozzini ought to respect the fact that, as an independent country with a conscious and intellectually sound people, her people will decide what constitutes as part of their history and culture. The Shida does not just represent the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Army, the peoples’ army; it represents the thousands of Eritrean men, women and children whose lives were sacrificed in order to liberate Eritrea. It represents the shared pain and suffering of ALL. Bozzini’s assault on the Shida is yet another attempt to disassociate the Front from the people. A desperate and futile one at that…

There is a popular saying that says, “walk a mile in their shoes before you judge someone”. Had Bozzini really bothered to find out about the Shida and its meaning to Eritreans, he would have had to make only one stop-all he had to do was contact Eritrea’s Samuel Almede[i], an accomplished award-winning journalist, songwriter, and poet painstakingly through his lyrics, recorded for posterity, the incredible history of fortitude, of pain and suffering, of incredible unimaginable feats, of unparalleled courage and valor and most of all, of the eternal sacrifice of Eritrea’s freedom fighters.

In the Shida, he depicted the horror of war, the long bitter struggle, the suffering and daily difficulties faced by the compatriots. Samuel tracks the journey of the freedom fighter through the Shida, to the mountainsides, to the sandy shores of the Red Sea and through fields of thorn and other inhabitable terrains. To an average observer, they may look like nothing more than a pair of lifeless plastic sandals, but they represent so much more. If told, it would have been a story of where they had been the spirit of those who wore them, their heartbeat, and scars of war. They would have told of the number of mountains, rivers and valleys traversed, the blood spilled and mangled bodies of those who traveled in them….turbulent miles in search of freedom.

Understandably, it is all a bit much, even for an ordinary Eritrean to appreciate fully, but it is a story of a people that can never be easily dismissed by a non-descript researcher on a mission of hate. David Bozzini’s contempt for Eritreans is obvious from the various “research” papers that he has been producing lately. His deliberate attempt at distortion of the history is a futile intellectual adventure, serves no purpose and only adds to the ignorance and misinformation about Eritrea in academia.

Journalist Will Harte, obviously does not know much about the Shida, or its versatility.  Writing for running times[ii], he witnessed Eritrean athletes wearing the Shida and in what comes off as a crude attempt to downplay the significance of the Shida, Harte wrote:

“…Incredibly, a few of the other athletes are wearing the thin plastic shida sandals made popular during Eritrea’s 30-year Struggle for Independence. This flimsy footwear can scarcely be expected to provide protection against the razor-sharp rocks that are everywhere here…”

If only he knew…

One sandal, many wearers, and when it was worn out, it was recycled to make new ones, passing on from one fighter to another and with it adding to its historic genealogy, and Eritrea’s with it. Eritreans, especially the youth, understand the significance of the Shida and it has become a must buy item for those who travel to Eritrea. It is used in almost all cultural events, at the annual festivals and is prominently featured on 20 June every year, when Eritreans around the world come together to pay tribute to Eritrea’s fallen heroes. But there are also other times when Eritrea’s beloved sons and daughters are remembered. The Shida has been painted on all kinds of surfaces and it has been bronzed and ironed in exhibitions. It has hung in walls and is found in Eritrea’s museums, but that is not all… the Shida is now a fashion statement too.

Zekaryas Solomon, an Eritrean architect turned fashion designer, and a recipient of several awards who recently featured as one of “Africa’s Top 10 Male Fashion Designers”, explained in his interview when asked about why he used the Shida in his catwalks:

“…The story of using SHIDA on one of my catwalks was very emotional. I wanted to say always thank you to my family who made always sure to teach me my tradition, language, history and support me with everything, to all harbegnatat (Eritrean heroes) who gave me a heritage “free Eritrea” and to those (my fans) who are always supporting me to make the next step. I didn’t know how and where to start and whom first and whom next to thank. I was thinking and researching on one thing which would make every Eritrean proud. The other important thing was to introduce SHIDA and the story of it to all my non Eritrean friends and fans. I chose SHIDA as : Symbol of my Eritreawinet (Eritreanism)…Proud of my country, my history and my people…Respect of those who lost their lives for us, the new generation…”

In 2012, 11 young students from the Eritrean Institute of Technology produced for their senior project an idea that that would put the likes of Bozzini to shame. They chose to focus on the Shida and decided to put together an architectural plan to build a museum in the shape of the footwear that had played such a significant role in Eritrea’s history…as a way to preserve its stature in the Eritrean national psyche.

In a Twitter exchange a few months back, Bozzini had the audacity to label the author- “Beles”(Cactus), a seasonal fruit in Eritrea-term used to refer to seasonal visitors to the country. No doubt he picked it up from the street talks where most of his “research” on Eritrea is conducted. It was his way of telling me, an Eritrean American, that he was better placed to speak on behalf of the people of Eritrea than I was. That he was better connected to Eritrea, than I was. That he had the intellectual capacity to read the minds of the Eritrean people, than I did. In short, this white man who had spent less than two years “researching” Eritrea was supposedly better poised to understand the needs of the people than I was. Such is the arrogance that the Eritrean Diaspora deals with on a daily basis…

David Bozzini had a variety of sources to reach out to, in order to write a well researched paper on an Eritrean icon….but since his intention was to denigrate, he relied on information that led him astray…and ended up…even more  ignorant for it.

Enjoy the beautiful song Shida-as sung by Kahsay Berhe

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOeij4gpJm4

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