Modern Eritrea’s short history is often told as a story of triumph. The values of self-reliance, sacrifice, and unity that we fostered during our armed struggle for independence helped us not only win the war but also forged a strong national identity that persists to this day. This proud legacy of heroism is the birthright of all Eritreans and serves as a reminder that it is often the force of a people’s values and not the strength of arms that is the decisive factor in conflicts. Before independence, these values were promoted most vividly in the diaspora at cultural festivals such as the Bologna Eritrean Festival in Italy and the Kassel Eritrean Festival in Germany.
These large events were first conceived by exiles linked to the different armed groups vying for independence. In so much as they were an expression of culture, they were also an expression of the politics of the time. A quick Youtube search of the Bologna Festival of 1991 captures just how heavily politicized these events were.
These weren’t just organic jamborees, as some outside observers would be forgiven to believe; they were deliberately created to raise money and support for the political movements they were conceived by. By the time it became the preeminent power in Eritrea, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), later the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), would come to exercise control over these celebrations.
As the exile population grew throughout the 1980s, so did the proliferation of such festivals. Nearly every continent with a sizable Eritrean community continued to organize them after independence was achieved. The festival hosted where I live, the United States, is set to take place in Dallas, Texas, between August 5-7.