Language as Diasporic Heritage: Excavating Words and Histories From Sweden to Eritrea



Language is one of the key components of both diasporic identity and colonial history. In this personal text, Makda Embaie describes from Sweden how her mother tongue has been affected by the life trajectories of her parents, and how its practice disrupts the legacy of Italian colonialism.

What can one take with them when fleeing war and poverty caused by years of colonialism, western imperialism and the violence of capitalism across borders created by the same mechanisms?

Although much has to be left behind when crossing borders, diluted narratives, memories, language and traces of trauma rarely disappears. I want to challenge you to not forget the violent narratives, but also to break out of binary ways of understanding the languages we tell these stories in. This following part will consider how my specific experience of learning my mother-tongue visualizes a form of discourse that actively resists the nation state.

My father migrated from Asmara in 1987, my mother from Addis Ababa in 1989. He lived during the occupation of Ethiopia, which prevented him from speaking Tigrinya for the majority of his life. Italian was encouraged, the national anthem of Ethiopia forced. She was born to a businessman and a multi-occupied woman that moved to Addis Ababa in their early twenties to expand on their laundry business. My mother’s first language is hence, Amharic.

The state of Sweden allows elementary students to take classes in their mother tongue for the first time in 1968. In 1991, during the nationalist party New Democracy’s rise in the Swedish parliament, a new law made the state responsible to provide classes only if there were more than five students eligible.

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Nakfa house built in 1997 in Asmara. / Photo by Makda Embaie (February 2019).

In a small municipality in the south-east part of Sweden, with roughly 5,000 inhabitants, a water-pump company employed a large part of the residents, including my father — who at that time was the only one with a child requesting classes in his mother-tongue. We did not reach the requirements, this being in the late 1990s. My mother-tongue, was hence literally passed on to me by my mother and father. They spoke to me in Tigrinya until we had a common understanding of our lives. This is the very specific circumstances of my language. I only realize it is soaked by this experience when I am confronted by other Tigrinya-speakers.

Learning what I had thought was Tigrinya was actually a fusion of different languages and times of Tigrinya, Amharic, Arabic, Italian, and English has meant that I had to be confronted with the idea of not having a binary cultural identity that was only connected to where I was born, Sweden, with where my parents had their roots, Eritrea.

It was distilled through this very specific filter of circumstances that is partially the result of colonial hegemonies. That hegemony surfaced in another form during the research trip to Asmara with the course Decolonizing Architecture at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, during mid-February, within the context of the UNESCO project: Asmara Heritage Project.

We enter into a city I have visited before. Now inhabited by Italian colonial nostalgia, it is unlike the city I knew before the UNESCO project. It is a city with fascist traces and urban planning that divides the city into “Italian” and “Indigenous” areas, as if it was a division that had to do with ethnicity and not race. There are more than nine Indigenous groups in the territory. I had read that the ancient port city Adulis in the north-west region by the Red Sea, presumably had belonged to the Axum Kingdom. But after several excavations since the beginning of 1900s, the dates have become uncertain and not in line with what has earlier been thought of as the existence of the Axum Kingdom. I decided to visit it, to understand the perspective of a practice that deals in historical material with low probabilities of finding a singular narrative — that being archeology. There are different political interests from different groups. Italian Catholic archeologists, and archeologists interested in confirming the Ottoman Empire, and archeologists interested in preserving the narrative that has been dominant so far, the Ethiopian Axumite.

An alternative to the narrative in Asmara has surfaced to what 400 years of oppression from different imperialistic waves had left behind.

One of the field workers at the site, Abraham Zerai Gebremariam from the Technology Driven Sciences for Cultural Heritage at the University of Torino, said that the only certain confirmation of history is that we can never fully know what happened, but we can write and document what we see now so one sole line of narrative does not become dominant.

This became a way of understanding how the nation state uses narratives to legitimize power, in line with what I was currently working on within language and translation. At that moment, my role as an artist became clear.

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Makda Embaie on top of the on-top of the Fiat Tagliero Building in Asmara built by an Italian engineer in 1938 and functioned as a petrol station. / Photo by Tatiana Letier Pinto (February 2019).

Daring to approach history, language and agroecology without the desired level of knowledge or language capacity brought me closer than ever to the narratives that I before had no access to at all. Even though shame of struggling with language had kept me at bay for so long, it is working with what I have got, while refusing to submit under the notion of ‘correct’ ideas of history and ‘valuable’ heritage. Leaving the idea of learning Tigrinya before I could learn what stories it was carrying was crucial. It gave me another entry-point to the language: instead of my language being specific to my family, it started to shift into being specific to what I was looking into; alternative narratives of resistance during the different colonial eras. My method of approaching these archives has become a way of dealing with erased, forgotten, overlooked traces of resistance and colonial heritage.

I am trying to understand the method as a result of the circumstances of heritage and what else crowded the different movements by my parents, but also further back in time. How do we break borders? How do we break mental borders? How do we stop legitimizing our lives through the nation state? I do not want to be credited as a Swedish artist, because it is much more complicated than that; and what does the Swedishness induce into understanding what is being presented in the work? Especially within the context where the non-binarity of my language understanding was not accommodated by anyone outside of my family and certainly not by Sweden as a state. It was rather a parenthesis inside the grand narrative of a nation state.

These questions are induced by the violence that exists in the contract between the nation state and its citizens. We act like a nation state, therefore we are a nation state. But what can happen if we stop acting accordingly, also in our language and in our presentations of ourselves?

Nevertheless, I am here. I have acquired knowledge, language and customs that are completely and only linked to this specific experience. It is not a coincidence, it is not a parenthesis, it is not temporary. It is heritage.

This is also about legitimizing experiences by using what we have to gain further access. Never through state-sanctioned narratives, but rather, it is through the collective understanding of people and communities with similar experiences. This is where art makes room.

I have asked friends and family to read poems to me out loud. We record it, discuss words we get stuck on, often the entire poem, and do our best to understand the context. We ask people if we stumble onto a concept that we are unfamiliar with.

It opens small doors, and access to writings that are not only written by or for colonizers. It also opened up something between me and my parents. My father called me when I was resting from a long day at the archeological site of Adulis and told me on a struggling telephone line, that I, his daughter, has seen more of his home than he ever did. I told him that I am so grateful that they brought and gave parts of their language to me, so I could continue.