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

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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.