What makes the Kunama an „egalitarian society“ Part 4 The KCS-KNT August 6, 2008
Since the early times, the European travellers, historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, missionaries and colonialists, had first set foot in the Kunama land, met the Kunama people, saw their way of life, learnt their language, studied their social structure and understood their culture and cultural heritage, they came to the conclusion that the Kunama was and is an “egalitarian society;” that is, an ethnic/folk-group, a tribe or a community holding, believing in and “favouring the doctrine of equal rights, benefits and opportunities for all citizens.“ Not only this, but they had also gone so far as to stating that the Kunama people and their culture retain that all human-beings are equal and therefore they do neither know nor admit any kind of class distinction or discrimination.
Let us, primarily, point out that whenever we Kunama write about the customs of our Kunama people in general, we mean and refer to the Kunama population still living in its rural environment and leading its traditional kind of life-style, on the basis of its ancestral customs. We hold our rural Kunama population as the true entity depositing, preserving and projecting the genuine Kunama cultural heritage and therefore it is the only authoritative representative of the features characterising the Kunama society. The rural Kunama society is self-governing and based only on its traditional ancestral laws. We do therefore agree with the statements of those Europeans that the Kunama people’s social structure, their socio-traditional principles and rules, regulating the lives of their communities and the structure itself of their language, do reflect the doctrine of “equality, of equal rights, benefits and opportunities for all” human-beings.
As we have also often stated, the Kunama society does neither have nor know any kind of social class /stratification and therefore it does not have any kind of officially elected or recognised hierarchy, be it civil or religious, apart from recognising, respecting and retaining the elderly members of its society to be the depositories of its own cultural heritage, norms and values and therefore having only functional and servicing authorities over the lives and affairs of their own respective communities. It is to be noted here however, that not all elderly members of the Kunama society do enjoy the same degree of recognition and therefore having equal authorities over their communities, but only those who do excel and distinguish themselves as role-models among their communities and do voluntarily and freely stand up to assume the responsibilities of caring for and providing that their communities and the lives of their communities do run on the fundamental principles of “equality, of equal rights, benefits and opportunities for all.”
It is to be noted also, that even those elderly members who do not stand out as role-models or emerge as leaders within the Kunama communities, are the ones who do, not only recognise, accept and respect the moral authorities and leaderships of their leading peer-groups, but they are also the ones setting examples of obedience to, of respect and of a collective co-operation with and do help those leading elders and each other in the functional servicing of their communities. Such tasks vary from those commonly discussed upon, decision-made and taken by all members of each community in the affairs concerning their daily lives, to the bigger issues regarding traditional laws and regulations affecting the lives of the communities of an entire Kunama district.
Even very serious issues, such as, for instance, murder and homicidal cases and the methods of settling them, are confronted in common, under the guidance and the advice of so-called “sangga-nene,” literally translated, - the pacifiers of bones:.- these are the elderly members of a Kunama community, recognised for their judicial minds and therefore accepted as having the official authority and duty to summon the two parties, invite the murderer’s relatives to ask for pardon to the relatives of the murdered person and these to accept it, thus reconciling them for good and avoiding any kind of retaliatory activities. This is just to mention a instant, unique in its kind, in which the Kunama have their own traditional laws, principles and their own not formally elected leaders, who yet have very high moral authorities to settle even the most difficult and complicated cases, like homicides. Not only the use of the strictly legal procedures and of the principles of justice, but also that of a simply human and humane force of asking for pardon and pardoning are recognised and adopted by the Kunama people, to bring about peace and harmony within their own communities.
In the Kunama people’s minds, customs and tradition, the principles of “equality and of equal rights for all,” in which the realisation that all members of a community are humanly liable for evil as well as good acts, does often prevail over the serious matters like murders. There is no doubt whatsoever that, such principles and their practical actualisations are held and preserved only through pacifying and harmonising activities, and not through escalation of conflicts and of hatred. This is one of the reasons why the Kunama is also recognised and defined as a “peaceful, peace-loving and conflict-avoiding” society, within, as well as outside of its own ethnic circle. The Kunama is also very faithful to its traditions and therefore it proudly maintains and lives in accordance with and on the basis of its “egalitarian social system.”
The basic principle of “equality of all human-beings,” in the Kunama society is reflected in its own language itself. As it does not have any social or class stratification, there are no titles for persons, in the Kunama language. The titles like “Sir, Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms” do not exist. The Kunama address people directly with their own names. Not having a clergy in its traditional religion either, the Kunama do not have the religious titles like “Reverend, Highness, Holiness” or any other title related with or applied to the clergy. Even in the civilian world, the political titles such as “king” (lugusa,) “chief” (manna,) and “leader” (antata) originally, were said to have been used by the Kunama people only in reference to foreign authorities and rulers, and not in reference to their own members, as the Kunama had never had them existing within their own society, though there was said to have existed a Kunama king called “Baden/Bazen,” but this has never been proven whether he was a Kunama person or a stranger who crowned himself as a Kunama king, simply because he had married the Kunama Queen “Kuname,” from whom the Kunama race has descended and retained the name.
Comparing the above-mentioned three titles: “lugusa” (king,) “manna” (chief) and “antata” (leaders,) said to being applied by the Kunama, only to foreign rulers, with the typically Kunama titles or designations like “sangga-nena” (bones’ pacifier/healer,) “ngora-manna” (the chief of the rain,) “adugaba” (guardian) and so forth, it is to be noticed that, unlike the titles of “king, chief and leader,” the Kunama titles are neither officially given nor do give, those individuals, a formal and an absolute authorities over their members, but only a nominal, symbolic and functional force in the exercise of their tasks. The distinction between the Kunama and non-Kunama titles lies not on tasks but on people.
Unlike the other Eritrean languages like Tigrigngna, Tigre, Arabic and others, in its grammatical form, the Kunama language does not have and does not make any gender distinction. The personal and the possessive pronouns “she” and “her” do not exist in the Kunama language. Both male and female genders have a single pronoun: “unu” (he/she) and “ingnga” (his/hers.) Male and female are distinguished simply as “ka/koa,” (man) and “darka/dakka,” (woman.) This too does surely reflect not only the gender, but also the status of social equality, as the language of any ethnic, tribal or even of an entire nation does reflect its cultural heritage. The Kunama does not even show a definite body posture, in front of, meeting or when addressing a person of authority.
The Kunama is also recognised as the only Eritrean ethnic-group practising “matriarchy: a social organisation in which mothers are the heads of families.” This definition however does not quite respond to the Kunama people’s understanding where the Kunama mother is recognised, not so much as the “head of her family” as the transmitter of her Kunama genealogical and ethnic identities as well as of its kinship lines. Through its Kunama mother’s line, the Kunama has a very clear ethnic and racial identity and identification and its egalitarian social system plays quite a decisive role in maintaining peace and harmony within the Kunama different and differing customary kinships’ lines.
Like in some ethnic/folk-groups, tribes or nationalities, where there exist class distinctions/stratifications, within the various kinships’ lines too, the Kunama society regards all its different kinships as equal in their social status, though some of them may have particular functions, tasks and services they offer to their communities, but still supported and aided by the members of the other kinships.
The Kunama “Kara/Karaua” kinship, for example, has the particular task of organising and holding “Tuka,” one of the greatest Kunama festivities, taking place in a twenty/twenty-five-year cycle, celebrated in a place itself called “Tuka,” found in the Kunama Itana region. That place has not only the tradition of being the most respected, but it is also maintained as a “reserve-land,” where particular and rare trees are let grow and wild animals are not hunted but let find cover and multiply. Very unfortunately, since the beginning of the PFDJ regime’s rule, its regional authorities in the Kunama land, have very deliberately, purposefully and spitefully, cut down those rare trees and turned “Tuka” into an open market, thus not only trampling on and desecrating its traditional status and meaning, but also forcing the Kunama to celebrate “Tuka” more often than its 20/25-year-cycle, as part of the Kunama pageantry, attracting traders and tourists. We Kunama take this as an open insult and denigration of our people, of our culture and of our cultural values. The profanation of the customary values of an ethnic-group do unmistakably, cause deep resentments.
This is where we Kunama do not and will never understand why, though our Kunama society is based on “equality, equal rights, benefits and opportunities for all” human-beings and it does fully respect the “customary values” of the other Eritrean ethnic and folk-groups, yet the Kunama is the most disdained, discriminated, oppressed ethnic-group in Eritrea and this within its own native and ancestral homeland. How could, for instance, the rural Kunama population, which is still living in its own natural environment and very proudly preserving its “egalitarianism,” ever understand and accept to be considered and treated as a third class society, and that in its own native land and by strangers whom the Kunama themselves do welcome in their land, but yet these have the ungratefulness and the effrontery of trying to dominate and impose on the Kunama people, their own culture, cultural values and behavioural patterns, such as the practice of class distinction, contempt and ethnic or racial discrimination?
Having experienced enough negativity, many urban as well as rural Kunama today have come to the conclusion that their egalitarian social system diametrically conflicts, particularly with the seemingly hierarchically structured social system of the Eritrean-Tigrian society, whom they find it extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to come to terms, interact and live with. The Kunama even think the Eritrean Tigrian social system to be just the opposite of their egalitarian system and therefore not favouring any kind of a peaceful communal living, let alone integrating with each other. This, to our view, is a very serious matter which the Eritrean-Tigrians, today settling in the Kunama land, have to and should take into consideration, if resentments, conflicts and hatred are to be avoided and peace and harmony, between them and the Kunama populations, are to reign.
It is primarily, the duty and the responsibility of the government’s officials and of their civil servants, in the Kunama land, to instruct their kinds, on the culture of the Kunama society and not be, instead they too, the ones looking down on, ignoring or in anyway despising and undervaluing the fundamental “egalitarian social system,” customs and life-style of the Kunama society; for, no society would ever tolerate for long, if its fundamental values are being kept in contempt and continuously trampled upon and its own existence seriously threatened. It is of a paramount importance for the Kunama society to realise that, as it retains “all human-beings to be equal” and therefore it recognises, accepts and respects the cultures and the cultural values of all of its fellow-Eritrean ethnic-groups, it too expects, particularly in its territorial patrimony, to have its ethnicity, its ethnic rights, culture and cultural values to be equally recognised, accepted and respected.
The present PFDJ’s regime and its regional authorities in the Kunama land should not keep either trying to infringe on or change the “egalitarian social system and mentality” of the Kunama people, for that is exactly how the Kunama society is made, what the Kunama society is and is built upon and what makes the Kunama as they are: an “egalitarian society.” To think of acting contrarily to this therefore, would be just like trying to forcefully change a person’s nature and his/her natural make-up. No Kunama would ever think of, let alone, trying to influence, trample on or change the ethnic cultures and cultural values of even those strangers settling in his/her own native and ancestral land.
Finally and as far as we know, the Kunama is the only Eritrean ethnic-group and society which traditionally does not practised the so-called “arranged marriages.” The Kunama parents would build a little hut for their girls of age and let them free to entertain the young men and choose their own boy-friends and future husbands. This is a unique, a natural and a purely democratic practice very rarely encountered and experienced in mainly primitive societies. The Kunama therefore learn, practise, live and experience their sense of “equality, of equal rights, benefits and opportunities for all,” at their very early and tender age.
The KCS/KNT: (August 6, 2008.)