Journey between Two Languages

This entry is part 12 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Asmeret Ghebreigziabiher Mehari

As a non-native learner and speaker of Amharic, English, and Swahili, I have taken several journeys between these languages and my mother tongue, Tigrinya. Considering geopolitical domination and subordination, the passages between Amharic and Tigrinya or Swahili and Tigrinya are fewer than between English and Tigrinya. However, all crossings have similar purposes: to improve my comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills of these languages. In writing this post, I have taken a journey that merges Tigrinya and English in the service of two critical questions: 1) what role would a journey between two languages play in the process of thinking and writing about decolonizing archaeology?  2) What would the traveler feel and experience?

This journey took a few days to begin answering these two questions, but the first two days make the foundation of this and any future journeys.

Day one: On a notebook using a mechanical pencil I wrote the title “ናጽነት ናይ ስነጥንቲ መጽናእቲ” in ትግርኛ (Tigrinya), a Semitic language spoken by around 7 million people from the central region of Eritrea and from the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The literal translation of the title in English is: “liberating the study of ancient times”.  Then I switched into English, and typed on the computer the tittle: “decolonizing archaeology”.

I continued in English. I wrote:

I am invited to write about decolonizing archaeology. I can write something; I have lived experience of becoming an African archaeologist. But my body feels stiff, and my mind refuses to think anything about archaeology. My inner voice is interrogating me: why should I write about something that is not even going to help most ordinary African people?  Why should I write about decolonizing archaeology when the entire process of archaeology continues to be colonial?  And why should I write about decolonizing archaeology in a lingua franca that still exhibits imperialism?  For whom do I write it anyway? As my inner voice interrogates me, I feel numbed and frustrated. I also feel fear of judgement by my colleagues and probably jeopardizing my career. I feel lack of energy because I feel the systemic trap. I feel worthless. I have no source of income. If I can’t afford my basic daily needs, why should I care about archaeology?  My passion for African Archaeology and my doctoral degree in Anthropology could mean nothing if I cannot earn a living from them.

I couldn’t take the negativity. I stopped there!

Then I switched to Tigrinya mode. I stared the notebook and constantly placed the pencil hoping to write something. After about 45 minutes of silence, I decided to write whatever came to my mind.  I only wrote these few sentences:

ብቋንቋ ትግርኛ ብዛዕባ ሓርነትን ናጽነትን ናይ ስነጥንቲ ክጽሕፍ ኢለ ክሓስብ ከለኩ ኩቱር ፍርሒ ወይ ድማ ዘይብዓት ይስምዓኒ። ምክንያቱ ብትግርኛ ንሰድራቤተየን ንቤተሰበይን ንምሓዙተይን እንተ ዘይኮይኑ ንሓፋሽ ወይ ድማ ንናይ መንግስቲ ቤትጽሕፈት ብ ውሕድ እየ ተጠቂመሉ ዝፈልጥ። ኣብ ሑቡራት ኣመሪካ ንትምሕርቲ ኢለ ካብ ዝመጽእ እሞ እንትርፎ እቶም ትግርኛ ዝዛረቡ ምሓዙተይ ኣብ ዝተፈላለያ ሃገራት ዘሎው ክማኡውን ን ኣብ ኤርትራ ዘሎው ስድራቤተይ እንተዘይ ኮይኑ ብእንግሊዝ እየ ዝዛረብ ኔረ። ኣብዘን ክልተ ዖመት ግን ናይ ቀረባ ቤተሰብ ናብ ኣመሪካ ስለዝመጻኡ ምብዛሕታኡ ጊዜ ብ ትግርንኛ ይዛረብ ኣለኩ።

When I imagine writing in Tigrinya about freedom and independence of the study of ancient times, I feel a strong fear and inadequacy. Because other than communicating with my family, relatives, and friends, I rarely used Tigrinya for public purposes and governmental offices. After I came to the United States, I have used English in daily activities, except whenever I talked to my family in Eritrea and with my Tigrinya speaking friends in different countries. However, in the last two years, since my close relatives came to the United States, most of the time I have been speaking in Tigrinya.

In the few hour’s solitary journey, writing in Tigrinya and English exposed my troubled relationship with and dissatisfaction of archaeology, and my inadequacy and fear of communicating to the Tigrinya speaking communities. Basically, I feel an outsider to archaeology, an outsider to English, and an outsider to Tigrinya. An outsider to archaeology because I know archaeology rarely has relevance to the community I belong. An outsider to English because I am exhausted by the time I spend learning the language and constantly visiting dictionaries, thesaurus, and grammar books and websites. Surprisingly, I do enjoy the learning process and never gave up. But the energy I spend in the process pains me a lot. Despite all the years I spend mastering the language, I am still an outsider looking up to native and privileged English speakers for guidance, and I strongly feel both intellectual discrimination and linguistic dependency. I feel a stranger in my native Tigrinya culture because I am not familiar with its systems of thought of and writing about ancient times, and I was never taught about it in formal education. This experience discloses my intra ethno-linguistic and intellectual alienation.

Another intrinsic observation I noticed in this self-evaluative process is that the language selected for writing dictates the writer’s imagined audience. My imagined audience as I write in English are archaeologists, museum and antiquities professionals, funding organizations, governments, universities, and anyone who speaks English (an ambiguous global public). As I write in Tigrinya, I first imagined a specific region and a specific group of people. It includes families, villages, regions, national institutions, universities, practitioners, students, and binational audiences. In the process, I tolerate contemporary political and regional differences and focus on cultural, linguistic, and historical similarities.

Day Two: With these insights, on the second day, I came to terms with my inner voice. I wrote one paragraph in English and three paragraphs in Tigrinya. In the English paragraph, I argue that decolonizing archaeology in African countries should “start with national institutions responsible for understanding and guiding archaeological activities.” My writing highlights how post-colonial national institutions inherited archaeology without questioning its relevance and how the concept of seniority in African cultures serves as means of upholding these colonial legacies. It also notes the post-colonial transformation of these national institutions where Africans work as personnel of these institutions, and foreigners still hold the power of the knowledge and language that guides these institutions. In general, the paragraph presents a structural analysis of decolonizing archaeology in African countries to a specific group who are knowledgeable of archaeology by highlighting power, intellectual, and linguistic dependency.

In the three paragraphs of journey in Tigrinya, I started by asking questions.  The first paragraph covers the meaning of ስነጥንቲ (about ancient times), reasons for studying ስነጥንቲ, and how to know about ስነጥንቲ. It is only after I made attempts to answer these ontological and epistemological questions of ስነጥንቲ, I moved to writing my personal narrative of how I learned about my country’s history, my ethnic group history, my parent’s place of origin, and the history of their village and its region. The second paragraph emphasizes the domination of foreign systems of thought and knowledge production of ancient history in Eritrea and neighboring countries, whereas past and contemporary local and regional systems of thought and knowledge of ancient history are yet to be written. The third paragraph captures training provided to educate Africans (Tigrinya speakers) about ስነጥንቲ in higher education and how they became part of the Western intellectual communities. Consequently, ስነጥንቲ local professionals take the responsibilities to educate their communities about ስነጥንቲ rather than to learn from their communities. Given these reasons, I (as a member of the community) argue that the study of ancient history in Eritrea and neighboring countries needs liberation. I also beg and plead these countries’ scholars of ስነጥንቲ to focus on local, national, and regional relevance.

As an active learner, I got in touch with the Tigrinya script and literature. Using this website (, I restudied the Tigrinya alphabet and punctuation rules and learned how to type in Tigrinya using the Tigrinya Keyboard. To do so, I studied the coordination between English and Tigrinya alphabets. It was a very interactive and fulfilling experience. I regained my reading, writing, and typing skills in Tigrinya. In the process, I have appreciated the technological and software developments and their contributions in the process of decolonizing and transforming knowledge production and power.

In this personal journey, I identified intellectual, linguistic, and cultural identity dislocation and flexibility, and how to reclaim native cultural, linguistic, and intellectual belongingness. In my case, it means how to regain and relocate my belongingness in the Tigrinya culture and how to gain respect, dignity, and confidence in the journey of global academic and professional culture. The journey reveals more about how a thinking and writing journey between two languages serves as a decolonizing and relocating process.  Decolonizing and transformation are intertwined and interlinked processes that require collaboration, including linguistic. In the beginning, writing in Tigrinya takes a lot of time and is meticulous, but once the task is over it is rewarding and makes the writer relevant and worthy. It is a healing and calming process for the pain and hopelessness I feel when writing only in English. It becomes hope rather than despair.


Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Uzma Z. Rizvi for her support and for bringing the topic to my attention. I would also like to thank M. Dores Cruz.


Asmeret Ghebreigziabiher Mehari has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Florida. In 2001 graduated with a B.A. in archaeology from the University of Asmara, Eritrea. Between 2000 and 2002, she participated in and supervised several archaeological surveys and excavations in the Greater Asmara area in Eritrea, as part of her national service at the National Museum of Eritrea. She has published her research in several academic venues including a co-authored chapter in an edited volume, Community Archaeology and Heritage in Africa: Decolonizing practice, by Peter R. Schmidt and Innocent Pikirayi.

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Decolonizing Anthropology

Decolonizing Anthropology is a series edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. To read the introductory essay to the series and see the list of contributors, please follow this link: /2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/