Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Conversation with Rahwa Gebretnsaie

Issayas: Can you tell us about yourself?

Rahwa: I was born in Connecticut and moved to California at a very young age. California had many great gifts in store for me, including a new brother, supportive communities, and great institutions of learning. My parents were very dynamic both in their parenting skills and in their involvement with the Eritrean community organizations of the Bay Area. They kept my brother and I involved in everything from soccer leagues, to Tigrinya school and charitable activities. I am indebted to them for teaching me by example the meaning of discipline, self-sacrifice, and compassion for others.

Rahwa Gebretensaie

I spent my teenage years involved with an organization known as Y.E.S. (Young Eritrean Students). My best friend and I founded this organization in response to the deportation of thousands of Eritrean civilians from Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 war. Through this organization, we worked with our elder leaders in the community to raise funds and awareness of the human rights violations that were happening towards Eritreans residing in Ethiopia. Despite the fact that we were able to raise over ten-thousand dollars for these war displaced victims, I felt defeated as I continued to witness innocent civilians being imprisoned, robbed, torn apart from their families, and deported out of Ethiopia for no basis other than their Eritrean ethnicity. I realized then that I wanted to make a more long-term contribution towards preventing injustices like these from happening again, and so I turned to my focus towards my education.

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, I decided to double major in Political Economy and Arabic Language and Literature. I chose Political Economy to give me a theoretical understanding of what motivates the behavior of states and to gain historical perspective on the different policies and strategies states have used to develop their economies.

Issayas: Briefly, how do states behave and what is your assessment of Eritrean political economy?

Rahwa: The best way to answer this question “briefly” would be with the old saying: “Nations don’t have friends, they have interests.” The policy-makers who determine national interests are ultimately accountable to whoever legitimates their power, which varies from state to state. There is also the geo-political context in which membership in multilateral institutions, regional organizations, and other strategic alliances among nation-states also influences states’ behaviors.

As for the second part of your question, as Africa’s second youngest nation, Eritrea has the benefit of hindsight in assessing what economic policies have and have not worked for other African nations. It is really difficult for me to make a general assessment about the Eritrean political economy in light of the kaleidoscope of issues that encompass the question. One notable aspect about the Eritrean political economy is the extent to which many of the current policies reflect a continued desire to maintain self-reliance, which was of course one of the most valued principles of the independence movement.

Issayas: Why did you choose to study Arabic?

Rahwa: I chose to study Arabic, first and foremost out of a personal fascination with the language and culture. I had the fortune of learning Arabic from two amazing professors at UC Berkeley, Dr. Sonia S’hiri and Dr. Muhammad Siddiq, to whom I am forever indebted for teaching me the beauty and depth of the language through poetry, prose, and religious texts. My Arabic studies led me to travel to Egypt where I spent one year studying at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo. I joined organizations on and off campus in an attempt to meet as many people and gain as much as I could out of my experience in Egypt. This gave me the opportunity to engage with fascinating students and professionals from around the world, which really helped expand my world view at the age of twenty-one. Egypt left a lasting impression on me, and far exceeded my expectations of being a place where I would merely study Arabic.

Issayas: Have you been to Eritrea?

Rahwa: While I was living in Egypt a few of my classmates, expressed a strong interest in visiting Eritrea with me during our spring vacation. Without hesitation, I invited these Singaporean, Somali, and Israeli friends to join me on a short trip back to Eritrea. Although this was not the first time I had visited Eritrea, the country seamed unusually tranquil and peaceful. Perhaps this was because I had come from one of the world’s most overcrowded yet enchanting cities, Cairo. My friends were really amazed by the generosity of our people and the serenity of the country.

I had previously visited Eritrea in 1992, 1998, and 2002. Each year was marked by an incredibly different historical context. In 1992 the country had just emerged from thirty years of a long protracted war. While the spirit of nationalism was incredibly high, the massive destruction the war had caused was widespread. By 1998, the country transformed and the destruction had been replaced by many new infrastructure projects at a rapid pace. I also witnessed many unbelievable strides being made in the health and education sectors. Unfortunately, my family and I were forced to evacuate within days of our arrival due to the breakout of yet another war. By the time we returned in 2002, I was shocked to see the toll that the war had taken on the progress Eritrea had made since independence.

Issayas: For your graduate degree, you went to your alma mater and graduated in law in 2010.Why did you choose to study law?

Rahwa: I made the decision to study law in Egypt while I was a student in Egypt, where I joined a student group known as the Model World Trade Organization (“WTO”). The organization consisted of students from all over the Middle East and Africa, which made for very lively debates and a great learning experience. We spent weekends debating a wide range of trade related issues such as the legitimacy of agriculture subsidies in the U.S. in the context of the Doha rounds. Through this experience I became interested in the intersections between law and development, and so I decided to apply to law school.

Issayas: Do you have any advice to young Eritreans?

Rahwa: At this stage in my life, there are really only two pieces of advice that I feel compelled to share with young Eritreans: 1) My parents have always said to me, life is about “miwdak’n mitisa.” ("fall and rise") I’ve experienced many setbacks in life, however, through my faith and strong circle of family and friends I have been able to pick back up from each defeat and learn how to reinvent myself. Take each fall (“miwdak”) as an opportunity to rise (“mitisa”). These experiences are opportunities for you to develop the strength and wisdom that will carry you forward in life. 2) Stop the “kal’alem”! Let me first say that I deeply respect our culture for teaching us to be modest and respectful of our elders. These are traits of dignified people. However, those of us who are also American must adapt to the society we live in which values confidence and assertiveness.

Rahwa with her brother and parents.

Issayas: Being humble doesn't mean you don't have confidence. In other words, is there a boundary line between self-confidence and narcissism (vanity, conceit)? Can you balance between being humble and being confident?

Rahwa: Many Habesha Americans, myself included, tend to sell ourselves short. This is not because we lack self-confidence, but rather because we are taught to be humble. Young Eritreans need to learn to be confident and assertive if they are to succeed in this country. There is certainly a way to do so without appearing arrogant and vain, which our culture disdains.The first step is to value your self worth, and the second step is to know when to assert it. Whether you are in a job interview, applying for college, or seeking a promotion, you should always have the mentality “I deserve this.”

I have learned the hard way that too much modesty can be a real setback. There may be times when you see your peers advancing farther than you, despite the fact that you are more capable than they are. I guarantee you that when this happens, more often than not it will be because you understated your capabilities and they overstated theirs. You should speak about your talents with pride, you should boast about your credentials, and you should not be afraid to overstate your capabilities (with reason of course). Remember, you can always learn what you need to know when you get there, the key is to getting your foot in the door.

Issayas: Rahwa, Thank you for your time and thoughts.

Rahwa: You're welcome.


  1. Rahwa has proved again that blood is thicker than water and that once an 'Eritrean' always and 'Eritrean'.
    A Brilliant example of the many Eritreans living in the Diaspora!

  2. its great to hear someone say stop the kal'alem. that bit of advice there was worth the read. thank you.

  3. Wow! So inspiring. Thank you Rahwa for being a perfect example for the next Eritrean generation! I love when I hear/read about young Eritreans prospering. Nothing in the world brightens my soul. This most definitely made my day. God Bless you :)