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Mind in Africa, Body in Europe: The Struggle for Maintaining and Transforming Cultural Identity - A Note from the Experience of Eritrean Immigrants in Stockholm

Listed author(s):
  • Kiflemariam Hamde

    (Umeå School of Business and Economics, Department of Business Administration, Umeå University)

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    This paper describes how individuals and groups who had crossed ‘physical, national boundaries’, and who live in a different social context make sense of their lives make sense of their lives by re-constructing their identities - of the sense of who they are, and who they want to be, which is an ongoing process. This is done by narrating the experiences of African men and women who live in Sweden and who struggle to both maintain their cultural identity and at the same time change aspects in their culture due to the context in which they find themselves. Maintaining cultural identity and transforming aspects of that identity therefore constitute the main thrust of the paper. Some of the ways through which immigrants claim to maintain their identity are practices and routines that they repeatedly and consistently perform as if these were uniform both in the host country and in the country of origin. But it is exactly within this premise that ‘maintaining’ an identity is defined in this paper. However, the routines, or practices may have different meanings or significance to different actors, different audience, and especially for the main beneficiaries, in a particular context. In this paper, I will narrate how ‘maintaining’ cultural identity is understood and practiced by Blin (Eritrean) immigrants in Stockholm, Sweden, when they solemnly perform a cultural rite called blessing (gewra) in weddings. The paper is based on a participant observation of weddings from 1992 to 2001 in Stockholm, Sweden, when the Blin speaking people perform the blessing rite, enjoy doing it, show to the audience how they maintain ‘who they are’, and perhaps symbolically confirm their unity with the Blin community. The main actors are the elderly and the bridegroom, both sine qua non if the rite is to get its legitimacy. Thus, the blessing rite is an example of being Eritrean in Sweden for its performers. The concept of identity and identity construction has become an important concept to deal with such demands for ‘maintaining’ and 'transforming' identities. Even though maintaining identity is encouraged in the Swedish social policy, transformation of that identity comes through demands that are widely accepted as modern values, such as egalitarianism, gender equality and individualism – leading to issues of diversity at different levels. If one strictly defines the meaning of the blessing rite, one can find that the meaning sometimes may not be consonant with the so-called modern values but that the people then provide symbolic significance to the rite.

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    Paper provided by Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei in its series Working Papers with number 2004.38.

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    Date of creation: Feb 2004
    Handle: RePEc:fem:femwpa:2004.38
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    1. Lindgren, Monica & Wåhlin, Nils, 2001. "Identity construction among boundary-crossing individuals," Scandinavian Journal of Management, Elsevier, vol. 17(3), pages 357-377, September.
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