Sunday, December 30, 2012

A conversation with Prof. Ghirmai Negash

Professor Ghirmai Negash
Part II

Issayas: Even though Eritrea is one of the few African countries that has its own script, it was not until modern times that the majority of the population (through public and private education, for example) was exposed to reading and writing. Before that reading and writing was confined to the priesthood. Am I correct in that? If so, were there any works written by the  priesthood that you looked into when you did your research to write your first book: "A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea"?

Ghirmai: Yes, there were religious books and shorter treatises that were written by the priesthood, before the arrival of the modern printing press in Eritrea. A significant body of religious literature was written in Geez, the classical and liturgical language of the Orthodox Churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia.Geez language and literature has been often comparably described as the equivalent of Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe, and its history and influence on the other languages of our region has truly been massive. We also find some rudimentary writings in Tigrinya, dating to the 17th-18th centuries. For example, there were attempts by European missionaries to print partial translations of the Bible in Tigrinya in the 1820s. The missionaries wrote the language in Latin script. The most significant work in Tigrinya from that period was Dabtara Matewos’s “translation of the Four Gospels.” This book also marks the first appearance of the Tigrinya language in book form, written in Geez alphabet. Dabtara Matewos was assisted by Rev. C. Isenberg in this book project, which was published in Switzerland in 1866. Later, after printing presses
were introduced in Eritrea, by the Catholic Mission in Massawa (1863) and by the Swedish Evangelical Mission in Monkullu (1885), more Tigrinya books were produced locally. After having been moved to Keren in 1879, the printing press of the Catholic Mission was moved to Asmara in 1912. It was the first printing press in East Africa. Today, this press still functions in Asmara under the name “Francescana Printing Press.” The printing press owned by the Swedish Evangelical Mission was moved to Asmara in 1895. In 1896, the press published Dr. K. Winqwist’s “printed version” of the Tigrinya alphabet, which was a major event in the history of the language, as it opened the way for continued publications. It was also this same press that started publishing the first Tigrinya newspaper, MelEkhti Selam (the Message of Peace), the first
printed Tigrinya newspaper, in 1909.

The second edition of "A History of Tigrinya Literature" published in 2010.

Issayas: I know a lot of Eritreans who like to read history but not fiction.  How would you answer them?

Ghirmai: Outside my children and my students, I don’t think it’s my business to dictate what to read. Even that is not always realistic. I mean to say, it’s good enough as long as people read. Also, there aren’t many Eritreans in the environment I live and, therefore, don’t know whether Eritrean readers prefer history to fiction. I would say though the following in order to answer your question. If, as you say, the Eritreans around you don’t like reading fiction, it is perhaps because they don’t find novels that resonate with their interests. In that case, I would give this counsel by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Issayas: For people who have not read your first book mentioned above, would you give us a thumbnail sketch of the book?

Ghirmai: My first book, A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea, is a critical exploration of the history of Tigrinya literature in Eritrea through the prism of post-colonial theory and also interrogates global theories through indigenous conceptions of literary and aesthetic categories. Regarding its scope and impact on African literary history, this work has been described by one scholar as a “pioneering and thus far only book of its kind on the subject, [and] is a model of what can and should be done for the literature of any African language in any African nation or region” (Charles Cantalupo, 2012), and another scholar, Ali Jemale Ahmed, has called “A History of Tigrinya Literature [is] a must-read for anyone.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o has also said some kind words about the book, which you can read on the blurb of the Africa World Press edition. These are people with established reputations in African literature, and it matters a great deal to me to get such appreciation from them. It is very inspiring.

Dr. Ghirmai's translation of Dr. Abba Gebreyesus Hailu's novel

Issayas: Now a question about your most recent book. The Conscript: A Novel of Libya's Anti-colonial War is a translation of Dr. Abba Gebreyesus Hailu's novel. Why did you choose this particular book to translate? Who was Dr. Gebreyesus Hailu? What is the significance of the book in the history of Eritrean literature?

Ghirmai: Dr. Gebreyesus Hailu was a Catholic priest. He had a doctorate degree in theology. He was born in 1906 in Afelba, Eritrea, and died in 1993, in Ethiopia. He was a prominent religious and public figure in Eritrea and Ethiopia. He wrote his novel, The Conscript, in 1927, but he was able to publish it only after the demise of Italian colonialism in Eritrea. This makes sense because of the book’s scathing criticism of Italian colonialism. Through its central protagonist, Tuquabo, the novel offers a vivid picture of the predicament of the Eritrean conscripts that went to fight in Libya against the Libyan freedom fighters, while they themselves were under the bondage of colonial Italy. It is a sad story—with the humiliation, defeat, and all that. But Gebreyesus Hailu didn’t write the novel for sentimental reasons. It was because he wanted to give Eritrean readers a critical mirror of what was happening then. Hailu knew very well the European and African universes. He was writing as an “insider-outsider” of both worlds. This stance enabled him to look at the excesses of colonialism without losing sight of "Habesha" complicity in the war. Of course, he sided with his people and hated colonialism, but he also did not shy away from portraying what he saw as the misplaced “heroism” of the Habesha conscripts.  Additionally, the novel is remarkably well written. For me, it is the best writing I have ever read so far in the Tigrinya language. And these are some of the main reasons
why I determined to translate the novel.

To purchase Dr. Ghirmai's books.

Issayas: Thank you for your time. Happy Holidays!!

Ghirmai: Thank you for the opportunity.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A conversation with Prof. Ghirmai Negash

Professor Ghirmai Negash

Part I

Issayas: Briefly, would you tell us about yourself?

Dr. Ghirmai Negash: I want to start in Eritrea. I was born and raised in Eritrea. I am a Tigrinya-phone Eritrean. As a child, I attended quite a few elementary schools, including in Idaga-Arby (Asmara), TeraEmni, Adventist Mission School in Asmara, and Haile Selassie Junior Elementary School (Asmara). We moved around a lot then, because my parents had a house in Idaga-Arby and shuttled between Asmara and my father’s birth place in Guila-TeraEmni. I am the fourth child of seven children, most of who have left too soon. My father was an accomplished mechanic, a trade he learned when he was a soldier with the Italian colonial army. He actually fought with the Italians in Gondar, Ethiopia, and he surrendered to the British army when they defeated the Italians there during World War II. My mother had also connections with the Italians. She came to Asmara from her birth place when she was young to work as a cook for an Italian family. She was an intelligent and loving person, and spoke fluent Italian. As a youth I grew up entirely submersed in Tigrinya culture but also listening to my parents’ stories about the Italian period, which I gradually realized was important (among other influences) for my formation and thinking on personal and professional levels.

For secondary school education, I went to Prince Makonnen Secondary School in Asmara. That school is now called “Asmara Comprehensive Secondary School.” After that, I was a student at Haile Selassie I University, in Addis Ababa. When I entered the university, I was aiming to become a medical doctor, although I was interested in writing and had actually written some essays for radio and a high school newspaper. I left the university in 1974, following its closure by the Dergue. After going through some compelling years marked by struggle and exile, I resumed my university education in the Netherlands in the 1980s. In the Netherlands, I studied at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and received two Masters Degrees in English (1990), and Critical Theory (1991). I earned my PhD in African literature from the department of Critical Theory of Leiden University, the Netherlands in 1999. In terms of my education and life in the Netherlands, I should also add that studying and living there was a turning point for me in both limiting and enabling ways. Having to learn a new language and culture was not easy, but I was also fortunate enough to meet and work with critically-minded Dutch and transnational individuals from different parts of the world, including from Africa, the Caribbean, Iran, and the former Eastern Bloc countries. And I enjoyed living in the lovely city of Amsterdam.

I came to the United States in 2005 to work as an assistant professor of English and assistant director of the Institute of the African Child, African Studies Program, in Ohio University. Currently, I am a tenured full professor of English & African Literature in the Department of English, and Associate Director of African  Studies Program , at Ohio University. Previous to my current position, I had worked and studied at Leiden University, the Netherlands (1994-2001), and I was the chair of the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature at the University of Asmara (2001-2005).

The first book that came out from Dr. Ghirmai's PhD dissertation in 1999.

I have written a few books and articles. My first book was A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea: The Oral and the Written 1890-1991. It came out from my dissertation and was published by Leiden University in 1999.  This book has been re-published by Africa World Press for the North American market in 2011.  Since the publication of A History of Tigrinya Literature, my academic interests have ranged widely, from research in orality, to Eritrean and South African fiction, to translation works from indigenous African language(s) into English. The result has culminated in the publication of several articles in reviewed journals and three books, The Freedom of the Writer (in Tigrinya), Who Needs a Story? as well as a translation of Gebreyesus Hailu’s novel, The Conscript. Currently, I am co-editing a volume consisting of keynote lectures and essays, which came out of the 37th Annual African Literature Association Conference, which I hosted in 2011 at Ohio University as the principal convener. In subsequent projects, while carrying my interest in Horn of Africa literatures, I plan to focus more on intersections between postcolonial and transnational literatures. I am also interested in exploring thematic concerns between African-language and European-language African literatures, for I believe that it is important for us to understand both the ruptures and the continuities between tradition and modernity.

Issayas: Given your work on Eritrean literature, what would you say is the purpose of literature in a society like Eritrea?

Ghirmai Negash: This deceptively simple question is difficult to answer. That is because the idea of literature and its function is complex as its characterization and role can be defined using different analytical models, which, in turn, are themselves defined by time and location. As far as I am concerned, Eritrea has beautiful
people and beautiful culture. It has also a long history of suffering and oppression coming from both external and internal forces. So, while acknowledging that the  role of literature in Eritrea, like in any other society, would be (and should be) different in different circumstances, at the moment I personally am interested
in Eritrean writing that is uncompromisingly beautiful and political at the same time. I truly believe that the country needs talented writers that are capable of  portraying “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune” that have shaped the people’s history. As you know of course, I am referring to Shakespeare here.  But, when you think of it, this is also precisely what the concerns of some of our greatest writers have been. Think of the works of Alemseged Tesfai or Beyene Haile or Gebreyesus Hailu. The strength of their stories derives from the authors’ ability to write beautifully about the ‘slings and arrows of our misfortune’, our peoples’ determination, and hope. Remember also that that’s why these three writers are known and/or read transnationally. Remember, too, that in the Eritrean context the idea that literature should serve exclusive political or ideological interests philosophically contradicts the very notion of art as a fundamental right of human expression.

Next, part II

Friday, December 7, 2012

From Eritrea's Files

 from Eritrea's files


Did you know that:

Eritrean General Union of Labor was one of the first organized labor unions south of the Sahara. It was formed in December 1942.

Artifacts from 7th Century China was found at the Eritrean port of Badi (Batse'h/Massawa)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Example of Eritrea's softpower

I've been looking into Eritrea's soft power for the last couple of years. A recent publication entitled "Eritrea Art Time" is an example of the aforementioned.

Here is the link:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A conversation with author and poet, Emilio De Luigi


Issayas: As you know Eritrea is an old country . The National Museum of Eritrea states that there are 80,000 historical/archeological and paleontological sites in Eritrea. It has lots of rock paintings that are scattered all over the place. You mentioned  in your book that you found a cave (traces that may go back to prehistory) outside Asmara  whose wall was covered with pictures of hands. Do you remeber the name or the location?

Emilio: I am not sure about the name of the area, it could be Sembel. But I can tell you this: it was in an area on the opposite side of the city respect to the highway going down to Nefasit and then to Massawa. So, it must be roughly on the west side of the city. To reach the area, I usually took the road going up to the American Base. It was a very small cave. The paintings were represented exclusively by imprint of hands. When you entered the cave, the paints were on your left. I went there three times. The last time I went with a friend of mine that knew a bit more than me on prehistoric Eritrea, and he told me that they were probably of the same type and the same age of similar hands imprints found in the Sahel and the Sahara Desert. The last time we were there we cleaned the cave, because the floor was full of empty cans and other waste. Lonely persons, I was told by people of the nearby village, were sometimes taking refuge in the cave and they were warming themselves with a small fire, traces of which were visible. We also spoke to one of the elders of the nearby village recommending to him to explain to the children that the cave was an important testimonial of the Eritrean past. I can't remember if there is any mention  of the cave in the book "Guida dell' Eritrea"
published before WWII by the Touring Club Italiano (a precious book for the quantities of information on the territory).

Emilio two weeks before his escape in 1976.

Issayas:  In your book, there are lots of philosophical discussions with the fighters  who were helping you. What I gathered from reading about it, it feels  that the discussions were open and honest. Am I correct in thinking that?

Emilio: Discussions came spontaneously and  frequently because we didn't have much else to do. But they were mostly limited to a few people. As I said in the initial part of this interview, people of all walks of life had joined the EPLF, so most of them only spoke Tigrigna. But I met several educated folks along the way, like Fasil the accountant, first in Durfò and then in Fah. I also met a lawyer, and I met a veterinary doctor I already knew in Asmara, where he had an excellent rank in the Ministry of Agriculture. In Durfò I also met a woman fighter, Freinì. She was very much a reserved woman, but she was an educated person. When I was about to reach Fah, in a campsite where we were parked for a few days I also met people in charge of security, a couple of local commanders, and a man who looked like a politician. All those people spoke English. The discussions were normally originated by what was happening around us. Many times we discussed the political situation of the country. The fighters were never forgetting  their main aim of fighting the Ethiopians to build a free, modern society. Position of women in the future new Eritrea was also discussed. There was a variety of opinions on that subject. Another subject that frequently came up was the economy.

In the book, I have put those discussions that seemed to me more meaningful. For example, I described how one early morning a large number of children passed by, and from that we initiated a long conversation on education and aims in life that came back a few times around the campfire. Nobody seemed worried about respecting some ideological principles. As far as I could say, there were no  "official opinions" stressed or exalted. They were sincere.

Issayas: Also  how were you able to remember all those discussions?

Emilio: Well, Issayas, think of this: When I left Asmara, at forty five years of age I had to abandon my work, my house, and more than anything else a country I was in love with; in short I was leaving behind all my achievements, all the positive things I had won in twenty years of hard work. I had to go to Italy, I knew very little of that country, and there I had to start my life again. From scratch. Synthetically, I was a desperate. I plunged in a world of hardship where there were people that had lost or abandoned every thing they had! Nothing different from my own situation. But they were looking at their future with an inner smile, because they knew in their hearts  that eventually they would have built their free country, all new, enthusiastic, capable of aiming high! How could I have not learned from them? And how could I possibly have forgotten their words, and the greatness of their their example? You know, I may be boring and repetitive, but the feelings expressed around me,
and the behavior of the Eritrean fighters, were revealing that they were motivated by two wonderful drives: First of all, dedication. They were all doing things, many times hard and difficult, because they wanted to. They didn't need to be told.They didn't need surveillance. Therefore they were accustomed to operate with a large margin of freedom. Second thing, faith in themselves. They believed in their purpose, they had absolutely no doubt about the end result of their struggle.

In the field, I kept making comparison with the ugly atmosphere of depression, suspicion, fear, frustration, and worries about the future that was predominant in Asmara. The  rebels' society kept marveling me, because individual danger there was probably 100 times what it was in Asmara, but nobody seemed really worried or depressed.

Emilio's escape route with the help of the EPLF

Issayas:  Before he died, your father refused to leave Asmara while most of the Italians who resided in Eritrea were leaving?  Why?

Emilio: As I explained in the book, my father was an old fashioned man. Dedicated to his family, he was an old socialist, very attached to his job. When the civil war exploded in Asmara,  he told to the staff to leave their work, but didn't want the office to be abandoned. So he stayed.

Issayas: As you know Eritrea is blessed with the pristine sea life. As you mentioned in your book,  Luciano Perino established a tropical fish trade (a business venture which was unheard of  in Eritrea at that time) and was very successful at that. He had a business who had 50 employees who knew all the fish by their Latin names. It's an incredible story, I won't go into detail here, but I wish he could go and re-establish the same business in Eritrea (since the business investment opportunities
are good). Given the age and health factors, do you think former Eritrea resident Italians would go back and establish businesses?

Emilio: Luciano Perino managed to rebuild his business in the Hawaii, where he still lives. Due to the age, I don't think he would go back. As for the old Italian entrepreneurs, they are too old! But their children keep in touch with Eritrea, where they regularly go for tourism. For them Eritrea is the true homeland. They also promote local charities. For example, St. Francis Institute for Hoteliers in Massawa has been patiently built by Father Delfino Protasio over the years, with the money raised by former Italian residents of Asmara and Addis Abeba. Other Italians, former  residents of Asmara, support local schools in the city, or in remote rural areas. All small repayments for the hospitality, the opportunities, the possibilities of life and economic achievements that Eritrea has offered to so many Italians.

Issayas: Leaving the details for people to read, the stories of  Drs. Mario and Nino Daolio and Lorenzo Saliviati was courageous and incredible. Where are they now?

Emilio: Dr. Nino Daolio passed away in 2001.Dr. Mario Daolio lives in Italy, near Conegliano Veneto. Lorenzo Salviati is an invented name, The doctor was afraid to have problem, because he works for an international company and he was deeply involved with the Eritrean Fighters and didn't want this to be known. He works in Europe, has great mobility because of his work. I have no contact with him since I asked him if I could use his name in my book. I suspect he has still part of the family in Ethiopia.

Issayas: You mentioned that you met (briefly) Issayas Afeworki during your escape in 1976.The fighters told you who he was after he left. What were you thoughts after they told you that?

Emilio: I was not too much surprised. The fighters on the fields didn't have real division of work at the "operative" level, even though obviously there were ranks. He was following with great attention our conversation, but he never spoke. I remember that we were chatting with an Eritrean pilot who avoided participating to the war in Eritrea landing in Somalia, where in any event after landing he crashed the plane to avoid its use by the Somalis. He managed to reach the fighters.

Issayas:  Emilio, thank you for conducting this interview.

Emilio: You're welcome.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A conversation with author and poet, Emilio De Luigi

Part III

Issayas: I like the way you wrote the book. Congratulations! Your book reads like a film. The people are real. Your description is so vivid, that one smells the dirt, even though one is reading a book. I also like the way you narrate your story. One could have a good story, but if the narrative style is bad, the story gets buried. However, your narrative is great. You start with the present (for example, discussion you had with your granddaughter) and then you go back to the past in flashbacks. Did you do it as a style? 

Emilio: At the beginning the reason of this “style” has been mostly practical, even if I soon realized that I liked the alternation of present and past. I had a lot of episodes to tell about the civil war and the trip to Sudan, but also I recalled many other stories that I had told around the campfire to my fellow refugees escaping with me from Asmara, and to the fighters that traveled with us. This abundance of storytelling hours was mainly the consequence of the way we made our journey: Usually we traveled only during the night, because the Ethiopian air force didn’t fly after dusk; and then we had to hide under the trees or in the shadows of big boulders during the entire day. Add that we were sometimes forced to stay put in a place, waiting for the Army to leave the areas we had to cross. So for long hours, and frequently for days and days, everybody had plenty of time to tell his or her stories. Mostly this happened to me in the Durfó valley, in the area of Mersa Culcub, in Fah, in Karora, in Tokar in the south of Sudan. To balance a bit the various parts  of my book, I decided to put some of the stories in the "contemporary part", even if they had been narrated during the trip.

Issayas: Reading through the book, your granddaughter keeps pushing you to tell your story. This is really remarkable because she is very young, but also in this time and age of iPad and other gadgets, I suppose she really has conversations with you. Am I correct?

Emilio: Lots of conversations! Still the situation is similar, but not as much as when I wrote the book. She is now almost 17, and is every day more and more immersed in her world of North American teenager.

Issayas: Have you ever thought that Eritrea would get its independence in your lifetime?

Emilio: After a couple of weeks in the "field", I realized that most probably Eritrea would have become an independent country. In fact I could now compare the steely determination of the fighters with the low morale of the troops on the Ethiopian Government side. I soon realized that the fighters were not what the Ethiopian propaganda in Asmara was daily proclaiming, lying to us, that the fighters were just a bunch of outlaws (bandits)  dedicated to sporadic and disorganized assaults to the Army, within and without the city perimeter. In reality, in just few days I discovered that the fighters were a well-structured organization, with proper military ranks, strategic points in the territory, deposits of weapons and food, and a capillary, efficient network that included the cities, i.e. Asmara, Addi Ugri, Ghinda, Kheren etc. Also, I discovered that the majority  of the fighters were people that had abandoned their work, sometimes in excellent positions, and their families, to join the Eritrean People Liberation Front because they all had that big dream, the freedom of their country. On the contrary the Ethiopian Army was made of people  from the most remote areas of Ethiopia, selected by the Army on purpose, to keep them well distant from the Eritrean population. They didn't speak the language, they were mostly poor uneducated farmers, and they were looked at with great disdain by the Eritreans.But the most important thing was that the Ethiopian soldiers didn't believe in what they were doing! Menghistu had betrayed them too; he had shattered their dream of freedom and peace that all populations throughout the Empire were longing for. The Ethiopian soldiers felt isolated, and were suspicious of everyone. To be added that the Ethiopian Army in Eritrea was a big one, quite heavy on the territory. Not so the fighters, that would even abstain from buying anything where they were, if they thought that this would have increased the prices, or reduced the availability of food for the local population. But all this is described in greater details in the book.

Emilio's escape route with the help of EPLF

Issayas: When you were traveling during your escape, reading the book I felt that you had visited places before, most of the places, if not all. For example, Fil Fil and other places. Is that right?

Emilio:Yes, it is. In Eritrea for years and years I had been around a lot, mostly with friends that were hunters, even if I have never been a hunter (I always refused to buy a rifle). So I knew all the territory from Asmara to Agordat and Barentú, but short of Tessenei; from Asmara to Addi Caieh, and from Asmara to Massawa. Also, I had visited several times the entire coastline from Massawa to Mersa Fatma, Mersa Culculb, up to Mersa Teclai, near the Sudanese border. In the other direction, south wise, I knew the territory from Massawa to the Buri Peninsula, but short of Adulis; and up the mountains to Coaitò, and beyond it to Axum. I also knew many places in the Saberguma, Solomona, Ailet, and Dongollò areas. From Asmara toward North-East I had visited several times the farms in the Filfil valleys, along the mountains up to Addisghi and beyond, but short of the Rore highlands (it was too isolated at the time, and not so friendly). I also made several times long trips beyond Cheren in the direction of the huge expanse of the territory down to the Red Sea.

Issayas: You are also a great poet. I read your book of poetry "Once Upon a Time in Africa". The poems were originally written in Italian in the 1960's. You wrote down poems of places where you have resided, or that you visited. They are all great poems. Even though you have a lot of poems about Asmara, Assab, Addis Abeba, Woliso, Sebeta and other places, I'm curious as to why you have not written about Massawa(since you lived and went to school there). Also you have written about Agordat, Sebarguma, Dongolo, Danakil and Debre Sina. Agordat got two long poems. What was it about Agordat that tickled your pen?

Emilio: Saberguma and Solomona were like Agordat, even if not so majestic. Debre Sina, perched on the edge of the highland, was the place where the greatness of the land, so vastly open in front my eyes, was almost scary. I can't explain why I didn't write anything about Massawa. Most probably because when I resided there I was too young. But Massawa has remained very dear to me, because I spent there my early years, the best part of my entire life. I knew all corners of that strange city. I will remember forever its wind gusts, loaded of the salty, foul smell of the water in the bad corners of the port where it gathers discharged oil, grease, gasoline, empty boxes, algae, dead fish and rotten branches. A smell that I rediscovered only in Port Sudan; I can still see in my mind its long causeways connecting Massawa island to Taulud island, and Taulud to Otumlo and Moncullo.

During the night those causeways have so many illuminated street lamps,lined up on their edge curbs and reflecting on the calm waves, that they make the port shining and looking from a distance as if it were a clean and vibrant resort. But in the same time,and for me is not a contradiction, Massawa has always been for me the best symbol of all decrepit things. Because no matter the numerous repairs, all buildings there appear like run-down and rusty. Even the many small boats that were at that time everywhere, looked always patched and in need of new paint. If a brand new boat was added to the flock, six months were enough to make it look old.

Agordat! Agordat for me is still the real symbol of Africa. I went there regularly with my uncle. He had been able to obtain in Italy, after a long fight, an authorization extending to Eritrea the monopolistic privileges that Somalia, as an ex colony, had obtained in the supply of bananas to the Italian market. With that precious authorization in his hands, my uncle went to Agordat and with the help of De Nadai, at the time a big name in the Eritrean agriculture, he created a cooperative among farmers for the export of the bananas, and then of fresh vegetables. My uncle lived in Agordat 8 months a year. I was his steady travel companion. This went on for years.

We had to go around a lot, visiting the various farms along the big Barca and Setit rivers. It was a fascinating life for me, and my longing for the Eritrean lowlands that afterwards never left me, was built up during those wonderful years. I described that in my book, in particular of how I felt an acute yearning every time I had to go back to the highlands, or back to Italy for the University. In Rome, around June, every year  I started counting the days to my return to Eritrea! Not that life in Agordat was an easy one! On the contrary, it was rather hard, with constant heat, lots of insects, ruthless sunshine and hours and hours spent in the car or walking around in the countryside. 

Many times I had also daring experiences with sudden floods, overturned cars, trucks stuck in the sand or the mud, boiling radiators and worn out day even we risked our lives for a huge near-stampede of cattle, scared by the appearance of a wild animal. But the great  things of the lowlands always let me forget the dangers. Nature is quite severe there, but it is also fascinating.During the rainy season, sunsets are really beautiful in the lowlands and totally different from the crazy and spectacular sunsets you can see in Asmara. Human element also was fascinating in Agordat. In the market I found the most unusual people.  It was wonderfully exciting to see- and identify by their appearance– members of the various local tribes, like the fierce and menacing Adendoah shepherds, the beautiful Beni -Amer girls, the poor Mariah, from both the Red and the Black tribes and the peaceful Cunama. 


Front cover of Emilio's book of poems.

Back cover of Emilio's book of poems.
 Samples  of Emilio's poems:

Le Gallinelle

Una traccia de bellezza
in un letto di notte.

Piana di Saberguma, Eritrea (1954?)

The Pleidades

A hint of beauty
in a bed of night.

Saberguma Plains, Eritrea (1954?)

Now I wake

Now I see well:
my hearing
is sharp
my heart strong.
I have no illusions.

I disentangle my days
with the calm of a caterpillar.

Asmara, March 23, 1961


I know
the secret of your eyes.
I alone,
the sweetness of your cheek.

Asmara, 21 April, 1961

My homeland

In the dark chorus
of the powerful Dums
stretching on rivers that offer
a sandy bed to the moon;

in the open silences
of plains shivering in the heat;
in the fleeting harmony
of the Ariels;
in the heights of clouds
blazing above the migrating sun,
all my being appeases:

because they all
taught me the truth,
making me feel
but immense;
in the flow of time.

Agordat, 1961
(In Eritrea, Dum is the name of a tall, nut carrying palm tree. Ariel is the Grant's gazelle)

Next,  final part of my conversation.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Conversation with author and poet Emilio De Luigi

Part Two


Author and Poet Emilio De Luigi

Issayas: You mentioned that the Italians (at least the ones at the Italian hospital in Asmara) sided with the Eritrean liberation fighters?  Why do you think it was so? Since you also lived in Ethiopia for many years, can you say the Italians' sentiment in Addis Abeba or Ethiopia was the same as their counterparts in Asmara/Eritrea?

Emilio: I analyzed in depth that attitude in my book. I found five reasons:

First reason: Fundamentally the Italians who went to Africa were not racists. You can detect that in one fact: the abundance of mixed families in Asmara and Addis Abeba. The ""African branch" of my family still in Ethiopia is half cast. Not too many Italian families in Addis or Asmara had no half cast members. In British colonies half cast were exceptional. Therefore in Eritrea and Addis Abeba the blood connection generated its level of solidarity.

Second reason: The Italians considered Eritrea much more "modern" than Ethiopia. When Hailè Sellassiè had the disastrous idea of annexing Eritrea, the Italians immediately sided with the Eritreans. For the Italians literally it was the case of a modern country overtaken by a less progressed one. Please note that for both the Eritreans and the Italians Ethiopia was the "colony", economically and professionally speaking. For the Eritreans, for the excellent job opportunities offered by Addis Abeba; for the Italians, for the market it represented for the products of their industries. But both Eritreans and Italians never considered Ethiopia a desirable ruler.

Third reason: the brutality of the Ethiopian repression. Menghistu massacres in Addis Abeba have been probably bigger, but in Eritrea they were far more "visible" and they were always reprisals. Italians are emotional people, with  a very, very strong sense of family. The Italian factory owners lost workers they had since years, the Italian housewives had cooks and maids that came to work weeping for a lost child or husband or father. The Italian doctors in the hospital had to operate during long hours on Eritreans young and old, maimed by Ethiopian soldiers who, sometimes badly beaten in the countryside by the Eritrean fighters, took revenge in the the streets of Asmara shooting the passerby for no tangible reason. All this had an enormous impact on the Italians, making them strong allies of the Eritreans. From this came the steady help that secretly flew from the hospitals to the fields, the hiding of young Eritreans in Italian houses, the open doors policy of the Catholic and non Catholic Churches and Convents during the tremendous days of Ethiopian revenges.

Fourth reason: the Italians were proud of their participation in the Eritrean economy and the prosperity it brought to everyone, because Italians were deeply involved in the industry and agriculture. In those days, just before Menghistu sized power, Eritrea was strongly exporting 12 months a year fresh vegetables and fruits to Italy, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Gulf Emirates. Since years Eritrea was also exporting canned meat, egg yolk, oil seeds,  beans, beer, wine, tropical fish, hides, printed materials etc.. All products of hundreds of small industries, many run by Italians. All this vanished in days, for the absurd policy of universal nationalizations practiced by Menghistu (suddenly converted to Communism), soon forcing all industries and farms to shut down for lack of management, killing tens of thousands of well paid jobs in the industry and agriculture.

Fifth reason: Italians, particularly the ones grown in Eritrea, had a good economic standing, or at least stability. They didn't want to lose all that, but it was all taken away by the nationalization. The perspective of a free Eritrea was a hope of salvaging a lifetime of dedication to the economy of Eritrea. The attitude of the Italian community in in Addis Abeba was practically the same as it was  in Asmara.

Issayas: It was through Dr. Mario Daolio's (an Italian physician who lived in Asmara) contact that you were able to meet up with the EPLF. You acknowledge Dr. Mario for letting you use his real name in the book. Where is he now? When did he leave Eritrea and has he been back to Eritrea since its independence?

Emilio:  Dr. Mario Daolio lives in Italy, near Venice. He was informed, as 99% of the people I mentioned in the book, of my intention of telling the story of his generous help to me. I don't know when he went to Italy.  As far as I know, he never returned to Asmara.

Next, the conversation continues.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Conversation with author and poet Emilio De Luigi

Author and poet Emilio De Luigi

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

Emilio De Luigi: I had a rather complicated life. In 1933 my parents moved from Italy to Libya when I was 18 months old, then from there they moved to Eritrea in 1938. In 1942 I moved back to Italy with my mother. 1951 I was  back in Asmara. I moved to Addis Abeba in 1961. I left Africa in 1976, and from that moment I was on the move for 8 years: Libya, Nigeria, Perú, Chile etc. In 1983 I finally landed in Canada for good. During those 8 years of "diaspora" it helped both the fact that by nature I am a calm person (I hardly recall having ever lost my temper), and the fact that I had the "gypsy" example of my larger family, peppered around the world on five continents. I mean that for us moving around ended being a sort of family habit. As a person I have very simple habits: I love my work,  I love cooking, I must read or die, I have friends everywhere, and of course I have kept writing all my life. Last but not least, I have been blessed, so far, with good health.

Issayas: Have you been back to Eritrea since you left it in 1976.

Emilio: No, never.

Issayas: You escaped Eritrea illegally with the help of the EPLF  (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) in 1976. As an Italian citizen, why did you find it necessary to do that instead of leaving legally through Ethiopia?  No matter how long it took or tried?

Emilio: I had a business in Addis, they wouldn't let me leave. When I had to travel for business, Mengistu Administration wanted my family in Addis. When my family went to Europe for vacation, I had to be in Addis. No exception. My book has all the details of my long agony trying to get an exit visa.

Issayas: You mentioned that your Indian friend in Canada said that Eritrean people come out of the book with flying colors.

Emilio: He did! He told me that not too many people were so lucky to escape from a war and get such a disinterested support. And that is even more relevant because I didn't have any particular recommendation, nor was I an important person. As Italian, an invader, I could easily have found hostility. I found warmth and kindness instead. In Fil Fil I was even invited by a family for dinner! The fighters were always helpful, and as a group they showed a civility that is hard to imagine in the middle of war. Same treatment got another Italian that followed my example.

  The front cover of Emilio's excellent book

Issayas: Did you agree with him? If yes, would you elaborate?

Emilio: I did! In my book I described how I felt living with the Eritrean fighters, and how they didn't treat me differently from the way they treated all other refugees found in the fields.I hope to have  shown in my book how Eritrean fighters and Eritrean people alike, a socially heterogeneous mix of men and women, appeared to me as having already put down, may be unconsciously, the foundation of a just society. I don't want to repeat what I wrote in my book, but I mused a lot, for years, on what I saw. And it was not a show put up for the benefit of the ferenji!(foreigner) How much all that is reflected in modern Eritrea, I can't say. I fervently hope it is not lost, because to me that was the core of the Eritrean Resistance: a unique, admirable "society" with a universally shared aim: the freedom of the country. The real wonder, to me, was that such dream, in the territory the EPLF controlled, appeared to be already implemented among the fighters and the people that supported them!

Issayas:  What do you mean when you mentioned that "Same treatment got another Italian that followed my example”. Would you elaborate?

Emilio:In Italy I met one day an Italian guy that had a big mechanical workshop in Asmara, with lathes, large welding equipment, big drills, and dozens of well-trained Eritrean workers. When young, he had been a student in the school where I taught. During the war he kept his shop working, but then he decided to phase out his activity, because there were times that he had to make delicate mechanical jobs he couldn’t refuse, for retrofitting equipment of the Army and the Police, and he didn’t like that, because as all the Italians he sided with the Eritreans. He felt guilty. Also, it was very dangerous for him, because members of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) roaming around the city spying on the Military could report him as a collaborator. The EPLF could decide to kill him. At the time the EPLF was quite effective in eliminating collaborators! It happened frequently in Asmara.  But this guy soon discovered that he couldn’t get an exit visa. Months after me, he finally found a connection with the EPLF, and left illegally. He made the same itinerary I made. We chatted a bit about our trips. He told me that his trip took much more time than mine. In fact along the way he got stuck for weeks and weeks before reaching Fah, because of a big battle that was going on between the EPLF and the Ethiopian Army. To kill the boredom he managed to convince the fighters to give him a gun, and he went around almost every day, hunting gazelles and big fowls to feed the people of the camp.

Issayas:Have you ever thought of what your life would have been if you had not left Eritrea illegally with the help of the EPLF?

Emilio: No, I never do "re-runs" Why? I consider that kind of exercise a waste of time.

Emilio's two books could be purchased from :

                                                                             The back cover of Emilio's book.

Next, part two of my conversation with Emilio De Luigi continues.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

From Eritrea's Files

from Eritrea’s Files

Sometime in 1994, Eritrea Profile carried my columns entitled "From Eritrea's Files". With this post, I'm reviving the same columns with the same name on my blog. It'll be short notes and starts by asking "Did you know that...?"  It's not and will not be in any chronological order.

Did you know that ....?

  • After the defeat of Italy at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, Francisco Crispi, the authoritarian Italian Prime Minister, resigned on March 4, 1896. His successor, Prime Minister Di Rudini, had almost finalized the handing over of Eritrea to the Belgian King Leopold until it was rejected by Italy's King Umberto. 

Eritrea- (new country)?

                                        Guest Writers

TSEGAI Medin, (Ph.D candidate. University of Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain)

Eritrea - (new country)?
Part II

The Eritrean coastal environments revealed evidences of technological industries that belong to our direct ancestor, Homo sapiens. This Homo species conquered a wide paleoecological landscape, preferably, the coast of the Red sea around 125, 000 years before present. They adapted to survive at the coast of the Red Sea and used marine-life as a major diet. These coastal habitats played a major role in understanding the sustainability of Human evolution, sedentary life and dispersals of Humans. The technological evidences of this Homo species is evident from a number of sites along the coast of Red Sea (Abdur, Asfet, Gelàlo NW and Misse East…), dated from ca. 125, 000 to 10,000 years before present. The discovery of Middle and Late Stone Age stone industries, in association with varied type of shells are conspicuous along the coasts of the Buri peninsula in the wide coast of the Red Sea. 

Evidences of Holocene culture (from 12, 000 years go to present) is correlated to the first emergence of socio-cultural trophy- in our land. The evidences are found at extensive areas within the country. Recently, an attempt is made to understand the gap between the Pleistocene to Holocene culture in the basin to reconstruct the cultural continuity from the remote past to 10,000 years old society-the analysis is still ongoing and the result is promising.  

Proto-historic evidence (symbolic language), rock paints and engravings, roughly dated to around 5000-2000 years before present.  Generally, after twenty to thirty generation (according to ethnographic accounts) from the present, humans start to depict their symbolic arts in inaccessible caves in our region.  The emergence of symbolic behavior is associated with the first evidence of domestication of plants and animals, sedentary life, agriculture, trade and other cultural interactions before the introduction of writing. Evidences, of such symbolic representation is documented, in highlands and lowlands of the country. Among these are; Adi-Alewti, Iyago, Karibosa, Saro, Mai-ainei, Quarura…etc. The rock art paints and/or engravings are generally represented by figures of animals (zoomorphic), human (anthropomorphic) and geometric styles. These styles encode many levels of social information (resistance, agriculture, art, etc) and are securely tied to places unlike other archaeological materials. Even today these symbolic representations are practicing within the diverse ethnic groups in the country.

Sedentary life of complex agro-pastoral societies in our region was traditionally believed to be thrived around the 2nd millennium  B.C. This historic period portrayed extreme dynamics of societies in the highlands and even the lowlands of Eritrea. Lands were abandoned and even again inhabited by the same or different societies. Societies were living in higher lands for defense, to save marshy areas for agriculture and to avoid insect-borne diseases. The sedentary life of societies enabled to introduce agriculture, ceramic technology, trade (barter exchange), ritualization and building houses. This historic times covers a wide time frame since the eve of the medieval period. Evidences of sites that fall within this historic period are huge and are equally distributed within the country. To mention some; Harenay, Kokon, Greater Asmara Area (Sembel, Maitemenay; Maichehot, Una-Gudo, Weki-Duba), Dekemhare (Kurbaria), Dubarwa (Qelebes), Adi-Bari…etc. The trade between the indigenous societies played a vital role in promoting socio-cultural interactions.   This network soon went further towards the sea, probably with higher necessity of salt and obsidian materials in the hinterland. However, in return various products like, Myrrh, frankincense (Boswellia, and commiphera) elephant ivory, ebony, gold and animals (panthers, cheetah, monkeys and baboons) were exchanged with societies from the sea, within the region and further to the North with the Egyptian Pharaoh. Eritrea was considered one of the most exotic and mysterious places to the Egyptian Pharaohs. The geographical link was mentioned in the Egyptian inscriptions during the time of Amenhotep III. Furthermore, recently, the DNA analysis from mummified baboons in the British Museum has revealed the location of the land of Punt within the territory of Eritrea and some parts of eastern Sudan.

 Qohaito, Eritrea

The ancient Port city of Adulis is mentioned as a gate way to external influences and prosperity in various classical sources. For example, it is well known in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (1st c. A.D.) and the Christian Topography (6th c. A.D.) as important port of trade in Antiquity.  It was serving as hub of trade between external domains (Romans, the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Arabs…etc) and the hinterland of Africa. The sites of Qohaito (tentatively listed in UNESCO World Heritage List), Metera, Keskese, Tokonadaè and further to Axum are among the most prosperous cities having strong ties in trade and administration to the Adulite kingdom. Scientific studies are not significantly conducted in this site apart of the two phases of field works organized by the National Museum of Eritrea, the University of Asmara and Southampton University in 2004 and 2005. However, recently (in 2010), after a successive colonial destructive excavations,  a five years research plan was already commenced under collaborative agreement of the Eri-Italian Museums and Universities. This research project is expected to prosper the scientific importance of the port city and reveal its mysterious connection to other external entities in a scientific scrutiny.

Excavation cite at the ancient port city of Adulis

Medieval part of Eritrea has a tremendous and complicated history covering ample range of time. This period is represented by the introduction of leading religions in our region, ca. 4th and 7th century AD. Evidences of ancient Churches (e.g. Kidane-Mihret church, Senafe) and Mosques (Sahaba, Massawa) along with new theological doctrine, religious cultures and comprehensive scientific knowledge were flourished at its peak. The kingdoms (Bahri Negestat) in the highlands of the country were successively engaging in hostile battles with the Ethiopian kings, the Islamic power from the lowlands and other external colonial powers. There are evidences of raided Monasteries and churches during this time. Based on present ethnographic accounts followers of these major religions were cohabited peacefully at the same region up to today. However, like any other periods of history, this part of Eritrean history is not widely understood even to date. 

The recent history of Eritrea is primarily linked to the unprecedented struggle for liberation preceded by the awful and successive colonial times. Traces of colonial vestiges (e.g. Asmara architectural parameter) are evident in extensive areas of the country (The historical parameter of Asmara is in the Tentative List of UNESCO world heritage list).  Eritrea was in the dark part of colonialism for centuries and the impact was colossal. After successive colonial oppressions, Eritreans started to oppose, first in individual or limited number but later in an organized demeanor for freedom.

The generation of that time fought for liberation (as of our forefathers) for about thirty bloody years. The struggle became feasible through mass participation of people at all range of age and gender. The EPLF (the only and ruling power), struggled without allies and overthrown the giant Ethiopian power from the sovereign land of Eritrea in 1991. The secret of the success of the long and genuine Eritrean struggle could be because of strong culture of solidarity, progressive resistance to oppression, martyrdom, self-reliance,…etc.


The trenches built during Eritrea's long liberation struggle. Nakfa, Eritrea.

At last the strong unity and/or harmony of the people brings the long lasted colonial times to an end and this was secured after the successful referendum conducted in 1993. Eritrea becomes independent once forever. However, after seven years, of peaceful times, a sudden and insignificant war emerged with the neighboring country of Ethiopia. This war was fabricated by the US administration and physically operated by the Ethiopian Government. The overall hidden agenda was to control the sovereign land of Eritrea, exploit its resources and throw-down the people in eternal hardships of immigration, hunger, illiteracy…etc.  Nowadays, the American government is engaging in repetitive attempts to pass punitive sanctions against Eritrea to agitate the economic boom in the country and to create unstable political ambiance in the Horn of Africa.

Eritrea´s series evolution of history flows through intense difficulties in time to arrive in the present juncture. The present Eritrea and its diverse culture (language, lifestyle…etc) is not a one night creation, it is happening after a long process of time. The cradle of humankind site of Eritrea is keeping the fossil legacy of our ancestors from Millions of years. This process witnesses the historical evolution of societies through time, the hardships and resistance and solidarity in millions of years. The current political instabilities in our region are part of these historic endeavors. Nowadays, the Eritrean people are reluctantly traveling through enormous political hardships; however, like always no retreat.  The Eritrean´s history making process is still continuing and the current resistance to giant political realm is part of our modern history. This is a small part of the intense historic facts about Eritrea`s antiquity. Eritrea´s history i as old as humanity; rather than an overnight created account.