Mining the Memory of Trial and Triumph: A Review of Dawit Habte’s Gratitude in Low Voices: A Memoir (2017)
By Emeka Aniagolu
I have not had the privilege and pleasure of reading much of any literature by authors from Ethiopia or Eritrea, who have penned works of fiction, non-fiction, autobiographical or polemical essays. More often than not, when one comes across African authors of literary consequence, they are typically Nigerian, sometimes Ghanaian, Southern African (mostly from the Republic of South Africa), and occasionally, from Kenya, with the exception of Kenya’s master storyteller and raconteur, Ngugi wa Thiongo.
I, therefore, often pondered the explanation for that seeming void. Is it that they do write, but in their native languages, and therefore, their works are marooned in the scripts of mother tongues other than the global lingua franca—English? Or that their experiences, emotions and imaginations, as a result of antiquated conditioning, are smothered under the weight of cultural insularity that makes virtue of silent suffering? Or that they fail to see the cultural or intellectual value in producing full-length novels, autobiographical or polemical works?
Then, one day, an Eritrean friend of mine, whom I have known her family for over fifteen years, and who has attended a number of my book-signing events; told me that there is an Eritrean by the name, Dawit Habte, who wrote a book she thinks I would like to read. Being somewhat of a “voracious reader” myself, I could hardly wait to get my hands on the book.
Two things immediately struck me about the book even before I got a chance to read a single word or sentence in it: its title and its cover design. The title to the book was most intriguing: Gratitude in Low Voices. Was it referring to the gratitude of whose low voices? His family members—immediate and extended? A class of people within Eritrea? His generation?
The book’s title was made all the more intriguing by its cover design: shadows or silhouettes of non-descript people that appear as though they are standing in a queue or heading somewhere, waiting for something or for someone? If the title to the work and its cover design were intended to stoke the potential reader’s imagination and make them salivate for the content of the book, it succeeded with me.
The same day I got a hold of the book, upon my return from the Eritrean wedding—at about 10 pm—I settled down to reading Dawit Habte’s book. Page after page, I was treated to an unassuming, crisply written, surprisingly detailed, disarmingly honest and emotionally evocative autobiographical-cum-historical narrative; that bristled with crystal clear memories of pain, suffering, grit, pride, perseverance, and above all, family ties of affection, love, devotion and unbreakable mutual obligation. And the read offered also, the pleasant surprise of lacking the stilted diction of the late convert—of someone who learnt a new language as a second or third language at a later age.
For the next two days, every chance I got, I read Dawit Habte’s book with great relish and reward. It is thus that I state unequivocally, that Dawit has produced an excellent autobiographical work which will prove a powerful voice—in low and high places, I might add—for not only his family’s experience, but for his country, Eritrea. Every Eritrean should read his book for the pride and dignity it conveys about and confers upon the suffering and sacrifice of that proud and stubbornly independent African nation; and all other Africans as well as people the world over, should read Dawit Habte’s book for the incomparable insight it provides into the otherwise opaque human experience in that part of the Mother Continent!
Professor Emeka Aniagolu taught history and politics at Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, for thirty years before retiring in 2016. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in International Studies at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of fifteen books and several journal articles. He is the recipient of numerous scholarly and community awards, including the State of Ohio Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Commission “Educational Excellence Award” in 2013. He is the author of the much acclaimed comparative study on Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, titled: A Tale of Two Giants: Chinua Achebe & Wole Soyinka (2016).