Date: Saturday, 20 June 2020
Bereket Amare, a renowned poet, has recently published a book on the historical and genealogical lines of the Eritrean people. The 604-page long book that took 12 years in the making has captivated the attention of many, including young readers. Follow our talk to learn more about this great piece of work.
Yes it was. I restrained myself from giving details as I didn’t know when I’d be able to finalize my research and compile it into a book. This is a research-based book that tells the history of the Eritrean communities.
What I tried to do was in fact document history. History of the Eritrean people, from the 1700s up to the Italian colonization. Local and foreign writers have documented the history following the Italian colonization. The Eritrean community didn’t come out of nothing when the Italians came. Our society always coexisted, as it does now, in this land way before.
It addresses five key points. What is the foundation of the Eritrean unity? The second question is “how did the Eritrean community survive attacks from neighboring kingdoms?” The third point was looking at the methods of conflict resolutions in our communities. Fourth, in history, how did people express the feudal system and the misery associated with it, and the fifth point, also very important, was an attempt to examine whether Eritrea’s oral history is factual or not.
Oral history is not just tales. Not in our case. When people didn’t know how to document history in writing, they made poems, long oral eulogies and elegies to keep their history alive through generations. Eritreans have that gift of storytelling. When grandparents talk they talk history. And this needs to be documented. Of course, throughout time, as our elderly pass, history dies too. So, our job must be to run against time and document what the elderly have to say.
Thanks for asking. A common trait of our traditional oral history is the narration of kinship lines. When characters are mentioned we find more than their names and attributions. We find a line of kinship. Whose son or daughter is he or she? And the grandparent? And their parents and so on and on … Identifying the kinship line is what helped me the most to scientifically prove that our oral chronicles are not tales. Because the stories of warriors, nobilities, wise men and women, young girls who went in vendetta of their loved ones are not fictional but recitations about real people, whose descendants we can trace. Moreover, while tracing kinship I was able to confirm not only that those people really existed but also the setting of the event. Analyzing kinship helped me attain a bigger understanding too.
The Eritrean community is one big family. Tracing back I realized that every family or clan is interrelated. The family of Adkeme Melegae, for example, from the Tigrigna ethnic group is a sister family of the Bilen ethnic group, which in turn are related to the Afar ethnic group among the many other sister families.
The population has always existed. The Italians merely drew areas for their expansionist agenda. Certain communal attitudes are hereditary, something that the newer generations learn from the previous ones, make it their own and pass it down. The unity of the Eritrean people is certainly one of those. The fact that our society is law abiding is also another learned and inherited attitude.
The Eritrean community is law abiding and accustomed to rules that promote respect and harmony. That is the only explanation to how this diverse community has coexisted for so long. Cultural and religious differences drift people apart both in history and now in our times, but not here. The cultural richness is vast and one of the things I put my focus on is the question of harmony. No matter how peaceful communities are, disputes are inevitable. Dispute over the land and generally over gains and interests of different nature. However, that is not the key point. The key point is dispute resolution. And the Eritrean community has mechanisms for dispute resolution. Plenty, even. Every ethnic group has its own customary law. In Eritrea, the terminology Highi, literally translated as law, is a word that has existed for many, many centuries. Some of the customary laws in Eritrea are Highi Adkeme Melegae, Highi Adginet Gilaba, Highi Logo Chiwa, Fithi Shum Mahari and Highi Habte Silus Gebre Christos.
The historical chronology of the book ends with the fall of Degiat Bahta Hagos. He was one of the renowned local noblemen who stood against the Italians. Right before their arrival in 1800s several nobilities such as Degiat Bahta Hagos, Beremberas Kafil, Degiat Hadgembes Gulbet came together to fight foreign invasions. They also taught their people to be aware of the colorizers, to safeguard their fertile lands and to hide their girls from the Italians as they were ravaging villages abducting young girls. In January 1890, when Italy officially claimed authority over Eritrea, more people joined the fight against the Italians. Degiat Bahta Hagos remained resilient fighting for his people until he was killed in 1894. And that is also where the chronology of events in the book ends.
It was a beautiful journey. I was speaking to elderly men and women, who remembered the chronicles as if they’d been waiting for someone to get it out of them and record it. I travelled a lot over a period of 12 years. Every bit of information is valuable here. We’re talking about our own history that needs to be documented before the few elderly people pass away. Technically speaking the main method I used was long interviews with the elderly.
I had to put every penny I earned into paying for my travels. When I reached my destinations often times the elderly, as it is the norm, would tell me they are in no place to talk about the noble achievement of the their forefathers. They were concerned that they might diminish its value with their words. So I had to plead with them to get them to talk to me. It would take me a lot of time tracing people who could talk to me and when I finally located them I’d find that they had already been dead. One time a man passed right by where I was sitting and as we were talking all of a sudden he collapsed and soon died. When a man dies a whole library dies with him. That was a terrifying experience but I was so grateful that I was able to talk to him. I thank all the elderly who agreed to document their memories. Many challenges, yes, but great rewards.
Honestly, I am grateful to all the people who are reading and sharing it. But above all I want young people to read it, learn from it and realize how lucky they are to be owners of their own history. Nothing was given to the Eritreans. Centuries back and still now our history is all ours. I want to especially encourage the youth to know their history. People die but they become immortal when they have history. That’s our case. Our young must be proud that we have a history of our own.