‘Writing our history: powerful tool to regain Eritrea’s Identity’

About Eritrea - History & Culture


Alemseged Tesfay in a sense is Eritra’s Chinua Achebe, born in 1944 in Adi Quala, Alemseged is widely known for his Historical Narratives, Novels, Essays and Dramas. Heavily influenced by the fact that he couldn’t find any Literature written by Eritreans in his studies abroad, Mr. Alemseged has in many ways than one, had dedicated his life to creating what he couldn’t find in his younger years as a student, Eritrean Literature, written by Eritrean. Alemseged’s most widely read book, Aynifelale, the first of what was going to be a three volume historical narrative of colonial Eritrea, a lifetime spent in perfecting a well-researched and documented History of Eritrea from 1941 to 1950- was first published in 2001. His first book, in my perspective, is rightly held as a modern Eritrean masterpiece. Alemseged in all his written master pieces showed, writing our history is a powerful tool in the fight to regain ‘what is ours, the Eritrean Identity!

Alemseged’s third volume, Eritrea; From Federation to Occupation and Revolution, after a long wait, was inaugurated this past Friday at the G3 hall at Expo Grounds in front of a pact audience, which I was lucky enough to attend. The ground might had been fully pact, but these were just a small portion of Alemseged Tesfai’s avid fans, having waited eagerly for years for the piece to be finished and presented, the look on most faces of the attendees said it all, they were proud.

Alemseged Tesfai leaves in his books a powerful legacy; a literary titan, who is at the forefront of Eritrean literature on his ongoing career and who is the author of the most widely read Eritrea book in history. He is a man trying to define his identity and his nations’.

A life time spent writing Eritrean literature, their positive impact on individuals, society and the nation; has hit its epitome; as Alemseged Tesfai’s books published over the years have encouraged hopeful writers to take the path towards being published writers, if not all, most of this unprecedented success is credit to prominent writers such as Alemseged Tesfai. Not only this but the culture of reading cultivated with such increasing number of writers coming to the fold of the publishing scene is also tribute to numerous Eritrean books published over the course of Eritrean independence.

What we fail to give due appreciation is the effect reading has in nation building. The fact that reading broadens our perspective and, hence, can enable us find solutions for problems improving our productivity in any endeavor we undertake is a much discussed assertion. Productivity and development are some of the pillars of an effective nation building process. Indeed, economy is an important factor that greatly influences the progress of nation building.

In the past, reading was a hunting ground for priests and sheiks. They read for divine inspiration, for refuting heretic dogmas and in order to appease the Creator.
Not able to read, the masses listened and obeyed. Books were sacred because wiring itself was a divine gift bestowed on those who served the deity. Then came along Gutenberg with his movable printing machine! Priests and sheiks lost the readership monopoly. The clergy were not happy with the new invention. So they told their flock not to read this book and not to print that treatise, etc.

With the industrial revolution, books were mass produced. The clergy had to concede defeat. Reading was open to the public. And to add insult to the injury (as far as the clergy were concerned) libraries were opened everywhere. Writing and reading which had before a divine origin lost their mystique and became accessible to profane hands and eyes.
It is said that at some point in history we Eritreans were not a reading people. We prefer to see and listen. This means that we liked the radio and television more than reading books or the newspaper. One obvious reason for this can be illiteracy. But even those who could read not only in their own language but in those of other languages were not much given to reading.

Don’t read, talk! Was what their friends said to them in a café or a snack bar. They wanted them to be with them physically and spiritually. If someone is reading, that person is in the clouds, and it is the duty of friends to bring him/her down to the ground.

I know a bibliophile (One who hates books) when I see one. Once I lent an acquaintance a book for a week.

“Are you enjoying the book?” I asked him on the phone.

“Yes. Thank you. I am on page 101, and I will give you when I finish it,” he said.

A genuine reader wouldn’t say that. He was simply faking it.
Some could not fake it for a long time. They implode through excess of snobbism.

“Which is the most interesting book that you have read in your life?”

“Certainly, it is the Asmara’s Telephone Directory,”

But reading is a habit. It becomes second nature. There are people who grow up reading books and when they are left alone without a book to fix their eyes on, they literally panic. For such people, there are cheap books on sale at railways stations in Europe. Just buy a 1 dollar fiction, open it when the train begins to move, and toss it at the next station.

On our culture though, it is very rare to see bus passengers reading during their commute. Few people are seen reading in the doctor’s waiting room. I do wish they had good books or magazines in such places.

How about libraries? Before independence, according to one librarian, most of the readers who visited public libraries were jobless people, and some were eventual mental cases. The sane of mind were not regular ‘clients’ according to the librarian.

On the other hand, during the struggle days reading became a kind of culture in the field among combatants. Imagine writing and reading in your own language and in your own culture. Prices were awarded for best writers and translators in the field and as a result the habit or reading caught on and everywhere behind enemy lines and in various tranches the fighters kept on reading. Scholars such as Alemseged Tesfai’s, who abandoned their studies abroad and joined the struggle played a prominent role in the struggle’s own struggle to nurture and keep intact the Eritrean culture and history. Alemseged Tesfai in his infinite capacity, wrote and directed plays, whilst finding the time to write about the struggle, the very people that kept it striving. Literary works such as Wedi Hadera, Libi Tegadalay (Heart of a Fighter), Fetawi Seat, From Badme to Sahel, Etti kali’e Kunat (The Other War), were all written during the armed struggle. Alemseged encouraged his students and actors and actresses to develop the habit of reading during war time, and so did his prodigies. There is a big lesson to be learned for the lazybones here, namely that one doesn’t need a sofa to be able to read. The avid reader can read between battles and within canon’s range!

There are combatants who left for the field with little formal education and who at present can silence University professors in seconds. And there are those who had obtained their degree thirty or forty years back from such and such university and have never since read a single book to improve themselves. While the former deserve a university degree for the efforts they made, the latter should be despoiled of their academic honors for allowing darkness to envelop their minds.
Again I say that reading is a habit and should be learned quite young. Here, the parents have a very big responsibility. A child who grows up without consecrating a few hours for reading at home soon develops aversion to books and will be heading towards the dark tunnel where eyes and hearts are blinded and conceited whisperings of self are interpreted as knowledge.

What is therefore the best way to develop the culture of reading in a given society?

In the first place, the parents should themselves become an example. They should buy bookshelves and show some respect to books. If for example a father is overheard by his children complaining about the price of a book while spending 3000 Nfa on a sheep, what do you think the children will think?
Next, the number of public libraries should increase yearly along with the formation of book clubs at school lever. There should be book reviews on newspapers and panel discussions in the radio and the TV.

Furthermore, people should take the initiative to write stories for children in simple language. The child can learn to appreciate books only if the subject interests him/her and if only the language is simple and readable.

When in New York the authorities discovered that most of the Ghetto people could not read or write, they introduced books that narrated about sex, crime and violence. The Ghetto boys liked the books, because they could relate to it. Within a short time, those who could not differentiate A from B became avid readers and they asked for more books and libraries.

That’s how you make people learn to read and eventually to love books.

A while back I visited a friend, who thought books had other purposes than to be opened and read. To make matters worse, he lived with his otherwise illiterate mother. I had my dinner with the family and I was asked to spend the night, which I accepted.

“Do you have some interesting books to read for the night?” I asked preparing myself for any eventuality.
“I have some encyclopedia,” he said.
“You like reading the encyclopedia,” I asked.
“Well, you see, this one here I use to prop up or support the old family wardrobe,” he said in a causal manner.
“What about this one? I inquired pointing to one lying on the bed.
“I use that one to bolster the pillow,” he replied.

I saw another one under the bed, probably used as a footstool, but preferred to keep silent.

I’m sure his mother went one better and burned the whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z to brew her coffee. It seems that in this way both mother and son got more light (and warmth) from the books by burning them than by reading them.

I looked around for a bookshelf, in vain. Probably burned with lofty treaties and learned dissertations.

My friend grew up hating books, for he was told to read books he little understood or that did not tune with his temperament.

Before one reads for knowledge, one should read for curiosity and for entertainment.