When the issue of producing goodly fruits out of the Eritrean children of the 1950s was discussed, a book containing stories full of morality was suggested. The British Military Administration of Eritrea under Captain Kinston Snell approved the idea, and Arba’aan Arba’ten Zanta (44 Stories) was published (in Tigrinya) to be used by Eritrean schoolchildren aged 9-14.
The text-book could see the day thanks to several ‘native’ teachers who contributed stories, proverbs, poems, and even some scientific facts. But, the main idea was to build the citizens of tomorrow through stories that were designed to instruct and to edify, to show the path to honesty, courage and self-integrity and at the same time to arouse the desire to read further and expand one’s mental horizon.
Those were the days when, not dams and roads and mineral deposits, but the child’s tender mind was considered the best place to invest on by the government. And it did produce a generation that lay the basis for the Eritrea I have known for many years. Those were the Haben (pride) days before they turned into Hazen (distressing) days.
Here are therefore some of the stories that featured in the school text-book mentioned above:
The Three Thieves
Thieves are always after gold and silver. And they are always with us, to rob us. A rich man was robbed that day, of his gold and silver that enriched our three thieves.
As bidden by his colleagues, one of the thieves went to fetch food to appease his friends hunger. He went to town, bought food, ate a morsel or two and put poison on the rest.
“When my friends eat the food, they will writhe in pain and will die before my eyes, and I will have the gold and silver all for my self,” he drooled.
On the other end of crime, the two thieves resting under the shade of a tree begged to differ. They wanted their colleague to die instead, and lusted after the gold and silver glittering under their eyes.
“We will kill him when he comes, and we will make off with the spoil,” they mused.
When the thief carrying the food arrived, his colleagues took a dagger and finished him off. And they lay themselves down to eat and enjoy.
Three morsels and they began to groan in pain. Their entrails boiled inside their belly. They had been had. They got their just deserts.
Shepherd boys who were tending their flock nearby saw three corpses and a bag of gold and silver lying on the ground. They alerted the police force.
And the government kindly returned the money to its lawful owner.
Moral: Don’t covet what is not yours. Eat by the sweat of your brow. Crime doesn’t pay.
The Birds That Ate Too Much
There was a sycamore tree (sagla) yonder full of fruits and two of our feathered friends came over, perched on the branches and ate to their hearts content.
“Let’s not tell anyone about this,” burped the first.
“I swear that I will keep this day secret for ever,” belched the second.
But both being weak-willed, they spread the news far and wide.
“Show us the place,” chirped their friends who learned of the bonanza.
So they could do nothing but take them to the sycamore tree and they all began to fill their stomachs with the ripe sagla fruits.
“Please keep silent, for the eagle is hovering above, and he might see us and kill us one by one,” counseled the first two birds.
“We will,” promised the rest.
But, when the stomach is full, the mind is usually empty, so the birds began to chirp:
“I nearly fell off the branch, subdued by sleep,” pealed one.
“The same with me! The same with me!” twittered the rest in a chorus.
And the eagle heard the chirping, and he swooped down on the naughty birds and ate them one by one.
Moral: Tsigab neyketel zeyshedada’e meaning it is not abundance of riches that kills but squandering it. Temesgen mbal meaning Thank your God for the bounty you get.
The Donkey and the Dog
A donkey carrying a sack full of hembasha (traditional round leavened bread) on his back and a dog trotting behind were on their way to the village. The dog was supposed to guard the donkey, in case. Somewhere along the road, the donkey saw green grass and stopped to graze.
“Since I can’t eat grass, why don’t you give me some of the hembasha,” whined the dog.
“Why should I?” snorted the donkey and kept grazing and munching.
After filling his stomach and with his spirit uplifted, the donkey began to trot with the dog trudging behind.
And along came Mr. Wolf, very hungry and very angry. The donkey, upon seeing the bad wolf, began to move closer to the dog, for protection.
“You have eaten alone, and now you fight alone,” snarled the dog and left the donkey to his fate. The wolf had never had it so good.
Moral: Beynu zibel’e beynu yimewt meaning who he eats alone dies alone. Remember your friend in his hours of need. There is always a tomorrow.
The Evil Whisperer
Once upon a time, there were four oxen that grazed and slept in a place far from any human habitation. White, black, grey and red were the colors of their hides. When they lay to sleep in the open at night, they preferred to face east, west, north and south and in a circle so that there was no opening for the enemy to sneak in and eat them.
The wild animals in the surroundings didn’t like the idea. They wanted an easy catch but it escaped them.
Enter the fox, who told the wild animals that if they could let it eat with them of the spoil, it would find a way to solve the problem.
“Just promise me,” he said.
“Promise,” shouted the wild animals (yummy!)
So the fox went over to where the oxen grazed and said:
“Look, honorable oxen, it is because of the white ox that you are being vulnerable, for white is the enemy of darkness.”
“Good,” bellowed the oxen and told the white ox to leave.
The next day, the same fox approached the three remaining oxen and said:
“So far so good, your life has improved now, but the grey ox……tsk, tsk…..for due to its visibility at night, it is a real problem.”
“Good,” hollered the oxen, and got rid of the grey ox too.
The next day, the fox came for inspection:
“Look, Mr. Black [ox],” went on the fox. ” I think if you were just alone no one would see you at night, so why not ask the red ox to leave you alone.”
“Okay,” roared the black ox, and kicked out the red ox and told it never to come back again.
When night fell, the black ox slept alone. And along came the wild animals marching and drooling all over, for a meal fit for a prince.
And can you guess who came to dinner?
The crafty fox, of course.
Moral: There are always bad people bent on destroying you. Unity creates strength. Don’t abandon your friends even if it seems that by so doing you may benefit for some time.