The following is a narrative of a man born in the era of chaos. It is a long narrative seen through his innocent, childish eyes and is asking you to be patient and understanding if you find his story simplistic and naïve.
And First The Women Saw The Italians
……The Italians came to Eritrea as colonizers and left Eritrea after they were defeated by the British led army. Not all Italians left. Many of those who were sent to Eritrea by the Fascist regime as punishment because of their political inclinations requested to stay and the British consented to their plight. The Eritrean people did not bother either.
The Italians had changed the landscape by building roads, railway lines, cities and towns but to their credit they did not intensively interfere with the village life and as such with people’s lives. Either they left the task for later times or they abhorred interference. The Italians remained true to themselves by leaving the Eritrean people true to themselves. The Eritreans reciprocated by leaving them alone.
Accolades to the Italians equaled blames. The main grudge of the people was concerning formal education. The Italians did not encourage formal education higher than grade four and that was only for Italian language, so by the time the British arrived there were no schools for formal education in Eritrea. But to the astonishment of the British there were thousands of skilled workforce and people who spoke perfect Italian. The British also noticed an eagerness and thirst for knowledge among the people. So they opened schools first in the cities and town and later in the villages. In the cities and town they converted some military barracks and offices that were built and used by the Italians into schools. British and Indian military officers volunteered to teach, and in seven years of intensive education, they managed to graduate local teachers who were more than capable to teach elementary school children in local and English language. The next teachers graduated from grade eight and every year the next crop of teachers graduated one class above their immediate predecessors. They encouraged the brightest students to translate some English books into the local language. They offered scholarships for higher education to the few gifted students.
The people were happy; and women were ecstatic. children in villages had something to do, but not in urban centers. Because of their forward thinking, the city women were worried about the fate of their children who were growing up doing nothing. So they embraced the new opportunity for education and became obsessive about it.
A woman was always respectful towards the monks, sheiks and priests partly due to their ability to read and write; but she also realized not everyone could become a Sheik, a monk or priest. She believed in calling for service that was reserved for few special people.
Like she would not forget the Italians who brought her a bar of soap, shoes and mills, equally she would not forget the British for opening schools for her children.
She would monitor her children’s progress and achievements even though she herself was uneducated. She started telling her children “I want to be known as the mother of educated children”. She even started to compromise on some unacceptable new habits if they proved they were progressing in school. The men were also happy with the women in their new role as knowledge enforcers because they believed in their determination but also they did not have to do it themselves. Women started sacrificing their wants and some of their needs so that their children could have decent clothes and healthy nutrition. They did not have to worry about books or school supplies for the British were supplying them for free. In cities and towns the hardy woman started to badger her husband to work meaningful work so he could bring more money so her children could eat well, dress well and go to school. She monitored his expenses and even started cutting portions of the food she prepared for him. She knew he loved meat but instead she encouraged him to eat more vegetables which he thought were cows’ and goats’ foods. Unusual for her, she even started favoritism towards the brightest and not merely the eldest of her children. Simply, she became discriminating when it came to education. Neighborhoods also started changing. Where as before role modeling was based on age, school achievement overtook age and became the most sought after trait. If a kid is bright in school he was nicknamed “Berqi”, a lightning rod, and he would remain the role model until he left the neighborhood.
And finally the woman added a new prayer to God, to help her children and all the children of the neighborhood to succeed in school; the monks, the sheiks and priests welcomed her plea and added her wish to their prayers.
She was also a master motivator. She motivated the children by saying “Zeitewekre imni neyetihin zeitemahre seb neyedihin” —“un redressed stone cannot grind; uneducated person cannot save.” If this ominous proverb did not dissuade them then she would say “if you study, you will live in a villa like the Italians”; “if you excel in education you will drive a car like the Italians”; “if you are good in school, you will buy fancy dress like the Italians.” She even would unashamedly say “if you study hard you will have a maid like the Italians.” She firmly believed the Italians were created to work; to eat and to dress. She was never jealous because in her pure heart and unadulterated mind she believed they deserved it. She herself was a hard working person and by association she liked hard working people. That was why she referenced the Italians in everything good and modern. She always believed she would be compensated for her honesty and hard work only in heaven after she died. She never knew until the Italians came that she could also be rewarded here on earth. What was a puzzle at the beginning was not anymore for she pinpointed exactly why the Italians were more advanced than her and her people: education. And that was why when the British opened schools without hesitation, not even consulting with the monks, priests or sheiks, immediately started registering her children and also coaxing the other women to do the same. What one woman did all women followed suit. What the city woman did the town women followed suit. What the city and town women did, all village women followed suit. Education became an object of obsession. If the city or town a woman could be excused for being obsessed with education because she had time in her hand, what about the village woman who badly needed her kids help? No matter what, it is undeniable that women in that hardy place think the same, act the same because they follow one another.
Not to be left behind the British, and also because of remorse, the Italians who opted to remain in Eritrea also opened new schools for the people in the capital city Asmara. But there was a caveat: all subjects were taught in Italian. The women did not like that Idea but some men who were drunk with the Italian lifestyle or suspicious of the British intention dismissed the women’s concerns and started registering their children in Italian schools. There were also advantages in those schools. Whereas the teachers in the public schools were locals who got their teaching certificated after finishing grade seven, the Italian schools had fully qualified teachers. Whereas the public schools start with grade one, the Italian schools had kindergarten programs. The Italian schools were also fully equipped, clean and efficient. But at the end, due to incessant pressures from the women not too many registered when compared with the public schools.
Many men were dissuaded from registering their kids in Italian schools because for some unexplainable reasons women started associating Italian language with religion while they took English language as innocuous. Some said it was because the woman noticed the British disinterest in religion for she did not see them frequent churches as the Italians did. The British also did not build their own church. The hardy woman might also have become suspicious about why then and not long time ago the Italians became interested in educating the people. No man could take incessant pressure from that hardy woman. It was easier for the man to recant than resist. Also in maters of faith and religion, the man knew, he could neither prevent nor dissuade the woman unless he was ready to confront her many staunch allies: the best man; the Shimagle; the sheiks or the priests to mention few. Customs and traditions were also on her side. Kids belonged to the woman.
As with the Italian language, the woman did not try to learn the language of the British. So did the men but for different reasons. The woman again had a hunch that the British were not going to stay long so why bother with temporary events. The men were put off by the attitude of the Britons they saw and met. The men found the British snobbish, rigid, bossy and unsociable. On the other hand the Italians were chatty, loud, showy, talkative, artsy, social and down to earth. But the striking difference between the British and Italians, the men and women identified their respective attitude towards work. They said, “Italians work and work but the British sit and write and write”.
The woman thought the British were detached and aloof; not good example for the boys. She also observed the British did not build anything. They were just users of what was already built by the Italians. But she did not deny their savvies in administration and knowledge of books. It was rare for her to see an Italian with books.
Besides formal education. the British also introduced and encouraged politics and the formation of political parties. Before the British, the people never knew politics. Village life did not require politics. Even during the Italian rule, politics was an unknown entity because the Italians themselves did not practice politics. The Italians were heard derisively equating politics to lying. They loved work but abhorred politics. They did not have to preach their belief to the people because they knew the people had no idea of politics.
The British on the other hand cherished and loved politics and even turned it into an art form. Like the Italians, who willingly or grudgingly shared their manual and artistic skills with the people, the British also willingly or grudgingly shared what they cherished with the people. The former made skilled workers out of village men. The later made insidious men out of city and town men.
In the beginning the British might have been impressed with the people’s advanced skills because everything was running good eventhough most of the Italians were repatriated back to Italy. The infrastructure, transportation, the industries, the cities and towns were kept in good shape and running without any sign of distress. Based on their assessment, the British introduced politics to the people believing the people were mature enough and would understand its necessity for governing a new nation. They also sowed the seeds of democracy by encouraging the people to form political parties, again believing the people could handle the game. How wrong the British were?
How could people whose consciousness was rooted in village life and village nuances suddenly understand or develop a national consciousness?
The Italians trained the people to work and be submissive to their rules. The Italians did not try to elevate the people’s consciousness. They just left everything the same except what mattered to them. The Italians were value conscious masters. If a bright man quickly learned to drive, they made him a driver because it freed one of their own. The same went with carpenters, masons, bricklayers, mechanics, marble polishers, glass makers and many more. Some Eritreans even became good advocates without going to school simply by listening and observing their master if he happened to be a lawyer. The Italians liked it because now they had a local who could represent another local in cases of disputes. Some even became able architects without ever going to school just by observation. The Italians liked them and tested them with some projects and could not believe what their eyes saw and their hands touched.
The Italians also formed soccer clubs and named them after some cities and towns or regions of Eritrea. They also encouraged the people not only to understand the game but to play it by forming soccer clubs. Following suit, the locals also named their clubs with innocuous names and loved the game. Both clubs were kept separate: the Italian clubs were exclusive for Italian players and likewise the local clubs were for the locals.
To facilitate the game they adore, the Italian built two soccer stadiums in Asmara, one for themselves which they named Cicero, the other for the locals which they named Ferovia.
But when some scouts saw some of the locals playing mouth watering games, they just picked them up and allowed them to play with the Italian clubs. That was the life under the Italians.
The Italians were lovers, lovers of anything beautiful. Life is beautiful and they loved life. Art is beautiful and they loved art and the artist. Garden is beautiful and the Italians loved garden and the gardener. Soccer is beautiful and they loved soccer and good soccer players. Work is beautiful and the Italians loved work and the carpenter, the mason, the glass blower, the marble polisher, the city cleaner, the driver and many more.
On the other hand the British loved intellect, books, poetry and politics. No matter what their background if they noticed such traits in an individual or people they just loved them and shared their experience with them. The stiffness was just a façade. So even though local historians interpreted the introduction of politics to the people of Eritrea as hidden agenda for division and antagonism, I do not think that was their modus operandi in particular to the Eritrean people and especially at the beginning.
The woman, the monks and Sheiks saw politics as an ominous sign for bad things to come. If there was one thing that scared them it was division and antagonism. The man embraced politics as if it was a key to his distress and confusion. City life confused and alienated the man more than the woman so he believed that by participating in politics his ills would go away.
At the beginning the woman also felt distress and alienation when removed from her village. But she created city neighborhoods in the image of her village and was able to come to terms with her new life, but not the man. He might have understood the root causes of his distress but did nothing to rectify them. So when politics was introduced he was the perfect subject for the experiment, an experiment that went awry in many countries before and after him.
The Eritrean man embraced politics without understanding it and immediately started flaunting it as if it was his creation and salvation. He was the son of Adam and without question or doubt started swallowing the fruit of politics. He forgot he was a limited person due to his upbringing and history of his ancestors both in temperament and imagination.
He was good at village affairs. His mother and village women have taught him everything he should know. In village setting he was elegant; quiet; spoke with measured words punctuated by gaps; stoic; chose to listen more than to speak; honorable who would never interrupt anyone; patient who would never speak without being prompted and many more admirable traits and behaviors. If he did not know he wouldn’t say it because his mother taught him not to answer questions he did not know “zeifelto aitmelis” was what she repeatedly told him.
Once the man was introduced to politics, to the horror of the woman, the sheik and the monk, his nature and behavior changed. He became talkative, arrogant, and dismissive. Everyone but him was ignorant (denakur), and rural (hagereseb). He also started injecting Italian words to his local dialect to show off his aloofness and newly found knowledge. When speaking he threw his hands in gestures more than the Italians did. When he run out of ideas he blamed and accused others. Unbeknownst to his nature and nurture he started stirring non existent differences and instilling doubts into others. In no time he lost his logic and common sense and started venturing into dangerous ideas. The woman, the sheik and the monks were alarmed. The woman initiated a new lesson to her sons “do not copy the men; they do not know what they are talking.”
The Cold War
Cold war changed everything. It changed the British, the Americans, the Russians the Chinese and everyone else.
The Ethiopian Emperor saw the end but not the journey. Ethiopia lies to the south and west of Eritrea. His predecessor, King Minelik have signed the boundary of Ethiopia and Eritrea with the Italians, making Eritrea a separate nation, not that Eritrea was part of Ethiopia but worse rendering Ethiopia landlocked country.
Emperor Haile Selassie wanted Eritrea badly, mainly driven by image and ego. Using his status and connections with the British monarchy and the Americans and handsomely facilitated by the cold war demanded that Eritrea be given to Ethiopia. That demand created legal issues to the British because Eritrea was a separate country with distinct borders when they took over from the Italians. The British have also developed sympathy with the people of Eritrea in their short stay primarily because they found them intelligent, hardworking, direct and shy people. Even though it was hard to tell, they might also have been impressed by the stoic, direct and strong woman. The only concern the British had with the people was their lack of national consciousness. But that issue did not deter the British from training and forming a local police force. As the locals impressed the Italians with their keenness to learn and acquire new skills, the police trainees impressed the British so much so they called them the best police force they ever trained outside Great Britain. They also trained the police not to interfere or get involved in politics. But the police did not get the same respect the teacher got. The teacher’s status was equal to the chief priest (Abebunet), the Sheik or the monk. The woman respected and showed it by showering the teacher and his family with gifts. Teachers got praises and accolades because the woman respected and envied knowledge but also abhorred and hated violence and tools of violence. The police were trained to perform dual tasks, that of a police and a military. Except in cities and towns where they were not allowed to carry guns but batons, outside city they carried guns. Everyone knew the police as they knew the teacher. There weren’t many of them at the beginning. They were also village men with village roots. It was the gun and what it could do which affected them. The people led by the monk, the Sheik and woman were peaceful people at their core. They deeply believe it was because of peace that they were able to survive. Their conditioning made them over sensitive to anything associated with violence and gun was a tool for violence.
Next: The Era Of Chaos: The Flag