Men And Women of Kebessa

Her good mother was so tough, precise and unrelenting, she did not let her slack until she was satisfied that she had totally absorbed her teachings and proved her qualifications. Distortions, variations or alterations were totally rejected. Opinions, excuses or suggestions were also totally unacceptable and punishable. Things had to pass as they were and indeed they did. What you see at present was what you would have seen generations ago.


In a four-part series, (now six) the second of which is being presented today, Aklilu gives us a perspective of the Kebessa man and woman, their upbringing, character and psychological make up. The remaining four parts of the series will follows every few days.


Seb’ay Kebesa [The Highland man]




The skin of the highland man comes in a variety of colors and hues just like his surrounding. A long nose and thin lips are his signature marks. He has a varied height, tall and short, and is skinny to the bone as a result of meager resources. But extremely agile with quick but shy eyes, shyness toward others and especially towards the elderly and towards strangers. From childhood he was taught not to look straight into peoples eye except his mothers. Sidi, accompanied by slap were the consequences for breaking that rule. His shyness did not affect his sharpness. You could see his tenacious mind through his shy eyes, eyes born sharp but dulled by shyness.  


He was bold but needed time to get excited. He was taught to be Aqal, patient before he acted. Aqli was the most important virtue he learnt from his family and his village. 


He talked less. His utterances were economical and measured. Strangers needed the size of his patience to tolerate him. He was acutely aware of it but did not bother him. Chattiness, what they called tezzarabi, was not in his nature or nurture. 


He listened well. His hearing ability was extraordinary and oversensitive to supplement his shy eyes. He also needed sharp hearing more than sharp seeing in that surrounding where hills and mountains constantly and abruptly overlapped; where hills dipped into valleys; plains into precipices and change that minimized visibility forcing the tracks to turn acutely sharp accordingly; boulders the size of houses blocking his views; camouflaged snakes that slither in the grasses. In that place one did not know what lies beyond. 


Except with his close ones, he could be considered solitary. Not anti social but lonely. Not by choice but by circumstances. The land did not provide enough for many, as a consequence, the men scattered. He was not fortunate to have a surrounding that provided well except clean thin air and abundant sunlight. 


The Kebesa man had to negotiate hard to feed his family, his village, himself and his animals. He had to constantly stay vigilant against hungry predators to protect his animals and himself. To stay alive. 


He traveled farther and farther from his family and village in search of grass and water for his animals, leaving his good woman to look after the children, the house, the village and the church. 


He always looked haggard because he was tired. He was tired because he did not eat much. He was tired going up and down the hills and mountains. He was tired of missing his good woman and his village. 


His skin was wrinkly, a result of hard work and poor diet that lacked protein. But he never complained. He was taught through motivation and severe discipline in childhood not to complain. Only women, girls and old men complain was what his mother told him. The big man missed his home. From far away he thought those who stayed home had luxurious life. Life that produced shortcomings. For the hardy man complaining and whining were luxuries of idleness. 


Unconsciously when he was alone he constantly talked with himself and his surrounding not to lose his language. But it was one thing to talk with real people and another with oneself, with the animals, with rocks or with trees. 


When he conversed with people he was awkward and it was easy to notice his exaggerated gestures and speech, interjected with gaps and vacuums which mimicked his surroundings: the hills, valleys, gorges and precipices. 


He walked erect with a straight back a result of necessity and training. He grew up sleeping in N’edi, a bed made of stone. He had to walk straight lest he fall; had to stand straight to watch his animals lest they be prey to predators for his views were always interfered by the jagged and ragged landscape and also his strong mother told him only cowards walks bent. D’nn, D’nn ay’tbel Do not walk bent was her constant lecture. 


He was a very reserved man who did not bother others as he did not want to be bothered. 


He was a very kind man and a Samaritan. A man who learned during childhood to share what he had. His mother taught him those who do not share, die alone. He took the saying literally, a very scary thought for a lonely man. He was able to work and travel alone but he would never think of dying alone. He loved and missed his family, village and church.  


Travelers and strangers loved and respected him, for his presence assured them they would not die of hunger or thirst and would not get lost in a hardy place.  


Every one has his defects. He was human and had his defects, tough defects from a tough man. He died when his good woman died because the highland man abhorred burden. He abhorred any burden including carrying anything but his stick. He considered carrying any load a job of a woman, the very woman who raised him in her back and nurtured him burdening her back. 


Sebeity Kebesa [The highland Woman] 


All women are good. I do not know a woman who was not good. If you insist you know a no good woman, before you believe it, examine your judgment; revisit your belief and remember your mother. You might be echoing not what you experienced but what other unhappy people wanted you to believe. 


I cannot write about other women but the Eritrean highland woman is extraordinarily good. There would have been no home, village or church without her. 


Her good man was not always at home or the village. Not by choice but circumstances. His surrounding did not provide him with abundance so he had to constantly scramble and stray far from his village to find feed for his herd and if lucky to find stone less soil to cultivate. He was away more than he was near. 


The good woman understood and without qualm took charge to look after her household, the village and the church. At any given time if you happened to be in a village what you would see were the priest, the elderly, the good woman and the children. And this scenario played over and over for generations. 


The good woman embodied and resembled the land. She was as tough as the tough land. Her training in childhood was tougher, stricter, more detailed and meticulous than that of the boys which readied and enabled her to perform her sanctioned duties flawlessly and admirably. Everywhere you go you would see her footprint, handprint, soul print and genetic prints. 


In her household she was the mother as well as the teacher to her children and all village children. She mothered and taught the children in exactly the same way her good mother taught, guided and shaped her.  


Her good mother was so tough, precise and unrelenting, she did not let her slack until she was satisfied that she had totally absorbed her teachings and proved her qualifications. Distortions, variations or alterations were totally rejected. Opinions, excuses or suggestions were also totally unacceptable and punishable. Things had to pass as they were and indeed they did. What you see at present was what you would have seen generations ago. The result was boys became carbon copy of their fathers and girls of their mothers. 


The woman of the highland was sensitive to the outcome of her expectations. She was constantly evaluated, so her reputation and her legacy depended on it. In that land of scarcity there was no luxury for rehabilitation or reshaping a boy who turned out to be no good man or a girl (a rare anomaly) a no good woman. 


Physically and mentally the woman was stronger than the man. Strength derived from tough work and tough responsibilities in a tough place. She understood to err was detrimental because erroneous nurturing resulted in bone crushing insults that could never be repaired and blood sullying stigma that could never heal. 


She was against competition. She nurtured friendship and cooperation. She strongly believed in the strength of unity, unity free of competition. That was why all kids in a village looked alike; thought alike and acted alike. 


It was not uniformity that interested her. It was the unity. In her ragged land with meager resources, peace and cooperation were central to existence. By abhorring competition and condemning it, she preserved the family, the village and the church. 


Physically and mentally her tasks were strenuous and also unending. She slept short and ate small. Only her solid faith and bottomless hope sustained her. 


The credit for everything she did in her household, the village and the church went to her man. She shall not take any credit for her accomplishments. A good woman did not take credit. A good mother did not take credit. 


The society she lived in was full of stigmas that could break her unbreakable spirit. The king of all stigmas was Wedi Sebeity, which meant the son of a woman”.  Either the son did not turn out to be like his father or simply he turned out to be not a good man. The worst they said to a no good girl was she was not pinched enough. Skin pinching was a favorite physical punishment of short duration but that did not leave permanent mark, applied by the woman and it involved squeezing the soft skin of a girl until she cried. What people believed was, not enough pinching would result in producing a no good woman. 


The woman could not wait idle until either stigma surfaced in the village. The priest and the older women in the village were the first to hint cues to the good woman. Nothing upset her more than shaming her man. She would do anything in her powers to rectify the situation before her good man heard the assessment of the elders.




From birth she knew that boys were weaker than girls so she nursed them longer. In this place boys were susceptible to dying younger than girls during child labor so to minimize this, every woman learnt to extend nursing baby boys and the art of midwifery to save young women. 


The woman did not discriminate between her son and daughter. None of them was favored more than the other. Physical and mental reinforcements were applied fairly equal and both were indoctrinated to chastity before marriage. It was their destination that determined her methods of upbringing. The boy was destined to stay closer to her in the village so was trained with skills that shall enable him to become a good man while the girl was destined to carry and disseminate her genes to other villages so was trained with skills that enabled her to become a good woman. 


She was consistent and persistent. She was also mentally strong. The boy better become a good man and the girl too, for both could run away to nowhere. No one could run away from his home, his village or his church 


Both boys and girls were raised in her strong back. She strapped them with Mahzel, a baby strap she proudly made herself from goat skin and decorated with beautiful shells so they would remain attached to her through life. It was a tough burden in a very tough place. But for the woman nothing was greater than physically protecting her genes. The boy and the girl remained their mothers son and daughter. 


The highland woman was strikingly beautiful though I dont know a not beautiful woman in this earth. People elsewhere acknowledged her beauty but not herself. She preferred to be acknowledged as a good woman. She dreamt and worked to be remembered as a good woman. She wanted to hear her village people say she is so good she raised good boys and good girls”. She was at the climax of her joy when her girls became desirable in the surrounding villages and her sons could easily get desirable girls from the surrounding villages. The final stamp of approval comes when the priest and the elderly women declared her Fanus Geza, The light of the house. 


What the highland woman was not was romantic. Romance did not have a place in her brain or heart. For her romance was the joy derived from accomplishing tasks. Sexual romance and sexual talk was for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. 


She was shaped by her upbringing and her surrounding. She carried unfair burden thrown on her. Distractions from accomplishing her tasks were detrimental so she ignored them. She became a taskmaster and process oriented because she had too much task to do with too little time. She could even survive and live long after her good man died.


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