Saturday, April 5, 2014

A conversation with fashion designer: Admas Mahdere

 Admas Mahdere: Fashion designer
Photographer: David Goddard 

Issayas : Would you tell us about yourself?

Admas: “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”  ― Coco Chanel

Issayas: When did you move to the Cayman Islands?

Admas: I moved to Cayman in late 2009.  It’s probably the best decision I have ever made!

 Issayas: When and how did your interest in fashion/design start?

Admas: I have had a passion for designing from a young age and to my recollection the first custom dress I designed was for my middle school graduation when I was 14 years old….it was a bit out there.

Issayas: You are creating a modern cut from traditional design.  It is brilliant! Would you tell us more about it.

Admas: I really want to use beautiful traditional fabrics in new and interesting ways.  When I was growing up, my mom would bring me back fabric because she knew I wouldn’t want to wear the very traditional styles. For people within Eritrean & Ethiopian culture, I want them to look at the garments
and think “wow”, I have never seen it done like that before.

Issayas: That's what I said when I saw your designs.

Admas:  I also want them to want to wear my pieces to events outside of traditional gatherings.  For others, I want them to be intrigued by both the fabric and it’s origin, as well as, my designs.

                                           Photographer of the above pictures: Bernardo Neri

                                                       Photographer: Patrick Broderick

Issayas: What are your short and long term plans?

Admas: I would like to continue to expand the line and start selling online, as well as, in boutiques all over the world.  Now to get there, tons of work lies ahead. In the short term, I plan to continue working on production, new designs, and exploring the how of getting to where I want to be.

                                          Look out for this logo in the near future.

To follow fashion designer, Admas Mahdere, check out the following links:


on facebook:

on Instagram:

on Twitter:

Issayas: Admas, thank you for taking the time out from your busy schedule and answer my questions. I wish you the best of luck in the future.

Admas: Thank you.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A follow up conversation with Zekaryas Solomon, an award winning designer.

                                                           Zekaryas Solomon. An award winning designer.

 Issayas: Zekaryas, thank you for you time, again. This is a follow up from our last conversation. Last time when we had a chat you had won awards. One of them was from FAFA. I saw the pictures from FAFA’s Fashion for Peace Gala Night. It must have been wonderful. I like where the designers put African cultural items on their respective designs.

Do you plan to do similar things? That is, putting Eritrean cultural elements into your design.

Zekaryas: FAFA ”Festival for Fashion and Arts, organizes 'Fashion for Peace' which is focused on bringing together established and emerging African fashion designers from across the continent”. The Gala night was just amazing. It was my first visit to Africa as an international Fashion Designer.
I did not expect much and wasn’t really 100% sure as to how things would work for me there. I went by myself, as none of my team members could accompany me. I was quite nervous, not knowing what to expect. The biggest surprise for me was when I arrived. Everything was so well organized for me. I did not need anything. The Catwalk Show at the Gala Night was just the best thing that could have happened to me. The stage was 40m long, the choreography was done very professionally and the models looked amazing. Adding cultural elements would be an interesting integration, though I do always love to keep things simple. Not wanting to limit my garments to being purely traditionally based, as everything I design has to be sold internationally. As you can see in some of the images, I specifically used "netzela/ gabi", a traditional fabric, manipulating it into a modern style and cut without adding embroidery as "'idiyat". There is a lot still to come from the House of Zekaryas Solomon in the future.

Issayas: When will your "Men’s Wear Spring/Summer Limited Edition" be out?

Zekaryas: The Collection is already out. We had our fabulous look book shoot in December; we have been showcased on the catwalk; and been filmed for a TV show, Pilot. We have been pushing our online marketing through social media platforms such as Twitter; Facebook; Pinterest; and Linked-In,
as well as having the collection ready for the launch of our website. We have already started taking orders, to be ready for immediate shipment to our customers all over the world. They were out before the Spring/Summer collections are out in the shops.

Issayas:  You have mentioned that you have added bags? Are you planning to add other items such as
shoes, tees, scarfs, etc.?

Zekaryas: That's true Issayas, finally "I am sharing things, after being selfish". Since I love bags, I have been creating bags for myself in different fabrics and styles. Whenever I carry one of my bags around with me I get asked where I get them. Once I explain that I design and make them myself people get very excited and usually want to own one of their own. In addition to this, my friends encouraged me to create and add them to my garment collections. So yes, I have created two bag collections now. The first was made last year using sportswear fabrics, which I adapted from my previous profession as an architect. I used to use these fabrics for interiors so I found them very suited for my bags firstly because of the lightness of the material and secondly because of the
strength. Another reason was the ease with which the fabric could be manipulated and how simple it is to clean. I do also have tie designs too, which were created for the special occasion of the World HIV day @ the Global Catwalk in London. The ideas and designs for shoes are there as well, but making shoes is another big project in itself. My idea for Zekaryas Solomon's shoes would ideally be to collaborate with a professional.

Issayas:  I looked through your website. It's beautiful. Your architectural expertise are written
all over it. Let's start with the logo. I love the logo, the color. What can you tell us about the logo? Would you put it in the context of logo as brand? I could see this brand everywhere.

Zekaryas: It took me a long time to decide if I should change my logo or not and if I did what would it be? There were suggestions to shorten my name but as I have been told from almost everyone, who reads, hears or knows my name, how unique and special it is. My decision was then to keep the full
name as it was but to create something visually special by manipulating my initials. I did a lot of playing until I eventually came up with the Z and S. The Idea was to use the Z mirrored as an S to make everyone stop and think about it for a second. The orange brackets are a design element added
by my graphic designer Jonatan. After asking him to help me with the Logo we were able to give it a 3D look and the perfect finishing. The orange is my signature color, which I use in most aspects of my work. I wanted the overall feeling of the logo to be timeless and modern, yet still simple enough to be used on a variety of media.

Issayas: Are your products mass-produced yet or they are made on order?

Zekaryas: Our garments are bespoke so they are made to measure. We try to work around our clients wishes, believing that every client we approach will appreciate the full package we offer. Our aim is to fit the garments to our clients’ bodies and not the other way around. The idea is to offer our clients
options that allow them to create their own look by choosing different colors and fabrics for different sections of the outfits. We will be soon cooperating with another company called Emblzn which is a new platform for designing and buying custom made products.

Issayas: What is your next plan? Are you thinking of accessories? Belts, wallets, etc.?

Zekaryas: Our future plan is to expand the business. 2014 has started greatly for us, we have gotten an extension of our incubation program @ Ravensbourne: one of London's greatest College of Design and Communication which allows us to use all the high quality facilities of the fashion department, with space to network, to cooperate and expand. In terms of designing, we are working on orders parallel to our Men / Women A/W 2014 Limited Collection. Our belt designs will be appearing soon, with whatever we design as accessories being part of our garment collections each season.

Check out Zekaryas' beautiful new website.

Issayas: Thank you, Zekaryas. I wish you all the best.

Zekaryas: Thank you.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Conversation with Solomon Tsehaye


Solomon at the official launch of his book.

Issayas: You once mentioned in your article “Aspects of Traditional Wisdom: As Agents of Conflict Resolution” that “any meaningful development cannot take place in the presence of conflict”. That statement makes me think of Eritrea’s written customary laws. Once I asked Prof. Asmerom Legesse his take on Eritrea’s customary laws. Because it’s important, I would like to quote him in length. This is what he had to say: “The most fascinating aspect of the Eritrean Customary Laws is its dynamism. In the Eritrean context, laws are not written in order to be administered by law enforcement agencies. Laws exist as a background to intervention, to mediation, to conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is the most important aspect of Eritrean Customary Law. In other words, Eritrea’s Customary Laws have conflict resolution mechanism incorporated in them”. From your research, how did masségnatat (people who practice massé) addressed social issues in the context of customary laws. Can you give us an example of a masségna who resolved a conflict through massé?   
Solomon: Conflict resolution is one of the functions of massé and melqes. But massé and melqes do not necessarily refer to customary laws when playing such roles. Drawing from the traditional values and wisdom of the society, masségnatat create massé or melqes in a way that appeals to the conscience of the parties engaged in dispute. Out of the many oral poets who resolved conflicts through massé or melqes I will mention two as examples.

In Sagla, the home village of the renowned oral poet Negash Bairau, a family man beat his elder brother hard and consequently the victim died a few days later. Then it was feared that his sons would kill their uncle in revenge. A sage from the neighboring village of Embabdehan, who was also a very respectable village chief, named Bashay Weldu Abbadi pre-empted the suspected revenge by making a melqes at the funeral of the deceased. He wisely warned the sons of the victim to refrain, because, he said, they will only lose and not gain anything by having both brothers killed. Almost everyone of the hundreds of people who attended the funeral pleaded with the sons to show restraint quoting the melqes of Bashay Weldu. The public pressure aroused by the melqes was overwhelming that the sons were finally convinced not to avenge, and the extended family lived peacefully.
Please allow me to digress a little bit to give some information on certain Tigrinya terms which I am using in this interview. Ra’esi, Degiat, Bahregas / Bahre Negasi, Blatta, Aite and Bashay are traditional Tigrinya titles. The highest of these titles is Ra’esi and is just below the king. The title Degiat comes after Ra’esi. Etcetera.
The other example I have selected is Bahregas Tombosa Weldemichael of Addew’ala, a village to the west of Arreza. Around the turn of the 20th century, when two strong chiefs Degiat Tesfamarriam of Addi Quala and Ra’esi Kidanemariam of Arreza were engaged in rivalry, a group of men from Arreza accompanied a groom on a trip to Addi Quala where his wedding ceremony was taking place. On their arrival the groom’s company entered the pavilion prepared for the wedding party at the bride’s household. Food and drinks were served after the essential marriage rituals had been enacted. Compliments on the quality of the feast poured from the men of Arreza. The celebration was continuing in a very happy mood when one among the Arreza men came to the middle of the pavilion with his spear and shield and boasted about the superiority of Arreza in the very presence of Degiat Tesfamariam. The chief felt insulted by the boastful man of Arreza and ordered his immediate arrest by his armed guards. Several men of Arreza objected the chief’s order and stood in the way of the guards to prevent his arrest. Angered by their audacity the chief also ordered the arrest of the men, too. Almost half of the men of Arreza were put under arrest. The wedding bliss turned to sadness and confrontation. Tension was building up between the two sides and the fear that it may spark into a physical fight was growing. If a fight started then the Arreza people would be annihilated. Wisdom had, therefore, to intervene on their behalf.
The distinguished oral poet Bahragas Tombosa requested Degiat Tesfamariam’s permission to perform massé. Keen to know what he was going to say in his massé the chief permitted him.
Bahregas Tombosa praised him to be a weighty man of full measure, while all others, including Arreza’s chief, were only a quarter. The chief’s heart was softened by the nice words the poet said about him. The “fullness” and grandeur bestowed on him by the poet in comparison to those chiefs whom the poet considered were only one fourth of him made Degiat Tesfamariam feel that it would be degrading to vie with a handful of men from Arreza who by no means were a match to him. As the massé appealed to his conscience he calmed down. His anger and eagerness to take punitive action was replaced by rationality and mercifulness. He, therefore, declared the release of those arrested, and the men apologized for their misconduct. The resolving of the conflict brought the occasion back to its festive mood. At the closing of the ceremony, the Arreza group left safely escorting their bride and groom.

A long line to buy Solomon's book at the official book launching ceremony.
Issayas: Eritrean poetry in English is becoming popular in the U.S. thanks to the efforts of many people in Eritrea and outside including Dr. Charles Cantalupo and Dr. Ghirmay Negash. Dr. Cantalupo has written a brilliant essay entitled “The Story on Who Needs a Story?”. I also think you need to write an essay on the story behind the collection, identification, publication and etc. of your work. Do you have plans to do so?

Solomon: I absolutely agree that an essay or essays should be written at least in Tigrinya and in English on the overall massé and melqes research experience. There is a great deal to be shared. I would also like to take this opportunity to suggest to Prof. Charles Cantalupo to write the English essay because I know he has a lot of interest on the subject.

Issayas: You have concluded the first of the three volumes to be published as the result of your extensive research on Eritrean massé and melqes. What is the status of the remaining two volumes? When are they going to be available to the public? I think this is very important aspect of Eritrean culture, therefore, it should be available to the rest of the world, too. Do you have any plans to translate it into English? I know, for example, artist Yigzaw Michael wants to raise funds to help you fund for the translation.

Solomon: I am being asked the first two questions frequently by many of my readers. They are eager to see the remaining volumes published very soon. Appreciating the enthusiasm and good wishes, I have to be honest to inform my readers that it will be quite a while before the second volume can be available to the public. I still have substantial research work to do. Research never ends. But lets hope to see it come out towards the end of 2015, God willing. Then follows the third volume some time later.

 Regarding translating massé and melqes, or oral poetry in the broad sense, into English, Elias Amare and myself have already embarked on carrying out the task. We firmly believe that Eritrean arts and culture should be exposed to the outside world and translation into major international languages like English is one of the means of doing so. So far, very little of the nation’s arts and culture is known to the world. Extremely few Eritrean literary works have been translated into widely read international languages. Yet, the amount of literary material, particularly oral literature, composed in Eritrean languages over the centuries is enormous. There is a lot Eritrean literature has to offer in terms of ideas, values and human experience to readers from other cultures. This sharing of knowledge and experience across cultures is, therefore, the motive for this translation project.
We want to make it clear, however, that our plan is not to translate the entire book or books as such. What we have intended to do is to translate selected masterpieces of massé, melqes and oral song poetry, as well as a summarized version of the long introduction of the volumes. We are very grateful to artist Yigzaw Michael for his efforts to generate support towards achieving our goal.
Speaking in line with the issue of translation, I would also like to add that I have written an essay entitled “Weldedingl: the Master Poet” which features some of Aite Weldedingl’s massé and melqes translated into English. The essay was written on request by the editor of the book “Great Minds of Africa”. The book is hoped to be produced in 2014 by a German publisher. Incidentally, I am pleased to inform the reader that my present interviewer, Mr. Issayas Tesfamariam has also contributed to the book by writing an essay on Abraham Hannibal.

Issayas: Do you have anything to add?

Solomon: I hope what has been said in three parts gives an overview of the topic in discussion. For the benefit of those who don’t read Tigrinya, I also recommend that pages 540-544, the English part of my book “Massén Melqesn Qeddamot”, be read for further information.
Issayas, I thank you very much for your keen interest in my research and for organizing this conversation. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my deeply felt gratitude to all institutions and individuals who supported the massé and melqes research and its publication in one way or the other. Finally, my best wishes for a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2014 to everyone.              

Issayas: Thank you.

Solomon: Thank you.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Conversation with Solomon Tsehaye


Solomon Tsehaye at the official launch of his book.

Issayas: What unique experience did you get in researching and collecting massé and melqes?

Solomon: The study of massé and melqes is the most enlightening experience I have had in my life. It is through this research that I have come to learn a great deal about the Eritrean society. I was exposed to the sea of wisdom accumulated by our ancestors which proved right, time and again, the Tigrinya saying “kab mehros a’emro” meaning intellect is more powerful than education/schooling. The authors of massé and melqes did not go to school, hence were not educated in the conventional sense of the word. They were non-literate people and yet they created marvelous pieces of oral poetic art through the power of imagination and critical thinking. I must, however, state that the aforementioned Tigrinya saying does not mean to undervalue the importance of education or going to school. All it intends to express is that formal education is not the only means to knowledge, intellectual development and creativity.

Issayas: Did you encounter any challenges during the research process?

Solomon: Yes, I did. The greatest challenge I faced was the project itself - the task of researching and collecting massé and melqes throughout the Tigrinya speaking regions of Eritrea. It is a daunting task. Think of traveling all over the villages and towns to interview the oral poets and depository tellers where at times I have to travel for hours on foot in places that can not be reached by vehicles. The geographical area covered by the study is very wide particularly taking into account the nature of the research. Since each poetic piece of massé or melqes is unique in its own way, portraying any specific event, situation or personality in history, I search for every single massé or melqes as long as it exists in memory. The research calls for rigorous cross-checking efforts to verify the authenticity (originality) of the piece as composed by its author. This exhaustive research method naturally increases the risk of losing informants at the other end, because many of them are already in their very old age. Regrettably, several of those who were in my list of potential informants passed away without me interviewing them even once. Some also died or lost memory completely while I was planning to meet them again for further consultation.
Currently, I have another challenge. The fact that I have been reassigned to my administrative duties at the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Education since mid-2009 deprives me of sufficient time to finalize the remaining part of the research.
 Although, I also encountered obstacles like shortage of funding, the main challenges I face in the research process are the ones stated above.
Issayas: Knowing that you are a poet, what are the advantages of oral poetry being studied by a poet?

Solomon: To start with, doing this research is a huge learning opportunity for me. I am having great pleasure not only as a researcher but also as the student of oral poetry. It gave me the very rare chance of studying under some of the most natural professors of the discipline who are no more now.
Regarding the advantages of oral poetry being studied by a poet, I think, it is obvious that someone who practices the art and knows more about the subject matter is in a better position to study it well. In my case, my background in poetry was very helpful in the overall conduct of the research. Among other things, I could easily identify missing part of a certain massé or melqes, or unnatural additions as told by some informants. I am sure, I couldn’t have performed the way I did, if I hadn’t had that background.

Audience at the official launch of Solomon's book in Asmara, Eritrea.

Issayas: Why was it hard to find any massé or melqes before Feleskinos?

Solomon: There is no doubt that massé and melqes had been practiced long before Feleskinos. In fact, the first massé retrieved from memory as composed by Feleskinos in circa 1765 is said to have been made upon request by Bahregas Turquay Gebryes of Loggo Sarda. He asked Feleskinos to compose and perform massé for him right on the spot. Bahregas Turquay’s request for the massé is indicative of the fact that the tradition of massé and melqes was being practiced before that time.
The reason why I couldn’t find any massé/melqes or any names of oral poets (masségnatat) before Feleskinos is simply because it was not available in the memory of contemporary depository tellers whom I interviewed. The further we go back in time the rarer the memory becomes and we reach at a point beyond which there is nothing remembered. Had this research been done in the middle of the 20th century for example, I believe, the chances of finding massé/melqes and names of oral poets before Feleskinos would have been high.
Issayas: In your book, page 540, you mentioned that what makes massé and melqes enduring oral literary works is the depth and philosophical approach with which they look at social issues. Would you expand on it?

Solomon: Massé and melqes are mostly known to discuss the cores of issues with very wise and thoughtful approaches employing beautiful language. This quality of being profound in terms of content and aesthetic in terms of structure renders massé and melqes highly memorable. Though composed and performed on particular occasions these oral poetic works often have universal character being relevant at all times, thus  making them enduring.
Lets take two examples, as translated from Tigrinya into English:
Blatta Sbhatu Tesfu from the village of Addi Chomay is said to have made a massé on the duality of human nature while feasting with his fellow villagers. Spiritually it is claimed that the soul and the flesh are in a continuous struggle against each other for supremacy. The oral poet then had to say the following about this human predicament in the religious sense.

        It would have been good
        Had God created the soul leaving out the flesh
        Or the flesh leaving out the soul,
        Poor humans
        Caught in a dilemma of difficult choices
        We just fatten ourselves
        To feed the bloody termites.

In the Tigrinya tradition the human dead body is believed to be eaten by termites after burial.

Ra’esi Kidanemariam Gebremeskel, the well known chief of the Arreza area in southern Eritrea, used to occasionally invite his notables and ask them to tell stories and recite oral poetry. In one of such events he asked an oral poet by the name of Amr Fkak from the village of Dabbu to compose a massé for him. Though a bit reluctant at the beginning, the oral poet spontaneously made this massé for the chief who was evidently getting old.

        Son of Geremeskel looter of gold
        Son of Haileab looter of gold
        Son of Geretsadiq  looter of gold
        In life, you enjoyed all the sweet things
        But you are left now with two bitter ones,
        One is ageing
        And the other is dying.

Upon listening to this very realistic massé, the chief touched by the poetic piece is said to have declared the end of that day’s gathering and entered into contemplating human destiny - the inevitability of old age and death.

Next, part three (final)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Executive Director of the National Board of Education of Eritrea's 2013 report

Above and below: National Board for Higher Education building at the University of Asmara campus

Above and below: construction of Campus Facilities at the Eritrean Institute of Technology (EIT) Mai Nefhi

Above and below: the future Eritrean Institute of Technology campus, Mai Nefhi
Above and below: construction of campus facilities at Hamelmalo Agricultural College
The future Hamelmalo Agricultural College (HAC) campus, Hamelmalo.
Halhale College of Business and Economics campus, Halhale
College of Marine Science and Technology campus, Massawa.
College of Arts and Social Sciences campus, Adi Keyeh.

The  pictures above are from June 2013 report of the Office of the Executive Director of the National Board of Higher Education of Eritrea. See the entire report below.
National Board

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Book Review

  Solomon Tsehaye’s Massen Melqesn Qedamot: A Nation Narrates History of 250 Years

                                                              Abraham T. Zere

The publication of the first volume of Solomon Tsehaye’s Massen Melqesn Qedamot (2012), the highest poetic forms of Tigrinya, is a milestone in preserving, documenting and analyzing the rich Eritrean oral poetry in general and the Tigrinya oral poetry in particular. Although there were earlier attempts by expatriate scholars to document and publish Eritrean oral traditions, most of them had visible shortcomings. They were merely documented and published to serve the colonial interest; and the authors who took the initiative summarily discredit the oral poets and only focused on the content. As spontaneity is very crucial, the main feature of oral tradition, the context in which the material was recited, was neglected.

Tsehaye, however, conducted an extensive research and did the painstaking job of cross-checking the oral poems from different sources; gave short biographies of the oral poets, and contextualized the oral poems.

With the obvious sensitivity of oral poetry because of its changing and unstable nature, and being at the verge of death with the greater literacy rate, Tsehaye has done momentous job that nearly could not have been better done at this critical juncture. The book, as he notes in the introduction, is the first volume of a trilogy on Eritrean oral poetry. Massen Melqesn Qedamot takes the poet Negash (Sagla) Baira’u (1921-2008) as a point of departure and coverage of 34 other oral poets whom Tsehaye considers have greatly influenced Negash Sagla.

The book gives an extensive coverage on the types and nature of oral poetry (33-148). In a sequential manner it then starts with the oldest surviving oral poetry of Ayte Felesqinos who was estimated to be born in 1735. The section on Ayte Feleskinos attempts to contextualize his oral poems, gives brief biographical sketch and documents three of his oral poems.

In various sections and programs of the national media oral tradition has been given due coverage but never did it before was compiled and published in a book as Tsehaye did. Ghirmai Negash’s oral poetry research that was serialized in the national newspaper in 1995, Brother Solomon Ghebrekristos’ serialized articles on the magazine Timtsa’e Mengistke were among the significant works that attempted to give wider coverage, but Tsehaye’s book is the biggest share now.

As the Eritrean society is transferring from oral to written collection of such works is always done against time and Tsehaye did a very good job at the right time. Oral poets are being replaced by poets and the banks of the oral poets, the depository tellers are also at the verge of extinction. A similar attempt to document such work after few months will not have the same result as Tsehaye has already collected now.

The book also attempted to document the context of the oral poems recited, which is very crucial in oral poetry. By doing so the book also reads as an Eritrean history of the last 250 years. As historical document lacks in most events of Eritrean history, oral history in general and oral poetry in particular greatly help connect the dots and fills the gaps of the undocumented history of a nation. Therefore, Tsehaye’s book will be an important contribution for Eritrean historians, literary scholars and sociologists for further studies.

Tsehaye contextualized most of the oral poems and attempts to give a clear picture of the event behind most of the oral poems. In addition to that he documented oral poems recited in some context
and brought all the poems recited at the same event. The oral poems recited as back and forth after certain events also gives a clear picture of the nature of the oral poems and the talent of the poets.

With its recurrent themes of bravery and heroism, the book documents all kinds of oral poetry that attempted to capture important historical incidents.

Tsehaye also did a tremendous work in creating access for the coming researchers. Towards the end of the book, he summarized his work in English for those who could not access the Tigrinya text;
documented the research works so far conducted in the area, and listed the names and addresses of the depository tellers, whom Tsehaye greatly depended for his research. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A conversation with Solomon Tsehaye.

Solomon Tsehaye has done it again. His latest book is a colossal work on masse and melkes: Tigrigna's highest form of poetry. Tigrigna is one of the languages of Eritrea. This is the first volume of an anticipated three volume work. The book needs to be translated into English so that the work gets worldwide exposure.Solomon Tsehaye is Eritrea's top poet. He wrote Eritrea's national anthem.

As an introduction, until I write a book review, here is what I wrote Solomon right after I finished the book: "Solomon, I read the entire book that you were kind enough to send me in a few days.You owe me some hours of sleep. Just kidding. Anyway, the book is excellent and one can judge and sense the time, effort, sweat, concentration and research that is poured into the work. Congratulations! Frankly, this is a kind of work that universities teach in their departments. It is not just an anthology but also an anthropological, sociological and historical work.

This is part one of my conversation with Solomon Tsehaye.

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about your background?

Solomon: I was born in December 1956 in Addi Quitta, a village in southern Eritrea. Having received my elementary education in Eritrea, I went to Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, for my high school education at the then British-run General Wingate Secondary School. It was a boarding school.  I had won a scholarship to study at the school by passing its entrance examination. My education was affected by the coming to power of the military regime (the Dergue) which deposed the emperor in Ethiopia. Upon seizing power in September 1974 the regime declared that senior high school and University students be mobilized from their schools for the ill-intended and ill-planned  “students campaign to eradicate illiteracy”. Considering the chaotic and politically hostile situation surrounding the program I boycotted the students’ campaign like many Eritrean compatriots and came back home.  I joined the Eritrean independence struggle in April 1977.  I was assigned to combat forces and served as a combatant and later as what was commonly called “the bare foot doctor” until I was wounded in action and reassigned to the rear area of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). It was there in the second half of 1979 that I started to engage myself in cultural activities by writing plays, acting and composing poetry. I was attracted more and more into arts and culture to the extent that I was transferred in mid-1981 to work as a full time artist in the Division of Culture of the EPLF. I was appointed head of the Division in 1987 and served in that capacity until the liberation of Eritrea in May 1991.

Solomon as a young man.

Solomon as a young EPLF fighter.

In the post-independence period I was given a number of opportunities to travel abroad to attend conferences and training programs on culture and arts which helped broaden my scope of knowledge and experience. Though almost all of my poetic works and essays were either published in magazines and newspapers or broadcasted by radio during the independence struggle or after, I decided to publish an anthology of my selected poems on the Eritrean struggle. Hence my poetry book entitled Sahel was published in 1994, and the publication of the second edition took place in 2006. Since the book is now out of print, I have plans to make a reprint of the second edition soon.

Taking over from its founding editor, the distinguished writer Alemseged Tesfay, I also edited and regularly contributed to a dozen issues of Netsebraq, the arts and culture magazine published in Tigrinya by the cultural establishments of the EPLF and later the Eritrean government. I have always been concerned with my literary productions. For many years a conflict was going on inside me - a conflict between the performance of my administrative duties and my professional development as a poet and writer. My longtime assignment at the level of management denied me adequate time to pursue my creative writing as I want it to be. On a request to write and research free of administrative obligations, I was given a long leave which enabled me to conduct research on Tigrinya oral poetry with particular focus on masse and melqes. As a result of that research I have recently published a 544-page book entitled “Massén Melqesn Qeddamot” (Massé and Melqes of the Ancestors).

Issayas: As you said earlier you have been concerned with your literary productions.

Solomon: Yes indeed.

Issayas: Then, why didn’t you use your leave for writing poetry and fiction rather than shift to oral poetry - massé  and melqes - research?

Solomon: As a person who worked in the field of culture for quite a long time, I was always aware of the fact that our oral traditions were in danger of disappearing with the passing away of our wise and knowledgeable old people. But I have to admit that this particular issue was brought to my attention when the late oral poet Negash Baira’u (Negash Sagla) approached me to help him publish his massé and melqes expressing his fear that his lifetime contribution will be forgotten for ever if his oral poetry is not retrieved from his memory and documented. He said great works of massé and melqes of his predecessors are getting less and less remembered and will eventually be forgotten because they are not published. His concern was that his massé  and melqes would face the same fate. I absolutely shared his fears and concerns and having made preliminary studies on the subject, I decided to embark on researching and collecting massé  and melqes all over the Tigrinya culture in an effort to rescue the long accumulated literary heritage and pass it on to future generations. If it were not for the inconvenience created by the present strained relations of Eritrea and Ethiopia the research would have definitely taken me to Tigray, the northmost region of Ethiopia, because being Tigrinya culture poetic art forms, massé  and melqes were also practiced at least in some parts of Tigray. Taking the urgency of the task into consideration, therefore, I postponed my creative writing and fully concentrated on the research. Paying tribute to the late Negash Baira’u, I would like to express my highest respect and appreciation for him for bringing forth the idea of collecting and publishing his massé  and melqes, because it is that idea which developed into this wide ranging massé  and melqes research and publishing project in Eritrea. Alas, he did not live to see the book (Volume I) in which his collected  massé  and melqes are published. The course of life and the time consuming nature of oral poetry research could not match up to enable him to see the book come out.

Issayas: What is massé? Melqes?

Solomon: Massé (awlo) and melqes are related art forms which constitute one of the genres of Tigrinya oral poetry. Massé is performed on happy and festive occasions where, most of the time, specially prepared food and drink are served. Weddings and a number of other celebratory events are appropriate occasions for massé. On the other hand, melqes is performed during funerals and similar moments of sadness. Though different in the way they are presented, massé  and melqes have the same poetic structure. They are also composed and recited by the same people. With the exception of a few who either make massé  or melqes, the overwhelming majority of oral poets who perform massé  also perform melqes.

Solomon doing field work.

The cover of Solomon's book on masse and melkes. Vol. I

Issayas: What is the significance of massé  and melqes in Tigrinya society?

Solomon: As is briefly explained (in English) in my book, Massén Melqesn Qeddamot Volume I, on pages 540-541, massé  and melqes are highly valued oral poetic forms in Tigrinya society. They are highly valued because the ideas and concepts they transmit have depth and relevance. Massé  and melqes are source of guidance to society from which people draw all sorts of lessons. They are useful in resolving conflicts. They present social critique which helps solve social problems and correct mistakes. They enhance society’s knowledge on history, culture, language, politics, religion, etc. by discussing various aspects of life. Last but not least, massé  and melqes are also very entertaining. Because of the happy occasions on which it is performed masse’ is particularly amusing with a lot of humor connected to it. The events in which massé  and melqes are presented were the mass media of traditional Tigrinya society. They were platforms where the real opinions of the people were heard from the voice of its great minds - the oral poets. Whenever such events took place attending audiences were very eager to know what the oral poets had to say. There were even times when people travelled long distances merely to hear massé  or melqes, particularly when it was known that renowned oral poets would be present for the occasions.

Issayas: One would be curious to know what type of people the oral poets are to create poetic works of such significance.

Solomon: The oral authors of massé  and melqes, called masségnatat  in Tigrinya, are talented people who develop the skill of composing poetry as spontaneously as they recite it. To acquire such a skill they cultivate the faculty of thinking fast under high level mental concentration. They are the most enlightened elite and creative cream of the society with broad knowledge of various aspects of social life and human experience. They are highly observant critical thinkers. Because of their imaginative power and vision, masségnatat are sought after for new ideas and intellectual guidance. Some of them are even considered to have prophetic abilities. One such talent was the master poet Weldedingl Gedlu who lived in the 19th century.

Issayas: So they earn their living by performing oral poetry on respective occasions?

Solomon: No, they earn their living mainly as farmers. Though they occasionally receive gifts or honorariums from their hosts, masségnatat, unlike contractual performers, do not present their poetry for payment. They don’t perform for financial or material gains as such. Performing massé  or melqes is just honor for them and they do it only if they are invited respectfully.

Issayas: Your research goes a couple of centuries back, how was it possible to track down all these oral poetic works long after the death of their composers?

Solomon: To be more accurate my research covers some 250 years. The lapse of so many years was covered by the transfer of memory from generation to generation.  When we speak of this process of transfer we speak of a talent crucial to the preservation and passing down of the oral poetry to future generations - the talent of keeping memories through learning massé  and melqes by heart. People who are endowed with this capacity store the knowledge of the oral poetry and transfer it by telling. These depository tellers are therefore the custodians of massé  and melqes. It should also be noted that the most gifted among the depository tellers learn by heart instantly memorizing the poetry as it comes out from the mouth of the oral poets or the tellers, once and for all like the audio recording machine does. According to my research, so far, the earliest massé retrieved from memory was composed by a great oral poet Feleskinos around 1765 and was told by a great depository teller Teame Desta in 2008. The late Teame Desta , who passed away in September 2012 at the age of 88, was the only person among my informants to have kept the memory of that two-and-half centuries old poem along with the contextual information surrounding the poetic piece.

Issayas: Coming to another basic question, why do we need to study massé and melqes?

Solomon: As has been partly explained above when discussing the significance of massé and melqes, we need to study them to understand who we are searching for the true meaning of our past. Massé and melqes are expressions of identities, values, ethical behaviors, psychological makeup and world outlook of the society. They are expressions of culture in general. Moreover, they are a portrayal of history. We also need to seriously study massé and melqes for their literary and aesthetic merit. The imagery and fine language with which massé  and melqes reflect ideas, philosophical concepts and social reality makes them impressive. The impact of the vivid and at times subtle artistic expressions they employ is very strong. They are always appealing with powerful educational and entertaining effects. Hence the massive information embodied in massé and melqes deserves careful research and analysis for us to fully understand the period covered by the massé and melqes. But we should not limit ourselves to just studying them. We should disseminate the outcome of the study by all means possible. Most importantly, the study needs to be systematically integrated into the school curriculum up to the level of higher education.

Issayas: The idea of integrating the study into the Eritrean educational system being very important, how do you think it should be implemented?

Solomon: Of course, it is up to the Ministry of Education and institutions of higher learning to decide if the study should be part of the relevant school curricula, but I strongly suggest that massé and melqes be taught in schools as part of Eritrean literature. Consistent with the Eritrean policy of mother tongue education, the inclusion of this study, I believe, can certainly have commendable results in cultural education as a whole. And yet to achieve the desired outcome the training of highly qualified teachers is crucial.

Part two to follow.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Guest Writer: Abraham T. Zere


                                    Beyene Haile’s Mezghebe Enters Wider Readership

 Beyene Haile’s first novel Abdi do Tibluwo (1964) is now translated and published in English by Huriy Ghirmai under the title Mezghebe: would you say he was mad? (AZAB publishers, 2013).

With its excellent translation and universal theme, the book is expected to bring more attention and critical studies of the literature produced in indigenous African languages. Eritrean literature, being mostly produced in indigenous languages, has been least read and never assumed its proper place in the study of African or world literature in one facet, but greatly helped production of original works on the other. As the great critical thinker Ngugi wa Thiong'o proposes it is only through translations that such original works could reach wider readers.

When first published in 1964, Abdi do Tibluwo was summarily neglected for its complex narration and its thematic concerns by most of the Eritrean readers then.Only after its re-publication in 2003
did it start to have wider readership and critical acclaim. The book holds important place for its thematic concerns,complex style of narration and its transnational spaces.                                            

Mezghebe narrates the life and times of a bohemian painter and cum-sculpt named Mezghebe. Set in Adi-Girat of Ethiopia and Asmara-Eritrea the book, through four main narrators shows how the enigmatic Mezghebe lived his life until his early death. Mezghebe, who showed interest in sculpture and painting at very young age slowly immerses in his world until he “got to such a point that he took to demanding that people enter his house through the window”(152). Mezghebe’s unique passion, considered as madness by most people, diverts him slowly from all regular interaction with people. He drops his studies, secludes himself in a distant house and lives an aloof life. The book shows an absolute dedication and readiness to pay the highest prize for art.

While most of his contemporaries compromised their art because most took the stand of an educator, Haile took a different position and portrayed that it is only through arts that a society could heal its wounds. He made his stand very clear right in his preface by stating that “most of the current writers seem to naively believe that they should primarily educate, admonish and even lead their readers.” As a result, as Haile puts they “veer away from the idea of pure beauty.”

Mezghebe’s very complex narrative technique is another angle that needs further scholarly research. The book is narrated by four different narrators associated with Mezghebe, including one chapter
by himself. All the narrators, except of course Mezghebe, the rest three are ‘I-witness’ narrators who have some role in the story and tell their perspectives of Mezghebe.  Very focused, the story starts
when Mezghebe was bedridden during his final days and the police detective asks Mezghebe “Do you remember?” In the first chapter, Captain Berhe simultaneously addresses the reader and Mezghebe as “you.” Told against the traditional suspense stories, the story comes to full-circle at the end and connects with the first chapter.


I found Mezghebe’s narrative technique very similar to Nuruddin Farah’s Maps (1986) that was published 22 years later. Both the books are narrated through different narrators and the main protagonists are implicated with deaths for bigger causes. Askar of Maps is implicated with the death of his foster mother, Misra, for national cause and Mezgebe with Hagos for arts. Only at the end of the two books do readers learn that the whole story was narrated orally to police detectives. At the end, Farah’s Maps tells the story was told by Askara to ‘himself, by himself’:

And that was how it began -- the story of (Misra/Misrat/Masarat and)Askar.
First he told it plainly and without embellishment, answering the police  officer’s
questions, then he told it to men in gown, men resembling ravens with white skulls. (259)

Similarly, Mezghebe ends:

     He had risked life and limb in order to destroy all evidence of its existence,
     yet now here it was in his hospital room, and instead of a doctor, there was only
     Captain Berhe, a famous police detective standing by his bedside. The captain,
     a close acquaintance of Mezghebe’s parents who knew him from childhood,
     implored him to tell him all that he remembered.

     Without a single hesitation, Mezghebe began to tell the captain the whole
     story openly without leaving out a single detail. (159)

The book transcends different established traditions in Eritrea. For example, Mezghebe’s view of school and education is different than  most people. He does not see formal education as an ultimate end and the only means of success in life. He tells Ti’be:

       “Haven’t you realized that I’ve had enough education now? School took up
        a lot of my time and distracted me from work -- I remained in school because
         I thought it would make all of you happy. It’s enough now, that’s it, it’ll be enough for me.
         I can’t afford to let my dreams go unrealized because of education.” (137)

Similarly, Haile’s representation of women not only transcends his contemporaries, but also perfectly meets the current feminist literary view. All the women characters are strong, independent and educated. Kidsti for example, goes beyond her physical disability to achieve higher goals.

Haile’s main characters do not also fall on the traditional track of education that was common in developing societies. For example, Kidsti and Tekali went to Columbia University in US but chose
different field of studies than most of their contemporaries would choose. Unlike most of Eritreans of that period and to a great extent now, they did not pursue their higher studies in engineering or
medical schools. Kidsti studies General Education and Home Economics while Tekali studies archaeology.

Mezghebe’s works go beyond limited geographical and cultural spaces. Never did he care to sell any of his works and earn more money, but some of his works end-up in museums in Italy. Mezghebe’s stand as a true global citizen is articulated in Tesfay’s letter (162-165) to his sister after Mezghebe’s death.

Huriy Ghirmai’s translation gives glossary of terms at the end of the book. He did not try to find their equivalent meaning to most of Tigrinya terms which carry greater cultural contexts. It was an excellent decision to give the English readers the cultural contexts of most of the terms.

Beyene Haile, the leading literary figure in Eritrea, has published other two novels --Duquan Tiberh (2003) and Tsbit Bahgu (2006)-- that are also considered milestones in history of Eritrean literature.
Similar initiatives to translate the other works can help Eritrean literature assume its proper place and introduce Haile’s works.

For the works of the late Beyene Haile, check out the following website: