Wednesday, April 23, 2008

E R I T R E A:
sketches of a trip.
Issayas Tesfamariam

Note: This series has an introduction and five sketches. A total of six postings. This is...

Sketch Four

Part Two

It was the last day of my visit. I was doing a last minute errand when I got a call from Senai Woldeab telling me that Memher Tewoldebrhan was in a pharmacy in downtown Asmara. Luckily, neither Senai nor I were too far from the pharmacy. After meeting with Senai, we waited along with another friend until Memher Tewoldebrhan left the pharmacy. Outside the pharmacy, after we greeted him, I asked him if he had time to be interviewed. He agreed to see us in the afternoon. At 2:00 PM, we went to his residence.
The interview took two hours, and it covered a wide range of topics from Eritrean history, to Ethiopian history, to customary laws, to the history of Islam in Eritrea, etc. Memher Tewoldebrhan is 89 years old. He has an amazing memory and encyclopedic mind.
Memher Tewoldebrhan had served the Orthodox Church in various capacities throughout his life. After he retired, he worked with Research and Documentation Center of Eritrea (RDC) for five years. He has compiled a complete history of twenty monasteries, thirty thousands Moya Kudusan (Works of the Saints) and etc. He researched and cataloged the various religious writings and parchments by looking at the way the script was written, the way the book was bound, etc. He has completed the aforementioned which is ready to be published. He has also completed cultural and historical history of Eritrea which is also ready to be published.

Note: I am presenting a seven minutes video clip of interview with Memher Tewoldebrhan (in Tigrigna).

Here is a translation of the clip.

"The anchor villages for the traditional law of Adkeme-Miligae were: Areza, Adi Mongonti, Kudo Felasi, Qene Hayela, Adi Hys, Mai Lham and Biet Gebriel. This traditional law was committed to memory, however when two antagonists differ on what the law says they are supposed to request a reading of the law. For example if two people had a disagreement in the lowland areas of Dembelas or Zayidekolom, they are supposed to have a first reading of the law from the book at Areza, then if they want they can head east to Adi Mongonti, and Kudo Felasi and for the fourth and final reading at Qene Hayela. Similarly when two antagonists start at Qohayin they will do their readings at Biet Gebriel, Mai Lham, Adi Hyis and finally Qne-Hayela. [Assuming that all the four readings agree (best of seven) the dispute is supposed to end at Qne-Hayle (a central location for all regions).] Qne Hayle is a village for Miligae while the other six are for Adkeme.

The traditional law was ratified at a conference in Mai Leham in the village of Zawil [few kilometers south west of Mai Nefhi]. The Logo-Chiwa anchor villages were: Adi Baro (for the Logo) and Adi Bezhans for Chiwa. If two antagonists from Logo had a difference they hear a reading of the law at Adi Baro and then they proceed to Adi BezHans and the others start at Adi BezHans and they go to Adi Baro.

On the traditional laws of Deqe-Teshim, it was legislated by the father-son rulers of the area
Abieto Habtslus and Degiyat Gerekstos , respectively. It was written at a place called Adi Brhanu. These too had two anchor villages. Adi Qonsi and Adi Hans. When two people in the western part of this district (Anseba) disagree on the stipulation of the law they will have their reading at Adi Hans and then at Adi Qonsi, while those in the east will start at Adi Qonsi and will proceed to Adi Hans.

There is not much difference between these laws, except in some minor issues. The reason we had separate laws is due to ego than anything else. To mention a couple of the few exceptions: In Adkeme-Miligae a woman that had left her father's place through an official wedding ceremony had no right to inherit from her father's land even if she comes back to her village after a divorce, while the right of a woman who comes back to her village after a divorce to inherit her father's land is respected in the other traditional laws. The second exception was the compensation for a lost life under the traditional laws of Dimbezan (Adi Tekeliezan or Adzemat). Here a person who kills another person is supposed to pay 60 cows that are ready to give birth and 60 heifers (cows that haven't given birth yet); this was extreme and the law was amended with the coming of Italian colonial rule.

The traditional law of Adkeme-Miligae was ratified at a place called Mai Gief. It is said that the elders worked on the law at a special retreat where they only lived on dried garbanzo beans. There was a parchment of these laws at the Monastery of Abune Yonas, but the enemy stole it. What you have now in your hands is what Degiyat Mehari [of Debzana published in the 1940s].

These laws were always open to amendments involving new crimes that were not included in the laws. When a need to do arises the people are supposed to send representatives that will deliberate on amendments. For example in western lowlands of Seraye, Deqi Tesfa is how they are referred to, had several districts and each of these had particular places where the villagers meet to choose their two or three delegates. For example for the people of Afelba used to meet at Mai Hidmo and choose their delegates and those in the vicinity of Areza used to meet at Areza, the same with those from Dembelas and Zaidekolom. These delegates in turn meet with the delgates from the other delegates from the other regions of Adkeme-Miligae at Mai Gif, the traditional conference place of Adkeme-Miligae. These delegates divide themselves into committees that work on laws concerning inheritance, murder, injury, defamation or slander, marriage and divorce. When these people are done drafting the draft is deliberated article by article by the whole Mai Gif delegation; those articles that are accepted will make it to the law and the population is told about these new additions.

In case of new and urgent crime that was not in the books, it is handled by 14 representatives two each from the seven anchor villages if these don't agree on how to proceed they are supposed to send it back to the district chiefs who in turn appoint some wise men from each of the villages to do some further deliberation on it.

For example, the Adkeme-Miligae laws had a provision were a married woman is not supposed to be touched by a man even if he wants to get rid off dirt on her cloth. If he does he will be liable. On the other hand, any one who had heard a woman's cry or saw her tears can press charges on her behalf.."

Next: A summary of a film workshop (the last sketch)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

E R I T R E A: sketches of a trip.
Issayas Tesfamariam

Note: This series has an introduction and five sketches. A total of six postings. This is...

Sketch Four

Part one

It is always hard to do so many things with so little time anywhere, but especially in Eritrea. I had a tight schedule when I was there, but I could not miss an opportunity to chat with Dr. Asmerom Legesse. My good friend, Senai Woldeab, arranged the meeting at Dr. Asmerom’s residence. Dr. Asmerom is a renowned Eritrean anthropologist known for his scholarly contribution in African anthropology -- especially for his marvelous work on the Gada: The Traditional Oromo democracy, Eritrean history, etc. He is also emeritus professor from Swarthmore College. But, what I wanted to talk to him this time was about his great grandfather, Keshi Zeratsion Mussie.
Keshi Zeratsion Mussie (father-in-law of Keshi Tewoldemedhin Gebremedhin) was one of the few priests who were leading a reform movement within the Orthodox Church in the 1860's of Kebessa (highland) Eritrea. The rest were Keshi Haileab Tesfai (younger brother of Keshi Gebremedhin Tesfai and uncle of Keshi Tewoldemedhin Gebremedhin), Keshi Solomon Atsqu (Keshi Haileab's brother-in-law), Keshi Gebremedhin Tesfai (older brother of Keshi Haileab Tesfai and father of Keshi Tewoldemedhin), Keshi Segid Zemuy and others.
In 1916 Keshi Zeratsion and Keshi Solomon Atsqu had written one of the earliest Tigrigna books entitled, Berhan Yikhun (Let there be Light), which is an autobiographical account of their reform movement. Also, the Swedish scholar, Dr. Gustav Aren, had written in detail about the reform movement in his book entitled “Evangelical Pioneers in Ethiopia: Origins of the Evangelical Church of Mekane Yesus. However, I figured it would be important to talk to Dr. Asmerom for several reasons. Firstly, Dr. Asmerom knew his great grandfather, Keshi Zeratsion Mussie, personally and was with him for a certain period of time. Secondly, I heard that Dr. Asmerom has the original hand-written copy of his great grandfather's Customary Laws of Karneshim, in which Keshi Zeratsion was the teHaz Debter (secretary/chronicler).Thirdly, to understand more about this reform movement, which later became the Evangelical Church of Eritrea, which in turn through Keshi Gebre Ewostateos Zemichael, an Eritrean, and Daniel Lulu, an Oromo, who went to Wollega with their respective wives, and later through Onesimos Nesib, an Oromo, planted the seed which gave rise to the Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus in Wollega, Ethiopia. Followers of the Mekane Yesus Evangelical Church in Ethiopia now number over four million. Finally and most importantly, this reform movement in Eritrea was unique because it was totally internally driven, but it coincided with the coming of the Swedish Evangelical missionaries to Eritrea in the late 19th century, whose main goal was to reach Oromoland and preach to the vast Oromo population of Ethiopia.
The following are highlights of the discussion I had with the great scholar Dr. Asmerom Legesse, which I am quoting from a broader discussion and context.

Onesimos Nesib

Onesimos Nesib translated part of the Oromo Bible in this house in Asmara. His translation started in Umkullu, then Geleb and finally in Asmara.
Picture courtesy of Senai Woldeab.

On his great grandfather, Keshi Zeratsion Mussie:

“I went to stay with my great grandfather because the British during World War II were bombing Italian-colonized Eritrea, so my parents decided that it was a good idea to move to my great grandfather's village of Geremi. It was an amazing life. I got to see a glimpse of another world. My great grandfather was a founding member of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea and yet he used to go every Sunday to St. Michael's Orthodox Church in Geremi to the point where he even donated a bell to the church. He became a bridge between the Eritrean tradition and the Church. When he returned to his village, he arrived as the most educated member in the community. He arrived at his village of Geremi when the surrounding villages of the district of Karneshim were in the process of breaking off from the Laws of Deki Teshim. When he returned to his village he became the chief scribe, the keeper and interpreter of the Laws of Karneshim. So the Customary Laws of Karneshim (hand written by Keshi Zeratsion Mussie) have been in the hands of Keshi Zeratsion and his descendants from then until now. Therefore, he did not see any difference between Eritrean tradition and the Church. He was the bridge figure.”

On the Reformers:

“The Evangelical Church of Eritrea is unique because it was initiated by a group of Orthodox priests in the 1860's who felt that teaching Christianity in the archaic Ge’ez language that people did not understand did not make sense. Their argument was to teach the Bible to people in the Tigrigna language that they understood. They saw themselves as Orthodox priests, but also as reformers. The reform movement was a completely local phenomenon. The achievements of the priests were twofold. First and foremost, to start a reform movement that would give people access to the scriptures in the language they understood, and, secondly, to make Tigrigna a written/literary language.
“The Reformers were persecuted. They had to flee to the coastal town of Umkullu (in Tigre language Umkullu means “the mother of all”). Umkullu at that stage had all kinds of people (people who were sold into slavery, people who were bought and freed, and various ethnic groups such as the Oromo, etc.) One of the amazing things that happened in Umkullu was that the pioneer Oromo writer and translator of the Bible into the Oromo language, Onesimos Nesib, after he was freed became a teacher along with Keshi Zeratsion Mussie at the girls school in Umkullu.
“One of the amazing historical notes about the genesis of the Evangelical Church is the fact that the founders of the Evangelical movement were themselves never ordained as Lutheran ministers because when time came for them to be ordained by the Swedish missionaries, they insisted that they were already ordained priests. So the original reformers remained Orthodox priests until the time of their deaths, although they were the founders of the Evangelical Church. That is one of the paradoxes in the history of the Eritrean Evangelical movement.
As is believed by some historians who have written about the evangelical movement in Eritrea, the reformers, far from being alienated, were deeply rooted in their culture and were the backbone of the society.”
And a lot of discussion on the meeting with the Swedes, discussion on the Valdezians, etc. was also covered.

On Eritrean Customary Laws:
“The dates vary. The oldest is 800 years old. Eritrean Customary Laws are comprehensive laws that encompass civil and criminal matters. They are written in some detail. The procedural aspects are, by the way, the most obscure because those have never been written and they have never been studied by lawyers, either.
“The most fascinating aspect of the Eritrean Customary Law is its dynamism. 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. The purpose of law is to establish a framework for conflict resolution. Resolution of conflict is the most important aspect of Eritrean Customary Law. In my view, Eritrean Customary Law's backdrop to mediation, backdrop to peace making is what is the important aspect. In this regard, customary laws in Eritrea are quite unique. The uniqueness is not that they are customary but that they are written. And these Eritrean customary laws are written by communities and administered by communities, which did not exist in anywhere else in Africa.
“The Customary Laws of Karneshim were never published because the elders of Karneshim and surroundings believed that laws are a living thing that has to evolve continuously and publishing and rendering them in print freezes them. It makes the law unresponsive to change. In Karneshim’s Customary Laws, the changes in law are attached to the document so that the old law still remains in the text and the new law is written on a strip of paper, which is stuck with the latex of cactus to stick it to one end. So they are the amendments to the law. They are called “Hentiltil” in Tigringna, which literally means amendments. Every time you are administering the laws you have to be sure when the offense was committed. That is before or after the introduction of the innovation. If it is before, then what is in the amendment doesn’t apply; if is after then it applies, etc.

“In Eritrea, we have two traditions when it comes to Eritrean Customary Laws: One is a liberal tradition which believes that laws are a living thing and you write them and rewrite them continuously so that they remain alive. The other is the conservative tradition, which states that laws are not to be changed as you please, they were written by the founding fathers in the state of sanctity and in the final form, which doesn’t evolve.

During the reign of Haileselassie of Ethiopia, an attempt was made to confiscate the Customary Law of Karneshim by the Afe Negus (literally the Mouth of the King or the representative) of Ethiopia in Eritrea who ordered the grandson of Keshi Zeratsion Mussie, Memher Gereyesus Yosef, to hand over the book. Memher Gereyesus refused arguing that it was not his to hand over. He argued that it belonged to the community. As a result he was jailed for many months. Still, the book was not handed over to the Ethiopians. The Afe Negus ran into a case which was clearly a traditional case in relation to the Laws. He summoned Memher Gereyesus Yosef who resolved the case citing articles from memory. The Afe Negus checked the articles in the book and decided to release Memher Gereyesus arguing that there was no point of depriving the people their legal book while they have it in their heads and continue to administer it anyway; to do so would just be a pointless activity.”
This fascinating discussion with Dr. Asmerom Legesse took over three hours.
Next: Sketch Four (Part Two) Memher Tewoldebrhan Amdemeskel

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Picture is courtesy of Yared Tseggai

E R I T R E A: sketches of a trip

Issayas Tesfamariam

Note: This series has an introduction and five sketches. A total of six postings. This is ...

Sketch Three

A couple of days before a scheduled travel to Kohaito with Dr. Yosef Lebsekal, I visited the National Museum of Eritrea with a colleague from AVIE, Yared Teweldebrhan. The National Museum of Eritrea has different sections that represents different eras of Eritrea's long history. Pre-historic, historic, medieval (both Christian and Islamic periods), cultural eras are some of the examples that are represented in the National Museum’s exhibition. The pre-historic section houses a one-million year old fossil that was found by archaeologists in Buia, in the Southern Red Sea Zoba of Eritrea. There is also a fossil of an ancestor of the modern elephant, which is considered to be a missing link. There are many other unique historical artifacts, such as a small-sized sphinx, which make Eritrea an archaeological gem. The National Museum is a place where Eritrea’s rich history and culture is preserved. With minimum resources, the National Museum has managed to collect numerous historical/archaeological artifacts. However, for the National Museum to grow and prosper it needs financial, technological and human resources. As the motto states, “preservation is access, and access is preservation”! Thus, the first thing that the National Museum needs to do is to have its own website. Eritreans who would like to help in setting up a website for the museum, or help with resources can contact them at 011-291-1-122389.

From a copy of a brochure of the National Museum of Eritrea.
The National Museum of Eritrea had a pictorial exhibit in 2007
entitled, "From Buia to Nakfa: Journey into the Past."
The picture in the middle is the fossil found in Buia.

On the morning of our travel, my colleagues from AVIE (Yosef Habtai, Azemra Fitwi and Ruta Frezghi) and Hiyoba Ghirmay, and I met at AVIE's office and went to pick up Dr. Yosef. At 6:00 AM we left Asmara and headed south to Kohaito. After we ate our breakfast in Adi Keyih, we continued our journey. As we got closer to Kohaito, the fog and the sun were fighting for attention. The Kohaito plateau covered with aloe vera (E're') looked like Mongolian steppes. Half way on the plateau, we met Ibrahim Kelil, the very knowledgeable local employee of the National Museum of Eritrea. At the suggestion of Ibrahim, we went to Karibossa. Karibossa is not far from the famous Delhimna road construction that is being undertaken by Biddho Construction Company. The constant struggle between the sun and the fog rendered the scenery unbelievably fascinating. The shere size of the mountains in contrast to human beings and machinery makes one marvel with awe of nature. It is at this point that I realized that the pictures and the TV footage that I had seen before don’t do the scene justice. Firstly, one has to be physically present to admire nature; and second, the amount of brain, muscle and sweat that the dedicated workers are putting into this engineering feat is worthy of admiration. Seeing the construction workers working on one hand, at the edge of the cliff, and on the other hand at the mercy of the humongous rocks above them is heartening and at the same time fills one with pride. To top it off, the person who is in charge of this miraculous undertaking is a twenty-nine year old engineer.


Azmera Fitwi filming

After we left Karibossa, we headed back to the plains of Kohaito. We first visited the ancient trade route to Adulis. The ancient steps that are carved on the side of the mountain are astonishing. While Dr. Yosef was narrating for the film, an old couple in their sixties passed by us, returning from the same ancient caravan route that the people of Koahito had been taking for thousands of years. The couple told us that they had left the coast six hours earlier. It was at this point that Dr. Yosef mentioned to me that the National Museum of Eritrea had organized a caravan route to the coast three months earlier. It took the participants three days to reach the coast with their donkeys and camels. Ivory was one of the items that traders carried on the ancient trade route to Adulis. This Ivory Road was to Eritreans what the Silk Road was to people of Eastern Asia. I hope the museum makes the caravan route travel a yearly event. As I told Dr. Yosef, I would sign up for a travel like that anytime without any hesitation.

Ancient caravan route still being used.

Dr. Yosef Lebsekal

The crew filming

Yours truly, facing one of Kohaito's oblesiks.

We then went to the other part of the mountain where the landscape resembles the Grand Canyon. Still yet another amazing and spectacular scenery! After filming there we headed back to the place where the ancient market of Kohaito used to be. The sun by now had won over the fog, but the fog still was fighting its last battle. It was here that we filmed villagers who were collectively working to repair a fallen roof. The able-bodied villagers had turned out to help in this community endeavor. The elders were there in person entertaining and giving advice. We witnessed the traditional know how of constructing building of the villagers which were inherited from their ancestors. What Dr. Yosef had been narrating about ancient Kohaito and their masonry in the morning came alive through the traditional village masons in the afternoon. The hospitality accorded to us and the talk given to us by the elder of the village was what a filmmaker would dream of.

After the heart warming speech of the village elder we headed to Safira. Safira is where ancient and today's dam is located. It is a pleasant small village which is located on the Kohaito plateau. It has a big school and a beautiful mosque whose minaret can be seen from any part of the plateau. After Safria we went to the stele of Kohaito and the Egyptian tomb. At this time, the fog had a come-back and the sun was giving way to darkness. After we had tea in a small village, we headed back to Asmara. We dropped off Ibrahim where we picked him up earlier during the day. We had left Asmara thirteen hours earlier, and we still had to visit the rock painting not too far from Adi Keyih. After we had dinner in Adi Keyih we took a short tour from the main road to film the rock painting at Heshmele.

Finally, we hit the road and right before we arrived in Segenetti, the densest fog that I had ever seen blanketed us. Thanks to the driving ability of Yosef Habtai, we slowly arrived in Dekhemare. From Dekhemare, the fog had cleared and we arrived in Asmara at 11:00PM. We were up for a total of 17 hours straight and deserved a good night sleep.

Ibrahim on top of the world


The two pictures above are courtesy of Yared Tseggai
Next: A visit with Dr. Asmerom Legesse and Memher Tewldebrhan Amdemeskel.