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