Abraham Tesfalul Zere
Joining Africa Connects Eritrea
by Abraham T.Zere
Eritreans face difficulties recommending books to friends or even to the young Diaspora generation who cannot not read books written in the indigenous languages. Although Eritrea is very rich in oral and written literatures, most books remain inaccessible to international readers. Thus, many Eritreans find it difficult to introduce their new country that is relatively unknown internationally. Equally, they cannot substantiate their discussions about Eritrea with credible secondary sources. Charles Cantalupo, a name frequently mentioned in relation to Eritrean literature, has now contributed his lion’s share in connecting Eritrea to Africa and the world.
Joining Africa From Anthills to Asmara (Michigan State University Press, 2012) not only connects Eritrea to international readers, but it also contextualizes or keeps Eritrea in the loop with other African countries. A long tradition of Eritrean and Ethiopian highlanders trying to dissociate themselves from other African countries has created a space and separation between Eritrea and much of the rest of the African continent. Furthermore, Italy’s infamous colonization of the region has prevented the creation of a conducive educational environment for Eritreans to introduce themselves and their literature to other African countries, thus exacerbating Eritreans’ isolation and aloofness. To move beyond such a legacy, Joining Africa attempts to connect the dots to introduce the new nation as it has never been seen before.
Cantalupo’s effort to reveal Eritrean literature to international readers so that they can begin to recognize its unique and powerful beauty reaches back over fifteen years. He translated two books of poetry by the late Reesom Haile, We Have Our Voice (2000) and We Invented the Wheel (2002). With Ghirmai Negash, Cantalupo translatedand edited the first poetry anthology in Tigrinya, Tigre, and Arabic, Who Needs a Story? (2005). Again with Ghirmai Negash, he translated the Eritrean epic poem “Negusse Negusse” (2008) He wrote a critical analysis, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (2009). He co-organized and initiated the famous “Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures in the 21st Century” conference in Asmara (2000), where he also co-authored a major outcome of the conference, “The Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.” Subsequently, he wrote and directed a documentary on the same event, and he has been presenting papers on Eritrean literature at different conferences and universities around the world ever since.
Also the editor of Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts & Contexts (1995) and The World of Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1995), Cantalupo firmly stands on Ngugi’s position that African literatures should be written in indigenous languages to sustain both the languages themselves and to lead to the production of their most significant literary achievements.
Joining Africa’s first chapter documents Cantalupo’s earliest experience in Africa: a visit to Egypt, which developed out of a kind of religious pilgrimage he had made to Jerusalem for consolation on the death of his first wife. Slowly, he is charmed by Africa and embarks on trips to Senegal, Togo, Morocco, and Kenya. Unlike his Italian fellow tourists who say, “Sporchi, sporchi, sporchissimi (dirty, dirty…)” when on safari in Kenya, Cantalupo interacts and befriends the locals. Not that he is above acting like a tourist in search of adventures, especially in his earliest travels; but he matures, in part, at least, due to his dual roles as a poet and a professor who observes with open eyes and respects cultures and traditions not necessarily his own.
He makes friends and connections quickly. For example, at a three-day conference that he organizes in 1994 on Ngugi was Thiong’o at Penn State University, Ngugi recommends that he should meet the Eritrean publisher, Kassahun Checole. It is the beginning a relationship that richly unfolds throughout much of the book and continues to thrive to this day.
Kassahun suggests, “While you are in Israel, you should take some time to go little farther and visit my country, Eritrea.” Cantalupo does, landing in 1995 in a country he knows almost nothing about – including its being colonized by his Italian forefathers – but that immediately captivates him for the rest of his life. Soon after he returns to the United States, with Kassahun Checole, he initiates the idea of an African languages and literatures conference that would bring together African writers and intellectuals from all over the continent and the world who write in indigenous African languages. Ngugi supports and joins the initiative, inspiring Cantalupo to start writing proposals and approaching all kinds of foundations, corporations and other institutions, including other countries and the UN to make such a unique and monumental gathering possible. Subsequently, for the conference to take place in 2000, it literally has to live up to its name, “Against All Odds,” or it never would have happened since the obstacles that block its path become all but insurmountable. At this point in Joining Africa, Cantalupo’s work becomes inextricably woven with the history of Eritrea itself.
Dense and beautifully narrated, Joining Africa similarly takes note of many important historical landmarks in Eritrean history and literatures. A professor of literature – including English, African, and comparative literature – Cantalupo repeatedly associates and compares Eritrean literature with many examples of world literature. Avoiding the boredom of too many facts, he deftly presents critical historical developments so that a reader feels no sense of being lectured or talked down to but
is instead led through a maze of fascinating information as readily as if it was the subject of a Google search. Moreover, the narrative moves lightly and quickly as, for example, in the following brief anecdote, compressing a wealth of painful and sensitive Eritrean history into two few lines.
Deliberately responding in English, “my pleasure,” I was beginning to
feel self-conscious speaking mostly Italian when it was the language
after all, of oppressive and murderous colonial regime,despite its
making Asmara look like its own little “nouva Roma.” Italian colonial
rule took over the Eritrean economy, denied Eritrean children an
education beyond fourth grade, and kicked Eritreans off the sidewalks
so that the Italians could walk there by themselves. (102)
Cantalupo goes back and forth, swinging between historical events and actual anecdotes to illuminate their meaning as readily yet fully as possible.
The “joiner” Cantalupo, as Reesom Haile jokingly calls him, playing with the literal meaning of the Tigrinya word, “getamay,” joins and not only takes but gives far more. At times the book can read enchantingly as fiction, and a reader can lose track of the real person who seems never to tire of exploring the diverse and even enigmatic Eritrean character.
It is particularly highlighted on Joining Africa’s front cover, which has six hands joining to eat the traditional Tihlo, symbolizing the spirit of togetherness and making the guest comfortable to join them. On a larger scale, the book itself depicts a friendly and welcoming Eritrean people who are rich in oral and written traditions.
At times Joining Africa reads like a thriller, twisting and turning, while at other times the book is comic, provoking laughter. Once a reader starts Joining Africa, he or she won’t want to stop, encountering important diplomats, politicians, and UN officials one after another, whose various antics border on the unbelievable were they not so serious or silly, depending on the situation. For example, a reader cannot help but laugh at the French diplomat who remarks to Cantalupo at the end of the Against All Odds conference – whose primary aim was to motivate writing in indigenous African languages – that France does not “have a problem with African languages” in West Africa since, “[e]veryone speaks French.”
Joining Africa exhibits a unique and powerful credibility because its narration of Eritrean history can withstand the most rigorous fact checking of what it presents. Furthermore, even though Cantalupo knows very little Tigrinya, he repeatedly quotes Tigrinya words, phrases, and sometimes full sentences. Moreover, the precision and accuracy of what he chooses to quote builds a readers sense of confidence in his text. Narrating a period of Eritrean history in which a new nation has known intense joy as well as disappointment, Joining Africa goes beyond being a personal memoir of Charles Cantalupo. It can be read as a post-independence, historical and literary memoir of Eritrea.
The book could be purchased from amazon. Here is the link:
I would like to thank Abraham for this article.
The guest writer of this article is Abraham Tesfalul Zere. Abraham has been working as teaching assistant in the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature in Eritrea for seven years in Eritrea. In addition to his regular duties in the department, Abraham has worked as a freelance journalist for different local media outlets and as an editor for Hdri publishers. Currently Abraham is pursuing his graduate studies in African Studies Program, Ohio University with specialization in African literature.