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.