A Death in Eritrea

Jeremy Harding

Not many people have the good fortune to die well, and fewer still to live well, but by all accounts Wolde-ab Wolde Mariam managed the first as respectably as he had the second. He died in May at the age of 87 in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, which became the 52nd sovereign state in Africa two years ago. Wolde-ab was buried in the cemetery of Tsetserat and a day of national mourning was declared. Hadas Ertra, the main newspaper, ran a long eulogy and published a photo of this frail old man taken forty years earlier or more – a mugshot posted by the Agordat police with the offer of a reward for news of Wolde-ab’s whereabouts. The face is robust and solid, suggesting a resilient physique, which must have been the case, for he survived four very close calls – there were seven assassination attempts in all – during the first phase of his life as a militant for Eritrean independence.

Wolde-ab might have stood beside any of the famous anti-colonial figures but the differences were immense. Some were personal. He was not by temperament a theoretician or a grand polemicist, although he could hold a crowd. He lacked the elegance and anger of Lumumba, the brilliance of Agostinho Neto, the vanity of Nkrumah. He had no stomach for leadership quarrels and, as a rule, he did not fare well in the factional rivalries that prolonged Eritrea’s struggle for independence. He never had to govern and was spared the disgraces that tainted most anti-colonialisms in Africa. Unlike Fanon, he did not leave a body of work at the mercy of history. Unlike Lumumba, he survived the attentions of his enemies, which were incessant.

The real difference, however, had to do with Eritrea’s status in post-war Africa. Wolde-ab was in his late thirties when the Second World War ended. The territory had been ruled for half a century by Italy; the success of the Allied campaign in the Horn and East Africa brought it under British administration in 1941. Haile Selassie, who had been crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was determined to have it as part of the post-war settlement but many of Eritrea’s notables and intellectuals were opposed to anything short of full independence.

To a great extent it was his feeling for his native language that led Wolde-ab to the same conclusions. Under the Italians, Tigrinya had taken second place to Italian; it was marginalised by the colonial administration, yet it was widely spoken in Eritrea; it could be written and was derived, like Amharic, the language of the Ethiopian court, from the ancient scriptural language of Ge’ez. It was something that Orthodox Christians, mainly in the highlands of Eritrea, felt strongly about. Wolde-ab was born into this community, and educated at a Lutheran mission in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. By the time the British Military Administration (BMA) came into effect, he had gone on to teach at the mission school, distinguished himself greatly, and been appointed director.

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