SCHUYLKILL HAVEN – Eritrean author Alemseged Tesfai said a lack of language helped make his country vulnerable to Ethiopian rule, but now he wants to use his writing to correct the historical record.
Dr. Charles Cantalupo invited Tesfai to speak to his introduction to African literature and introduction to creative writing classes at Penn State Schuylkill on Tuesday.
Tesfai, who is primarily a historical writer but has also done works of fiction including plays and short stories, spoke about his experience as a writer and contemporary African issues with both classes, which are comprised mostly of freshman and sophomores.
After World War II, the United Nations federated Eritrea – which had been under Italian rule since 1890 – with neighboring Ethiopia.
Tesfai said the Italians had made it a point to suppress Eritrean education as much as possible, capping education at the fourth grade. Ethiopians claimed Eritrea as a “long-lost province,” Tesfai said, and his country found it difficult to make a case for independence.
“Eritreans didn’t have the capacity to express themselves,” Tesfai said. “The written language had not been developed enough.”
The limited history Eritreans were taught consisted mainly of the names of Italian historical figures, Tesfai said, and Eritreans relied on oral traditions to learn their country’s history.
Eritrea formally declared independence in the early ’90s, after a 30-year war, but Tesfai said the lack of a comprehensive written history of his country means today’s Eritreans take their independence for granted.
After many years of academic writing in English, Tesfai began to focus more on writing in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea’s official languages.
Tesfai is working on the final book of a three-volume Eritrean history project. The first two volumes have already been completed.
“The reception has been positive and widespread, because this would be the first time that such a coherent and comprehensive history of a section of Eritrean history, written in Eritrea’s language, has been accessible to people who would otherwise not be able to read it previously,” Tesfai said.
Existing histories of Eritrea, written from British, Italian and other foreign perspectives, give the rest of the world an inaccurate view of his nation, Tesfai said, catering to a perception of Africa as a continent of “jungles, giraffes and monkeys.” Tesfai said one common question he gets from American audiences is whether lions walk around in city streets.
“You can’t have a lion walking around on the streets of Reading or Bethlehem,” Tesfai said, drawing laughs from the students.
Tesfai said he would also like his history project to be translated into English, either as the same three volumes or one summarized work.
“If these three books were condensed and then translated to one book, it would change the course of Western understanding of not only Eritrea, but the Horn of Africa,” Cantalupo, distinguished professor of English, comparative literature and African studies, said.
Tesfai said he had a visit planned for Penn State Berks on Wednesday, and will travel to Ohio University next week. A few other trips are also in the works.
Y DUSTIN PANGONIS (STAFF WRITER firstname.lastname@example.org)