“Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time / is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenseless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next.” Cesare Pavese Quotes
Before the Italian invasion and imminent capture of Eritrea the highland had many names but local historians always disagreed on those names. Some historians said the name was Mereb Milash, “This side of river Mereb”, a river that now divides Eritrea and Ethiopia. Others said the name was Midri Hamasien, “the land of the Hams”.
The Italians did not bother to consult the people when they named their colony, Eritrea, though to their credit they named the new capital city they intended to build, and eventually did splendidly, Asmara, a word taken from the four villages that existed in that area when the Italians arrived. The villages were collectively known as Arbate Asmara.
The Italians took the name Eritrea from the Bible [some say from the Greeks], the biblical name of the Red Sea. Its effect on the monks and the women was immediate: they liked and adored the name and did not waste time using it.
In the highland if the monks and the women did not mind, every one else would not mind. The problem was with the sounding of the name. The pronunciation came in all varieties and forms of sounds: Eltra, Eritra, Elitrea; Eritrea; Ertra. But people didn’t mind, they just said what came to their mouth and said it proudly. It was unconscious, so no shame was attached with the sounding of what they said.
The monks liked the name Eritrea because it was in the Bible and referred to the very important event they preached and cherished: the crossing of the Jews through the middle of the Red Sea led by Moses to Mount Sinai and to freedom from slavery.
Arms Length Acceptance
At the beginning it was not the look of the Italians that bothered the monks and thus the women. In Eritrea there were Eritreans with very pale skin, pale faces, straight noses, thin lips and soft hairs so the white skin was not absolutely something new or strange. So was the hair. The language was also not a concern for the Monks and the women who literally believed in the story of the tower of Babel, that God gave people different tongues. It was also good for the monks who did not want any rapport between the Italians and the people, because they knew direct communication always leads to understanding that leads to tolerance and eventually influence. No communication meant every one kept his own values. In a nutshell, it was the religion of the Italians that bothered the monks: the Italians were Christians but not “real” Christians.
Out of many the two fundamental values the monks wanted the people to watch out were the dietary rules and the printed (revised) Bible. In due faith diligence the Monks dictated their followers not to eat anything the Italians touched or handed, even in time of scarcity, and not to touch any printed Bible lest they face excommunication exactly as they did with the Swedish missionaries.
Special warning was also handed specifically to the women concerning sugar, sweets and bleached wheat flour which the people call fino. The Monks said the Italians might use the power of sweets and bleached flour to woo first little kids and then eventually the women.
The monks knew the women were the pillars of the faith. A convinced woman was an iron curtain. But they also knew women fight for survival. What would the women do if draught or locusts destroyed their yields and the Italians offered something? Would they say no and forgo survival? Or would they succumb to their survival instinct and diminish their faith?
The monks were wise and creative. Like they allowed the woman to have coffee, sensing the hardy highland woman had her share of weaknesses, they also allowed her to take flour from the Italians but only if she was in dire need. But to the surprise of the monks and more to the Italians she refused to touch the flour and instead she asked for grain to grind herself which the Italians happily provided.
As for the sugar, against the advice of the monks, the woman did not refuse the opportunity to take if the Italians offered and started using it to sweeten her bitter coffee.
The monks were not worried with the flour or sugar, for they knew they were harmless. Their biggest worry was the Italians might use those as baits for conversion or worse influence new eating habits that transgressed the Church rules. So when the woman stuck with her faith and values albeit using sugar, the monks celebrated like nothing before and their trust towards the woman was cemented forever.
The men were not of too much concern for the monks because they knew men would err, but would eventually come back to their faith, the faith of the woman that raised them in her back and her lap.
Italian Attitude To Women
Italians of now and Italians of then, loved and respected women. Though they came as colonizers, they never went out of their way to harm or upset the women. Actually the Italians found the women of Eritrea resembled their mothers back home in character and behavior.
Those few Eritrean girls who were hired as maids, quickly adapted to their new surrounding and to the amazement of the Italians quickly mastered the language and were also quick learners to any task showed and assigned to them but initially they would not touch the Italian food; would not sleep in the house and the only things they willingly took if given were sugar, soap and fabric.
There were three things the Italians brought that made the hardy woman always remember and remain grateful to them: the flour mill, soap, and shoes.
The introduction of the mill signified her emancipation from manual grinding, a tedious, painful and non-ending back breaker. Because manual grinding was time consuming, the mill also freed up time for her to rest or do tasks that otherwise was set aside due to scarcity of time.
Soap not only made cleaning clothes easier but also for the first time it enabled her to look after herself. As for the shoe, she took it as something that came from heaven like Manna to save her from that dreadful thorn of curse.
The women used to use Shibti as detergent, a very fine white seed from a plant that grew along side streams. But due to its scarcity and seasonal availability she could not use it through out the year. When the Italians introduced soap which they call “sapone” the women took the word literally and called it Samna. Everything that cleans became samna, even the powdered detergent called Omo became a universal detergent and not a brand name. Until today the woman, whether in Eritrea or abroad calls any detergent Omo. That was how she was attached to it.
Women of the highland loved white fabric, and would die for it if it was emblazoned with flowers. They had special word for it: tsada mdru ms inbaba. Knowing this, the Italians started importing fabrics so the women could buy them for clothes. Until recently, the first item a bride-to-be orders her groom-to-be is a white fabric with flower design.
For the Italians, Eritrea was their first colony. So as soon as the colony was established many civilian Italians, some volunteering, some adventurous and some who were forced because of their political tendencies came to Eritrea. All of those civilians had some kind of skill they brought with them from Italy and immediately ventured working in their field of expertise.
Italians are compulsive and sentimental people. If given the opportunity, they prefer to stay in their home country until death. If not, they would emulate everything they know to their new surroundings; in other words, they recreate little Italy everywhere they go. If they did this as immigrants, imagine what they did as colonizers. readmore