In “Gratitude in low voices”, Dawit Ghebremichael Habte has managed to organize the memories of his journey and present a story that finds rare authenticity and validation of not just his own life but also that of others who have crossed his path. In doing so, he also presents Eritrea’s history, as each personal story reflects a part of the whole. Dawit writes that he wanted to follow the Eritrean adage, “To those who have done you favors, either return the favor or tell others about their good deeds”, and he does and each recollection introduces the reader to someone who had an impact on Dawit’s life, even the negative ones.
Dawit is an accomplished software engineer right at Bloomberg-BNA. That is his day time job. The other Dawit is a prolific writer, whose many analytical articles, which supersede this seminal book, have contributed to a better understanding of Eritrea and its people, their history and cultures. His book, is an important milestone and no one expects to write a memoir at such as young age unless there is something significant that needs to be told. And there is… beyond Dawit’s personal journey, a need to tell Eritrea’s history…albeit in small chapters, through personal stories. Here we are given the opportunity to go behind the headlines, to the home, to the villages, and revisit history.
The narrator, like Eritrea, has had his strength and resolve tested throughout his life and tells what happened and how it felt, and does so with a deeper understanding of his reality, extraordinary memory, in a delightful humorous prose. This is an inspiring read for anyone, and it’s never ever sappy. Dawit‘s memory is uncanny and by reliving personal tragedies and struggles, Dawit is able to let go of the past and put it in its right context. For Dawit, “the past is a place of reference, not residence” and he does not dwell on the emotions, or seek pity. He seeks to inform on Eritrean idiosyncrasies on many levels, something that has alluded many.
Throughout the book, he recounts the deeds of many who have crossed his path and in sharing details about each encounter, the reader is introduced to several dozen men and women whose altruistic acts impacted his life and set him on the course to the unforeseen path of his life. It’s a story about humility and kindness in Eritrean society, and Dawit giving back. It takes a village to raise a child, in this book, we are introduced to the villagers who impacted Dawit’s life, the close and distant relatives, friends, and even strangers. Dawit’s memoir opens its camera aperture to provide context to exile and migration, and provides insight into the dark underworld of human trafficking, where today, fratricidal crimes are used to advance illicit political agendas.
Dawit’s use of real names as opposed to keeping the characters anonymous allows the reader to easily connect with the social network through which he recounts stories of loss, betrayal and self-hood. Putting the past in context, and Eritrea’s with it, his journey becomes one that most Eritrean readers will consider to be much like their own. The essence of a shared history relived through the pages, as Dawit journeys out of Eritrea, too young to join the liberation movement. The detailed description of places pierces the imagination and provides the reader and any stranger in town a compass to everywhere, from the inner city to the village, through each corner and street crossed.
Dawit’s knowledge of the country’s language and culture, enabled him to glean the subtleties beneath the surface. Eritrean society and its culture come to life in the real characters found in the book. Despite beginning with an Eritrean adage, what was missing in the book was more of them. Chapter after chapter Dawit deferred to others, when Eritrean proverbs could have sufficed and broadened the scope, and understanding of Eritrean society, its rich customs and traditions. For example, in Chapter 2, says, “What’s in a name?” Here was a missed opportunity to use another Eritrean proverb, ?? ???? ??? ????, which offers a deeper understanding of names in Eritrean society. Pretty sure there is an Eritrean proverb or saying, to adequately replace those used in each chapter.
Despite mention of the border issue, Dawit was not able to convey to readers that the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission not only delimited but also demarcated the Eritrea Ethiopia border, in 2002 and 2007 respectively. It was forced to use coordinates on maps as opposed to pillars on the ground because of Ethiopia’s belligerence. Today, the map of both countries have been deposited with the United Nations and both sides know the limits of their territories. There will not be a physical demarcation of the border-and need not be. The issue today is Ethiopia’s continued occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories, including Badme, the casus belli of the Eritrea Ethiopia border conflict.
No doubt there are many out there that share Dawit’s experience, but few, if any, have produced a book that tells the Eritrean story in full. Dawit seemed to have left much unsaid, probably for brevity’s sakes. As someone who has written extensively in the past, his deep knowledge and understanding of issues surrounding post-independence Eritrea is not apparent in this book. Eagerly awaiting his next book…