In Mid-2015, I met a man named Debessai, tells us Tesfaye Ghebreab, the author of Ye Nurenebi Mahder (Nurenebi’s File) as he explains how he came across the story he recounts in his book. He tells us that Debessai asked him if he could write a story based on some documents, which he hands to Tesfaye after explaining the contents of the papers. Tesfaye eagerly agrees.
From the ‘Foreword’, we assume that Debessai must have given Tesfaye Ghebreab more or less what he has related in the book. We realise our wrong assumption as we read the book, which tells the story of four generations of an Eritrean family, starting with a once well-known and rich man named Nurenebi. Very determined, Nurenebi sets out on a life and death journey to Massawa to save his family from the famine that engulfed the Horn of Africa in the late 1880s, a famine commonly named among the Tigrigna as Akahida. The book then tells how his two sons were adopted by a French missionary in Eritrea and grew up as Christians, and got educated during the Italian colonization. The younger, now named, Edmondo is hired as interpreter and is sent (as a kind of exile) to Mogadishu, Somalia a colony of the Italians, for his views against Italian colonialism. One of his sons, Gabriel, forms an association of young Eritreans, which aims to fight the Italians. In his opposition to the Italians, he passes useful information to the Haileselassie Government, before the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1936. The Italians find out about the spy amongst them and identify him, and he was sentenced to death, but through the intervention of an influential friend his sentence was commuted to life sentence. As he served his sentence, Gabriel writes his thoughts. It is these and the court proceedings of his father’s trial by an Italian court that Debessai, Gabriel’s son, hands to Tesfaye Ghebreab.
We realize Tesfaye Ghebreab didn’t give just the finishing touches to the story that is given to him. He did more than that. Reading the story, we understand that Debessai gave Tesfaye the court proceedings that led to his father’s sentence in Mogadishu. But, Tesfaye’s book has Nurenebi’s story, which the author must have reconstructed from the interviews he conducted with members of the family. From the story, we have parts in which the French missionary reflects about Eritrea and its people, which cannot be part of the papers Tesfaye receives. In one part, we have different people from Midri Bahri argue about their identity. This, I think, is the creation of the author and not part of the papers for Gabriel who was not born yet at that time. The author must have also recreated the scenes in Umkullu, the base of the Swedish Missionary Society from his readings, listed at the end of the book, which include books on Italian Colonialism. Gabriel would not have access and couldn’t have included notes about events during Menelik’s reign. The book’s final part deals with Mekonnen’s (Gabriel’s son) political maturity as a student at the University of Addis Ababa, and his decision to join the EPLF, which comes much later than the writing of Gabriel’s notes.
It is not the story as such, but the people, and the background that breathes life into the book. People such as Nurenebi, Father Johannes, the French missionary, Gabriel and his Ethiopian friend, Takele Weldehawariat, make the book an interesting reading. But, the research that Tesfaye has done, not limiting himself to the interviews and Gabriel’s notes, which he verbally quotes sometimes give it flesh and blood, and make it not only an enjoyable reading but also very informative, for he quotes a number of historical books.
Some people in the story are full of life and fill the book with drama and excitement, which makes it another reason for an excellent reading. Nurenebi, unable to bear the insults from the Italians revolts and fights them until they invaded Ethiopia and occupied the country. In many ways, he had the spirit of resistance that the book describes in its third and final part, which brought about the independence of Eritrea. Though his revolt against Italian colonizers arose out of a personal insult, and he didn’t see the Italians as colonizers, as foreign people to grab Eritrean land and resources, his pride drove him to fight them. Later, he sees them for what they are when he teams up with Degiat Bahta Hagos, who resists them at Halay. Similarly, though from history we know Degiat Bahta Hagos’s end, we are fascinated by his story, which Tesfaye skillfully handles and describes in a way that captures our attention.
Father Johannes, the French missionary, is another interesting man. He is more a politician than a priest, and sees through the intentions of the Italians, when the people of Midri Bahri fail to perceive their evil intentions. To find out what they think of the Italians, he asks people about their views, which may surprise us because they see the Italians as liberators, for they put an end to slavery, and ‘peace’ comes to the land as the invasion of the war lords of Tigray, who levied heavy taxes on the people, ceases. But he sees the intentions of the Italians and shares his views with Bahta Hagos, who revolts soon afterwards, which implies that the French missionary inspired Degiat Bahta’s revolt.
Readers familiar with Eritrean history know Haileselassie Government is not a government to fight for. For this reason, the Italian must have been telling Gabriel the truth and we agree with him when he told Gabriel it was a corrupt Government that only served the interests of the few around the Emperor. But, Gabriel had no information to judge if the Italian was telling the truth. But, as experience is an excellent teacher he sees the government for what it is. The Haileselassie Government hunted people it thought were against its rule, Ethiopians and Eritreans that were thought to be against its oppressive regime.
Tesfaye Ghebreab quotes a number of Eritrean, Ethiopian and European authors. The quotes supplied him information, which he could not have got from other sources. He quotes Eritrean authors mostly for Part 3, the part about the Armed Struggle, and the Ethiopian authors for issues that touch on Ethiopia. Tesfaye quotes European authors on Eritrean events that took place during, before, and after the Italian colonization. The quotes give substance to the story, and make it very credible. Even when he quotes, Ethiopian sources such as the Amharic newspaper that announced the passing away of Gabriel Admondo in 1983, we see it for what it is and why it was written.
I have asked myself: What kind of a book would ‘Ye Nurenebi Mahder’ be without the research of Tesfaye Ghebreab? Certainly, there would be no Part1, which is mostly based on his research and his imagination. There would also be no Part 3, which is about the War of Independence the Eritreans waged between 1961 and 1991.
Ye Nurenebi Mahder is a book people interested in Eritrean and Ethiopian history should read. Anyone who reads this book won’t be bored and will most certainly be informed. But above all, since it is about history, people who read this will be a lot wiser than before they read it. But, more than any other people aspiring writers should not only read it but also study it so that they learn how to write.