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Those were the days

Eritrean students sang aloud till their lungs ached, as the headmaster waved his baton frenetically to keep the tempo, with rivulets of sweat running down his face. Louder! Louder! He would shout. How much loud? Do you think their lungs are made of stainless steel? This was in the 1950s.

They sang them at the end of the school term, at public functions, when dignitaries visited their school, and they sang them at home and when alone. The British Military Administration was in full swing at the time.

As told to me by my granddad, they were the best of school songs, supposed to instill love of wisdom and country in every student. Those were the days when the ignorant and the benighted needed the light of knowledge to shine on them, for ignorance is darkness, a veil, a spider’s web that interposes itself between the dumb and the intelligent. Knowledge, knowledge at all cost!

The likeness of a torch (shig) could be seen everywhere. In all types of certificates, as logos and in official seals, in exercise-books and in frontispieces. It symbolized a light-giving knowledge that shone in darkness from which our country had to pull out if it were to develop.

My grandfather used to tell me that when the British came, they didn’t care much whether Eritrea took the path to development or to destruction. They thought that, whatever the case, the colony’s inhabitants were always the Queen’s subjects. What a nerve! But in some way they were right. Didn’t they rule two thirds of the whole world at the time? What is Eritrea for them? Another white man’s burden, and an irritation to boot. But they were much better than the Italians who had just handed power to them.

The Italians who were rather ignorant themselves (most came from Sicily and were illiterate) didn’t want Eritreans to get any education worth its name. Of course, they allowed them to go until the fourth form (quarta classe è basta), but thus far and no further.

It is interesting to note at this juncture that Ferdinando Martini, the first civilian administrator of Eritrea, didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that natives sat in the same class along with whites. He thought that the natives might somehow excel the whites, which meant that the white supremacist philosophy upon which he built his ego might crumble like a house of cards? Thus began school apartheid in earnest in Eritrea.

After the Fascist introduced the Apartheid rule and restricted education for the indigenous people from extending beyond grade four, there was no opportunity for young Eritreans to pursue their education to higher levels. The only choice they had was either to be enlisted into the colonial army or work in domestic service, road construction, agriculture, translation, etc.

When the English replaced the Italians, however, Eritrean enthusiasm for education erupted, and the sun of knowledge began to shine on the natives in its entire splendor, and for the first time in the country, education outstripped every other human affair. “An uneducated person is useless before a crisis, and a non-chiseled millstone becomes useless for grinding,” used to say the old and the wise.

Some wits also used to say that traditional education caused one to get bitten by dogs, while European education helped one to become a lord, a king (timhrti habesha yen’k’s, timhrti ferenji yen’g’s). A little explanation. Before the coming of the Italians education was, among the Christians, solely under the Orthodox Church which ran outdoor schools with pupils going around begging for their daily food which consisted mainly of roasted peas or chickpeas.

These, more often than not, were chased by dogs as they approached a gate to sing out their supplication for alms.

The knowledge of the English language was given a paramount importance in those days. Many a person struggled to learn the language in vain (the Italians called the Queen’s English lingua barbara). Many Eritreans, after many years of toil and resilience, ended up speaking a language that was neither theirs nor that of the Queen. Mastering it was an illusion. Some must have finally given up by quoting Oscar Wilde who, when asked to learn German, is reported to have said: Life is too short to learn German.

“How are you Tesfai?” asks a female teacher during an English period expecting the thunderous reply deemed appropriate on such an occasion.

“I am very well, thank you. And you!!!” barks Tesfai, the blue-eyed boy, looking at his peers, miserable students that they were, through the corner of his eyes by way of saying: ‘eat your hearts out’ or maybe ‘can you beat that?’
According to the teacher, the answer Tesfai gave was correct beyond any shadow of doubt, not only in grammar but in its sonic output as well. (4 on the Richter scale, to be exact!).

“Would you please, bunch of donkeys (and probably children of perdition), give a standing ovation to my dear Tesfai,” intones the teacher with half closed eyes, approving of the way Tesfai gave a reply to the question in, what she thought was, impeccable English, one that was nearest to the Queen’s.

The students sighed in self-recrimination for not having studied the whole night just to be able to shine like Tesfai and enter the teacher’s good graces.

“Those were the days when uttering some English words (which, in the final analysis, could be traced neither to the bloody English language nor to any language in Eritrea) was considered a sign of civility and the only path towards social and economic success. Those were the days when ‘mountain hen’ was the ‘official’ name given to Emba-Derho by those who ‘mastered’ English.” recollects my grandfather with nostalgic feelings.

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