As a child I remember my father inviting Aboy Hailu Abay home to tell him stories of the Italian, British and Ethiopian rules in Eritrea. My father liked Aboy Hailu, an elderly man in his mid-eighties, very much, and every member of my family was happy to see him whenever he came home. We used to have lots of laugh without stopping for hours, a memory I will always relish.
Aboy Hailu’s voice had a musical tone and everyone wanted to sit beside him and listen to whatever he said. He knows a lot about history and learned by heart many poems from all over Eritrea during the era of colonization and the armed struggle. His favorite poet was Ato Tewelde Measho, who was also the favorite of my father’s and mine. I believe I was attracted to Ato Tewelde because of Aboy Hailu’s way of reciting the poems and presenting the contexts in which the poems were originally crafted.
I like poetry and admire poets. In Eritrea, there are different types of poetry including Melqes, Mase, Awlo and Weyo. Melqes, a dirge recited at funerals and at the deceased person’s home during the mourning days, is used to honor the deceased and as a consolation to the bereaved family. On the contrary, Mase and Awlo are ballads used at weddings and other festive occasions to praise and pay tribute to individuals, families and communities.
Some of the talented Eritrean poets are Ato Tewelde Measho, Ato Ahmed Halay, Bahri Negasi Tombosa, Ato Negash Bayru and Ato Gebrihet Hdru. Through their poems the poets give knowledge and teach about love, humility and others. What makes these poets special is they recite impromptu poems. They stand up, give a brief announcement and start saying their awlo or mase instantaneously, always maintaining the rhythm and at the end of it all successfully putting across their messages.
Ato Tewelde Measho was a famous poet, whose reputation was extended far beyond his area all over Eritrea. People say the creativity in his choice of words and his tone of voice made him one of the greatest poets in Eritrea.
Ato Tewelde was born in Adi-Chomay, about 5 kms east of Adi-Quala. He was honest, impartial, reasonable, humorous, amusing and strong in his opinions. He did not coddle the rich; instead he always stood for the truth and did the right thing. In short, he was a man of his words. More than anything else he had pleasant words, sweet to the soul and healing to the listeners.
Ato Tewelde usually started his recitation with this announcement, a self-adulating poem that glorifies his talent as a poet.
Ane endye Tewelde Measho
Kem kenina tlyan fewsi aso
Wediqe ztnse kem ku-uso
Nhmum zereba zfwso
Betike zwex-e elfi fhso
n-aydo ktef-ani zereba
qedide zsefyo kem aleba…
Through the poem he tells his audience words are powerful. Like medicine, words can heal. We ought to choose the correct words at the right time for the right situation. As it is said a soft answer turns away wrath but grievous words stir up anger.
Once Aboy Hailu told me a poem by Ato Tewelde entitled “gide-en beli-en gide men kzemta”. The poem was directed at the mother of Ato Tewelde’s friend. She had a long life. At the funeral Ato Tewelde’s friend was angry with him because he did not recite a dirge in his mother’s honor. Ato Tewelde was surprised by his friend’s act and said this dirge.
ghide-en beli-en gide men kzemta
byohannes beli-en bml-eta
btalyan beli-en bml-eta
b-engliz beli-en bml-eta
bhayleslasie beli-en bml-eta
qolu-ekau ymotulewu keytsegebu tayta
anta emuta ember ygeteta lomi kshbsheba diyen kqneta…
Ato Tewelde was always critical of leaders. He exposed their misdeeds and corrupt actions for which he went to jail. Once, during the Italian rule, while he was in prison, the prison warden’s wife died. Ato Tewelde thought of a smart way to be released from prison and asked to be allowed to attend the funeral. His request was granted and he was escorted by two police officers, one in front of him and the other behind. At the funeral, Ato Tewelde recited this melkes.
Te-asiru zbluni meas te-asire
Tewelde Measho zeylomi me-as neykebere
Bqdmeyn dhreyen klte jagre
May chada semikum do were
Adi-chomay entebelu bokire bokire
Grateykua wala neyhadere
Yhars aleku amhareye giere
Seyti biga moyta seyti goytana
Brhan alem mebrahti kulna
Ansti diguana bkeya hzena
Ansti Adi-Quala bkeya hzena
Ansti Mendefera bkeya hzena
Ansti Roma bkeya hzena
n-ays mebaletey koyna
kbza karsheli wexi-e kab una …
When an interpreter told the Italian warden, whose wife had died, what Ato Tewelde recited, he set him free and rewarded him with a pair of oxen along with a package of farm tools.
There are a lot of legendary poems that are not written in Eritrea. We ought to know these poems and keep records of what we hear. This way we can enrich Eritrean literature, which can be a powerful custodian of our history and a source of our national pride.