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August in the History of Eritrea

In the historical calendar of Eritrea, the month of August is filled with major events that have great significance in the course of history of the Eritrean people.

For the moment I have selected four historical events that happened in August.

August 2, 1889 — the occupation of Asmara by Italy: In 1885 Italians expanded their control from Assab to Massawa. The desire to expand their colonial possession and control of the highland was met with stiff resistance, and it took them additional four years to reach Asmara. Finally, the Italians entered Asmara on August 2, 1889 and occupied much of the southern and western parts of Eritrea. By a decree issued on January 1, 1890, Italy proclaimed Eritrea her colony.

In their march to Asmara and their attempt to consolidate their rule over Eritrea, the Italian colonial army was confronted by the local people. The traditional political elites of Eritrea organized their people and showed considerable amount of resistance. But the resistance of Eritreans did not last long for lack of effective organization and coordination. At that time, the Eritrean people were suffering from famine, known by Eritreans as zebene akahida, that lasted until 1892. Besides the social and economic strife caused by the famine, the Eritrean people became victims of various Tigrean warriors, notably Ras Alula, who inflicted enormous damage. War and famine drained the strength of the population, and it was under such circumstances that Italy occupied Asmara.

When the Italians occupied the highland and the western lowland they eliminated the Eritrean traditional political elites. According to Zemhret Yohannes’s Tigrinya book, ‘The Italian colonization’, between 1890 and 1891, the Italians killed 800 Eritreans, twelve of whom were traditional political elites. Through summary execution or imprisonment, the Italians eliminated the leading traditional political elites and their supporters.

After 52 years of Italian occupation, Asmara was taken by British Forces on April 1, 1941 and was ruled by them for a decade. On May 24, 1991 the Eritrean People’s Liberation army liberated Asmara and Eritrea became independent.

August 3, 1961 – Establishment of Asmara Theater Association: In the same year that Eritrea’s armed struggle started by Hamid Idris Awate, Asmara Theatre Association was established. This historical coincidence is indicative of the association’s future role in the cultural front. It provided an outlet for the frustrated Eritrean population. Asmara Theater Association was the most successful cultural association in Eritrea that left an indelible mark on Eritrean society. Although the works of the association were subjected to censorship by the Ethiopian colonial authorities the artists were usually able to skillfully mask the political content of their works. Songs of veteran Eritrean singers such as Tewelde Reda’s Shigey habuni (give me my torch), Atewebrhan Segid’s Aslamay Kstanay, Alamin Abdelletif’s Fatuma Zahra, Osman Abdulrahim’s xebhi xom and Tebereh Tesfahuney’s Abi Hidmo are some of the immortal songs of the 1960s with double meaning that have serious political messages against Ethiopian hegemony.

Tikabo Weldemariam and Tewelde Redda, veteran Eritrean singers, were regarded as important figures in the establishment of Asmara Theater Association. The cultural association played a great role in the development of national culture and served as an outlet to express Eritrean identity and nationalism. The association included artists from different ethnic groups and gave appropriate attention to women’s participation. Some of the well-known Eritrean women singers in the association include Tebereh Tesfahuney, Tsehaytu Beraki, Algenesh Kiflu, Amleset Abbai, Genet Teferi, Hiwot Tedla, Letebrehan Dagnew and Tegbaru Teklai.

The association had in its membership well-known singers, writers, musicians, and comedians, including Solomon Gebregzhiabhier, comedian and playwright, Asres Tessema, musician, Asmerom Habtemariam, playwright and announcer, Osman Abdulrahim, singer, Negusse Haile, a playwright, and legendary singers such as Yemane Gebremichael (Baria), Alamin Abdulatif and Tebereh Tesfahuney.

Asmara Theater Association toured across Eritrean towns and Ethiopia. In describing the performance of the theatre association in Addis Ababa, Mengistu Gedamu, an Ethiopian journalist, said: “There were thousands of people crowded around the entrance to the hall… Women who had paid 25 Birr for their hairstyles found their hair disordered by the crush. The entrance fee was 5 Birr but many people were willing to pay 25 Birr to enter the hall… Even though I could not understand the language (Tigrinya) or the message, I enjoyed the way the play and the music were performed. In fact, it was the best I have ever seen. Alemayo Kahsay performed the Italian Toto and Tebereh Tesfahuney sang like the American Doris Day.”

Members of Asmara Theater Association lived under constant surveillance of Ethiopian colonial security authorities. Almost all were sent to prison for some time. Through their performance the artists were able to influence the public to join the liberation struggle. During 1970s, the majority of the members of the association joined the ELF and the EPLF. The Eritrean revolution produced many revolutionary artists that fought against the colonial and decadent culture. In his book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, Fanon wrote: “To fight for national culture first of all means fighting for the liberation of the nation, the tangible matrix from which culture can grow.” Eritrean artists as cultural combatants have fired liberator cultural bullets to liberate the nation- culturally, psychologically and politically. Today many young artists sing the 1960s and revolutionary songs of Eritrea.

August 4, 1984 – Launching Eritrean Festival in Bologna: Before Eritrea’s independence the annual Eritrean festival was held in Bologna, Italy. Eritreans from all over the world used to assemble in Bologna to celebrate the Eritrean culture and to express their support for the struggle for independence. The festival served as a vehicle of mobilization and construction of Eritrean national identity. The festival in Bologna has a symbolic value in the history of Eritrea. It was not merely a cultural event or celebration; it was rather a continuation of the struggle for independence in a diplomatic frontline. The festival provided a common ground for interaction and strengthened Eritreans’ solidarity. As a cultural event, it gave an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate the diversity of the Eritrean culture. After independence, the national festival is celebrated annually in Asmara.

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