Letters from Alitiena: Book review
That this book review may reach you well the noble inhabitants of America, Europe, Asia Africa and Middle East, who read my previous opinion pieces, provide me comments which are more beautiful than the full ears of corn on fertile field, to me, poor reviewer in the desert of Abyssinia, Ziade, the son of Hailu, son of Weldu from the tribe of Irob. Or that is how Dillibis would start his book review, or again how a Somali would begin to write her autobiography.
The brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of those rare women to ever walk on Somali soil recalls how she came to learn about her ancestry under a watchful eyes of her grandmother: “I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan. I am a Darod, a Harti, a Macherten, an Osman Mahamud”. “Get it right” her grandmother would insist shaking a switch at her. "The names will make you strong. They are your bloodline. If you honor them they will keep you alive. If you dishonor them you will be forsaken. You will be nothing. You will lead a wretched life and die alone. Do it again”. Every Somali is expected to learn the names of their ancestors by heart. It is a lowlander’s life. It used to be the same in Irob land and both places people used to pledge their allegiance to “their tribe leaders and not to the state”. In a sense there “were no citizens; there were tribes” and clans. That was before the highlanders insisted on private property rights and ownership issues reversed the entire community arrangements
You would suppose interesting books are written by highly learned people with full of serious history but sometimes one comes along the document written by a humble man that’s fun as well as educational. Such is the case with Ato Dillibi’s letters to the Vincentian theology students in Europe. His works are translated to English in 2008 at the “request of confreres of the Ethiopian province”. If you were like me agonizing on the lack of historical narrative of what went in early 20th century, Irob land and its environs the publication of these letters in a book form is indeed a welcome step in filling the dots of our history. Any cultural anthropologist would feast on discovery of such documents as any treasure hunter would on discovery of gold deposit inside the ship under the deep sea. Hats off for the Vincentians! Lately I hear that some concerned individuals are translating the letters back to Tigringa (Tigringa-Dutch-English-Tigringa) and that initiative if it bears fruit will make accessible a vast wealth of information to the public.
The man and his Dutch connections
The book introduces the young Fr. Cornelius de Wit leaving Netherlands “to become a missionary in Northern Ethiopia” and “there he stayed for 21 years, until his death in 1932”. This priest is a protagonist in the making of the letters to Dutch friends of Dillibis.
According to the accounts in the book Dillibis spoke and wrote Amharic and was able to communicate in French and Italian. It is said that he wrote the letters in Tigrina and had them translated to Dutch by Fr. Cornelius. It is hard to get to know the birth date of Dillibis (a shepherd doesn’t know his birth date) but it is assumed that he was born “around 1880” from Coptic parents. Plague broke out in Irob land and his parents took him to Keren in Eretria; and after his long illness, he was recovered and was introduced to Catholic priests and eventually became a Catholic.
With a passion and zeal of true convert, as he was, Dillibis served the missionaries and he contributed his best to the expansion of Catholic faith in Irob land and beyond. He accompanied the priests wherever they went and at times paid heavily for his faith and conviction. A man with a serious interest in various cultures, political arrangements and languages surely came handy for the missionaries. He was the best guide not only to the most inaccessible Abesha land but also to soul of Abesha mind. The book characterizes Dillibis as a talkative and Irobs in general with an appetite for talk.
However the observation “to talk is more pressing than food and drink especially for Irob tribe” is not convincing knowing the Irob character more of a listener than a talker. Whatsoever, Dillib’s tendency to communicate must have helped in spreading the Gospel. From comments by Fr. De Wit we learn that Dillibis’ looks were “not exactly handsome but he has a jovial character and is always cheerful”. Even though there is an attempt to compliment him for his character than for his looks, European standard of beauty is not hidden.
Dillibis’s disturbing modesty is flashed on every page and it is not surprising to find why he signs his letters as “Dillibis the sinner”. He is well traveled for a man of his time: from Tigray to Gonder, Gojam, Addis Ababa and even to Djibouti. His desire to migrate to a country that he describes as, “Eden rediscovered, the most famous country, glorious Holland” is evident. It’s disappointing to learn that his wishes were not fulfilled but you learn as well the history of curiosity to “cross the seven seas and live in the land of the white men” is as old as Irob’s debut with the missionaries.
It appears Dillibis was also eager to know more about Europe and its civilization and ready to learn from their wisdom. But the intention of the white men were mainly to convert the populace to the ‘true’ religion than empower the local people with insights of enlightenment values of logic, reason, secularism and pluralism which were almost universally accepted in Europe by then. Though I admit trying to explain ‘social contract theory’ to Wonna Woldegiorigis would not have been an easy feet to accomplish at the height of feudal succession system but they could always try.
While the Irobs in general are considered by many to be emotionally inaccessible folks who keep to themselves the joy and the occasional grief of life, what is curious about Dillibis is his openness about his feelings. He is so passionate about his wife, his kids, about his mother of whom he says “… I am convinced that between all the women who have been in the world after Eve, none was like my mother. She had the heart of a woman and the intellect of a man”. Ignore the male chauvinism there; that was 100 years back.
From my reading of the letters, it appears Dillibis was not only engaged in preaching the gospel as a catechist but was also engaged in developmental works. Probably the first project proposal for funding was crafted by Fr. De Wit for the famine victims of Irob in early 1920’s and the first project report was written by Dillibis in his capacity as ‘project officer’. He acknowledges the receipt of the funds by de Wit and thanks the donors for saving lives. Since then his descendants have sharpened their skills and written thousands of proposals and even created an industry of its kind.
The legacy of proposal writing for funding has continued to trigger the imagination of our elite. They recommend it as the preferred alternative route to obtain resources to support economic freedom for the poor. External assistance is fine from time to time but many experts in development suggest doing business to be the best way to beat poverty. History is a witness to such facts and you would be surprised to know why the Jewish people are rich and their counterparts are not. Probably penniless Jew is rare to find but penniless Irobs are everywhere. Until very recently the so called respected jobs were around churches and administrative jobs in government but not anymore. Civil service and church services are still worthy perusing for a “man doesn’t leave on bread alone” but if your goal is to “be rich or die trying” there seem to be complete reversal of that view.
Slave trade was rampant in the country and the feudal political system was in its apex. The missionaries were rushing to Africa to save souls. When they were not busy engaged in saving, they were amusing themselves with the new culture and astounding African landscape. Being part of the white structure, they must have contributed their share to African colonial history as well. After the destruction of the First World War Europe was in relative peace. The country of “the brave and the free”, America, was under terrible economic depression only to explode in 1929.
Some of the best literary (drama, poetry and novels) works were being published both in Europe and America while Ireland and France were leading centers. Ernest Hemingway was having fun in Paris writing one of the finest works ever. Virginia Woolf, though had some nervous breakdown from time to time was brilliantly hammering on feminist topics and writing treaties on women’s place in society. P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh in Britain and some others in America were making names for their contribution to English literature. Mr. Waugh was in Addis during Hailesilassie’s coronation in October 1930 and his report was damning as he describes the entire process as “an elaborate propaganda effort”.
Meanwhile Albert Einstein had put physics upside down. A physics literate friend of mine told me that Einstein’s theories “had changed our understanding of the universe and became the cornerstones of quantum mechanics and general relativity”. I don’t understand those things much but I was told they were important. The same day Einstein received noble prize in physics Dillibis had written a letter introducing his Dutch friends to traditional medical practice called “mahguma”. Intellectual universe the two people inhabited is obviously worlds apart. Of course he didn’t as well forget to engage himself in adulating the missionaries for opening schools and teaching the true religion.
The first one or two paragraphs of the letters are always a boring pain to read. The long introductory lines begin with inquiries to his friends about the weather, health, famine conditions in “glorious Holland” and everything under the sun. Now, I am aware how the traditional letter writing style was originated in Irob land. “Enkab zetefelalenalu mealti kisab lomi bitsega tiena ….” Remember those lines before they were replaced by hi, or what is up dude type? Those expressions are even more beautiful when you use them to express love and longing for the special one in your teenage years. We all wrote love letters. Didn’t we? Before the internet mail services destroyed it and face book ruined it that style was familiar to many of us. I always believe the literary genius is activated when one is in love. I found out some of the letters I wrote years back could give a run for his money to the most gifted writer. Though I must admit my wife doesn’t always look at those letters form literary perspective.
Thanks to the questions put by ‘illustrious’ Dutch men, Dillibis partially satisfies our curiosity about the social, economic and political conditions and actors of his time. If there is anyone who complains about this work, the writer must be blamed for what he didn’t write than for what he did.
One of the most interesting details is about the time of Wonna Weldegiorgis’s 60-years bravery and ‘just’ rule. He also provided some portraits of national politics acting as a journalist. His account of Dejazmach Teferi’s rise to power and consequently to the throne and his (Dillibis) hatred for Ras Gugsa for his superstitious tendencies is clearly communicated to his Dutch friends. His literary skills are also displayed on some of the pages and here is one of my favorite:
“This evening I write to you in the shadow of the Mimosa tree, next to my house. The sun sends a more subdued light into the valley. I hear the singing of the shepherds who descend from the mountains with their flocks - I also hear the bleating of the goats, which call the young goats to be suckled”.
To whom would this vivid description fail to resonate with?
In nutshell, these letters are a story of Irob people and their resilience. It tells the story of suffering, injustice, feudal backwardness and also ‘smiles on many face and love in many hearts’. Year after year, the letters communicate the news of famine, drought, locust and conflicts with nearby Islamic tribes. One of the most depressing letters ever written was an account of his time during internal displacement (exile, he calls it) around Enderata in Tigray in 1929. He has brilliantly captured the humiliation and shame that the Irob people faced during ‘sidet’ in search of food more than any contemporary writer would.
Interestingly though he was conscious of the fleeting nature of their displacement and tells the news of the people who were not even close to being “bowed down” by anything. Thanks to their new faith the Irob tribes were trained to face challenges by way of mobilizing their Christian faith as coping strategy in the face of crisis. Biblical characters like Job, Joseph, Mary, Jesus and Daniel were invoked to unleash the internal resources that the community owns during terrible disaster situation. Invoking those names was inspiring the poor and energized the downtrodden to face challenges.
The only way to explain how the Irobs survived continuous disaster situations for years and years without giving up on living must be because there is some relationship between faith and resilience. I wish someone studies that aspect. I am not sure if Dilibis knew the Victorian poem by the English poet W.E. Henley, Invictus, but through his letters he has conveyed the power of “unconquerable soul”: “… I thank whatever gods may be; for my unconquerable soul. … My head is bloody, but unbowed”.
However, my analysis of ‘hard times’ of the Irob people should not give an impression of romantic attachment to underdog character whom everybody despises and at the end comes victorious. This is not a movie. This is real life and in real life smart people change their response to outside stimuli according to the demand of the time, sort of chameleon. By and large, my earlier harsh indictment of the Irob character that failed to rise up to the challenges of the 21st century - refusing to integrate to the world of entrepreneurship, detached itself from power politics and failed to produce serious scholarship - still remains intact.
The Irobs don’t like chameleon for its inconsistent behavior but perhaps that is exactly how they should respond to the realities as the place they inhabit is not Camelot, the capital of King Arthur's kingdom where “truth and goodness and beauty” reigns.
Dillibis’ letters are a stark warning to everyone who wants to avoid extreme poverty. Declining moral behavior followed by God’s outrage alone can’t possibly explain our miserable economic position. A better answer should come from the elite why the life of affluence and dignity been so elusive for generations in our region than what Dillibis provides.