OBITUARY:Waldeab Waldemariam

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The Independent Online
Waldeab Waldemariam is generally recognised as "the Father of Eritrean independence" as well as the man who established the Tigrinya (the main tongue of Eritrea and the Tigre province of Northern Ethiopia) as a literary medium. His passing caused profound and universal grief in newly independent Eritrea; he received a state funeral in the presence of the president of the country and was buried in the martyrs' cemetery at Asmara, the capital of Eritrea; the government declared a day of mourning.

Waldeab was born at Addi Zarna, in the Serae province of Eritrea, in 1908. He studied at the Swedish Evangelical Mission at Asmara and was so successful in his studies that he was immediately employed as a teacher by the Swedish Mission which he served in this capacity from 1931 until 1942 - being director of this excellent educational establishment from 1935 until 1942. In the latter year, just over 12 months after the liberation from Italian rule of Eritrea by British and Commonwealth forces, he was approached by the local office of the British Ministry of Information, then for all practical purposes an arm of the British Military Administration of Eritrea, with a view to founding and editing the first regular newspaper in Tigrinya, next to Arabic and Amharic the modern Semitic language with the largest number of native speakers - easily outstripping modern Hebrew in this respect.

Waldeab readily accepted this task, and the Tigrinya Eritrean Weekly News was born in August 1942 and continued without interruption, under the same executive editor, until the end of the British caretaker administration in 1952. Not only did Waldeab possess a profound knowledge of Tigrinya, his native tongue, he also had a fine command of Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and of Italian, the language of the colonial administration since 1889. His knowledge of English, at first rudimentary, increased in no time by leaps and bounds.

While the Italian government, at any rate until about 1935, had been both benevolent and efficient, especially in the technical services, educationally they were less energetic and promoted their own language steadfastly at the expense of Tigrinya. The British administration reversed this policy, and the use of the indigenous Tigrinya tongue was encouraged in schools and in everyday life in general. The principal catalyst in this development turned out to be the new weekly Tigrinya paper which, under Waldeab's guidance, became a cultural and linguistic factor of great significance.

The journal was not merely a newspaper but became the repository of Tigrinya intellectual life and the springboard for the creation of a literary and stylistic tradition in that language. Increasingly Waldeab came to be dubbed "the Father of Tigrinya". The 30 years from the foundation of the Eritrean Weekly News from until the early 1970s witnessed the greatest flowering of Tigrinya writing hitherto experienced.

As the Second World War receded from Africa and the prospects of peace appeared brighter, the population of Eritrea became increasingly restive and concerned with their political future. A return of the Italians seemed remote, and Britain's war aims precluded a colonial aggrandisement. Thus there seemed to be a number of possible solutions. The genie of democracy and of self- determination, which had been so powerfully evoked by the war and its concomitant propaganda efforts, refused to return to the bottle. Waldeab, compelled to be neutral as editor of the Tigrinya paper, developed as a private individual very strong views in favour of an independent Eritrean state. The majority of the population in the highland provinces, to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the people of northern Ethiopia, wanted union with Ethiopia and expressed those preferences in plebiscites supervised by the United Nations as well as by a fair measure of physical coercion. Others in the predominantly Muslim lowlands favoured partition.

In those years between the end of the war and the eventual federation with Ethiopia in 1952 Waldeab was at the centre of the independence movement and became increasingly the target of enmity of all those who fought for union with Ethiopia. From 1947 to 1952 there were no fewer than six assassination attempts, in some of which he was nearly killed. When his principal opponent became chief executive of Eritrea, at the implementation of federation with Ethiopia, Waldeab had to flee the country and seek asylum in Egypt. He spent many years in that country, and elsewhere, writing and broadcasting in favour of Eritrean independence.

With the demise of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the skirmishes in Eritrea between 1962 and 1974 became all-out war under the murderous dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam. The deposition of the latter in 1991 brought relief to Ethiopia and, not much later, independence to Eritrea.

Whether the centrifugal forces now powerfully active throughout much of the Ethiopian polity are in the best long-term interests of the country is quite another question. Perhaps a democratic federal structure, with genuinely autonomous units, might eventually offer a solution to the problems now besetting the Horn of Africa.

Waldeab, now in his mid-eighties, returned to his own country for the first time in 40 years. There were manifestations of great joy and esteem throughout Eritrea. He was assigned a fine house and a position of great honour. But those long years of struggle had impaired his health. He died conscious of the fact that the language and the country, for which he had fought so long and valiantly, were now safe.

Edward Ullendorff

Waldeab Waldemariam, newspaper editor: born Addi Zarna, Serae, Eritrea 27 April 1908; married; died Asmara, Eritrea 15 May 1995.