OBITUARY:Waldeab Waldemariam

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue
E L James's book Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

It's hard to understand why so many are buying it – but then best-selling was ever an inexact science, says DJ Taylor
Behind the scenes of the world's most experimental science labs

World's most experimental science labs

The photographer Daniel Stier has spent four years gaining access to some of the world's most curious scientific experiments
It's the stroke of champions - so why is the single-handed backhand on the way out?

Single-handed backhand: on the way out?

If today's young guns wish to elevate themselves to the heights of Sampras, Graf and Federer, it's time to fire up the most thrilling shot in tennis
HMS Saracen: Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled

HMS Saracen

Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'

7/7 bombings 10 years on

Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'