Book Review–Woldeab Woldemariam: A Visionary Eritrean Patriot, a Biography

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Mussie Tesfagiogis Gebremeskel

Woldeab Woldemariam: A Visionary Eritrean Patriot, a Biography by DAWIT MESFIN (The Red Sea Press, Trenton/New Jersey, 321 pages, ISBN 978-1-5690252-6-0)

Dawit Mesfin’s new book on Woldeab Woldemariam’s biography is an excellent contribution to the growing body of scholarly literature on Eritrean historiography. This book deals with the odyssey of an Eritrean educator, a lucid thinker, an activist, journalist, proficient politician, and above all, an unresolved patriot in the struggle for the independence of Eritrea – a man who paid dearly for the freedom and liberty of his own people from the shackles of domination and repression. The author, a writer and long-time political commentator on Eritrean political affairs, demonstrates remarkable skills in the recovery of events from the shadows of history and the fervent disentangling of the story of “Eritrea’s Nelson Mandela”, if I may borrow the expression
of Richard Dowden (273).

The book comprises eleven chapters, an epilogue and the author’s notes, a list of chronology in Woldeab’s life history as well as an index section. In a well-organized mode, this excellent piece of work traces the footsteps of Woldeab in the lifetime journey he went through – a childhood surrounded by humble and loving parents and siblings, an outstanding student of secular and religious studies, a passionate teacher, an editor of the first newspaper in Tigrinya language, a political activist, and partisan politician, to mention some. This is the story of a determined man of his own deeds with unprecedented contribution to the making of Eritrean national identity. The author presents the story of Woldeab in a carefully documented and well elaborated tenor which easily captivates the reader to eagerly follow the life journey of this extraordinary man.

The author provides the reader with an excellent account of the history of Woldeab’s parents (Woldemariam Kidane, father and Waga Desta, mother) and their socio-economic struggle for emancipation in the village of Adi Zarna, the Seraye province. Confronted with two distinctive stereotypes by the community they were living in – being ma’ekelay alet (immigrants or settlers) and converts to the Evangelical Christian faith amidst a community of the Orthodox Christian faith, the Woldemariam family had to withstand social odds, and “spent lifetime building a niche there [Adi Zarna]” (13). Reading the pages on the inspiring struggle of this family, it seems evident that Woldeab must have had inherited his parent’s traits of determination and peaceful approach to any social challenge. These peasant parents migrated from Tigray, Ethiopia (in the 1870s and 1880s), married and settled in the Eritrean village of Adi Zarna and raised eight children. Woldeab (born in 1905) like most Eritrean children of his time, spent his childhood assisting his parents and siblings in farming and other household activities. Given the fact that the repressive Italian colonial environment denied opportunities of education to most Eritreans, Woldeab remained uneducated throughout his childhood.

The author details how Woldeab’s world changed starting at the age of 18. With the opening of Evangelical missionary schools in the country, Woldeab’s almost lost opportunity suddenly appeared on the horizon – he started to attend basic formal education. A new era had begun for Woldeab – an era during which he was shaped and reshaped, first as a student, then as a teacher, an eloquent writer and journalist, an activist, a politician, and more importantly, a resolute fighter for the independence of Eritrea. Through his missionary education, Woldeab developed a Christian worldview which he embraced throughout his life.

The methodological approach used by the author is worth noting here. It shall be stated that writing biographies such as that of Woldeab, in the contemporary circumstances where there is no easy access to resources in Eritrea, the persistence of contradictory collective historical narratives that are surrounded  by blatant propaganda imposed by the ruling party in the country and the dispersed locations of archival materials, is by far a challenging task. Yet, the author deserves an approval for combining multiple sources and carefully using them in his writing. He combines oral literature, written sources such as newspaper articles of the 1940s, and intensive archival sources. His intense use of the archival materials from the British National Archives at Kew Gardens in London bids notable information about Eritrea during the British Military Administration, and the turbulent political environment during the expansion of banditry in that country.

The author also provides a brief history of the political environment in which Woldeab was raised – the repressive Italian colonial rule (1890-1941) and the British Military Administration (1941-1952). Although some of the historical themes presented in this section cry for more detailed analysis, the accounts give the reader with a great prospect to see life under colonialism from the perspective of Woldeab who lived in it – a world of oppression and alienation.

The accounts presented in this book are well enriched by broader contextual theoretical backing as well as some cultural expressions which enable the reader to navigate through the events which surrounded the life of Woldeab. The author unravels the fact that the experience surrounding Woldeab’s social and political environment was full of contradiction, yet he cultivated an immense popularity among Eritreans. The author notes:

Everything about the Woldemariam family was contradiction. Born in Ethiopia, they had to work hard to establish themselves in Eritrea against all the odds and create support network…Woldeab’s life was extraordinary and in fact it became more extraordinary precisely because it was filled with contradiction. His father, Woldemariam, was recruited by the Italian colonial army to march into his ancestral home in Tigray, Ethiopia during the battle of Adwa. He campaigned on behalf of the pro-Ethiopia Unionists during the 1950s, while Woldeab did the opposite. Woldeab worked for the independence of Eritrea throughout his life while his siblings made their living in Ethiopia. He served his church devotedly, and it worked against him. When Woldeab took refuge in Egypt, his wife and children took refuge in Addis Ababa, Ethiiopia. Woldeab supported the EPLF while the EPLF ignored and dismissed him.

One may ask: But what was so unique about Woldeab’s enormous popularity despite these contradictions? As it becomes clear from the pages of this biographer’s book, the secret behind Woldeab’s popularity was his immeasurable devotion and love to his country and its people, his long and painful years of struggle for the independence of the country, and of course, his survival of the seven assassination attempts against him. His devotions for ‘the love’ of his country were demonstrated in many ways. Just to mention some: First, as a teacher he was engaged not only in teaching subject lessons to his students, but that he also sensed the lack of teaching materials and devoted himself to writing Tigrinya textbook – hence, posing his share in the development
of written Tigrinya literature. Second, he grew as a journalist who developed great skills of Tigrinya writing on the basis of his Christian worldview and became the “eloquent wordsmith” of the 1940s Eritrea, as the author pronounces him (159). He edited the first Tigrinya newspaper, and he launched his own newspaper called aynfalale “let’s remain united’ while Eritrea was threatened by a policy of partition under the British. Third, he became a dedicated politician with a motto of unity among all nations of Eritrea while the country was threatened with annexation by Ethiopia, and was infested by all sorts of dangerous shiftas or bandits backed this hegemonic power of the Horn of Africa at that time. Fourth, when his  dream for the independence of Eritrea was shattered after Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia in 1952, he changed his tactic of struggle, and became a trade unionist and helped for the establishment of the first trade union in Africa. Fifth, after he escaped death during the seventh attempt of assassination, he chose Egypt as his refuge irrespective of his Christian faith and worldview, simply because he was never done with the struggle. He helped other nationalists in the formation and consolidation of the armed liberation struggle for the independence of the country.

There is no doubt that Dawit Mesfin has written a biography of Woldeab that is very illuminating, moving and appealing. However, this biography would have been much more comprehensive if he embarked on what Chinua Achebe would call “the balance of stories”. Example, the written otherwise oral views of members of the opposing parties to that of Woldeab, mainly the Unionist Party are scrappy throughout the book. In addition, the reader may also encounter some imprecisions reading this book. Example, while referring to Zewde Reta’s notes on Woldeab (229-31), the author, most likely inadvertently, omits important contents in those notes and misinterprets some parts. The author dwells on attributing Zewde’s judgement on developments in Eritrea in general
and Woldeab in particular, simply to his ‘Ethiopianist’ point of view. This may be so, but Zewde also reveals in that text a remarkable truth about Woldeab which the author misses. In that source, Zewde states that Woldeab avowed that while he was leaving Eritrea aboard of an airplane, his opponents who were in power at that time would eventually leave the country illicitly and illegally; and this is what happened to people such as the then head of Eritrean government, Tedla Bairu – hence, Woldeab could read political developments in Eritrea ahead of his compatriots.

In another note, the author claims to encrypt at least one of the mysterious puzzles as to why Woldeab, despite the heavy price he paid for the freedom of Eritrea has still been kept in the periphery of the country’s national historical narratives. Example, the author, based on his findings, claims to comprehend as to why a historical monument was erected for the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin whose origin is not even confirmed Eritrean in the middle of the capital city “while the country’s first independence campaigner, one who co-fathered Eritrea alongside Ibrahim Sultan and other nationalists of the 1940s, is brushed aside” (p. 8). In his analysis, the author is not reluctant to attribute the mysterious brushing of Woldeab’s inscription in Eritrea’s history to the leadership of the then Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) which now holds the grip of power with iron fist in the independent State of Eritrea. Based on the interviews of Woldeab in 1987-1988, the author reveals that this patriot had already “delivered a damning verdict on the leadership of the EPLF…” (1), especially on the then leader of the organization, and currently an authoritarian president – Isaias Afewerki. Here, the author highlights that Woldeab was not only critical of the EPLF leadership, but that he did not trust the leader of the organization.

Although it is interesting to learn about Woldeab’s stand regarding the EPLF leadership, in my view, this whole story may not be considered as a miraculous deciphering of codes of a mystery simply because it is a public knowledge that, like Woldeab, most heroic personalities of Eritrea never got the historical attention they deserved under the contemporary military regime; and this has been so by design, not by accident. War heroes such as Abraham Tewolde, Woldemikael Haile, Ibrahim Afa and Isayas Tewoldeberhan (aka Wedi Flansa), just to mention a few from the thousands, have not received the mention they deserve in Eritrea’s history. No significant monument has been erected in memory of any of the war heroes of Eritrea. The living heroes of the
EPLF such as Bitweded Abraha, Petros Solomun, Haile Woldetensae, Mahmoud Sheriffo, Ogbe Abraha, and more are languishing in the mysterious detention centers of the Eritrean government.

Leaving these minor matters aside, the life and times of Woldeab presented in this book is likely to inspire a new generation of scholars of Eritrean studies with an approach of reviewing and unraveling pragmatic discourses of the political history of the country. By far, as part of the growing scholarly drift in studying Eritrea’s past, this work offers a good prospect for revisiting Eritrea’s “nationalist revolution”, and for rethinking and scrutinizing of the past collective narrative of Eritrea’s history. Hence, Dawit’s biography of Woldeab Woldemariam will stand for a long time to come as a remarkable story of experience of Eritreans, and it will inspire and uplift all who read it.

You can order the book following this link

* Mussie Tesfagiogis Gebremeskel teaches at the Department of History, University of Winnipeg. He has published numerous books and academic articles which
include: Africa in Focus: Eritrea (2010); A Fading Nature: Aspects of Environmental History of Eritrea (1800-1991) (2007);
and co-edited The Horn of Africa at the Brink of the 21st Century: Coping with Fragmentation, Isolation and Marginalization in a Globalizing Environment (2014).
Mussie can be reached at or


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