Time has come. Today, we mourn our loss as we celebrate his life and honor his legacy. With deep sadness, we say farewell to Tesfamariam Woldemariam. Tesfamariam has been a good son of the nation, and a loving person to his family. He was a good brother, friend, and mentor to many of us. He will be dearly missed and will always remain in our hearts.
Today, we grieve our loss. But we should also celebrate our brother’s life, for he lived his life to the fullest, and more importantly, he lived his life the way he wanted it. Tesfamariam was a profound thinker, and a person of great courage. Self-assured, he lived his life with dignity yet with modesty; he often chose a path less traveled and yet persisted as he walked it, and sometimes simply opted for the risky and the unknown while treading with poise and bravery—traits that stayed with him until the last minute he succumbed to that terrible illness.
The American philosopher and writer Elbert Hubbard once wrote that in order to live a free, full, and meaningful life, one must be brave enough to stand social censure and other risks of disapproval. Hubbard put it this way: “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” He was right, and Tesfamariam is the proof. Tesfamariam lived his life the way he wanted to live it, doing everything he saw necessary, and standing for what he believed without any sense of fear or regret.
Tesfamariam’s life was marked by a mix of politics and aesthetics. And I particularly would like to celebrate and memorialize (with you) Tesfamariam the thinker, Tesfamariam the writer, Tesfamariam the poet. During his time as President of the Student Union at the University of Asmara, he developed strong leadership and debating skills. Those qualities served him well when he joined the Eritrean nationalist movement for independence in 1974; in 1975, barely a year later, Tesfamariam was elected as the Head of ELF’s Information Office, and he quickly established himself as one of the main intellectuals and thinkers of the revolution.
In Eritrean history, Tesfamariam will be most remembered, in addition to his other contributions, for creating some of the most powerful African-language journals produced by a resistance movement on the continent during the 1970s and 80s. Two of these journals were Gedli Hizbi Ertra, addressed to the general audience, and Gesgis, mainly targeted at the learned, political elite of the movement. Not surprisingly, Tesfamariam wrote many historical pieces, essays, and political commentary for the periodicals and, in so doing, shaped the political discourse of the movement. Strongly influenced by leftist European thinkers and writers, like Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre, Tesfamariam was also the movement’s chief figure to develop the genre of the “political essay” in Tigrinya. His essay embodied the values of the revolution mixed with personal insight, and he fashioned a new style of Tigrinya writing characterized by complex sentences and many newly fangled words which he consciously and successfully coined in order to enrich the language so that it can carry the weight of the then evolving modernist ideals of the revolution and emergent Eritrea.
The emergence of the modern “essay” form in the Tigrinya language was closely associated with the establishment of Nay Ertra Semunawi Gazetta and the formation of the “Tigrinya Language Council” in 1944 in Asmara. The editor of Nay Ertra Semunawi Gazetta, abona Weldeab Woldemariam, and other prominent political figures of the time like Abraha Tessema, Zerai Seqwar, Girmu Zeberakit, Tesfazion Deres, and Gebremeskel Weldu contributed hugely to the modernization of the Tigrinya language, and particularly to the emergence of the political essay. Tesfamariam Woldemariam can be grouped in that category for his impact on Tigrinya.
Tesfamariam also wrote poetry. His poems, especially those he wrote from exile in the United States, portray a man who wrote for survival. The poems depict a man who loved life, nature, and art; they also depict a vulnerable solitary man subject to what William Shakespeare called the “grunt and sweat” under which life wears us down. One of the poems he wrote in 2001 is titled “A Dialog with Loneliness.” The loneliness of the poet, as he sits by himself in his room, is vividly described, in both disquieting and tender language. But the climax draws to a close—and this is characteristic of the man and his poetic persona—by decidedly defeating, in fact mocking, the solitude troubling his soul. Humorously he writes, ‘come solitude, come don’t be shy; let me make you tea made of words and poetry.’ In this memorable verse the feeling of “loneliness” is personified, made human, and thus becomes a friend rather than an enemy of the poet; but the originality of the idea of ‘making tea with words’ also speaks volumes about Tesfamariam’s creativity with language. A gloss of an excerpt from the poem reads:
In the name of the Holy, please
I’ve raised my pen, please
Be seated, come
Loneliness, my teacher, good day
Tea? Or would you prefer a verse or a poem for a drink?
(Tesfamariam Woldemariam 6/6/2001)
Another poem entitled “Lillo” juxtaposes greater societal issues to the personal. This is also one of the most complex poems in which, by mixing the historical and spiritual mythical past, the existentialist question “who am I?”, and the contemporary political present, Tesfamariam seems to be self-consciously trying to create new boundaries for Tigrinya poetry. A high flying and elegantly dancing eagle is the persona of the poem. The bird roams above the earth spreading its graceful wings; he observes, looking detached, even arrogant; yet it’s kind as it never shows the intention of attacking the humans and chicken below on the ground. Still, as the bird hovers above, jealous humans despise its poise and assurance and cast slurs against it, while the chicks worry that it might harm them, as they know the “male hen” neither cares that much for them nor is potent enough to protect them, despite its self-declared might and importance. Intensely metaphorical, the poem is distinctively about inner-dialog as well as a dialog with the larger world down below that the bird is able to survey from the sky.
The image of the flying bird also remarkably fits the image of the poet, who, as his life story attests, aimed to fly high both in moral and intellectual terms, despite hardship and also, perhaps, lack of worldly recognition. What is uniquely interesting about this poem, however, is that it ends with the bird still flying and is never seen touching the earth, whilst the chicks below watch confused and waiting. Obviously, the true meaning of this complex poem is hard to decipher, as great poems are meant to be. But, perhaps, by giving us the image of the flying bird, Tesfamariam was giving a little clue to the secret. He might be saying to us ‘I was your flying bird, your observing-eye, but now I am going home to rest, sleep in peace in my beloved Eritrea.’ “And, Oh yes, carry on. A luta continua!” Thank you, Tesfamariam.
Have a good flight, Tesfamariam!
Tesfamariam Woldemariam (December 12, 1950 – March 27, 2015)
Ghirmai Negash is a professor of Postcolonial Literatures in Ohio University, and current President of PEN International (Eritrea).