Charles Cantalupo Ghirmai Negash
An excerpt from the foreword to Who Needs a Story?


Who Needs a Story? is an anthology of poetry written in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic over three decades (sixties to the nineties) and contains English translations of thirty-six poems by twenty-two contemporary poets. Most of the poets participated in the Eritrean struggle for independence (1961-991) as freedom fighters and/or as supporters in the Eritrean disapora. Since all but a few of the poets of Who Needs a Story? have never been translated and have never been gathered in a single volume, they have remained unknown, for the most part, outside of Eritrea. However, in Eritrea, as can be said of other African countries, poetry has a deep and distinguished historical roots and, although oral or traditional poetry has a longer history than the written. One of the poets of the book, Reesom Haile, has observed, "Our poetry is not something that has left our tongue and lived in the books for a very long time." But the publication of Who Needs a Story? in 2005 have enabled the previously unknown poets to achieve worldwide recognition and an international readership. The initiative for the book, Who Needs a Story? Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic derives in large part from a literary conference and festival held in Asmara, Eritrea, in January 2000: "Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century." From this gathering emerged the historic "Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures," which has since been translated into a wide range of African languages and other languages worldwide. Who Needs a Story? is produced in keeping with a number of the "The Asmara Declaration's" critical contentions. 


In line with the language of "The Asmara Declaration," "the vitality and equality" of Eritrea's languages and their poetry should "be recognized as a basis for the future empowerment" of the Eritrean people. Also, "the diversity of" Eritrea's languages reflects the rich cultural heritage of" Eritrea and is "an instrument of" Eritrean "unity." The poetry of Who Needs a Story? is written in the spirit of reinforcing "what is essential for…the African Renaissance." In harmony with the major themes of the conference's declaration, the poets and the poems in this anthology are part of a still larger movement to create a pioneering, global and free conversation among languages, literatures and cultures towards discovering and mapping a kind of universal, verbal genome. 


Who Needs a Story? was originally published by Hdri Publishers, Asmara in 2005. Warscapes publishes five poems from this unique anthology as part of the ongoing Eritrea Retrospective. 


Click here for the full Eritrea Retrospective!


Freedom's Colors by Angessom Isaak


I saw a color

Unbelievably bright

And like a powerful wind

Encompassing the sky

Mirrored across the sea

And pouring freedom

All around me. 


I remember it again -

The one and only true

Color of freedom:

I never saw such white,

Such red like blood,

Yellow to pale all yellows

And blue beyond God's grace.


But freedom shines less now.

The colors run into each other.

I can't see one color alone.

I don't know why,

And never have I imagined

My vision ending like this: black,

Blacker than a crow's eye.


Whether my vision has changed 

Or if I have become smarter -

Again I don't know, but I don't see

Freedom is one color only, 

As I roll my eyes like a chameleon, 

Becoming whatever color I see

To survive.

I experience freedom

As more colors than one - 

More than I have ever seen, 

More than I have ever heard, 

And more than I can explain. 



Abeba by Ribka Sibhatu


Abeba, my flower from Asmara...

Measured and subtle

as her makeup

And her finely drawn eyes -

She spoke like poetry.


The food her family sent 

To poison everyday

Arrived as usual

The day her grave was dug.

I heard her cry.


Later than night 

I also heard 

The prison guard

Summon her out

And the shot. 


She lives in my dreams

And refuses to leave,

Knowing all my secrets

And never letting me rest. 


Before she died

She wove a basket

Inscribed "for my parents" -


Abeba, my flower from Asmara...

Who never blossomed.

My cell-mate.



Wild Animals by Meles Negusse


What are you running away from?

Where would you like to be?

Forget your jungle

And come to the city


Not even one bush remains

back there. Enough thunder

And the ground always shaking

Here you can take it easy.


Look the gate opens.

Leave your fear outside


Young or old, women or men -

No one should be denied

The comforts of civilization.


Or has the jungle

Already seen it come,

Leaving mines instead of trees

And trading you sulfur

For the breath of freedom?

Better take the city instead


And let that wild man

Sniffing blood

Live the way you used to

But not any more -

Eating his own kind

Dead of alive.


He can have your place. 

Come to the city and thrive.

Hey tiger and deer,

Try a little peace.

Lion, lose the roar.

You can rule with justice.


Snake, you don't have to bite

The dove when you kiss.

And fox, forget the deceit

When you talk with the rabbit.


In the city we all get along.

The war of every man

Against every man belongs

In the jungle.


Leave it behind you.

Take the leap.

The change will be good.

Try my bed to sleep. 


Like a Sheep by Ghirmai Yohannes


Led with a rope around his neck, 

He blindly followed the trader

And the butcher and blithely thought

Or grazing in a new country.


They gave him their official seal

And off they went, but they forgot

Or lost his documentation, 

Which he never bothered to get.


Now he is stuck. What will he do?

Are they his biggest problem?

Back home he's forgotten/

He forgets where he is too. 



Who Needs a Story? by Ghirmai Yohannes


I needed a story

And asked myself all day -

What can I write?

It me kept me awake all night -

What do I have to say?


I emptied so many words

And ideas out of my brain

It would have floated away

If not tied to my heart

Now I needed art.


Paper and pen in hand, 

Tomorrow I would start...

But wait. 

What is this all about?

Do I really need a story?


All this time and hard work -

For what?

I hate myself for thinking this. 

I already have a story

That nobody knows and it's great -

I am the story. 


About the poets:


Angessom Isaak (1963): Poet and short story writer. Public relations and coordinating officer at the Cultural Affairs Burean of the PFDJ, he has published three books: Sewerti Biet Mahbus (1987), Belay Shida (1992) and Zinededet Kara (with Michael Berhe and Ghirmai Yohannes). "Freedom's Colors" first appeared in 1996 and is from an unpublished book of poetry. 


Ribka Sibhatu (1956): Poet, critic and scholar. Intercultural consultant in Italy with a PhD in Communication Studies from the University of Rome, she writes poetry in Tigrinya and in Italian. "Abeba" is from her bilingual book, Aulò: Canto-poesia dall'Eritrea. 


Meles Negusse (1975): Poet and journalist. Nominee of the 2001 Raimok competition, Eritrea's highest award for literature, for his writing in Tigrinya, he studies psychology at the University of Asmara. "Wild Animals" first appeared in 1997 and is from an unpublished book of poetry. 


Ghirmai Yohannes (San Diego) (1961): Actor, poet and writer. His work includes television shows, children's programs, videos, advertising, stand-up comedy and theatre. "Like a Sheep" first appeared in 1997 and "Who Needs a Story? in 1996. 


About the translators and editors of Who Needs a Story?


Ghirmai Negash is Professor of English & African Literature in the Department of English, and Associate Director of African Studies Program, at Ohio University. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands. He was the founder and former chair of the Department of Eritrean Languages and Literature at the University of Asmara (2001-2005).  His research interests include African literatures from the Horn of Africa and South Africa, critical theory, and translation. He is the author of A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea and The Freedom of the Writer & Other Cultural and Literary Essays (in Tigrinya), and co-translator and editor of Who Needs a Story?  He is also the author of numerous articles, essays, book chapters, and translations, which have appeared in journals and edited volumes including Teaching Life Writing Texts, eds. Fuchs, M. and C. Howes (New York: MLA, 2008), Research in African Literatures 40.3 (2009), Biography 32.1 (2009), Imbizo: International Journal of African Literary and Comparative Studies (2)2010, and Dirty Goat 25 (2011). Recent additions to his publication are an Introduction to Phaswane Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow (Ohio University Press, 2011), and a Translation of Gebreyesus Hailu’s novel The Conscript (Ohio University Press, forthcoming).  


Charles Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University. His latest book is a memoir, Joining Africa – From Anthills to Asmara, (Michigan State University Press, 2012). His translations include three books of Eritrean poetry, We Have Our Voice: Selected Poetry of Reesom Haile (Red Sea Press, 2000), which is also available on CD (, We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press, 2002), and Who Needs a Story? – Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Hdri Publishers, 2006). A monograph, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Mkuki na Nyota, 2009) is based on the poetry in Who Needs a Story? His other books include two collections of edited essays, The World of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts (both published by Africa World Press); two collections of poetry, Anima/l Woman and Other Spirits (Spectacular Diseases) and Light the Lights (Red Sea Press); and A Literary Leviathan: Thomas Hobbe's Masterpiece of Language (Bucknell University Press). With major grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development, Cantalupo co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference and festival devoted to the presentation and critical discussion of the languages and literatures of all of Africa, held in Asmara, Eritrea, in January 2000. He is the writer and director of the documentary Against All Odds (African Books Collective, 2007). He is also a co-author of the historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures."