Alemseged Tesfai

This reprint has been published with the permission of the publisher, The Red Sea Press

In the mid-fifties, Villaggio Paradiso was a lot different from what it is today. All the villas to the west of the Asmara-Keren road have now totally replaced the government barracks of those days. The barracks had so much space between them that children could run and play at will.

The big building to the east of the road was two separate buildings with a dirt road between them. These were joined to form the present structure only much later. The dirt road used to lead to a buttons factory half a kilometer away and then on to Emba Galliano some distance farther east. The factory was a smelly place where animal bones were crushed and processed to make all types of button. The two buildings I mentioned were actually the monastery of the Cisterncensi or Sitawiayn, a Catholic association of the order of San Bernardo. In the same big compound was a small church and a few government houses. We used to live in one of these.

The mid-fifties was a time when every child in Paradiso was crazy about Ghilia Mariano, the great Eritrean goal keeper whose actual name was Ghilamichael Tesfamariam. He had a coach called Wedi Libi, whom we used to watch training Ghilia on the roughest of grounds. He would throw balls at the young goalkeeper in quick succession and expect him to dash, swing and swerve to catch them, regardless the height or direction. Every child wanted to emulate Ghilia Mariano. So, bouncing tennis balls against the walls of Villaggio Paradiso and flying into the air to catch them was a favorite pastime. Going home with torn flesh and bruised knees and elbows was also a mark of great things to come. We called the game, “Ghilia's acrobatics.”

One day, I swung into the sky only to miss a ball I had just bounced against the wall of the Cistercensi. It was a bad fall. Spitting dust from my mouth, I started to run after my tennis ball, when a wheelbarrow that I had neither seen nor heard coming tripped me over. After a somersault that even Ghilia might have envied, I came down crashing to the ground. The barrow overturned too. Animal bones of all description—jaws, arms and legs, skulls, ribs and thigh-bones—literally scattered all over me. I rolled away scared and waited for the wheelbarrow man to beat me up.

“Rise, rise, my son, and clean your clothes,” came a gentle voice. The tone might have been from one's own father or from a kind teacher. Even at that age, I could not expect it from a wheelbarrow pusher. It sounded refined and civilized, so I looked up to stare at him.

Tall and thin, he wore a hat. His tattered safari coat and his patched khaki trousers were surprisingly spotless. His sandals were equally worn out. Had I been asked to guess his age then, I would probably have put him at around a hundred. I doubt now if he could have gone beyond sixty.

As I got up to dust my shirt and shorts, he bent down in obvious pain to put the barrow back in place. His movements were slow. He collected the bones, re-arranged them on the barrow and, without a word, started to push it down, towards the buttons factory. Our house was some fifty meters from where I had fallen. I followed hm up to our gate. The dirt road was full of stones sticking up from the ground. The barrow shook and made a lot of noise as it jumped over them. It was too short for him. He had to stoop way down in order to push it and, as it shook, he seemed to tremble along.

From that day on, most of the kids in the neighborhood started to take an interest on the gentle wheelbarrow pusher who also sold bones. His punctuality was amazing. At close to five in the afternoon, we would expect to hear the sound of the barrow and the bones jumping on it and it would be sure to come. We would then stop our games and accompany the old man halfway to the buttons factory—up to the juncture that led to the Cistercensi school. He never seemed to mind. At the edge of the juncture was a huge eucalyptus tree under which he used to take a rest. He never talked to us, but he seemed to enjoy watching us with very kind and appreciating eyes.

There was, however, one peculiarity about him. Whenever he went past the two buildings towards our houses, he would stop and tilt his hat forward so that it covered his eyebrows and camouflaged part of his face. He would then bow his head and, with his chin almost tucking his chest, pass the houses totally unrecognizable. It was the older kids who first noticed this. Fascinated, the younger ones simply followed him. We had never seen his type of wheelbarrow pusher.

One day, when most of the neighborhood children had strayed somewhere else, my sister was playing alone. He stopped near where she had been and, as usual, started to work on his camouflage. He watched her long and carefully. A piece of bone had fallen off as he was stoping the barrow. My sister ran over and put the bone back on its place.

“God bless you, my daughter. May you have many children who will run errands for you,” he said to her. After a pause, he asked her for the names of our parents. She told him.

“Where are your older brothers and sisters,” he asked her next, even mentioning their names. She told him again. Without another word, he left with his face hidden.

My sister could not wait for the rest of us to come. When she told us what he had said, all four of us siblings raced home to tell my mother about this strange revelation from our strange friend. Everyone talked at the same time. Mother frowned till her eyebrows met.

“Who could he be?” she asked. “Why didn't you ask for his name?”

“He rarely talks,” we replied.

“What does he look like? Give me an indication. Does he have a scar on his cheek? Is one of his teeth missing?”

“He doesn't have a scar.”

“How do you know? You can't even see his face....” We almost came to blows.

“Then who could he be?” Mother kept musing. “A wheelbarrow man who knows your father and my older children!” Mother became concerned.

She was right. This was the fifties, and the Second World War was still very recent history. Hundreds of Eritrean family, friends and neighbors who had gone to the Italian campaigns in Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia had not returned. Individuals reported dead and duly commemorated were occasionally popping up; some were being re-reported as still living, married to some “Galla” women somewhere in Ethiopia....One could not give up on the missing. Anticipation, expectation and hope were still in place. Mother had cousins and in-laws who had not come back. Therefore, her concern and interest in the man with the wheelbarrow.

When Father was told about the incident with my sister, he paused to think. He was, of course, not as excited about it as Mother had been. When Mother started to go down the list of names that were in her head throughout the afternoon, however, he got irritated. “And now we are guaranteed a sleepless night,” he cried out. “All the people you are mentioning are dead. The date and place of their deaths have been identified. Are you proposing to bring them back from the grave?”

“How about your brother, Woldie? We have not been told about him.”

“That's preposterous! How can my brother, Woldie, be still alive and pass by my house, pushing a wheelbarrow?”

“All right then, who is this man?”

“Non so,” replied Father, reverting to Italian, as he did whenever in deep thought. “If he comes by tomorrow, stop him and ask him. If you recognize him, fine. If not....” He also mused as he rose to go to bed, “What intrigues me is, whoever he is, why such a man would be pushing a wheelbarrow. I just wonder....”

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Probably because there were other areas where he collected discarded bones, my wheelbarrow friend would sometimes disappear for days on end. After the talk between my parents though I had developed my own curiosity about the man and stood on the lookout for him. Four days passed without his appearing. I was about to give up when I heard the familiar sound of the barrow approaching from a distance. I ran home and told my mother that the mystery man was coming.

Our house had a fence thickly covered by bougainvillea. Mother found a hole to see through and waited for him to come close to our house. She then stepped outside and intercepted him. Without looking up, he tried to guide the barrow around her and simply pass her by. She blocked him with her body.

“Sir,” she said to him, “could you kindly put your barrow down and take a short rest?”

With his hat concealing his forehead and eyebrows and his chin touching his upper chest, his face was invisible to her. Try as she did, she could not see any part of it.

“You know my husband and my older children. Who are you and where are you from?” Mother asked earnestly.

“Let me pass, please. I am a guest. I know no one in this city.” His voice was calm. He tried to move on, but Mother blocked him again.

“But you know us. Was it not because you recognized my daughter that you asked her about my family? And who could ever have told you the names of my children? You couldn't have guessed.”

“Your daughter told me herself. Now, would you let me move on? It's getting dark and I am in a hurry.” There was neither anger nor haste in his voice.

Mother caught a hold of his sleeve and said, “Please, sir, tell me who you are. In the name of God, I beg you to identify yourself. Don't run from your own. Your voice and your structure seem familiar. Don't close your heart to the world....” She begged him with feeling and sincerity.

He would not be moved. In attempting to release himself from her grip, he lost some balance and the wheelbarrow almost overturned. As he struggled to but it back in place, his head turned and Mother got a glimpse of his features. I saw her face brighten up slightly, as if in vagye recognition of the man in front of her. She probably saw no purpose in struggling with him any further. She let go of him and off he went shaking and trembling behind his wheelbarrow.

Mother waited for my father's arrival in total silence. She just kept twisting and biting her lips in utter surprise and sadness. “Oh, Chief of all the Saints,” she kept calling on her patron saint, St. Michael, “And what are you going to show us next?” She got into an unending argument with herself.

Whenever Mother got into that mood, the best thing to do was just leave her alone. No amount of questioning or persuasion would prompt her to tell anyone what would be on her mind. Instead, we kids would wait for Father to come and, as soon as they started to talk, we would create excuses to enter the dining room one by one and, by arranging the bits and pieces each of us had heard, we would make sense of what was being said. That evening, we got ready for such an adventure.

“I know who he is, it is Grazmatch Tsegu,” Mother said even before Father had put his hat on the hanger.

“Who?” he asked.

“The wheelbarrow man.”

“Go away! What kind of woman are you? Tsegu disappeared a long time ago. Where would he come from?”

“I am telling you. Big nose, small chin, even his birthmark is still there.”

“Are you mad? I am telling you he disappeared. And if he hadn't, how about his land in the village? Who would deny him his ancestral rights? Why would he become a wheelbarrow pusher? Just give us dinner, will you?”

“Why don't you listen to me? How can I ever miss Grazmatch Tsegu? All that friendship, the good neighborliness...I think you should try to find out about him. Something has obviously befallen him.”

An argument ensued. All of us kids came out of the kitchen to surround the dining table, where they usually ate alone. They did not even notice. From their exchanges, we came to realize that the mystery man was one whose status did not allow him to be pushing barrows and selling bones. During the Italian period, he had attained the fourth grade, the highest there was in the colony. In the first Libyan campaign, he had been made a shumbashi, again the highest rank for anyone, in the Eritrean regiments. He had later become an interpreter for Italian governors, and a friend to Italian maresciallos and one of the candidates for the exalted rank of Dejazmatch.

“Where did he go later?” asked my older brother.

“In trenta cinque, when we went to Tigray in Ethiopia, we left him here in Asmara. Afterwards...” father thought for a while, “After that....I don't know where he went after that. I remember asking about him once and I think they told me that he had gone back to Tripoli. Then he disappeared...or so I heard.”

“Well, here he is, pushing a cart right in front of your house.” Father's hesitation was reassuring my mother. As she rose to serve dinner, she shuddered at the way fate treated some people and entreated all her saints to distance a similar catastrophe from her family and her home.

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Mother did not give up. She was set on establishing the man's identity. She told me to stand guard and to tell her if I saw him. I was now the official spy and my eagerness to find him and play a part in solving the mystery was second only to Mother's. One afternoon, his familiar figure appeared in the distance.

Mother rushed out of the house and stopped him again Standing in front of him, she said, “I recognize you now. There's your face, there's your birthmark. I can't ever miss Grazmatch Tsegu.”

He lowered the barrow with great care and almost straightened up in full. With his head tilted to the side, he looked at her from under the rim of his hat. “People look like people, madam.” he said with a calm, even voice. “I think I told you last time. I am new here and you don't know me. Neither do I know you. I have never even heard the name you are mentioning.”

“No, no way. True, it has been a long time—around twenty years now. But old faces and old folks are not easy to forget. I could not mistake you. We've shared bad times, we have drunk from the same holy source and we have buried each other's beloved together. How can I ever doubt your presence? Come, in the name of the Virgin Mary, let us share your problems if you have any. My husband will come soon. Please come in, I will offer you some suwa....”

“Thank you, madam. May your respect be rewarded,” he replied pensively. “As for problems, would I be pushing carts and selling bones if I did not have plenty of them? But you have mistaken me for another. I am not Grazmatch Tsegu.”


“Then who are you? Excuse my boldness, sir, but why would a gentleman like you be reduced to selling bones?”

“You are the gentle one, madam.” he said shaking his head and returning the compliment. “But who would know how people fall? Some fall because they are lazy, others because they are inept. Still others get reduced to pauperism because of evil done unto them. And then there are those who give up on the ways of the world to seek the solace of monasteries. A few shun monasteries and prefer to live on the fringes of life, away from humanity. Who can predict the ways of the Lord? Who can ever change it? Our destinies are written. We just come and go.”

Mother must have realized that he was not about to confirm her suspicions. As an attempt  of last resort, she said, “All right then, swear on my right palm with your right hand that you are not Grazmatch Tsegu. Swear by the cross hanging on my neck, swear in the name of the Creator.” She was stretching her palm and touching the cross as she said so.

The trace of a smile lightened his face up. Instead of responding he just gave her a knowing look, re-arranged his hat, lifted the handles of the barrow and got ready to push. Mother knew that there could be nothing more that could be said. She stepped aside to let him pass. With the smile still on his face, he moved out of her sight.

“God be with you, Grazmatch. May the Mother of Christ put her eye on you. How sad, how so tragic...” she kept murmuring as she led me into the house. She walked straight into the kitchen and put a whole injera on a large plate. She then spread some shiro on it, took a liter of cold suwa from her cupboard and ordered me to follow the old man and have him eat and drink her offerings.

I found him sitting beneath the tree at the juncture down the road. He was examining and dusting his hat. I thought the faint smile still adorned his face. Without uttering a word, he folded the injera with the shiro on it and stuffed it into a bag he always hung on his shoulder. I then filled some of the suwa into the tall glass Mother had also given me. He took a sip first and tasted the drink. He then emptied half the contents of the glass without even gasping for breath. He paused, wiped his mouth with his hands, belched and then emptied the suwa remaining in the glass.

I offered to pour him some more from the bottle. He stopped me with a motion of his hand. “No, enough, my son. I never drink more than one glass at a time,” he told me and, with the usual pain slowing his movements, he got up to go.

He put his hat on, straightened his coat and bent towards the barrow. He took two or three steps forward and stopped abruptly as if he had remembered something. He turned around and talked to me.

“Please, thank your mother,” he said. “Tell her she was right. Only old friends and old folks are those who care. Thank her for me once again and tell her that Grazmatch Tsegu is sorry for having disappointed her so.” Having said that, he pushed as hard as his age and frailty allowed.

I doubt if I have ever run as fast as I did that day. Excited and breathless, I told Mother what the wheelbarrow man had told me. “I knew it,” she said, and let me go out to play. My brother and sisters had to beg me for information. I would not give more than bits and pieces. I killed them with suspense and anticipation.

That evening, Father listened to my report with great interest. “I too asked about him,” he said after I had finished. “I was told that he had suddenly distanced himself from all who had known him. He had no family and no children. But I don't think anyone else knows that he is pushing a barrow and selling bones. It is strange, simply unbelievable....” He tapped his fingers on the table.

“Could it be that bad times overtook him?” asked Mother.

“What else could it be? Maybe, as he said, some people intrigued against him. Or it could be something internal, it could be that he could not go in step with these times. Yes, bad times overtook him. I will try to meet him....”

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Father tried to find Grazmatch Tsegu but could not. He even changed the hours he came home, all in vain. The man simply disappeared from our neighborhood. Maybe he always disappeared from neighborhoods in which he was being recognized and that was how he was succeeding in hiding his identity. Maybe he had fallen ill or had died. We could not find out. “Bad times overtook him” became, for us, a phrase ever linked to his name. In time, his name and story started to fade from the collective memory of our house.

I would not forget him though. Why? Why had a man of that background and standing fallen to pauperism? Because he was incapable or lazy? Because, as Father had said, “he could not go with the times?” Could intriguers and plotters have ejected him from his father's land and shut him out of all means of livelihood? Or was there a more profound explanation? Maybe he hated people and despised society.

To this day, I have found no solution to this conundrum. Since all the people who knew or could have known of him have passed away, I have been unable to collect more information about him than this short tribute contains.

A while ago, I went to Villaggio Paradiso and toured the former compound of the Cistercensi, where we had also lived. I found all our houses leveled to the ground, the old garden destroyed and the road closed. The eucalyptus tree at the juncture is no longer there.... It is another place, with very little signs to tie it to my childhood memories. Another world and another time...I took myself away, disappointed.

I left in haste, because the whole scene threatened to spoil my cherished images—the images of play and innocence, the picture of “Ghilia's acrobatics” and the memory of the people of those days, as represented by Grazmatch Tsegu.

Although I was a mere child, I feel I saw in that man great values unshaken and untarnished by adversity and poverty. One is respect—not only respect extended to all regardless of age and status, but also respect for himself and within himself. The other value I saw was greatness. Not the external greatness of birth and appointment, not even that of age, but the internal greatness of spirit and wisdom. That is probably what made him resist dependence on others, what helped him preserve his dignity. Indeed, I believe that that is what motivated him to choose life in the peripheries of society and to reject comfort in favor of pushing barrows and selling bones....

That is why I have not forgotten him, indeed, why I will remember him for as long as I live.


About Alemseged Tesfai

Alemseged Tesfai, lawyer turned freedom fighter, is a pre-eminent historian and dramatist. He has used his literary talent to the nationalist cause, effectively marrying culture and liberation. Born in 1944 in Addi Quala, Eritrea, he completed his schooling in Haileselassie Secondary School, Asmara. He studied law at the Haileselassie I University in Addis Ababa in 1969 and was a PhD candidate at the Land Tenure Center of University of Wisconsin, Madison for two years. He discontinued the pursuit of an academic career to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which was fighting for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and stayed with the Front till the end of the war in 1991. He has written several books and plays. His translated version of The Other War has been staged by an English dramatic group. His historical book, Aynfalale, is a superbly documented account in Tigrinya of the political struggles of the 1940s. Two Weeks in the Trenches, a translation of an earlier account in Tigrinya of the Battle of Afabet, narrates the history of an important battle that marked the beginning of the end of Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea. 

About Two Weeks in the Trenches

An excerpt from Dan Connell's introduction to the book

This collection makes an important contribution to Eritreans everywhere who are anxious to better understand what lay behind the liberation of their country. It is also a window on Eritrea’s remarkable freedom struggle for other who want to know this, including those like me who were there on and off throughout the war but not this close to the action on any systematic basis. 

But Alemseged Tesfai uses these experiences to ask bigger questions and address wider wider issues. What it is like to live under an authority, internalized in the very personalities of those who rule over you, that erases your identity, that denies your basic humanity? What is genuine heroism, and what motivates it? How does war, all war debase us, and how can we rise above its corrosive effects to retain our capacity for compassion and for self-knowledge?

This book relates a narrative of pain and humiliation, both personal about political; of abiding strength and indomitable courage, also at once personal and political; of wrenching decisions large and small forced on people by the terrible conditions in which they lived and died; of shameful cowardice and mind-bending heroism in the face of epic circumstances – in short, of Alemseged’s and Eritrea’s long and difficult journey to liberation.