Eritrea: Virginity | Ribka Sibhatu

To a bride, her virginity can be more important than her eyes. In
our tradition, if a bride isn’t a virgin, the day after her wedding, we
return her to her parents’ house, dress her in a wonciò, and set her on a donkey. This is considered a disgrace by the whole family. During the war, people fled the city for the countryside. To adapt, you had to make sacrifices, like carrying twenty litres of water on your shoulders, even if the well was three or four kilometres away. In 1981, I was a refugee in Adi Hamuscté, some twenty kilometres from Asmara. One afternoon, a handsome youth and four old men came to the house where I was staying, and explained that the young man, whom I’d never seen before, wanted to marry me, because a day earlier, he’d had the misfortune to discovered that his bride had been violated! If my father had agreed, and I’d refused their proposal, I’d have risked either being married off or being cursed by my father. The curse of a parent is a child’s worst fear. So I had an idea: to declare that I too had suffered an irreparable incident…! I leave you to imagine my father’s reaction who, in the eyes of our community, was also disgraced. This young man of ours left without a word in search of his virgin.

Original Poem (Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely)

La verginità è importante come gli occhi, se non di più, per una sposa.
Nella nostra tradizione se una sposa non è vergine l’indomani del suo
matrimonio la si riporta a casa dei suoi le si mette addosso lo wonciò (*) e la si carica su un asino. Questo fatto è considerato una disgrazia per tutta la famiglia. Durante la guerra la gente di città si era rifugiata nelle campagne. Per integrarsi ci volevano tanti sacrifici, per esempio si doveva portare una ventina di litri d’acqua sulle spalle anche se la sorgente si trovava a tre o quattro chilometri di distanza. Nel 1981 ero rifugiata ad Adi Hamuscté, una ventina di chilometri di Asmara. Un pomeriggio arrivarono, nella casa dove ero rifugiata,un bel giovanotto e quattro anziani e mi spiegarono che il giovanotto, che non avevo mai visto prima di allora, voleva sposarmi perché il giorno precedente aveva avuto la disgrazia di trovare una sposa violata! Se avessi rifiutato la proposta e se mio padre fosse stato d’accordo con lo sposo avrei rischiato o di essere sposata con la forza o di essere maledetta da mio padre. La maledizione dei genitori è molto temuta dai figli! A questo punto mi venne un’idea, quella di dichiarare d’aver avuto anch’io un incidente irreparabile…! Vi lascio immaginare la reazione di mio padre che nella nostra comunità venne anche lui considerato disgraziato. Il nostro giovanotto senza aprir bocca andò alla ricerca della vergine!

(*) una specie di coperta di lana ruvida, di colore nero, normalmente usata per la sauna tradizionale solo dalle donne.

Ribka Sibhatu is a poet from Eritrea who writes in Tigrinya and Italian. Her first published work was Aulò! Canto Poesia dall’Eritrea (1993), a collection of lyrics and prose poems. It was followed by Il Cittadino che non c’è. L’immigrazione nei media Italiani (1999 ), a sociological look at the Italian media’s coverage of immigrant communities. She speaks five languages and currently works as a social mediator, focusing on improving inter-cultural relations in state schools.

Culled from

Black Mamba Boy

Who: Jama

What: Traveling through Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea to find his father.

Should I read it: Absolutely. It’s a thrilling coming-of-age tale with important historical narratives.

Qq: “His mother, his father, his sister, Shidane and maybe Abdi were roaming among the stars, arguing, laughing and watching….He would join them eventually, but not until he had delivered all the seeds that the pomegranate world offered” – Pg 285

Black Mamba Boy is a beautifully written tale of perseverance and hope set against the rough sands of Somaliland, Sudan, and Eritrea as a young beggar boy named Jama sets out to find his father after his mother’s death.

Jama is a wry, yet oddly noble, character who is fostered by a sense of awe at the world outside his little Aden corridor. Nadifa Mohamed’s writing is brilliantly engaging, her research creates an altogether realistic and haunting image of North Africa under Italian and then British colonial rule in the 1930’s.

The characteristic red dust of Jama’s hometown lingers through every page as Jama grows from an agile child to a keen man, learning from his mistakes, falling in love and bearing the consequences of his actions, eventually discarding the ghost of a father he sought for protection and instead emerging as his own strong, capable man.

This is not a romantic story, if anything it is an epic roman à clef that focuses on a slice of North African history the world ought to remember. Black Mamba Boy captures your attention and doesn’t relinquish its hold until you have laughed, shuddered, nursed a small bitterness at the barbaric injustices of imperialism, and ultimately triumphed with Jama and the lands he traverses. Black Mamba Boy is one for the bookshelves.

A Simple Lust By Dennis Brutus

Born in 1924 in Salisbury to South African parents, Brutus is best known for his protest poetry which challenged the South African apartheid while celebrating freedoms all men ought to have. He was instrumental in the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia from the 1964 Olympics on the grounds of racism. His activism led to his being banned from all political and social activity and in 1973 he was arrested but escaped while on bail. He was later re-arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He spent those months on Robben Island, in a cell next to Nelson Mandela. Described as “A fearless campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist and teacher,” Brutus died on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

584232-2A Simple Lust is a beautiful collection of Brutus’ poems during his time as a political prisoner and exile traveling the world unable to return to South Africa. Brutus captures the alternating awareness of limitations and challenges such restrictions in his poems about the land of South Africa, “A troubadour I traverse all my land… and I have laughed, disdaining those who banned/ inquiry and movement…choosing, like an unarmed thumb, simply to stand…” (2)

And stand he does, in his resistance to the forces of oppression and his insistence on delimiting the land as his, he captures the emotional gamut of black and colored South Africans, from the desire to fight for freedom, “Sharpevilled to spearpoints for revenging…” (9) to a simple resolute appreciation for just surviving, “Somehow we survive,/ and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither” (4).

Little can match  the well of understanding and emotion Brutus deftly disperses throughout A Simple Lust, yet his writing style and keen sense of observation elevate the reader’s experience even more. Brutus does to words what Achebe did to African Literature, he expands our appreciation of them. With words such as ‘air-live,’ ‘harsh-joy,’ ‘lovelaughter,’ he pushes their limitations past meaning into feeling.

A Simple Lust takes the reader from the darting eyes of a prisoner in his cell describing the effects of confinement on the psyche, to desolate beaches in Algiers, through the sorrowed longings of a wife separated from her husband, presenting cold reflections on ‘Amerika…the home of the brave’ (144), and on. Brutus welcomes the reader into a lush, experienced, understanding of oppression and resistance. More importantly, it offers a profound sense of what it means to carry joy as hope and to, as Brutus, reject desolation as the only reality.

“Peace will come./ We have the power/ the hope/ the resolution./ Men will go home.” (96)

A Simple Lust by Dennis Brutus

African Writers Series | 1979 | ISBN: 0 435 90115 X | HEB 115