The First Prominent Eritrean Scholars and Immigrants:
The Story of Nefae Utman
Presented by Aklilu Lijam at the Kilot Wulad Haiget Meeting (March 28, 2021)
Nefae Utman was one of the first pioneer scholars from Eritrea.
The title chosen for today’s presentation “The First Prominent Eritrean Scholars” is a very broad subject. It may need allocating more time to discuss it in detail. Just to highlight some the information, when I say the first prominent Eritrean scholars I am referring to those who went abroad for further studies by the end of 19th century. From 1870 to 1900 there were several scholars who traveled to Europe (mainly Sweden) to pursue higher education. To mention some of the main ones:
- Tewoldemedin Gebremedin & Dawit Amanuel. Both of them were educated at Geleb high school run by the Swedish Evangelical mission. Tewolde- Medin got his higher education in Oslo and both Tewolde-Medhin & Dawit worked together to translate the New Testament into the Tigre language.
- Haile-Mikael Kidanu is another scholar worth mentioning. He studied Theology in Sweden from where he returned in 1886 and taught at Beleza among other places.
- Keshi Marcos Ghirmai was an Eritrean Evangelist who graduated with distinction from Johannelund Theological Institute. He came back to Eritrea and married to a Swedish missionary teacher Regina Johansson.
- Natnael Hagena-was from Barentu, Kunama. He was sent to Sweden for study in 1884 – 1888 but did not finish his study and did not return unlike the others. He passed away there.
- Alazar Hidad – among the pioneer scholars from Geleb, who went to Sweden for higher education and came back to Geleb. He was serving mainly as a teacher and interpreter. He was multilingual speaking Swedish, Geez and Arabic fluently among other languages.
There are several written documents and short biographies written about these prominent Eritrean scholars. The purpose of this presentation is not to speak in detail about these scholars as it very broad subject and the time we have may not allow us to do that. For today my presentation will focus on one of the Eritrean great scholars from Mensaé.
This therefore is a brief presentation about a young scholar from Gheleb, Mensae by the name Nefae Utman. This fascinating history happened more than 112 years ago, but its significance, mystery and peculiarity still keeps it to be very interesting. I came to appreciate that Nefae’s history was written in several newspapers and books in different languages. We can find a brief history written in English in some websites, which one of them is our Kilot Wulad Haiget website. Also our sister Aziza Awate has written a very appealing article in 2015, titled- Nefae Utman- the pride of Mensa and Intellectual Giant who passed before his time. Indeed, he is the pride of Mensae and Eritrea, a great scholar who was one of the first to introduce the Tigre language to the world.
On top of the already documented information from the written information, I tried to make some research and met some of his close relatives of which one of them is Sara Meles. I had a very interesting discussion with her about Nefae and was able to realize that Nefae Utman is the grandfather of Sara. To be exact Nefae is the uncle of Sara’s mother (Adey Abrhet Cheway). Through Sara I was able to get to Ferej Utman Ijel, who lives in Doha, Quatar. I had a very long and exciting conversation with Ferej. Ferej is the grandson of Nefae Utman who happens to know detailed history about his grandfather. From my discussion with Ferej I was able to comprehend a couple of stories that I have heard for the first time, which I will report towards the end of my presentation.
I believe that most of us may have read Nefae’s history or may have information about his narrative and the incident that happened to him. The purpose of this presentation therefore is to give some insights about his history which can be used as an introductory to our discussion at the end of this presentation. Giving feedbacks and supplementing the story will be highly appreciated.
Nefae Utman, was born in 1882 in Geleb. He joined the Evangelical Missionary school in 1894. Shortly after Eritrea became the Italian colony. The Italian colonizers controlled the school system and did not allow Eritreans to go beyond 4th grade. Back then, going to school in the villages was not encouraged by the parents for the kids were expected to work in the farm. Nafae, however, broke the norm as he was driven and determined to go to school. He was lucky enough to join the Swedish Evangelical mission at the age of 12. Unlike the Italian schools, the Evangelical school allowed him to complete 7th grade within three years which was the highest level at the time. His will and dedication enabled him to finish two grades in a year. Someone may raise a question here; how come students like Nefae were able to get education up to 7th grade, while the Italian colonizers would not allow endogenous Eritrean people to go beyond 4th grade? The answer to this is that it was possible to learn beyond 4th grade at the Swedish Evangelical mission school. Not only that, but the school was also awarding the brilliant students merit-based scholarships to Europe for further education.
This however was facing huge opposition from the Italians and especially by the then Italian governor of Eritrea, Ferdinando Martini. There was a case in which Governor Martini declared a union between Qeshi Marcos Ghirmay and Regina Johansson as “detrimental to the prestige of the European race”. The Swedish Evangelical Church, which was against the marriage, promised Governor Martini that no Eritrean would be sent to Sweden for schooling from then on.
In 1910 there was World Missionary Conference which was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. This meeting was attended by the members from the American Evangelical Mission and the Swedish Evangelical Mission. In the meeting a decision was reached not to allow indigenous potential scholars to go to Europe for further education. In order to accommodate these potential scholars a decision was made to establish a school in Beirut, Lebanon. As a result, scholars such as Memhir Yishak were among the first Eritreans to go to Beirut for further studies.
Coming back to Nefae story, shortly after completing 7th grade Nefae started to work with a health expert missionary called Sandstorm in Gheleb. However, the year 1905 changed the life and future of the promising young Eritrean. One day during that year, a German Oriental, Dr. Richard Enno Littman, arrived at Gheleb where he received warm welcome from the residents of the village. He joined the missionaries and was well respected. Soon after, Dr. Enno Littman went to the area to study the customs and traditions of its inhabitants. However, since he was a stranger, he needed the company of a native — and a smart one of course. The missionaries and residents of Gheleb understood that Nefae was the best choice. Then Nefae and Littman met through Sundstorm.
Dr. Eno Litman with the help of Nefae Utman started conducting his research and studies mainly focusing on the history, culture and language of the Mensae’ people. He stayed for about six months and after they had completed their research, Enno Littman planned to return home to Germany. Nefae was in charge of the farewell and thus he brought a mule that would take him from Gheleb to Massawa.
At the time of farewell, Litman said to Nefae: “you are an extremely brilliant and promising young man. You provided me with the utmost support during my stay here. So, tell me what I can do for you.” Nefae’s ambition was to continue his education. “I don’t have much to say, but if you could take me to your country so as to acquire the knowledge you have there, it would be the biggest offer,” Nefae replied.
Dr. Littman was surprised by the young man’s eagerness for education and assured him that his dreams would one day come true. However, more than a year and half passed by without Nefae hearing from the German scholar. And he was not sure whether Littman would keep his promise or not. Then, a telegram from Europe was sent to the health worker missionary who introduced Nefae to Littman. “Please, when you come to Europe (Sweden) don’t leave Nefae. You have to bring him with you at any cost,” read the message from Littman.
Nefae was able to travel to Europe with Sundstorm and went to Sweden first. This was in 1907. Hearing the news of Nefae’s arrival, Littman immediately went to Sweden to welcome him. He took him to Germany and they started working together in a famous city Strasbourg. This city at that time was under Germany and currently it is part of France. *
For two years (1907 and 1908) Nefae and Litman were working together while at the same time Nefae was attending school. Most of the books that documented the Tigre language oral tradition were written at this important time. These two years could be described as the ‘golden years’ in the history and development of the Tigre language, especially the written one. They both wrote four volumes on the subject, most of which were later published between 1910 and 1915 at Leyden University in Holland. They were also translated into English and German languages and were published at the same time.
Based on the work they accomplished with Nefae, Dr. Littman and his longtime colleague Maria Hophner prepared a Tigre-English-German dictionary in 1962. This 740-page book is one of the biggest works Littman contributed to the culture and language of the Tigre society. After working together with Dr. Littman, Nefae wanted to return to his homeland. “I have longed for my beloved country, and of course my people and my parents have missed me a lot,” he told Littman. The German scholar didn’t want to upset Nefae. As a result, on 13 April 1909, Nefae sailed a ship to Massawa, which made its way through the Italian city of Napoli.
Dr. Littman sent a telegram to Gheleb to tell them about the departure of Nefae and hence to welcome him in Massawa. The villagers and students who received the message rushed to give him a hero’s welcome. The students were eager to know about the other world, ‘the civilized world’; they were interested to hear the standard of education there. So, they took their drums and imitated local songs for the reception.
Finally, the ship arrived! The elders were allowed to enter the port but most of the youth were told to stay outside. A number of white people appeared but Nefae was not to be seen. His relatives were confused and worried at the same time. So, they asked where the boat was from. It was the right one, but where did Nefae vanish? What went wrong with him? These were the main questions that came to his waiting parents’ mind. They decided to get in the boat and check the seats—Nefae’s was empty!
The captains handed Nefae’s family a suitcase with books, kiezer, a hat and a stick. “These are your son’s belongings,” they told them. Although they had so many questions to ask about their beloved son and a boy that they expected a lot from, they could hardly ask any; because, the Italians were very unfriendly towards the local people.
* In 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War, the city became German again, until 1918 (end of World War I), when it reverted to France. After the defeat of France in 1940 (World War II), Strasbourg came under German control again; since the end of 1944, it is again a French city.
What exactly happened then, however, only the almighty God knows. What happened to the smart and promising Nefae is still unknown – he just disappeared. No one has so far witnessed seeing Nefae alive or dead after that night. Although there are different hearsays about his disappearance, there is no evidence at all. It said that he was killed in the Sicilian sea near the city of Catania. Some say that the Italian racists who were not ready to accept a non white educated person to go back to his country might have secretly dropped him in the sea; others argue that some Europeans, suspicious of his intelligence, might have killed him before he made it home.
Speaking about the situation, Nefae’s nephew, Uttman Ejel said: “Nefae was the elder son of his family. He was much interested in education since his childhood. We hear that he contributed a lot in Europe. But, while expecting him to come back and share his knowledge, he was not fortunate. His father died because of grief and the whole society mourned for him.”
What is known about the disappearance of the young Eritrean intellectual is quite limited compared to the research that has to be done in the future. Similarly, what has been said about him—about his contribution—should also be understood properly. For example, during one of the International Dr. Enno Littman Conferences (the conference is conducted every four years) it tried to describe Nafae, a man who played a central role in all Enno Littman’s works regarding the Tigre language, only as an informant. ‘An informant,’ doesn’t fit the contribution of the young Eritrean scholar nor does it say anything about him. When we are saying that Dr. Enno Littman made significant contribution to the Tigre language, we are speaking about his very few months’ stay in Gheleb. It makes sense that he has benefited a lot from Nefae’s two years stay in Germany. So, is it practical or acceptable to name someone who made major contribution and sacrifice only as an informant?
It is also believed that Dr. Enno Littman mourned for three months after he heard Nefae’s disappearance. He used to describe him: “a man with extraordinary memorizing talent.”
Nefae was also able to learn different European languages during his work and study in Europe. He was mastering the German and Italian languages. Dr.Shalomo Raz,** who was a specialist on Semitic language studies, also gave his firsthand account that Nefae was a great scholar who used to speak fluently Arabic and Amharic languages. He is, therefore, considered as one of the first Eritrean intellectuals.
**Dr. Shalomo Raz visited Eritrea in 1969 to conduct studies on Tigre language. He met with Graz. Lijam Ishaq and Musie Bekit and was highly assisted by them. In 1973 he earned his PHD in London by presenting his Thesis titled “A Descriptive Study of the Tigre Grammar.
There is also the issue of Nefae’s disappearance. Foreigners normally write daily journals, and until his death at the age of 83 on May 4, 1958 in Tübingen, Littman is said to have always talked respectfully about his faithful companion Nefae. So what would Littman’s daily journals say about Nefae? What would these diaries say about Nefae’s condition in Europe, or how he went out of Eritrea, his educational status or his disappearance? Where did Littman’s diaries go in the first place? What about the work and diaries of Nefae while he was in Europe? So many questions that need tangible answers can be raised.
In this presentation I would like to add a couple of things that Ferej Utman Ijel informed me, which are new to me as I have never read or heard of these information:
- When the book “Meras” written by Memhir Mussa Aron and Desale Bereket was inaugurated at Embasoyra Hotel in 2006 the very close relatives of Nefae Utman were invited as guests of honor. Ferej and his father were the ones who attended the inauguration and were able to receive copy of the book as a gift signed by the authors. This book is 661 pages; there are two main chapters that talk about Nefae Utman and Eno Litman: the first is titled Nefae Wed Utman Men Tu? (Who is Nefae utman) and the second chapter is Hachir Etrek Eno Litman (Short history of Eno Litman).
- At the present time students at the sub-region Geleb are learning the history of Nefae Utman, which is included in the curriculum. I find this to be very encouraging.
Finally, I would like to end by bringing two propositions for discussion.
- Nefae Utman and Eno Litman together have contributed many documents printed and some of them not. It is said that Littman left all his documents to Maria Hofner, his student who later became his colleague. Maria on her part gave the documents to the Vienna based Austrian Scientific Archive before her death in 1992. If that’s true, there is no reason why Nefae’s documents let alone Littman’s cannot be found. We may need to work on this.
- As what happened to Nefae was very mysterious and he just disappeared on his way back home and more research may be needed to find answers to the issue of Nefae’s disappearance and his works and contributions that were not found yet.
Nefae Utman with the family of Dr. Eno Litman
- Musa Aaron and Desale Bereket: Meras: Min Adayet Gebaiel Lethabeyet Zihiret; Book
in Tigre Language. 2010
- Karl Johan Lundstrom and Ezra Gebremedhin: Kenisha: The Roots and Development of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
- net https://www.kemey.net/blog
- MODAINA: Nefae Utman: Great works that Need to be found. http://www.modaina.com/Nefae%20Utman.htm
- Aziza Awate: Nefae Utman: The pride of Mensa and Intellectual Giant who passed before his time. 2015
- Short biographical information about educated Eritreans. http://www.ehrea.org/bribio.php
- Senai W. Andemariam: The Story of the Translation of the Bible into Tǝgre
Important comments included in this paper were given by:
- Gerezghier Bekit
- Musie Bekit
- Yegin Habtes
- Yishaq Nor