Nefae Utman – the pride of Mensa and Intellectual Giant who passed before his time – By Aziza Awate 1/31/2015

I believe, and I’m sure that most of you will wholeheartedly agree, that knowledge is a shared entity among the dwellers of our society, and there are many people in our community that we can be very proud of and claim that these people are our own icons, mentors, inspirational, and exemplars  from whom we have  learned a lot.   Some of these people are our own; such as Mr. Nefae Utman Ejel Utman Nefae (1882-1909)-the original enhancer and promoter of the Tigre language; Fit. Michael Hasama Raka, the  author of  ‘Future Life and Occult Beings’ in English and ‘Zanta Eritra’ in Tigrigna (1920 -1987), and Reverend /Memher Musa Aron (1930 – 2011) who wrote several books in Tigre and Tigrinya.

One of the above mentioned people Mr. Nefae Utman Ejel Utman Nefae is a pioneer who introduced the Tigre language to the world; a very promising intellectual whose bright and proud history ended tragically in the hands of the fascist and Nazi Europe. In the following paragraphs I would like to discuss this intellectual icon with you.

As a young student in my home town of Gheleb; I remember one of the first books I read was a book called Ketab Fedel. In this basal there were the Ge’ez alphabets from Ha- Pa.  I loved that book because it was written in the Tigre Language (my mother’s tongue). This book was a Collaborative effort of some of the very gifted and talented students from Gheleb.

In his early life, Nefae had the ambition and high motivation to do well in school and become an outstanding student. Mr. Nefae Utman was a very gifted individual who always wanted to share whatever he has learned with his people for the greater good. In his birth place of Gheleb Mr. Nefae Utman attended the Evangelical School of Gheleb which was run by the Swedish missionaries. In the beginning, his family was very hesitant to let him go to that school because of two reasons:  First, his family was very devoted Muslims, and secondly, they wanted him to stay home and herd the livestock. Despite his parent’s objection, the young Utman put a lot of pressure on his parents until they agreed to let him go. In a short time he became one of the outstanding students at the Evangelical School of Gheleb; and won the admiration and respect of the missionaries and all of his teachers in the school.  From early Mr. Utman was perceived to be an intellectual who would contribute admirably to the advancement of the Tigre language.

In 1905 when one of the German Lutheran Missionaries by the name of Professor Richard Enno Littman, came to visit Gheleb and met Nefae; he found him to be focused and very gifted.  The young Eritrean impressed him so much so when  he returned to Germany  he sent a telegram to Sudustrum a Swedish missionary in Gheleb and told him that when he comes to Sweden to bring Young Nefae Utman with him (please read the entire article  in this  website “”). He invited the young Utman to come abroad to pursue his studies. Consequently, young Utman did leave Gheleb, went to Sweden first, and then to Germany. While in Germany he worked relentlessly with Professor Richard Enno Littman to advance the Tigre language and after 2 years he chose to return to his country and to his people in Gheleb. Littman didn’t want him to go back and asked him to stay in Germany until he comes back.  Unfortunately, young Utman made up his mind to go back to his country and home in Gheleb.  On his way home on the 13th of April 1909 Mr.Utman somehow met his fate in the deep dark seas of Sicily. Something unknown ended his young life on that trip between Italy and Eritrea on his way going back home.  Although nobody knows what happened to him, there is undocumented speculation that the fascist in Italy ended his life. This was an unimaginable loss to his family, to his relatives and missionaries in Gheleb, and even to Professor Littman in Germany.

Many people become puzzled by this news and there were more questions than answers. Some wise people argued that his death is related to the occupation of Eritrea by the Italians.  They go further to question if it was possible that the racist Italian colonizers would have allowed a black person to sail for Europe to attend higher education while they had restricted education for the natives at the 4th grade level.

I don’t want to give my opinion based on assumptions, but it seems obvious what happened to the young Eritrean intellectual who wanted to come back home to his family and country which was then under the brutal occupation of the fascists; it is unlikely that they gave him safe passage to his final destination on the 13th of April 1909. Hence, as one mother pointed out ‘What appears secret for humans remains open to God’. The blood of an innocent soul will never be in vain. Sooner or later justice will be transparent and one day what happened to him on that fateful trip will be revealed so he will be fully grieved, honored, and celebrated for his love of his people, his legacy, and his great contributions and advancement of his mother’s tongue that we call Tigre


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