Reesom Haile: The Quotable Poet of Eritrea

by Charles Cantalupo, Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature and African Studies, Penn Staterhps

Reesom Haile is from a family of traditional farmers in Eritrea, where he was born, raised and educated through high school. After working as a radio and television journalist in Ethiopia, he continued his education in the United States. Obtaining a doctorate in Media Ecology from New York University, he served for twenty years as a Development Communications consultant, working with UN Agencies, governments and NGOs around the world before returning to Eritrea in 1994. Since then, he has written over two thousand poems in Tigrinya. His first collection, waza ms qumneger ntnsae hager won the 1998 Raimok prize, Eritrea's highest award for literature. His first collection in English was We Have Our Voice (Red Sea Press, 2000), also recorded as a two-volume, bilingual CD (, 2001). His second collection was We Invented the Wheel (Red Sea Press, 2002). Widely published and recognized for his revolutionary modernization of the traditional art of poetry in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea's main languages, Reesom Haile has begun to receive scholarly and critical attention and wide media coverage, including BBX (UK), CNN (USA), Deutche Welle (Germany), RAI (Italy), dmtsi Hafash(Eritrea) Radio Vatican (The Vatican), NPR (USA), SABC (South Africa), SBS (Australia) and VOA(USA). His performances in Tigrinya and English have inspired audiences throughout Africa, Europe and America. The enormous popular appeal of his poetry - in print and on the internet - is evident from the streets of Asmara to the far fields of the Eritrean countryside, where to stroll with Reesom Haile at any hour is to be approached by the young and old and all kinds of people who are delighted to quote his lines back to him.

Reesom Haile writes in Tigrinya. It is a Semitic language and, like the languages of Tigre and Amharic, derives from the ancient language of Ge'ez. It derives, like Hebrew and Arabic, from Aramaic, which is often thought to have been a language - along with Greek and Hebrew - of the original composition of much of the Old and New Testament and of Jesus.

The Poems

Garden Eritrea

When the blood
Of Eritrean men
Floods Eritrea, 
Our heroes grow

When the blood
Of Eritrean women
Floods Eritrea, 
Our heroes grow

When the blood
Of Eritreans
Floods Eritrea, 
We grow back
Again and again. 

Deny peace
To Eritrea
And you garden


Learning from History

We learned from Marx and Lenin:
To be equal trim your feet
For one-size-fits-all shoes.
We made their mistakes, too.

Equally, we all make mistakes.
The evil is in not being corrected
Aren’t we known
By what we do, undo and do again?


The Next Generation

Well traveled and knowing many languages,
The next generation arrives.
Let’s rise to the occasion.
Welcome, Vielkomen, Bien Venue, Ben Venuto!
Let’s bathe your tired feet with hot water
And serve the best injera, vegetables, meat and drink.
Take this warm, white gabi to wrap yourself in.
Let’s walk the mountains and valleys
Given to us, we give them to you —
History and culture to read,
A legacy to satisfy your needs
And to share, even with strangers —
On one condition:
Don’t give it all away.

injera — traditional bread
gabi — traditional blanket/cloak DestaDaughter, Desta, born in exile,



Daughter, Desta, born in exile.
Come home for a first time.
Meet your grandmother
Her family, her neighbors —
Your family, your neighbors,
Your country, our home.
Please eat
These vegetables and meat
And a special treat of wild roots.
Or have I spoiled you?

No, Daddy, I love this.
But we need windows.



First the earth, then the plow:
So knowledge comes out of knowledge.
We know, we don’t know.
We don’t know we know.
We know we don’t know.
We think
This looks like that —
This lemon, that orange —
Until we taste the bitter.


All English translations by Charles Cantalupo


Eritrean War Poetry

by Dr. Charles Cantalupo, Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies, Pennsylvania State University

Located in the Horn of Africa, on the Red Sea, and roughly half Christian and half Muslim, Eritrea is a new nation but an ancient country with a tradition of writing going back at least 4000 years.  A former Italian colony, Eritrea has nine major ethnic groups, each with its own language.

All of contemporary Eritrea’s greatest contemporary poets participated in the Eritrean struggle for independence (1961-91) from Ethiopia as freedom fighters and/or as supporters in the Eritrean diaspora.  As might be expected after such a long war, its presence in Eritrean poetry predominates.  Naturally, more than a decade or two has to pass for this to change.  Even then, since Eritrea’s liberation in 1991 the nation has experienced the outbreak of war with Ethiopia again – resulting in over 100,000 deaths on both sides – subsequent to which the relationship between the two countries has been described as “no-war-no-peace.”

Not that contemporary Eritrean poetry is only about war – on the contrary!  Its near constant presence in modern Eritrean history highlights a fact that its poetry also cries out for peace.  Moreover, subjects of war and peace in contemporary Eritrean poetry comprise a kind of spectrum, with poems that focus almost exclusively on war at one end, poems seemingly oblivious to war at the other end, and most poems falling somewhere in between.

In a poem called “A Candle for the Darkness,” which appeared in 1988 towards the end of Eritrean armed struggle for independence, Ghirmai Ghebremeskel seems to have foreseen how Eritrea and its poets would gravitate between war and peace for years to come. He imagines peace and its promise of freedom as a single candle – some light, at least, and even a bit of warmth, but doomed either to consume itself or to be snuffed out by


And mutilation…

devils and death

In the shadows….

Further on, however, the poet claims that
a candle
Comes out of the darkness
And lights up the horizon
Brimming with people
Marching into the light –
Candles and more candles
Coming from all directions….
The vision seems like a triumph, “brimming with people” who survive the war and whom the poet sees
all refusing
Any more death,
And restoring, adoring
And rejoicing in life.


But “the light” is ambiguous.  The phrase “Marching into the light” has a religious or spiritual connotation, suggesting that for such a “light” to be experienced it might have to be in the afterlife, which is, only experienced after death. This ambiguity suggests that “The light” and death may be inseparable.

The fact remains that at any time, or least for very long, during Eritrea’s thirty-year struggle for independence, and most of the years since then, Eritrea ever unilaterally decided to refuse “any more death” and war, the nation would not exist.  Eritrea’s mindset for war is nothing if not empirical.  Eritrea’s state of war with the government of Ethiopia seems perpetual.  War in the Horn of Africa seems like a given and, whatever country or countries in which it occurs, the rest cannot remain untouched or unaffected.

Yet in poetry beyond Eritrea and the Horn such a mindset is traditional and hallowed, too.  Homer’s Iliad and Exodus in the Bible have a similar mindset of war, as do many national epics, like Beowulf, El Cid and Le Chanson de Roland.  Simone Weil famously called Homer’s Iliad “the poem of force” (“le poème de la force”).  A similar poetics of force, although not epic, animates the work of Eritrean poets like Fessahazion Michael and Solomon Drar, who write in Tigrinya, Mussa Mohammed Adem, who writes in Tigre, and Mohammed Osman Kajerai, who writes in Arabic.  In Weil's terms, their “bitterness … is offered us absolutely.  No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality.”  Again in Weil's terms, “the true hero” of their poems, “the true subject, the center…is force…. Force that enslaves…. The human spirit is swept away.”

Emerging from a violent 20th century of two world wars, the cold war, and now amidst a 21st century pile up of global terrorism and war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – not to mention elsewhere – our appetites for war poetry and a poetics of force may be sated or, if it is palatable, only from the distance of one or two thousand years or more, in the form of ancient or medieval epics.  Horace’s famous line in Latin, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (Odes, III.2.13) – To die for one’s country is honorable and sweet (or satisfying) – has long been deconstructed to be heard only as ironic, as in Wilfred Owen’s poem based on and titled with this line in 1917, recalling “All went lame; all blind; / Drunk with fatigue” and “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning….”  Sweet?  Satisfying?  Hardly.  And no quality poem of World War I, World War II or subsequent wars in the west has been able to go back from Owen and recover the original meaning or heroic tone of the phrase in Horace’s third ode.  

Aware of Owen’s perspective on Horace’s famous line or not, contemporary Eritrean poets write as if they know all too well the horrors Owen recounts. Eritrea’s war poetry can be unflinchingly and profligately violent yet ultimately without regret.  A poetics of force and war often animates the poetry of emerging nations, although to different degrees.  The critical quality and achievement of such poetry, however, is questionable, especially if it is recent and translated into languages of nations and cultures where war poetry and a poetics of force are usually viewed negatively if they are contemporary.  Precisely this problem becomes the challenge in translating contemporary Eritrean war poetry.  Can one find the language in English to represent such a contemporary and genuine Eritrean fact of existence and the indubitable emotion it generates? Yet can one also find, as a good Eritrean friend once told me, that war is not only about fighting?  Not all about death?  But about friendship and the perennial issues of love and life?  Does war have that, too?

The following translations are my answers:  “Naqra” by Fessahazion Michael and “Who Said Merhawi Is Dead” by Solomon Drar, two poems originally written in Tigrinya; “The Invincible” by Mussa Mohammed Adem, originally written in Tigre; and “Singing Our Way to Victory” by Mohammed Osman Kajerai, originally written in Arabic.  These poems can also be found in Who Needs a Story?  Contemporary Eritrean Poetry in Tigrinya, Tigre and Arabic (Asmara:  Hdri Publishers; Oxford and East Lansing: African Books Collective, 2006), which I co-translated and co-edited with Ghirmai Negash.  A more extensive discussion of these poems and the poets can also be found in my book, War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry (Dar es Salaam:  Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, 2009).

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For more information on Dr. Charles Cantalupo and to contact him:




The Poems



by Fessahazion Michael (originally written in Tigrinya)
At dead center
The sea
Has no fish,
No ships, no storms and no tides
But an island –
All that the storms and tides
And the surrounding water
Is desolation
With nothing
To keep a human
Or anything alive
Except the unreachable
Stars above and fish below.
The sea has nothing to show
But Naqra,
Lonely in the distance,
Smelling only of death
And hell.
You know the history –
How many of our people
Fighting for our country
And imprisoned there,
Succumbed in despair
On Naqra.

translation by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash


Who Said Merhawi is Dead

by Solomon Drar (originally written in Tigrinya)solomon dar.aspx

Buried in the ground  
Heaped with stones,
Silent and at peace,
Merhawi comes home,
Back to his land-
Desert, highlands
And fields he farmed.
Is Merhawi dead? 
His mother stands proud
And his bed blossoms.
From near and far
His sisters and brothers
Come and sing
"Thanks, Merhawi, thanks,”
As they stroll down
Liberation Avenue.

“We love Merhawi!
Yeah Merhawi!”
Who said Merhawi is dead
And rots in a grave,
Or that the Red Sea salt
Eats him, and the frost
North on Rora
Burns his skin,
If we see his blood
Shimmering in our veins,
Stride with him
Instead of limping,
And see for miles
Instead of being blind? 
Who said Merhawi is dead?
Can’t they hear
In the whirlwind
Of the revolution?
We must walk with his knees,
See with his eyes
And live by his words
Or we fall like unripe fruit
Into corruption,
Selfishness and greed,
And the rot spreads
With no respect
Or care until
Oblivion cracks
Us limb by limb,
Enemies pour in
From all directions
And the answer to
“Is Merhawi dead”
Will be “Yes. It’s true,”
Meaning our end, too,
Instead of his vision
For our future:
Working together
Like water and milk
And a perfect fit
Of hand and glove –
Eager for the test
To build our nation
Today, tomorrow
And always with him
Who will never die
Showing the way:
One glorious beam
And millions of eyes
Knowing how to shine
With no need for tears
And memorials . . .
But only if Merhawi lives!
Only if the lion slayer
Lives unrepentantly,
His name, Merhawi, Merhawi
In the whirlwind
Of the revolution!
Can you hear?
Who said Merhawi is dead?
Can they save us
Like his name,
Harvesting the fields of gold?
Who said Merhawi is dead?
translation by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash 


The Invincible

by Mussa Mohammed Adem (originally written in Tigre)adem.aspx

Say what you like, but step over the line
And he feels his first scar burning again.
Smell the smoke. He has that true killer look
Because he always sees war – it’s ugly,
And dirges play like soundtracks in his head –
Shimber, Hebo, Wazafin – constantly
Making him think, “Encircle, attack, attack . . . .”

He sees enemies like sorghum bending
And breaking, their heads spilling out all red.
Never missing the target, his bullets
Fall like rain hitting the lake, and it floods
As in the days of Noah, only with blood. 
Fast and taking too many forms at once,
He’s blinding and leaves no time to react –
Like July lightning, thunder, downpours and
Fifty days straight of sandstorms uprooting
Boulders like arrows winging from the bow
Of the hero mercilessly slashing
The tendons, crushing and splashing the marrow.
Like rainy season torrents pounding down
From the highlands with more storms behind them,
He comes to fight, saying “Try and stop me.”
He crosses any desert, sets a trap
And waits for the strong to choke on their blood.
Crocodiles run away from his jaws.
He lives according to his law.
Wisdom lets a lion or tiger sleep.
Seeing him, you better stay far away.
Fakes and fanatics may think they’re heroes
And pluck a whisker but then, catching fire,
Caught in the eyes where they wanted to play,
They have nowhere to hide and no more to say.
He throws the trees and rocks out of his path
And grabs his weapons – nobody’s laughing. 
Fields planted thick with mines, impossible
Desert sand and heat, crocodiles swarming
Rivers and gaping valleys in his way
Reveal him close and watching overhead
Before he leaves them choked with too many dead.
The third offensive explodes with sirens
And unrolls black clouds like giant bee hives
Disgorging armies fleeing for their lives,
Out of control, surrounding him like knives
And helplessly knocked away in the swing
Of his crushing sword – his entire flesh
Bloody and broken with wounds and lead as the field
Where he stands unafraid, letting no one
Flee as he fulfills the ancient lines,
Playing and singing them too: history
Repeating itself, prophecy come true
And the clear reality to witness:
Welcome to free NakfaSetit and Belessa. 
Like thunder and lightning, it surprises
Enemy invaders and ululates
Continually to all who can hear
No matter how much bombing and terror
Our country and its people have to bear.
Since the invincible guards our borders,
No more battles like Adwa can take place here,
Though he has seen plenty dig their own graves
Thinking it could if only they were brave
Enough to face him and die, and they did,
And not until we see the Red Sea dry
Will the verdict be any different.
Adi HakinAdi MirugDeda,
Bada, the deserts and wadi of Dahlak
And the Gash, tumbling from the highlands
Down where the lions drink after their prey,
Also testify to the gift of life
Or death overflowing and in his hands –
In the end, perhaps, all that he understands,
Taking aim with his spirit and his gun,
Measuring the last breath of anyone
Who forgets him and casts the first stone,
And ready to bear every burden
And horrible fire demanding his blood
Yet strangely leaving the hero happy,
Even when he dies without finding his home. 

translation by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash


Singing Our Way to Victory

by Mohammed Osman Kajerai (originally written in Arabic)kejeri.aspx

Dear friends, 
Faithful through the night
I’m back from exile.
With dawn at my door,
The voice of injustice
Doesn’t scare me.
I’ll make it listen to my gun
And a thousand explosions
Declaring that our struggle
For freedom
Will gleam in the sun
And I will proudly
Witness what I’m made of.
Past the point of anger
As we sing our way to victory,
I can either serve revenge
Calmly and cold,
Crack like lightning and thunder
Across the horizon,
Raining blood to feed the land,
Or I can sow the seeds of hell
So quietly that the prophets can go home.
Even after I die,
My blood and my fire
Will always glow,
Consuming and drowning
Any invader who tries
To waste our fertile land.
Crouching in its heart
With dawn beside me
And joining the centuries
Of singing our way to victory
As a people as sure to remain
As the rocks jutting out of the earth
Like the rage pounding in our chests,
I’m ready for the latest enemy
Who wants to dig my grave.
Looking for the moon,
I feel the breeze and rain instead.
It washes our path in the sand
Where, together again dear friends,
I plant the landmines for our struggle
To continue, raising our flag
As the gunpowder explodes
Into fire and smoke –
The valley of death’s shadow
Making white mercury purple,
Suffusing the horizon
And lingering in the air like chrysanthemums.
Every rock conceals a freedom fighter.
Our flag rises red with the dawn
And brightens with the day,
Bursting into song the news of victory.

translation by Charles Cantalupo and Ghirmai Negash



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