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Aspects of Traditional Wisdom: Agents of Conflict Resolution


By Solomon Tsehaye

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 54-58]

Presented at the 2nd International conference on African Culture and Development, Accra, Ghana, 15-18 November2009

This presentation deals with art and culture as tools for conflict resolution. Any meaningful developments cannot take place in the presence of conflict. Be it at family, community, inter-ethnic, international or any other level, conflicts which remain unsolved are obstacles to social progress. This paper attempts to bring aspects of traditional wisdom regarding conflict resolution to public attention.

Wisely resolved conflicts

There is a Tigrinya proverb in Eritrea which can be roughly translated in to English as “He who says hatred is delicious should enjoy it first before handing it to others.” In the proverb[1] those who prescribe hatred or conflict to others are in turn prescribing it back. The proverb is an expression of culture which abhors conflict.

Though not wished for, conflicts are natural social occurrences impossible to avoid completely. Often they are inevitable results of social interaction but they should be resolved in a way that advances human development. Since time immemorial people have always been engaged in trying to settle conflicts with the aim of bringing peace and ensuring social stability. Those that were resolved in wise and fair ways were settled for good while those mishandled became causes of long standing problems destroying what was achieved and hence stunting social progress.

This paper gives two examples of Eritrean traditional wisdom in relation to conflict resolution.

The oral poet

The discussion of the two examples will start with the use of oral poetry in resolving conflicts. The event took place at the beginning of the 20th century around 1910 when two strong chiefs chiefs, Degiat[2] Tesfamariam Fissehaye of Addi Quala and Ra’esi[3] Kidanemariam Gebremeskel of Arreza, were engaged in rivalry.

It happened that a young man from Arreza was to be married to a maiden from Addi Quala. On the wedding day the groom and his entourage of no less than twenty men arrived in Addi Quala after long travel by horse, mule and on foot. The groom’s company performed the traditional rituals at the yard in front of the bride’s house amid the cheerful reception and ululations of Addi Quala’s women and entered the pavilion prepared for the wedding party at the bride’s house. Food and drinks were served after the essential marriage rituals had been enacted. Compliments on the quality of the feast poured from the men of Arreza. The celebration was continuing in a very happy mood when one among the Arreza men came to the middle of the pavilion with his spear and shield and boasted about the superiority of Arreza in the very presence of Degiat Tesfamariam, the ruler of the town of Addi Quala and its surrounding district. The chief felt insulted by the boastful man of Arreza and ordered his immediate arrest by his armed guards. Several men of Arreza objected to the chief’s order and stood in the way of the guards to prevent his arrest. Angered by their audacity the chief ordered that the men be arrested too. Almost half of the men of Arreza were put under arrest and taken away. The wedding bliss turned to sadness and confrontation. Tension was building up between the two sides and the fear that it might spark into a physical fight was growing. If a fight started then the Arreza people would be annihilated. Wisdom had, therefore, to intervene on their behalf.

A distinguished oral poet by the name of Bahrega[4] Tombosa Weldemikael from the environs of Arreza and a member of the groom’s entourage requested the chief’s permission to make massé. Massé or awlo is one of the highest forms of oral poetry in Eritrea performed most of the time spontaneously at weddings, baptismal ceremonies and other merry-making occasions.

Keen to know what he was going to say in his awlo, Degiat Tesfamariam permitted Bahregas Tombosa to make his massé. The oral poet had this to say in the presence of the entire celebrating crowd:


Son of Kahsu, what a jewel you are
Son of Geredingle, what a jewel you are
Son of Fissehaye, what a jewel you are
Addi Quala is caught in fire
Lucky are those
Enjoying it like camp fire.
Protector of our lands near and far
You are a weighty man of full measure
While all others are only a quarter,
You are tough when you dislike
But merciful otherwise,
Please take heed of the awlo I am saying
And spare Arreza from crying.

The chief’s heart was softened by the kind words the poet said about him. The “fullness” and grandeur bestowed on him by the poet in comparison to those chiefs whom the poet considered were only a quarter of him made Degiat Tesfamariam feel that it would be degrading to vie with a handful of men from Arreza who were by no means a match for him. As the massé appealed to his conscience he calmed down. His anger and eagerness to take punitive action was replaced by rationality and mercifulness. He therefore declared the release of those arrested, and the men apologised for their misconduct. The resolving of the conflict bought the occasion back to its festive mood. At the closing of the ceremony, the Arreza left, safely escorting their bride and groom.

Upon their arrival in Arreza a man from the group hurried to tell Ra’esi Kidanemariam, Arreza’s chief, that the oral poet, Bahregas Tombosa, in his massé counted him as only one fourth of Addi Quala’s chief. Ra’esi Kidanemariam who had been one of the great admirers of the poet felt humiliated and ordered that he be summoned to him urgently. The poet came only to be met by the chief’s rage. But as the chief started to reprimand Bahregas Tombosa for his alleged undervaluing of him, some gentlemen who had been in the groom’s entourage intervened in favour of the poet. They told the chief that he must have been misinformed. Having recounted what had befallen them in Addi Quala, they advised the chief that Bahregas Tombosa, as the wise and tactful saviour of the men of Arreza, should be rewarded and not censured. They said if it were not for his wisdom which appeased the anger of the chief of Addis Quala, the entire Arreza group would have been in serious trouble possibly to the point of taking Arreza to war with Addi Quala. Knowing what had really happened from the account of the gentlemen, Ra’esi Kidanemariam regretted reproaching the great poet. Calling him by his pet name, Tombish, he congratulated and hailed him as a rescuing hero of his fellow men.

Ever since, this renowned oral poet has been remembered, among his many other excellent poetic performances, for this wonderful conflict resolving massé which was the creative tool in avoiding a bloody confrontation between the peoples of Arreza and Addi Quala.

A woman with two lovers

There is a story told that there lived a woman with two lovers at the same time. She used to indulge them at different and regular times, one during the daytime and the other at night. Each of them believed he was her only boy friend. One day when the night time lover paid her an unexpected visit, he found her daytime boy friend in her house. He was furious at him and so was the other, each claiming that he was her sole lover. They wrangled bitterly and started fighting in an effort to eliminate one another. Since she loved them both she did not want to lose either of them. But she could not stop them fighting. So she cried for help and people gathered. They forcefully separated her fighting lovers who were vowing to kill each other.

Some sagacious people from the crowd inquired what the problem was. Having learned of the love affair the woman had had with the two men the sages wanted to settle the fatal dispute between the two men by trying to convince either of them to leave the woman to the other because it is socially unacceptable to be the lover of a woman who has another man. But neither of the two was convinced. One of them said that he could not live without her body-smell and the other affirmed that it was impossible for him to survive without kissing her. It was difficult for the inquiring men to understand why both were mysteriously glued to the same woman while there were so many beautiful and lovable women around them. Yet, as wise men, they had to resolve the conflict in order not to risk the lives of the lovers. They proposed that the lovers divide the woman between them, with one only indulging in the upper half of her body and the other only in the lower half, and that this should be decided by casting lots. Both lovers and the woman endorsed this proposal. The lovers drew lots and each of them knew his respective part.

As time passed the woman gave birth. But the lover stationed at her upper part refused to allow her to suckle the baby because her breasts fell under his domain. The baby would starve and die. The father was urgently called to solve the crisis and save his baby by negotiating with his rival, but to no avail. The adamant refusal of the man of the upper half compelled them to rush to the ruler of the land hoping for a fair judgment.

When the ruler asked them what their case was, the father accused the other man of not letting the baby feed on its mother’s breast. The ruler was stunned at hearing this and inquired how on earth a man could have prohibitive powers on the natural right of a baby to feed on its mother’s breast. The man from the upper domain told him the background story of the affair and the agreement reached under the arbitration of certain wise men. Before taking any decision the ruler preferred to consult with the arbitrators and demanded that they be bought to him instantly.

They appeared in front of the ruler and were asked to elaborate on how they arbitrated the dispute. After listening to their explanation the ruler noted that dividing the woman between the two lovers was wrong. He tried to justify his position by the problem created after the birth of the baby. The wise men defended their arbitration as the best settlement they could think of for that particular dispute. Furthermore, they said that had it not been for that unique type of arbitration the two lovers would have killed each other. They also argued that not only were they alive, but also able to have a child.

Considering their argument, the ruler was inclined to believe that the wise men’s arbitration provided a practical resolution to the conflict, and hoped that they would also be able to think of a solution to the pressing problem of feeding the baby. He, therefore, assigned them to arbitrate the new dispute, too. The men briefly took counsel together and came back with a solution. They proposed that the two lovers exchange parts. The father of the baby ascends up so that his child shall have the right of breast feeding, while the other man descends down to the lower half so that he shall have the right to have a child in his turn. They also concluded proposing that the shifting from the upper to the lower and vice-versa should continue in such a rotational way each time a new baby was born.

The lovers adopted this arbitration proposal as favourable to both of them and the ruler was happy to see the problem solved.

Having told this story with the purpose of drawing lessons of conflict resolution, I would like to make a disclaimer. A Woman with Two Lovers certainly is part of our oral traditions. But it can by no means be true or real. It is a product of the imagination and intellectual exercise of our ancestors to create stories which teach important lessons and entertain. The dividing of the woman between the two lovers should not imply that she has been considered a sex object. Nor should this be interpreted as gender discrimination. The interconnected biological roles of a woman as a child giver and a breast feeder were aesthetically essential to constitute the central conflict of the story. Thanks to her multiplicity, the nature of a woman could provide a sharp conflict which challenged and stimulated human wisdom to resolve it.

In conclusion I would like to emphasise the great need for sustainable cultural research and the dissemination of its products. The traditional cultures of Africa and humanity in general as manifested in various expressions such as proverbs, stories, fables, legends, oral poetry, oral history, customary laws, witticisms etc. are incredible sources of wisdom to consult and learn from in our development endeavours. Broad knowledge of arts and culture enables us to understand each other better paving the way for dialogue and cooperation. Provided they are given the platform they deserve, arts and culture are liberators always giving humankind to a better future.

Solomon Tsehaye runs the Bureau of Cultural Affairs for the Eritrean government.  He was for many years a fighter for that nation's liberation, and is a published novelist, journalist and poet.  In recent years Solomon Tsehaye has been undertaking large scale research into oral poetry forms amongst the Tigrinya people of Eritrea.

[1] This is a proverb of the Tigrinya language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. The script in which Tigrinya is written is called Geez. It is one of Africa’s ancient alphabets.

[2] A high level title of the feudal era

[3] A title just below the King and the Degiat

[4] Though formerly a very high level title, later diminished in importance and became very common

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