Life in the colony

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Life in the colony was like living in an middle class Italian province. Typical Italian goods were very expansive, but they were locally produced as well, so that everyone could afford buying them. In the principal cities of the Country, such as Asmara and Massawa it was possible to find any kind of shop: goldsmiths, artisans, mechanics etc. In Asmara there were also a theatre, three cinemas and a Officers’s Club.

During the years before the Fascist regime,  certain occupations and facilities were not open to the local population. With the rise of Fascism this segregation policy was intensified and with the passing of the “racial laws” soon became a real system of apartheid. Eritreans were segregated from residential areas, bars and restaurants reserved for the white population. However these laws did not support the idea of the superiority of the Aryan race. Italy wanted to stop relationships between Italian men and local women in the colonial territories. In those years there were 2,700 single white men in Eritrea, while only 450 single white women. This imbalance would obviously cause unions between white men and Eritrean women. The result was a growing number of meticci (mulattos), that if recognized by their Italian father would receive Italian citizenship with all its privileges. However in 1940 the laws were modified and all meticci were considered “natives”. Consequently they lost all privileges as Italian citizens. In spite of all this, the number of single white men always exceeded the one of white single ladies. The racial laws were almost impossible to implement and there was an increase in prostitution and illegitimate children.


The history of Eritrea after colonialism

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After the outbreak of World War II, Italy declared war on England. Many battles were fought near the border of Sudan and in 1941 the English army occupied Asmara. Eritrea had been under the British administration until 1952. During the first years Eritrea had to overcome a period of decline, but the lack of financial support from the Italian government made the Country develop an autonomous economy and commerce. In fact, during  the ‘40s  Eritrea’s economy flourished again.

But the events of WW2 moved its attention to other parts of the world  and Eritrea lost its strategic importance. The English started to leave, bringing with them many infrastructures the Eritreans had built during the Italian colonial period, such as part of the railway system. By the end of 1946, Eritrea found itself in a situation of economic crisis.

In 1950 the United Nations decided that Eritrea should become an independent country, but annexed with Ethiopia. Then in 1960, Eritrea became a province of the Abyssinian empire, but the Eritrean population did not like this annexation to Ethiopia, mostly because Ethiopian authorities terminated the use of the Eritrean flag and made Amharic the official language in place of Tigrinya. They also moved the administrative and judicial structures out of Eritrea. The protests by the Eritreans against this regime were suppressed with violence and many people were brutally killed.

Eventually, in 1961, in the city of Amba Adal a group of men rebelled and attacked a police station. The war for independence had begun. The war for independence, also called “The Struggle” by rebels, lasted 30 years: from 1961 to 1991.

Many movements for independence were established in those years. However, due to different religious beliefs, internal disputes eventually led to the fragmentation of these movements and to the founding of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which was egalitarian and socialist, and became the leader of the struggle.

In 1974, Mengistu, a communist dictator, rose to power and called for the support of the United States, first, and the Soviet Union later. The rebels had to face with an army that was provided with the most advanced weapons and had to retreat. The capital Asmara was occupied by the Ethiopians. The years that followed were terrible.

At last in 1987, Eritrea was recognized as an independent region and in 1991, Isaias Afewerki, leader of the EPLF, formed a provisional government. A referendum was held in 1993 that declared the independence of the country. From that moment, Eritrea has started a program of reconstruction of the infrastructures  so it can remedy the damage of the war. New laws were introduced, such as for the safeguard of the environment, the disabled, the rights of women and the fight against AIDS. 

However,  the conflict with Ethiopia was not over yet. Eritrea introduced the new currency, the Nakfa, as a replacement for the Ethiopian Birr in 1997. Ethiopia obviously did not like this action, that meant an economic break between the  two countries. Eritrea, in fact, did not want to be part of  the Ethiopian public debt. A year later, in 1998, a border dispute over the town of Badme led to war. The conflict was awful and both countries used chemical weapons, such as napalm. 200,000 people died.

The border war ended in 2000 with the signing of an agreement between the two parties. Among the terms of this agreement was the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation.

The history of Eritrea over the last ten years is mainly characterized by two major aspects:

  1. The fact that the last war with Ethiopia has not been resolved yet. Despite the agreement signed at the end of the conflict, the relations with Ethiopia have been tense. This fraught situation obviously leads to instability around the regions.
  2. The purpose of building a society free from economic and political influences by the western world’s superpowers (especially the USA) and from globalization, which represents in poor countries, such as Eritrea, one of the major causes of impoverishment and exploitation instead of a resource.

Eritrea is a small Country, situated in the Horn of Africa, by the Red Sea. Its history dates back to immemorial times.

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In 1995 some hominid fossils were found in Buya, dated two million years ago. Furthermore, tools dated to 8000 b.C. were found in the Barka Province. It is thought that the first inhabitants of Eritrea came from Central Africa. They later mixed with people who had immigrated from the Middle East (the actual states of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE) 2500 years ago.

The empire of Aksum ruled Eritrea from the 1st century to the 11th. Aksum, capital of the great empire, is located in the Tigray area (in today’s Ethiopia), 170 km from the sea. The commercial trades of the kingdom were mostly maritime and were managed by the ancient seaport of Adulis, in Eritrea. The street that connected Aksum to Adulis had great importance during that period.

Under the reign of Edana, from 325 to 360, Christianity was introduced in the empire’s territories, when Syrian merchants of Christian belief were shipwrecked on the coasts of the Red Sea. In the 4th century AD, Christianity became the official religion of the kingdom.

Islam was introduced in the region in the 7th century, and marked the beginning of the decline of the kingdom of Aksum. With the spread of Islam, the Arab populations grew stronger and soon became the new lords of the Red Sea, occupying the city of Massawa as well. The authorities of Aksum were defeated.

During the 15th and the 16th centuries northern Eritrea and the coastal areas were invaded by the Ottomans, that ruled the region for over 300 years.  Their successor, the Egyptians ruled from 1846 to 1885, under Ali Pasha. They first invaded Sudan and some areas of Ethiopia, then occupied western Eritrea and Massawa. The Eritrean king, Yohannes, declared war on the Egyptians and defeated them in 1875 in Gundat, in eastern Eritrea. The influence of Egypt lasted a few more years, until the arrival of the Italians.

The Italians arrived in Eritrea in 1869 with the Rubattino shipping company, who bought a lot nearby Assab, in the south of Eritrea. In 1882 the Italian government took over the proprieties of the company and established a local administration. In 1885 they occupied Massawa and took advantage of the disorder in Ethiopia to occupy the highlands of Keren and Asmara. However, during this advance on the highlands, the Italian army was defeated by Ras Alula, Yohannes’ governor of Ethiopia, in Dogali. 500 Italian men lost their lives and Italy’s government decided to support Yohannes’ rival Menelik, who ascended the throne of Ethiopia in 1889. Italy and Ethiopia signed a treaty that ratified Italian control over Eritrea. In 1890 the colony of Eritrea was eventually created. However the relations between the two countries worsened because of some differences in the texts of the treaty, which was supposed to be written identically in both languages (Italian and Amharic). In 1896 there was a battle near Adwa. The Ethiopians defeated the Italians once more. This battle is of great significance to the Ethiopian population.

During the fascist period, Eritrea went through a profound modernization. Among all the Italian colonies, it was considered to be the “jewel” because of its access to the Red Sea and of its potential mineral wealth. The Italians promoted the Catholic Church, developed agriculture, industry, trade and built streets, harbors, hospitals and the railway that still connects Asmara to Massawa. In the ‘30s Eritrea was one of the most industrialized colonies of Africa and experienced a great population growth.  In 1933 the Eritreans were 510,000 and the Italians 3,600, while in 1939 Eritrea’s population was  of a million inhabitants and the Italians were 100,000. Italy instituted provinces, governed by officials and a governor.

Asmara became capital in 1897 and during the ‘30s looked typically Italian. In fact, it is still possible to admire its “art deco” and fascist architectures, such as the “Cinema Impero” or the former base of the Italian enterprise Fiat “Fiat Tagliero”. Today, Asmara is considered by the UN a “world heritage center”.

Italian schools in Eritrea: introduction to the thesis

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The reason why I chose this topic for my thesis is that from 2005 to 2008 I attended the Italian school of Asmara and graduated from the Liceo Scientifico “G. Marconi”.

My father, a professor of Italian, was nominated in 2004 for a five-year post to teach at the Lower Secondary School of Asmara, and I decided to go with him. I experienced a significant and important “change of life”, since I found myself in a new Country, a new school and with new classmates. In fact, in my class, there were only two Italian students, while the rest were Eritreans.

From an educational point of view, the subjects such as Italian, philosophy or history were taught in a different way, because the command of the Italian language for Eritrean students wasn’t like the one of a native speaker. Contrary to that, the study of foreign languages such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic was studied more in depth. English in particular, because along with Tigrinya and Italian,  it is one of the languages spoken in everyday life.

Relating with my classmates was not so easy, especially at the beginning, because they grew up in another reality. Their habits, traditions, mentality are very different from ours. I was particularly impressed by the relationship with adults, since they are disciplined and fear their parents. In the Eritrean society the figure of the father is very authoritarian.

The three years I spent there helped me grow up. It’s been the most significant experience of my life until now. I will never forget it.