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Nefae Utman: Great Works That Need To Be Found

The incident happened more than 100 years ago; but its significance, mystery and strangeness still keeps it important. The story of a young Eritrean begins in a village called Gheleb, 60 kms from Keren; but it is still unknown where it ends.


There was a school in that village, one of the first in Eritrea run by European missionaries. Although the school was first built as a vocational school in the plains of Semhar, the continuous malaria epidemics forced the missionaries to relocate to Gheleb.


According to Ferej Ottman, the school was administered by a teacher called Sh’all Antene Sh’all and had students from Eritrea and Ethiopia. In this article, however, I am not intending to write about the history of the school, but about a young Eritrean who was educated there and went to Europe for further studies. Nefae Utman was born in 1882 in Gheleb and at the age of 12 years he joined the school.


Parents of that time didn’t support sending their kids to school because they would expect them to look after their livestock. And that was what happened to Nefae. Another reason why his parents didn’t support his attending the school was that they were Muslims but the school was run by Christian missionaries. So, the general situation was not encouraging for Nefae to attend school.


As the saying goes ‘Where there is a will there is a way,’ this didn’t halt Nefae’s strong desire to attend school, however. He finally succeeded and completed seventh grade, the highest level at that time, in about three years. His will and dedication enabled him to finish two grades in a year.

Shortly after that he started to work with a health expert missionary called Sudustrum in Gheleb. However, the year 1905 changed the life and future of the promising young Eritrean.


One day during that year, a German Oriental, 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, 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 Sudustrum.

eno letman

Transportation services were not available at that time; so, they had to travel long distances – slopes and plains – on foot to conduct their research. The contribution they made in documenting the oral tradition of that society was indeed commendable. A few months 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. They stopped in a place called Engfak for rest.


Littman was surprised by the breathtaking landscape they came through, especially the escarpments. Then he 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.


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. The time was when the Italians had controlled the whole of Eritrea. But, was it practical for the racist Italian colonizers to allow a black person to sail for Europe for higher education? Was it possible for Nefae to get permitted or was the missionary supposed to hide him?

Although it is not known how they arranged their voyage, Sudustrum and Nefae finally arrived in Sweden in 1907. Hearing the news of Nefae’s arrival, Littman immediately went to Sweden to welcome him. He took him to Germany and worked together with him for two years (1907 and 1908). 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.


The books depict almost every tradition of the Tigre society. Although they didn’t cover the vastly distributed native Tigre speakers, it was nonetheless a job well-done. The style of presentation and the content of what is written gave life to the oral tradition of the society. It describes the way they lived at different times and occasions—during celebrations and mourning; their names and the names of their livestock, etc.

In the volumes that followed, they included taboos, war cries, curses and blessings. There are also 717 traditional songs with 1400 stanzas. Based on the work they accomplished with Nefae, Littman and his long time 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. However, Littman passed away before seeing the publication of the book.


After working together with 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.

What 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. Some say that the mafias of Sicily 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.


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 not a black ‘habesh’. 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 language,” 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.

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.”


Another close relative to Nefae, Mr. Ghebru Cheway, also said: “I remember my mother crying in the name of her lost brother.” Mrs. Brkheti Asfaday, a close relative from England, said that Nefae’s relatives in the Diaspora are initiating to open a library in his name. Speaking about the disappearance of her uncle she said that she read: “What appears secret for humans remains open to God,” in a monument built for Nefae, in Stockholm, Sweden. She also said that the whole family is looking forward to find the whereabouts of Nefae and urged the Government of Eritrea to take part.

What is known about the disappearance of the young Eritrean young 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 the Third International Enno Littman Conference, that was conducted in 2008 in Freie University in Berlin, Mr. Yemane Mengustu was supposed to present a paper entitled: ‘Nafae: The Tigre informant of Enno Littman.’ Although the paper was not presented during the Conference, I believe 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 Enno Littman made significant contribution to the Tigre language, we are speaking about his very few months’ stay in Gheleb. So, is it practical or acceptable to name someone who made major contribution and sacrifice only as an informant?

Saying this, I am not trying to belittle the great contribution of the German scholar, of course. At the first place it should be clear that I recognize the skills and talent of Enno Littman. He was the one who explored Northern Ethiopia, including Axum and he also translated ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ from Arabic to German.


It is also believed that Enno Littman mourned for three months after he heard Nefae’s disappearance. He used to describe him: “a man with extraordinary memorizing talent.”

In a nutshell, Nefae was also able to learn different European languages during his work and study in the Europe. He is, therefore, considered as one of the first Eritrean intellectuals.

Different people can give different answers to this question. But I believe that Nefae’s role in preparing these books goes beyond providing information. Prof. Littman could have had easy access to this information and he might even have had upper hand in the translation to European languages; but who wrote, and in an efficient way, all the original Tigre publications that were then translated? Although there were fluent Tigre speakers like missionary Karl Gustav Roden, could Littman, who stayed among the Tigre for only a season, have written in such a fluent way? I don’t think so.

What can be therefore said in conclusion is that although Nefae started as chief source of information for Littman, he ended up being co-author. Littman’s help, particularly in the Tigre publications, didn’t go beyond advising and giving out technical information to Nefae.

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.


Eritrean intellectual Saleh Mahmoud is one of the participants of the Third International Enno-Littman Conference held at the University of Freie Berlin in April 2009. Talking about Littman’s documents, Saleh says 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 can not be found.


As mentioned earlier, there are conferences held internationally every four years remembering Littman and his works with the fourth conference taking place in Cairo, Egypt in a few years time. Different statues have also been erected in his memory. But whose responsibility is it to remember Nefae and his works? And don’t we have an obligation to at least portray him as a brilliant Eritrean youth instead of just a simple information provider?