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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

Eritrean Customary Laws

In 2012, Andemichael Solomon wrote a book in Tigrinya entitled Sra't Dembezan: Ms Nai Mselatat Mezgebe Qalatun Mntsetsar ms Astrte Sr'atat Endaba/ ስርዓት ደምበዛን፡ ምስ'ናይ ምስላታትን መዝገበ ቓላቱን ምንጽጻር ምስ ዓሰርተ ስርዓታት እንዳባ /System (of Governance) of Debezan: with its proverbs, vocabulary index, and comparative studies with ten other customary laws. (Francescana Printing Press, Asmara. 329pgs.) It is about the customary laws of Dembezan.

Andemichael's father, Mr. Solomon Tewelde, was the last of the "tehaz debter"/"keeper of the book" of Dembezan customary laws. It is a very unique book. It is divided into important parts. In the first part, he gives a brief introduction. In the second part, he goes in detail about the different sections of the customary laws of Dembezan. In part three, he provides 776 proverbs, a vocabulary list of traditional objects/utensils, and names of wild and domesticated animals. In part four, Andemichael gives a comparative study of the various customary laws with customary laws of Dembezan.

I posted the following on my blog on April 23, 2008. It was part of a longer conversation a group of us had with Memher Tewoldebrhan. This part deals with the discussion on Eritrean customary laws.

Now back to my re-post.

From 2008....

It was the last day of my visit. I was doing a last minute errand when I got a call from Senai Woldeab telling me that Memher Tewoldebrhan was in a pharmacy in downtown Asmara. Luckily, neither Senai nor I were too far from the pharmacy. After meeting with Senai, we waited along with another friend until Memher Tewoldebrhan left the pharmacy. Outside the pharmacy, after we greeted him, I asked him if he had time to be interviewed. He agreed to see us in the afternoon. At 2:00 PM, we went to his residence.

The interview took two hours, and it covered a wide range of topics from Eritrean history, to Ethiopian history, to customary laws, to the history of Islam in Eritrea, etc. Memher Tewoldebrhan is 89 years old. He has an amazing memory and encyclopedic mind.

Memher Tewoldebrhan had served the Orthodox Church in various capacities throughout his life. After he retired, he worked with Research and Documentation Center of Eritrea (RDC) for five years. He has compiled a complete history of twenty monasteries, thirty thousands Moya Kudusan (Works of the Saints) and etc. He researched and cataloged the various religious writings and parchments by looking at the way the script was written, the way the book was bound, etc. He has completed the aforementioned which is ready to be published. He has also completed cultural and historical history of Eritrea which is also ready to be published.

Note: check a seven minutes video clip of the interview with Memher Tewoldebrhan (in Tigrinya). For the English translation of the clip, see below.

"The anchor villages for the traditional law of Adkeme-Miligae were: Areza, Adi Mongonti, Kudo Felasi, Qene Hayela, Adi Hys, Mai Lham and Biet Gebriel. This traditional law was committed to memory, however when two antagonists differ on what the law says they are supposed to request a reading of the law. For example if two people had a disagreement in the lowland areas of Dembelas or Zayidekolom, they are supposed to have a first reading of the law from the book at Areza, then if they want they can head east to Adi Mongonti, and Kudo Felasi and for the fourth and final reading at Qene Hayela. Similarly when two antagonists start at Qohayin they will do their readings at Biet Gebriel, Mai Lham, Adi Hyis and finally Qne-Hayela. [Assuming that all the four readings agree (best of seven) the dispute is supposed to end at Qne-Hayle (a central location for all regions).] Qne Hayle is a village for Miligae while the other six are for Adkeme. The traditional law was ratified at a conference in Mai Leham in the village of Zawil [few kilometers south west of Mai Nefhi]. The Logo-Chiwa anchor villages were: Adi Baro (for the Logo) and Adi Bezhans for Chiwa. If two antagonists from Logo had a difference they hear a reading of the law at Adi Baro and then they proceed to Adi BezHans and the others start at Adi BezHans and they go to Adi Baro. On the traditional laws of Deqe-Teshim, it was legislated by the father-son rulers of the area Abieto Habtslus and Degiyat Gerekstos , respectively. It was written at a place called Adi Brhanu. These too had two anchor villages. Adi Qonsi and Adi Hans. When two people in the western part of this district (Anseba) disagree on the stipulation of the law they will have their reading at Adi Hans and then at Adi Qonsi, while those in the east will start at Adi Qonsi and will proceed to Adi Hans. There is not much difference between these laws, except in some minor issues. The reason we had separate laws is due to ego than anything else. To mention a couple of the few exceptions: In Adkeme-Miligae a woman that had left her father's place through an official wedding ceremony had no right to inherit from her father's land even if she comes back to her village after a divorce, while the right of a woman who comes back to her village after a divorce to inherit her father's land is respected in the other traditional laws. The second exception was the compensation for a lost life under the traditional laws of Dimbezan (Adi Tekeliezan or Adzemat). Here a person who kills another person is supposed to pay 60 cows that are ready to give birth and 60 heifers (cows that haven't given birth yet); this was extreme and the law was amended with the coming of Italian colonial rule. The traditional law of Adkeme-Miligae was ratified at a place called Mai Gief. It is said that the elders worked on the law at a special retreat where they only lived on dried garbanzo beans. There was a parchment of these laws at the Monastery of Abune Yonas, but the enemy stole it. What you have now in your hands is what Degiyat Mehari [of Debzana published in the 1940s]. These laws were always open to amendments involving new crimes that were not included in the laws. When a need to do arises the people are supposed to send representatives that will deliberate on amendments. For example in western lowlands of Seraye, Deqi Tesfa is how they are referred to, had several districts and each of these had particular places where the villagers meet to choose their two or three delegates. For example for the people of Afelba used to meet at Mai Hidmo and choose their delegates and those in the vicinity of Areza used to meet at Areza, the same with those from Dembelas and Zaidekolom. These delegates in turn meet with the delgates from the other delegates from the other regions of Adkeme-Miligae at Mai Gif, the traditional conference place of Adkeme-Miligae. These delegates divide themselves into committees that work on laws concerning inheritance, murder, injury, defamation or slander, marriage and divorce. When these people are done drafting the draft is deliberated article by article by the whole Mai Gif delegation; those articles that are accepted will make it to the law and the population is told about these new additions. In case of new and urgent crime that was not in the books, it is handled by 14 representatives two each from the seven anchor villages if these don't agree on how to proceed they are supposed to send it back to the district chiefs who in turn appoint some wise men from each of the villages to do some further deliberation on it. For example, the Adkeme-Miligae laws had a provision were a married woman is not supposed to be touched by a man even if he wants to get rid off dirt on her cloth. If he does he will be liable. On the other hand, any one who had heard a woman's cry or saw her tears can press charges on her behalf.."

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