A Conversation with Brown University Anthropologist, Prof. Lina Fruzzetti. Part I
Issayas: Briefly tell us about yourself
Prof. Fruzzetti: I was born in Keren of an Eritrean mother and an Italian father. My father died before I really came to know him, he fell down while repairing a leaking roof and died three days later. My brother and I were left fatherless but in the care of a caring and strong woman, our mother Lucia Tesba Gilay. From the moment that we lost my father our world would be defined by our mother’s words and actions, she became our world and still today despite the fact that she died. When people ask me about me, I simply say that I am my mother’s daughter, what one sees is all due to her. She brought my brother and I on her own. I cannot forget the pain and suffering she endured as a servant, a cook, housekeeper, caring for children before she finally found her bearings and began to work on her own, running a restaurant for 36 Italian Engineers who were constructing the second largest dam in Africa-the Roseries Dam. I went on to study in America for my Bachelor’s degree (Rosary College/1966), followed by the Master’s (University of Chicago/1970) and finally the doctorate (University of Minnesota/1975) in anthropology.
Lina, Lucia and Andrea
Issayas: What is social anthropology? And its importance to a society such as Eritrea?
Prof. Fruzzetti: Social anthropology is the study of society, culture and values of its people. It seeks to understand the idea of the person within their social and cultural construct. For example, what constitutes an Eritrean? What makes an individual living in the diaspora to still cling to their roots, to their ideals of a homeland, to family values and beliefs, or to understand their bearings that is still lodged in family and nation? Anthropology opens one’s eyes to the multiple ways we come to understand the formation of identity, of which we are as we confront others who are different from us. My studying of Indians in Bengal, clarified to me what I am not and how I should see myself; raised by my mother, I always knew that what makes me a person has the blueprint of my mother’s socialization. I am my mother’s daughter and by that I belong, like her, to an Eritrea I grew up understanding and hearing about.
"I'm my mother's daughter".
Issayas: In your film, "In My Mother's House", identity (the search for identity) is prevalent. Does identity comes from self or is it a social construct?
Prof. Fruzzetti: Identity comes from many angles, but the primacy of family upbringing is crucial and central. How would I know what the world I was born into signify? I was born in a world that preceded me, my mother’s world. I say mothers because she raised us (me and my brother) my father died when I was three. My life, my formation is through the social and cultural knowledge I was given, inducted into, taught and finally recognized as my own as well. Identity also has a self-component, I knew my other half was Italian, but their absence made it difficult to comprehend it and how to address or attach to it. Identity is from within (a choice we make given our options) but is also socially constructed by our environment and family ties, our religious affiliations, our racial reckoning, and our identification to a country one left behind. Believe me though I left home at 5 years of age, I never felt alienated from Eritrea, my upbringing in a society of mostly Eritreans, one could continue their socialization and connectivity with an idea of “home” even in one’s displaced state. Living in the Sudan, being in boarding school, yet I knew where I belonged, and clearly I knew what was not an aspect of my life. And what truly mattered.
Issayas: The stories that I have heard about relationships between Italian fathers and Eritrean mothers totally different (forced, abandonment, non-acceptance, etc.) from your parents' relationship. Do you agree? If yes, why? For example, your uncle in the film mentioned that your material family had accepted your father.
Prof. Fruzzetti: About Italians and abandonment of their families with Eritreans, I disagree if the question is asked of my own father. Perhaps he was one of those different Italians who defied the impossible and fought for what was right and just for his family. He had left the army and worked as a civilian on road constructions, people who knew and remembered him spoke of his humanity, and of his kindness. He had no intention of leaving Eritrea; he was loved and welcomed by those who knew him. But yes I did hear of such stories and I am sure they are correct. Some did run away and abandoned their wives and children; others left Eritrea to Italy with their kids. I knew such families and have visited them in Italy, no one complained. On the other hand I met families who were cut off and had no ties with their Italian father/husband.
When my father passed away I was three years old, my mother made the decision to leave for to the Sudan with my brother and I, to a country that would prove to be different and alien to us. We were lucky to have found people teaching in schools who knew my father and remembered his generosity; they took my brother and me as boarders. I feel it was luck combined with the effects of my father’s generous nature of which we came to benefit from it. No he would never had abandoned my mother nor his two kids, he simply adored his family , having heard stories from his friends and my mother’s side of the family. Issayas: Your mother went to Sudan and established a business there. Similarly, my great aunt went to Sudan in the 1930s and established a business and family there. Therefore, I have cousins who are Sudanese. Is your mother's (also my great aunt) success in Sudan unique or it is just their stories are never told? By the way, I am glad that you told your mother's story in the film.
Prof. Fruzzetti: My mother’s success in the Sudan was not easy; there was a lot of suffering and pain along the way. Her success came at a cost the workload and the humiliation of having to cater to foreign families, bearing their ire and ill treatment, putting up with their scolding, was tolerated. My mother knew she would end this type of work one day and surely her luck came through when she run her own restaurant feeding 34 Italian Engineers in the Sudan. I can proudly say that my mother did work hard despite the difficulties and hardship. Your aunt and my mother’s success have to do with the nature of being an Eritrean woman. I have not met such women; they had a vision and understood hard work and how to make it define their identity. Eritrean women cannot simply give up; it goes contrary to their nature.
to be continued in part II.