WHY BARENTU INSTEAD OF BIARA Part 6 (2002 January by S. Galli)
It is a chronic, a century-long and a recurring phenomenon that the names of the Kunama Land, of the Kunama rivers, mountains, towns, villages and of the countryside are constantly being either distorted or changed by any stranger coming into and settling in the Kunama Land. The meaning of the name of the regional capital town today known as “ BARENTU ”, had been translated into the Baria/Nara language from its original Kunama name of
“ BIARA “ This town finding itself in the Kunama Land and being the regional capital of the Kunama people, was originally known with the name of the little river which runs through it. “ BIA ”, in the Kunama language means “ water”, and “ ARA “ means “ white “. The two words combined result in “ BIARA “ ( white-water ). Traditionally, most names of the Kunama towns, villages, rivers and countryside have their own meanings either recalling historical events, describing characteristics particular to those places, like landscape scenery, or just informing about some-thing existing in their vicinities. As a matter of fact, the waters of that little river flowing through “ Barentu “ are known to be “ whitish “ hence the name of “BIARA “ (White-water ). Translated into the Baria/Nara language, literally it would be “BARENKU “, but over the years it was said to have been somehow turned into “ Barentu “ which would again mean a further distortion of that language too. “ BRUNTU “, as the Eri-Tigrians pronounce it, has no meaning whatsoever but it indicates only a clear distortion. It has in fact completely lost its meaning. The Tigre/Beni-Amer of the neighbouring Barka region, correctly translating “ Biara “ into their language call it “ Maitada/Maitzada “,
( white-water ) up to these days. As it is a customary and a known phenomenon regarding the names of many rivers around the world, that little Kunama river too, until it reaches
“Barentu “, is called with several other names as it runs down all the way from the mountains of the “ Kunama Sosona “ region. The waters of that river in fact, originate from the “ Oshi “ mountain-range, in the northern parts of “ Barentu “. At the very bottom of that mountain, where there are water-wells known to provide the cleanest and sweetest waters, that river is called “ Sosona “, from which the whole region too derives its name. The area extending from there on was known to the Italian authorities as “la Frazione Sosona”
( the Sosona District ). After five/six kilometres, that same little river is called “ Umugna-Suba “ ( the Umugna river ) taking this name from the water-wells found in that depot known as “ UMUGNA BADDA “ ( Upper Umugna ). As it flows down other five or six kilometres, that river is called.“ Umugna-Shutta-Suba “ ( the river of the Lower Umugna ) where other water-wells lie. It is then called “Borkosh-Suba “ ( from the Borkosh water-wells ) and it continues its course till it eventually reaches “ Barentu ” where it is identified with the town of “ BIARA “. As it is clear, in all those places where that river assumes a new name, there lie water-wells and therefore its different names indicate also the spots where those water-wells lie along its course. In Barentu too, there are several water-wells providing potable and irrigation waters to the town and to the nearby-lying vegetable-fields. Many Kunama compare the taste of the waters of that river in Barentu to claim that those at the bottom of Oshi mountain are much cleaner and sweeter. From Barentu, the river then continues its course westwards. The town of “ Biara “, according to some foreign diarists and elderly Kunama, originally was just a hamlet inhabited mostly by a small community of Kunama cow-herders attracted by the abundance of its waters and the fertile grazing areas along that river banks.
When the first Italian soldiers set foot in the Kunama Land, they were said to have initially stationed in a little Kunama village called “ Augana “ some ten/twelve Kilometres north-east of Biara. It is reported that, the Kunama inhabitants of that village, feeling uncomfortable and disliking the presence of those “ white people “ in their village, some clever villagers were said to have used fine tactics to get rid of those strangers.
As a matter of fact, it is believed that, those same villagers themselves had led a group of the Italian soldiers to Biara thinking that place to be more suitable to them both in terms of its mild air as well as because of the availability of water, a rare commodity in that part of the country. The Italians were said to have been immediately very impressed and fascinated not only by the climate but particularly by the strategic position of Biara which proved to be of historical importance in later years. Soon after, the Italians were said to have transferred their soldiers and arsenals and established their permanent station there. Some Baria/Nar and Tigre/Beni-Amer ethnic group members too were said to have been attracted by the waters as well as by the relatively cooler air of Biara and established themselves there together with their live-stock. Gradually Biara became a cosmopolitan centre which was the reason why each ethnic group started to call it in its own ethnic language:
“ Biara, Barenku and Maitada/Maitzada “.
Up to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Baria/Nara, the Kunama and the Tigre/Beni-Amer were the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of Biara and one could hear those three tribal languages being indifferently spoken in its market places.
According to the former Kunama inhabitants of Biara, sometime later, the tribal chief of the Baria/Nara too was said to have transferred and established himself in “ Barenku “. It is also reported that, few years later, that Baria/Nara tribal chief, being very sympathetic to and enjoying some favours of the Italian commander of Biara, was said to have approached the Kunama tribal chief and told him he should transfer himself to and reside in Tessenei which, according to that Baria chief, were the real Kunama town and not “ Barenku “ which he claimed to belong to his Baria/Nara ethnic group. The Kunama tribal chief was said to have been so hurt and angered that he was reported to have jumped up, grabbed the turban of the Baria chief and was about to strangle him with it had the presents not intervened to hold him back. As already mentioned, the Baria chief enjoying the favours of the Italian commander was said to have succeeded in having the Kunama chief transferred to Tessenei but this was said to have vowed to return to and reside in Biara in the shortest time as he later did. On his turn, the Kunama chief was said to have confronted and told the Baria chief to transfer himself to and reside in Mogolo, the regional capital centre of the Baria/Nara.
As it has always been the case, the Kunama name of “ BIARA “ has remained only in the minds and tongues of the Kunama rural population whereas the urban Kunama, being overwhelmed by the ever increasing number of the other ethnic group members residing in
“ Barentu “, have lost both the use of the original name and therefore also the meaning of the name of their regional capital town. In “ Biara “ itself and in the official political circles, the anyway, distorted name of “ B-A-R-E-N-T-U “ had eventually imposed itself. Today only the adult Kunama call it “ Biara “ and very few Baria/Nara and Tigre/Beni-Amer call it “Barenku and Maitada/Maitzada “. My question: why “ Barentu “ instead of “Biara “ is therefore based on this historical background which I firmly believe it to be very legitimate. My main intent is neither to rekindle past emotions nor arouse a new ones but only to analyse events in their chronological developments and order which very often make us human-beings lose sight of their roots fundamental truth. The phenomenon of translating into, distorting, or completely altering the names of the Kunama Land, of the Kunama villages, towns, rivers, mountains and historical and meaningful localities has become a recurring cycle some other ethnic groups seem to like and transmit it continuously. It is a phenomenon denoting lack of respect of whatever sounds “Kunama” or reflects the “ Kunama cultural heritage “. It is a clear tendency to destroy the existing local values in order to impose one’s own imported cultural values. It is a human drive to wanting to exercise one’s ethnic power and dominion over another person or upon an entire ethnic group. Surely, it not a social phenomenon restricted only to and in Eritrea but world-wide. In fact, in some African and Latin-American countries entire ethnic or tribal groups had been wiped out by powerful groups in order to strengthen their own security and stability. Methods may vary and change but aims remain the same. “ Homo homini lupus “, used to say the ancient Romans, meaning, “ a human-being can be and behave just like a wolf against his own fellow-human-being “.
We Kunama have been writing and talking a lot about the present-days’ distortions and changing of the Kunama names of places being undertaken, particularly, by the present PFDJ regime and its Eri-Tigrians continuously flooding the Kunama Land. It is in fact a historical reality that the cultural values of any native ethnic group re-emerge sometime and somehow, no matter after how long, how often and how much attempts had been made by strangers to extinct them. It is the force of nature itself which refuses to succumb and die as it keeps resisting to any foreign force exerting upon or using unnatural ways either to disrupt or supplant it. Ethnic names are extensions of ethnic values. Forcefully trying to alter those names equals to combating those values. Imposition of a foreign culture, aggressive attempts to integrate, assimilate and homogenise different ethnic groups is a complicated business requiring time and patience. The integration, assimilation and homogenisation processes of human cultures challenge centuries , particularly when they are searched artificially as then the different cultures contrast sharply rather than peacefully coming together. Peace always dies quicker and resurrects slower than conflicts and hatred.
It has been already pointed out that, the Kunama name of the river “ Sona “ itself had been changed into “ Gash “ which in turn came to stand for the “ Kunama Land “. Similarly, the name of the river known to the Kunama as “ Tika-Suba “ ( The Tika-River ), called “ Setit “ by others, had been adopted and formed “ Gash/Setit “ to stand for the “ Kunama Land “.
Many experts on the Eritrean and Kunama affairs, agree that, “ Gash/Setit “ to mean the
“ Kunama Land “, has always been a very delicate and “ joker-like “ political card played by the various rulers of Eritrea. Up to not long ago, the whole of the Kunama Land was attached to and considered a province of the greater “ Barka region “ with Agordat as its regional capital town. Those experts reason that, “ Barka “ itself being the name of the river which runs through that region, the Kunama Land too had to be identified with the combined names of the two rivers “ Gash and Setit “. That was therefore purely a political argument which had obviously ignored, trampled upon and usurped all social, ethnic and the geographic values of the Kunama people. Such an artificial map created at a “ dinner-table “ could not and cannot be regarded and accepted as being a viable and a reasonable solution.
Following the traditional different local names of rivers, as soon as “ Sona “ reaches their borders, the Sudanese call it “Gash “ and therefore, I see no reason why we Kunama should not stick to our Kunama name of “ Sona ” and leave “ Gash “ to the Sudanese.
Without very much speculating on who could have been fiddling with our Kunama names, let me only point out that, one does not necessarily intend to use a similar sinister and aggressive manner to change now “ Barentu “ into its original Kunama name of “ Biara “, and be immediately called so, but it would be surely a fairer gesture to the Kunama people and to the Kunama culture to return back to the genuine historical roots, be they as regard to accepting the names or respecting all other Kunama cultural and traditional values. It is in fact a historical fact that, forceful changes of names very often have deep political implications denoting de-culturalisation and assimilation attempts exercised by dominant ethnic groups upon minor cultures. Calling “ Barentu “ again “ Biara “ as I believe it, could somewhat diminish and diffuse such ethnic sentiments and give the Kunama people a sense of due acceptance, respect and appreciation of their culturo-ethnic values by others. It would be also a very motivating feeling if the names of other Kunama towns, villages, rivers and so on, were retained, respected and called with their Kunama names. In a multi-cultural society, the principle that, “unifying factors are to be encouraged and the dividing ones discouraged“, is just as valuable as one’s own ethnic culture itself. Let therefore, please, the Kunama names remain “ KUNAMA “.
S. Galli (January)