‘Years ago, when I lost all hope of living peacefully in my motherland, I used to dream about Europe.’ (Sibhatu 2004:9)

Ribka Sibhatu, between Eritrea and Italy.

Contributor: Chiara Giuliani

Ribka Sibhatu was born on the 18th September 1962, in Asmara, Eritrea.[i] In 1979 she was sentenced to one year in prison, falsely accused of opposing Marxist ideology and consequently the government of the period; she had refused in fact a marriage proposal from an Ethiopian politician. The experience she went through in prison left a deep scar on her life:

During the long days of my detention, it seemed to me that death was approaching more and more. Every night terror reigned. We, the political prisoners, were terrified by every single door that slammed, by every single noise of handcuffs and by heavy steps. [...] In the evening, they used to enter with handcuffs and the list of people who were to be shot. Not knowing whose turn it was, every noise made our hearts beat faster. [...] Twelve years have passed since I came out of prison, but the girls who were killed and the ones who went crazy when I was there, they still live in me! They often wake me up during my deep sleep [...] And , in the darkness and in the silence, I often cry.(Sibhatu, Aulò: 38)

In 1980 she left Eritrea to move to Addis Ababa. In Ethiopia, thanks to the help of one of her former teachers, she managed to complete high school and to graduate at the Istituto Tecnico Galileo Galilei. During that period she met her future husband, a Frenchman with whom, in 1986, she moved to France; but the marriage ended. Ribka Sibhatu decided to move to Italy where, in her own words: ‘Despite the various problems that an immigrant has to face, my Rome embraced me’. (Sibhatu Aulò:8).

In Rome, she continued her studies in foreign languages at “La Sapienza” university.  Meanwhile, in 1993, she published Aulò. Canto-poesia dall’Eritrea [Aulò. Song-poem from Eritrea], with Sinnos publishing house, in the series I Mappamondi [The globes]. A few years before, in an interview with Alessandro Portelli and Antonietta Saracino, Ribka Sibhatu confessed that her dream was to become a writer but that she also knew how difficult it was to find someone willing to publish her work (Portelli np). However, Sinnos publishers was at that time bringing out a new series for the youth called exactly I Mappamondi. In Francesco Cosenza’s words, the series consists of ‘little books, highly illustrated – very particular tourist guide- which narrate the life of citizens who have more or less recently migrated into our country, describing customs and traditions of their countries of origin.’ (Cosenza np) Aulò is the third volume of this series and the first one to have been written directly by a migrant. It is a bilingual book, with the Italian and the Tigrinya version. As Lucie Benchouiha affirms:

the book is literally half one language, half another, and as such, is a bringing together of, and a linguistic encounter between, two languages and two cultures, the ideal maintenance of a ‘direct and vivid connection with one’s cultural and linguistic roots’. (256)

The writer highlights this encounter not only through bilinguism, but also through the subjects she chooses to tell her story. Even as she defines herself as an Asmarina (inhabitant of Asmara) on the first page, she also underlines how she feels at home in her Italy and how most of her memories in Eritrea have always been linked to Italy. The book’s title comes from the tradition of her country of origin, where the aulò is an oral poem conceived of and then enacted during public events, such as weddings, funerals and commemorations; one of these aulò, dedicated to her uncle is quoted in its entirety, and the final part says: ‘you fell down and you bounced back like a ball,/ the devil’s project is undone,/ with the Virgin Mary’s help!’ (22). Beside the theme of the family, of origins and that of the prison, which having such a crucial role in her life is also treated in this book, the writer introduces in the second part, titled My Abebà, poems, proverbs and songs which belong to the Eritrean tradition. The volume ends, as all those of the series, with the mappapagine [globe-pages] where all the information related to the associations, meeting points, schools, shops etc. of the community taken into consideration, in this case the Eritrean one, can be found.

During the writing of Aulò, she became a mother, to a girl named Sara. In 1997, after her graduation, she cooperated with an NGO ‘theoretically sensitive to the “immigrants’ world”‘, but she was let down, as she affirms:

I realise that in this, as in many other projects that I would deal with afterwards, which were shown to the world as works aimed at improving the image of ‘immigrants’, these ones are those that are really marginalised. (Sibhatu Il cittadino: 10)

In 2004, after several publications, essays and poems, she published Il Cittadino che non c’è. L’immigrazione nei media italiani [The citizen who does not exist. Immigration in Italian media], which was the result of her research for her Ph.D in Sociology of Communication. Initially, the topic of her research should have been the Horn of Africa and in particular Eritrea, and how these were described by Italian media; but unfortunately, the material from the Italian media on this subject was lacking. Consequently, the focus moved to the wider theme of immigration, still from the perspective of the Italian media. For several months Sibhatu took into consideration five different means of information: two of the most important newspapers, two television news broadcasts, on different channels and at different times, and a radio news bulletin. The resultant work is a careful and detailed analysis, which offers to the Italian readership a profound interpretation of the occurrences related to the immigrant reality, which are often reported in a distorted manner. Through the analysis of some events, Ribka Sibhatu deals not only with the image of the migrant as it is presented by the media, but also with the language used by the same journalists, focusing on some expressions such as di colore [coloured] and problem to indicate the immigrant situation, and how this terminology is now, unfortunately, part of the Italian lexicon. The first person narration is noteworthy, strongly desired by the writer with a clear purpose in mind, as she affirms in the introduction:

To better communicate and make a mark on the reader. A real mark, made of emotions, hopes, disappointments, love for my new countries, my new languages, my new homeland that have not eclipsed the memory of the one which saw my birth. [...] The exigency to communicate and to be loved for what I am, to better signpost the entrance into my world made of several languages and several souls. The will to say that, in my diversity, I am exactly like you. Therefore one of you. (32)

This work, starting from the analysis of the resulting data collected over the years, takes into consideration several themes, such as the language, the history, the evolution of migrations and generally the migrant world; all of which filtered through her personal experience as a migrant in Italy.

In addition to various projects all over the country, she worked with the City of Rome from 2002 to 2005 as a consultant for inter-cultural politics, and from 2006 she cooperates with the Minister of Education as a member of the scientific committee for inter-cultural affairs. Despite her commitments over this time, she continued writing and publishing; some of her poems were collected in the anthology Quaderno Africano I [African notebook I] and in  Nuovo Planetario Italiano: geografia e antologia della letteratura della migrazione in Italia e in Europa [New Italian Planetarium: geography and anthology of migration literature in Italy and in Europe] and in several reviews. During the first months of 2012, again with Sinnos, Sibhatu published L’esatto numero delle stelle e altre fiabe dell’altopiano eritreo [The exact number of the stars and other fairytales from the Eritrean plateau], illustrated by Luca De Luise. In this book she again uses the same bilingual structure as she had twenty years before for Aulò. Sibhatu offers a collection of Eritrean fairytales passed on orally through the generations; fairytales are important as they can give an ‘explanation of life, sometimes also describing raw reality’ (5). Each fairytale starts and finishes with exact phrases which, as the writer explains in the introduction (which is also bilingual), have a fundamental role in the narrative process:

The Eritrean fairytale, with its entry and ending rituals, firstly magically detaches the listener from the real world and immerses him in the fantastic one of the narration. Then, at the conclusion of the story, it takes the listener back to reality, underlining that humanity is still situated in the reality which has as definition and limit, life and death (even if the narration creates a marvellous world, to which human identity owes much). (Sibhatu L’esatto: 5-7)

This introduction is of great interest; in it the writer explains what the tale represents in Eritrea and how during her experience in Italian schools she had to modify precisely that entry rite, in order to provoke in Italian children the same amazement that it used to provoke in the Eritrean ones. Therefore the typical Eritrean entry ‘once upon a time, when the stones were ĥambascā’, is transformed, thanks to the efforts of Gianni Rodari, in ‘once upon a time, when the streets were covered in bread, and milk used to flow from fountains, and children could fly…’(7-9).

However, in the book the Eritrean entry is used to show that this is not a book just for a young readership. A significant characteristic is the insertion in the appendix of files on the history of Eritrea and particularly on the structure of Tigrinya. As the editor affirms:

A file related to the history and the structure of the original language, the Tigrinya, has been introduced in the appendix; it could be useful for teachers who might have in class children and young students who naturally have a different linguistic understanding.  Moreover we hope that the approach to different linguistic understandings could make the teaching of our language easier, and could expand our knowledge. (2)

A documentary entitled  Aulò. Roma Postcoloniale [Aulò. Postcolonial Rome], written by Ribka Sibhatu with Simone Brioni and directed by Simone Brioni, Graziano Chiscuzzu and Ermanno Guida, will be released soon. This documentary, following the main theme of Sibhatu’s life, retraces the history of Italy and Eritrean, focusing on the situation of the Eritrean immigrants in Italy. Also of interest, along with the documentary, a volume with the title Aulò! Aulò! Aulò! Poems of nostalgia, exile and love, which will collect all the published and unpublished poems by Sibhatu, is forthcoming.

Committed on all fronts, Ribka Sibhatu, poet and writer, contributed in a relevant way to the cultural exchange between Italy and Eritrea, but also between Italy and the Horn of Africa. Her work, particularly in the world of education, played a crucial role in facilitating integration amongst children, through making them used to the beauty and the importance of multiculturalism. Since her arrival in Italy, Sibhatu, through her works and the projects she has been involved with, has shown and continues to show, how offering a different perspective from the one provided by modern society, particularly by the media, is not only possible but also effective.


[i] All the information related to Sibhatu’s biography, is taken from Aulò. Canto-poesia dall’Eritrea (Sibhatu, Ribka. 1993, Roma: Sinnos, 2004, p. 8), Nuovo Planetario Italiano: geografia e antologia della letteratura della migrazione in Italia e in Europa (Gnisci, Armando, ed. Troina (EN): Città Aperta Edizioni, 2006, pp 290-291) and from Ribka Sibhatu in <http://www.naufragi.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=120:ribka-sibhatu&catid=83&Itemid=483>

Primary sources

Sibhatu, Ribka. Aulò. Canto-poesia dall’Eritrea. 1993. Roma: Sinnos, 2004.

—, Il cittadino che non c’è. L’immigrazione nei media italiani. Roma: Edup, 2004.

—, L’esatto numero delle stelle e altre fiabe dell’altopiano eritreo. Roma: Sinnos, 2012.

Critical sources

Attanasio, Flaminia M. ‘«La chiamate integrazione ma è assimilazione», Terra news. Portale ecologista (2009) < http://www.terranews.it/news/2009/07/%C2%ABla-chiamate-integrazione-ma-e-assimilazione%C2%BB >

AA. VV. Quaderno Africano I. Firenze: Loggia dei Lanzi Editori, 1998.

Benchouiha, Lucie. ‘Hybrid Identities? Immigrant Women’s Writing in Italy’ Italian Studies 61 (2006): 251- 262.

Carroli, Piera. ‘Oltre Babilonia? Postcolonial Female Trajectories towards Nomadic Subjectivity’ Italian Studies 65 (2010): 204-218.

Cosenza, Francesco. ‘In giro per mappamondi tra scrittori migranti e generazione che sale’ El-Ghibli.org 22 (2008) < http://www.el-ghibli.provincia.bologna.it/id_1-issue_05_22-section_6-index_pos_3.html >

Gnisci, Armando, ed. Nuovo planetario italiano. Geografia e antologia della letteratura della migrazione in Italia e in Europa. Troina (En): Città Aperta Edizioni, 2006.

Parati, Graziella, ed. Mediterranean Crossroads. Migration Literature in Italy. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

Poetry Translation Centre < http://www.poetrytranslation.org/ >

Ponzanesi, Sandra, Paradoxes of Postcolonial Culture. Contemporary Women Writers of the Indian and Afro-Italian Diaspora. New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Portelli, Alessandro. ‘Le origini della letteratura afroitaliana e l’esempio afroamericano’ El-Ghibli.org 3 (2004) <http://www.el-ghibli.provincia.bologna.it/id_1-issue_00_03-section_6-index_pos_2.html>

‘Ribka Sibhatu’, Naufragi, Associazione di Promozione Culturale < http://www.naufragi.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=120:ribka-sibhatu&catid=83&Itemid=483 >

‘Ribka Sibhatu’, Roma Multietnica, la guida all’intercultura delle biblioteche di Roma < http://www.romamultietnica.it/it/africa/scrittori-migranti-a-roma/item/3148-ribka-sibhatu.html >

Sibhatu, Ribka. Brioni, Simone. Aulò. Roma postcoloniale (ITA, REDIGITAL 2012)

Taddeo, Raffaele. Letteratura nascente. Letteratura italiana della migrazione. Autori e poetiche. Milano: Raccolto Edizioni, 2006

All the poems, original and translated, included in this section are taken from Poetry Translation Centre.

Daughter of Locusts

Ribka Sibhatu

Locusts, darkened sky,
flayed earth. A mother
panting in bed.

A gloomy month, September,
void of vegetables and greenery.

‘Ileleleleleleleleleleleleleil…!
Ileleleleleleleleleleleleleil…!
Ileleleleleleleleleleleleleil…!

Her crying started as soon
as she came into the world.

Freed from suffering
the search for milk began
going from door to door.

Emaciated livestock lacking milk -
how to soothe the guest?
How to quench a new mother’s thirst?
if the goats are not merciful.

In that desolate moment
she devoured the milk that had just been milked
and took up her crying once more.

‘Is that chubby one crying again?’

‘Roly-poly’s crying -
as if there wasn’t enough trouble’

‘My poor little one… born into
chaos and famine!’

http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/340/Daughter_of_Locusts

Grandmother Moon

Ribka Sibhatu

Like once upon a time
here comes grandmother moon
through the window
full of tales and memories.

Be brave, little one,
I’ll keep you company
wherever you are!

Grandmother moon
tells stories and sings poems
that make us feel
at home in a strange land!

http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/299/Grandmother_Moon

My Abebà

Ribka Sibhatu

On the hill of Haz-Haz
lived a girl from Asmara.
Alas… beautiful Abebà,
poised and slender;
a flower that rhymes Abebà
like kohl rhymes round an eye!

So that the world may know:
while they were digging her grave,
cloaked in mystery and death,
she wove an aghelghel basket
and sent it empty of hmbascià bread.

On an indelible night,
they took her from me in handcuffs!

……………………………………………….

Every day I feel her absence
but in the dark she’s everywhere.

She never wants to leave me -
so bring me the alghelghel of my Abebà
maybe it holds the answer,
the key to her handcuffs

that now bite into me.

There’s only one inscription -

‘a memento for my loved ones’ -

on the alghelghel of my Abebà,
a flower who faded before she bloomed,
my friend in prison.

http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/297/My_Abeb%C3%A0

Mother Africa

Ribka Sibhatu

Cradle of mankind
baobab of the soul,
in your savannahs
and sacred forests
death dances.

You hear the echo, the scream
of the mother
who delivers diamonds
and receives armoured tanks.

O dying land,
that for decades
has met the elders,
the elders who keep
the ancestral treasures.

When will dawn break
for generous
Mother Africa?

http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/280/Mother_Africa

The documentary Aulò. Roma Postcoloniale [Aulò. Postcolonial Rome] (ITA, REDIGITAL 2012) will be distributed by Kimerafilm it will be possible to buy it on http://www.kimerafilm.com/

The trailer is available on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dH08P8N8Nj8