A Conversation with Brown University Anthropologist, Prof. Lina Fruzeti
by Issayas Tesfamariam
Prof. Fruzzetti was born in Keren of an Eritrean mother and an Italian father. Her father died before she really came to know him, so her brother and Prof Fruzzetti were left in the care of a caring and strong woman, their mother, Lucia Tesba Gilay. From the moment Prof. Lina Fruzzetti lost her father, our world would be defined by our mother’s words and actions. When people ask Prof. Fruzzetti about who she is, she simply replies saying that she is mother’s daughter.
Thanks to her mother’s hard work as servant, a cook and housekeeper before she finally started running her own restaurant, Prof Fruzzetti had the chance to go to school and specialize in the field of anthropology. She went to study in America in 1996, for her Bachelor’s degree in Rosary College, followed in 1970 by the Master’s in the University of Chicago, and finally, doctorate in the University of Minnesota, 1975, in anthropology. Prof. Lina Fruzzetti has also made a film about her identity, “In My Mother’s House”, with a special focus on her mother.
-What ‘s social anthropology and its importance to a society such as Eritrea?
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.
– In your film, “In My Mother’s House”, identity (the search for identity) is prevalent. Does identity come from self or is it a social construct?
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 mother’s 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 what truly mattered.
-The stories that I have heard about relationships between Italian fathers and Eritrean mothers are controversial. Such relationships were often forced, full of abandonment, non-acceptance, etc. Based on your parents’ relationship, do you agree? If yes, why?
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 for 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 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 who knew my father and remembered his generosity. I feel it was luck combined with the effects of my father’s generous nature which we came to benefit from.
-Your mother went to Sudan and established a business there. Is your mother’s success in Sudan unique or is it just that such stories are never told?
My mother’s success in Sudan was not easy; there was a lot of suffering and pain along the way. Her success came at a cost of the workload and the humiliation of having to cater to foreign families, bearing their ire and ill treatment, putting up with their scolding. 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.
-Eritrean fighters used to frequent your mother’s home in Khartoum. Can you elaborate?
My mother had two huge compounds with lots of individual cottages within the compound. One of the compounds was used for injured fighters. She would provide them with food, medical care and all other attentions that pertain to their well-being. She had different people to attend to the fighters. She protected them from people who might be tempted to hurt them. I knew about this fact much later although my mother would not have allowed me or my brother or anyone from the main compound to visit them, she really protected them, and she would not allow people to visit them. A few of these fighters came to my mother’s funeral and though we did not know them, they would tell my brother, husband and I what my mother did and how she touched their lives. Yes, and that is indeed my mom.
At my mother’s funeral, some of the people who attended the service would tell us stories about my mom, how she helped them in various small or big ways to make their lives easy, protect them in her compound, heal the wounded who needed help, assist those who needed financial assistance, help those who needed guidance on how to approach Sudanese offices for travel or visa documents, seek places to live and so on. It basically informed us further of all that our mother did but we had no idea of her work, her generosity and how she in small ways made life a bit bearable for some. On her tombstone, we left a sentence that epitomizes her work, “Lucia being the mother of the poor”.
-Professor, have you ever done any anthropological works on Eritrea? If not, do you plan to?
I did some research on Eritrea but the focus was the family as you have seen in the film. Living in Sudan, I was drawn to Eritrea, a country I knew was mine, that I belong to its lands and had deep roots in the place. It is difficult to do research in a place you know too well, I found that to be the same case for research also in Sudan. But who knows I might embark on a study one of these days. I do have so many ideas waiting to be implemented; there is time.
-Since India, directly or indirectly, had connections with Africa-in general, and the Horn of Africa in particular, have you done research on the topic. Or put differently, a study, for example, on the people called “Habeshat”, also called with different names such as ‘Siddis’ in India?
Recently a scholar gave a talk at Brown University on the ‘Siddis’ in India, the remnants of the Habshi people who were brought to India during the Mughal period as soldiers and palace guards. I thought of doing such a study a while ago but simply have not had the time. I do have a graduate student who will take up the topic for this particular research soon.
-Prof. Fruzzetti, thank you for your time.