A Conversation with Brown University Anthropologist, Prof. Lina Fruzeti

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.