Eritrea: ‘Our Material Heritages Define Our Past, and We Must Safeguard Them.’ Mr. Ftsum Ghebreslasie
Our guest today, Mr. Ftsum Ghebreslasie, collects and preserves antique objects as part of his work at his firm, Jumbo Glass Works. He was born in Asmara in 1968, attended Adulis School up to eighth grade and Isaac Teweldemedhin Secondary School from ninth to twelfth grade. He earned a diploma in Agriculture at a college in Ethiopia.
What motivated you to collect historical relics?
I would say I began to gather historical relics and antique objects as a youngster because of a strong innate drive. One fundamental reason why I maintain them is because in 1980, when I was 12 years old, I saw an American buy an old Italian-made “Moto Guzzi” bike. I asked myself why he bought it. When I understood the importance of preserving antiques, then I said they shouldn’t be allowed to leave the country. I began to feel a sense of ownership and made conserving historical relics my career.
I started off by gathering records, newspapers and books and gradually arrived where I am today. My interest in protecting historical relics began when I was in junior high school, and over time, my knowledge also developed and deepened. I’ve spent all the money I’ve earned and saved on these antiques.
I embarked on the project of collecting and preserving relics with the conviction that I “must” gather these antiquated relics for the benefit of the society that should be proud of them now and in the future. I believe that since they couldn’t be produced again, collecting them was the most economical way to preserve them. Most significantly, because older generations have preserved these historical relics, they might have fascinating tales to tell about them.
What historical relics do you have and what do you preserve?
You can find almost anything that was in this country in the past. For a long time, our people have had historical relics such as musical instruments, film projectors, historical records, watches, cameras, radio sets, music records, television sets, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, beverages, postcards, spiritual materials, stamps, and numerous colonial currencies.
My collection of newspapers includes publications since the Italian colonial period — Bulletino Oficiale, Colonia Eritera, IL Quotidiano Eritreo, IL Quotidiano Asmara, Matina di Lunedi, Mebrahti Eritrea, Dehay Eritrea, Natsinet Eritrea, Hanti Eritrea, Development and Prosperity, Negarit, Union and Zemen. I also have a collection of all publications of Hadas Eritrea newspaper starting from its maiden issue on September 1, 1991.
I have preserved many and diverse historical relics, which can provide an insight into ‘where we have been and where we are heading’ as a society.
I have been eager to engage in collecting and preserving relics, but I find it very challenging to keep them as an individual because of lack of space and other resources. I feel my burden would be relieved if what I’ve been doing is carried out by a group of individuals or an organization.
What was people’s reaction like when you started collecting antique objects?
I had trouble persuading them. They used to say, “You converted your home into a warehouse. What are you going to do with all of these old things?” However, once they came to see my collection, they realized my aim and the benefits. My goal now is clear: historical heritage must be preserved. And Eritrean citizens have this responsibility. We hear complaints about historical relics taken to neighboring countries.
What advice do you give to those who retain antiquities in their homes?
Individuals have collected some items over time. They need to keep them. Or they could give it to the relevant authorities. In general, I believe it is appropriate to conserve and prevent old historical relics from leaving the country.
When does the cost of losing historical heritage become apparent?
Failure to preserve antiques causes loss and damage to the future generation. This becomes clear when the subsequent generation searches for references. If they can’t find references, they won’t be able to write, study, or do research, which would be the same as denying the subsequent generation a history they could rely on. Therefore, everyone should know the benefits of preserving historical relics and do what they can to prevent them from leaving their homeland. Above all, it is the responsibility of the people, and they must exercise control over it.
Exactly what is historical heritage?
When we talk about historical heritage, we mean anything that has existed for a very long period. If something is ancient, it has relevance to human culture, customs, history, and behavior. Now, you can infer information about earlier generations’ history from historical relics. What did they eat and drink? What tools did they use? What did they wear? Which types of weapons did they employ? How did they defend themselves against their enemies? You should have historical relics if you want to know the answers.
The following generation can learn from them and study them while maintaining and utilizing them. Historical relics define society’s distinctive characteristics. Historical heritage includes both intangible heritage and material objects that can express generations while ensuring society’s survival and its future.
Those who are excavating the historical places of the ancient port city of Adulis and elsewhere are tasked with discovering these so-called antiquities. By researching and documenting such antiquities you can understand the past and how people were living.
How do you find and collect these historical objects?
I mostly get them from the market. People at the market call me because they know I’m interested in antique objects. I have established a close relationship with them. I’ve worked hard with them to ensure historical relics do not leave their home.
I’ve collected those relics for more than 43 years. It is wonderful to observe contemporary sophisticated technology items in contrast with historical relics. It makes you curious to know how such devices were used back then. You might ask, for example, how music was recorded. Now, seeing
these items every day in my shop fills me with delight.
What challenges have you encountered during the collection and preservation of antique objects?
I do face some difficulties. First off, collecting these relics doesn’t come cheap in terms of time or money. Additionally, it might be very challenging to locate a suitable and adequate storage facility. Not being able to put it in the appropriate location and present it to interested individuals is one of the major issues. The individual who wants to see it and use it will benefit if I find a better location in the future.
That way it won’t take you long to provide people with the reference they need.
I travelled to Italy and brought back many items that belong to us. Old books and other materials have been repatriated. If I come across any Eritrean related property while travelling, I try my best to bring it back home so that our future generations won’t have any trouble finding references.
You buy these items with your own money. Do you get any material benefits from your collection?
I don’t consider money an advantage in and of itself. For me, being able to write actual history is the biggest benefit. You must do something unforgettable if you want to live in others’ memories forever. If this legacy is passed along to future generations, that is what interests me. What you have seen has been set up in such a way that it will endure forever and help future generations. It is not intended for immediate use.
My first goal is for people to be served. Some government agencies ask for references. They take the documents they need when they request them. People who want to do research, learn, and write books do not have to pay for anything here. This is part of our national treasure. It means that all those who need references, whether they are researchers or authors, are given what they request and what is available.
Any final remarks you want to make.
I sincerely thank you for the invitation.