He was elated to find an inscription he carved into the sidewalk on Liberation Avenue, dated 1-5-51
BY BEREKET KIDANE
As human beings reach an advanced age and start looking back on their lives, they reminisce about places and people from their past. Some take a road trip to visit their college campuses, the army base they were stationed at when they were a young soldier or the city they grew up in. We all want to visit places from our past and hope to see the folks we were once friends with or people who were once a significant part of our lives but no longer are due to time and distance.
Some places we have called home in the past continue to occupy a special place in our hearts and never leave us. They continue to live in us. The memories are etched in our hearts. They are memories that time cannot erase.
That city for Signore Beneto Alessandro is Asmara, Eritrea. Signore Beneto, now 87 years old and living on fixed income as a retiree in Palermo, decides to sell his favorite car so he can finance his lifelong dream of a return trip to Asmara, the city where he once worked and lived.
Beneto moved to Asmara at age 6 and lived there until age 33. His father, Enrico, was a contractor who built homes, churches, commercial buildings and sidewalks. Beneto learned the construction trade from his father at a young age and later started his own business, inheriting most of the employees from his father’s company. He affectionately talks about how much he enjoyed Asmara’s Mediterranean way of the good life, how much he admired the work ethic and quick wit of Eritreans, and how much he has dreamed of returning to Asmara all those years.
Beneto loved two things: working and biking around in Asmara. He raced competitively in the Serie B division too and rattled off names of Eritrean cycling greats he competed against such as Yemane, Gerezgiher of Dekemhare, Berbere, Wolday, Alazar and others. Biking was his preferred way of shuttling around Asmara to the various construction projects he contracted on.
He must have also been a strong swimmer in his youth because an elderly Italian friend that he runs into later in the video, Riro Modici, talks about how Beneto used to tuck dive (free dive) without an Oxygen tank some three meters down in the sea to catch fish. Probably in Massawa or the Red Sea islands, although Riro doesn’t say where. Riro, who never left Asmara and now 80 years old, ribs his old friend Beneto about his young looks “Gobez” after all those years. The two reminisce about the old times and their families.
Benetto is ecstatic to once again walk the sidewalks of Asmara he built and is very happy to find Eritreans who still speak Italian that can show him around the city. While walking the sidewalks of Asmara’s boulevards, he becomes a tourist in the city he grew up in, but is also simultaneously transported back in time to when he was a young man some 60 plus years ago.
He becomes elated when he finds an inscription he carved into the sidewalk on Asmara’s famous boulevard, Liberation Avenue, dated 1-5-51. He had carved the inscription into the sidewalk 60 plus years ago at the suggestion of his friend who owned a grocery store on the block.
Beneto gets to visit his childhood home that he helped his father build in the Geza Banda district. His childhood home is now the Embassy of France. One can see a white marble plaque with the inscription “Villa Roma” on the side of the mansion and a second plaque of the symbol of the City of Rome with Remus and Romulus, the legendary twin brothers and founders of Rome, being suckled by a she-wolf. Asmara was once called “Picolla Roma” or “Seconda Roma.”
As can be seen from the Eri-TV produced video (see below) covering Beneto’s return to Asmara and the many stories told over the years by Italians, the Italian settlers who came as colonists felt comfortable and at home in Eritrea. Many settled there, took on local wives and never returned home. Historians have pointed out this fact on numerous occasions before, but Eritrea never felt quite as foreign to the Italians as Nigeria did to the British, Mali to the French or Namibia to the Germans. Eritrea and the Italians gelled. It may have had to do with the fact that many of the Italians that came to Eritrea as settlers were southern Italians with Arab and north African blood running through their veins. The rugged landscape of the mezzogiorno is certainly similar to the Eritrean mountains.
Signore Beneto’s return to Asmara after 52 years can be summed up in one word: love. It was love of Eritrea and Eritreans, love of the people he worked with, love of the landscape and love of the sidewalks and buildings of Asmara that made him come back after all those years. At age 87, the white-bearded Beneto who looks like he could win the Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, fulfills his lifelong dream of visiting Asmara and walking in its sidewalks before he dies.
Beneto becomes emotional in the end and says now that he has seen Asmara again, he is fine when and if death comes knocking on his door. He has encouraging words, too, for Eritreans, “Ajokum! Ajokum! Ajokum!” or “hang in there and stay strong” in English.
How nice would it be if we could set-up a small fund for Signore Beneto to replace the car he sold to finance his trip to Eritrea in recognition of his love for the Eritrean people and the contributions he made to the country? Love is all that truly matters in the end. The rest is nothing.