Jordan Gebre-Medhin; professor pushed Eritrean autonomy

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / December 22, 2008

Jordan Gebre-Medhin, a Northeastern University associate professor whose 1989 book helped fuel the struggle for independence in his native Eritrea, died Dec. 8 at his home in Cambridge.

Dr. Gebre-Medhin, a towering teacher and the first faculty member in Northeastern's African-American studies department to earn tenure, was 64.

"He was a gentle giant, an affable personality with dignity, yet kind and gracious," said Tseggai Isaac, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and a fellow Eritrea scholar. "He was a great person."

Friends and family said Dr. Gebre-Medhin left Eritrea in 1965 for more education. He earned his doctorate in sociology and anthropology in 1979 from Purdue University.

Dr. Gebre-Medhin's book, "Peasants and Nationalism: A Critique of Ethiopian Studies," was the first major challenge to claims casting Eritrea as a subsidiary of Ethiopia, its neighbor in northeast Africa.

The book provoked heated debate among political factions and drew favorable reviews from other scholars. Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

When he returned to his homeland in the early 1990s to give a speech, Dr. Gebre-Medhin drew a packed auditorium, said his son, Ben, who accompanied his father on the trip.

"He started in English," Ben Gebre-Medhin said. "But about two or three sentences in, he asked if the people preferred he continue in Tigrinya [the local language], and he did. Everyone was amazed he still had total command of Tigrinya. It moved people."

When Dr. Gebre-Medhin learned earlier this year that his illness, pulmonary fibrosis, was incurable, he insisted his son remain at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is pursuing a doctorate in sociology.

"My dad didn't want me to stop studying," Ben Gebre-Medhin said. "I've been following in his footsteps, and he didn't want his illness to detract from my progress."

Dr. Gebre-Medhin met the woman he would marry, Priscilla Alice Hill, while they were students at Purdue. Friends said he was a gifted mimic who loved the blues and would sing Ray Charles songs to her over the phone while they courted. They were married 36 years.

In the fall of 1980, Dr. Gebre-Medhin began teaching at Northeastern and became an associate professor in the African-American studies department in 1988.

"He taught innumerable students in courses on early and modern African civilizations, colonialism, and third-world political relations. He prepared assiduously for his classes and conveyed a genuine concern that his students learn the materials," Northeastern provost Stephen W. Director said in a statement.

In addition to his book, Dr. Gebre-Medhin also published articles and reviews in journals including The Horn of Africa, the Review of African Political Economy, Eritrean Studies Review, and the Review of Radical Political Economics.

Several family members said they will remember Dr. Gebre-Medhin as a gifted storyteller, a great cook of fiery African cuisine, and an optimist who encouraged others to see "the glass half full."

His family recalled his tenacious pursuit of research and scholarship. He and his wife twice suffered apartment fires in which they both lost years of academic work. Dr. Gebre-Medhin started over each time, so he could earn his doctorate.

He was a regular at the Green Street Grill in Cambridge for many years and often brought visiting leaders from Eritrea to the cafe, according to former owner John Clifford, who became a close friend.

At Dr. Gebre-Medhin's funeral Dec. 14 at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, performers sang some of his favorite songs, including the Ray Charles signature hit, "Georgia." A proclamation filed by Cambridge City Councilor Ken Reeves honoring his life and work also was read during the service.

In recent years, the rise of violence in Eritrea and loss of freedom seemed to dim Dr. Gebre-Medhin's "joie de vivre," said his longtime friend Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of government at Columbia University.

"I thought the change had come with a sense of betrayal, the loss of a cause to which he had given much of his life. That was the loss of country. As independent Eritrea slid into a one-party dictatorship, Jordan came to realize that America, not Eritrea, was home, his and his family's future," Mamdani said in a eulogy at his funeral.

In addition to his son and wife, Dr. Gebre-Medhin leaves a sister, Segereda, of Washington, D.C.; a brother, Gideon, of Boston; and many nieces and nephews.

Burial was private.

Dr. Jordan Gebre-Medhin – ZAQ “the Giant of a man”

Awate - Featured Articles
By Petros Tesfagiorgis - Dec 17, 2008

I switched on my computer on 10-12-2008 and I read Kasahun’s message announcing the death of my closest friend Dr. Jordan Gebre-Medhin – ZAQ. I became extremely sad and soon my eyes filed with tears. I felt helpless; you need to talk to somebody in such a time. The only recourse was to ring my X- Elsa to share my sadness because she was also very close with him as both our families are. She was deeply moved and she told me she talked to him recently about two weeks ago and he was very sick.

I knew Jordan since our university days in Addis Ababa. It was a mere acquaintance because those of us who came from Eritrea usually stuck together and we had little connection with Eritrean who grew up in Ethiopia, like Jordan.

Jordan’s knowledge of the Amharic language was perfect more so than that of his Tigrinya. I had noticed him because of his flamboyant character and the way he used to carry his Guitar with him. He was tall and handsome. In those days those of us who came from Eritrea were more exposed to American music because of the American Army Base in Asmara, the Kagnew station, which had 24 hour radio Broadcast. They had 2 clubs in side the Kagnew Camp, Oasis club and Top five club. Top ten songs in New York were also played in Asmara. His competitor was the Asmarino, Alemseged Tesfai, the author of “Aynefelale” and “Federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia: from Anse Matenso to Tedla Bairu” in Tigrinya. He was a talented singer and had captivating voice; he had something none of us had at that time, his love for classical music. He was known for his song called “Oh. Venice.” On the other hand Jordan had a rich deep voice and his favourites were African American muscians such as Otis Reading, Sam Cook, Mahlia Jackson, Al Green, Ray Charles and Elvis Priestly etc. He was particularly fond of the song “unchain my heart and set me free” by Ray Charles. They were not professional but populist only among small group of friends.

Our deep and serious friendship developed when he came to London to do his research for his book “Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea” in the Public Record Office in Kew Gardens at the beginning of the 1980S. As a member of EPLF foreign relations and full time ERA worker I was duty bound to cooperate with any body in a mission to promote the case of Eritrea. With Jordan it was a blessing because we had known each other previously and we had shared values that cemented our relationship and developed into a level of extended family. We had shared the belief that the armed struggle waged by the people of Eritrea had been a war to end all wars of oppression and subjugation. We never anticipated that wars or the threat of war would be a permanent feature of Eritrea simply because the present leaders have mismanaged the country and became indifferent to the suffering of the people. It is a situation where the people of Eritrea have won the war of independence but not the peace and tranquillity.

Kassahun Checole in his message titled “The Giant of a Man” which I have adopted has summed up the kind of a man Jordan was.

In August 1984 Elsa and I visited USA as part of our honey moon. At that time there was a special programme for those who visit the USA. We bought air-coupons of 12 that can fly to 12 cities for only $300 dollars. It was part of USA tourist attraction. It was not available for people who live in the States. We visited New York, Washington, Dallas, Houston, where there were my siblings, Boston to visit Jordan and family and New Jersey to visit Kassahun his African American wife Ayo and his daughters. In Boston he introduced as to Dan Connell with whom they did a lot of work to publicize the just cause of Eritrea. He took us to visit the town hall were the office of Senator Kennedy was. At the corridor he attracted our attention to some names written on the wall. It was the names of America’s Founding fathers, the makers of the American constitution. He briefed us on the American Revolution and the history of the founding fathers. That would remain in my mind ever since and it had an inspiring effect on me. But at the same time I had difficulties to reconcile it with the history of the brutal discrimination of the black African race and the propping up of repressive regimes in the Third World like that of Congo in Africa.

Jordan was an intellectual power house. His study room in his present house in Boston is a library. The whole wall is full of books. When I entered his study room I felt pride to make a bond with such a character, I was humbled, though, by my intellectual inadequacy. Not only did he made an extensive research on Eritrea that culminated in the book, “Peasants and Revolution in Eritrea” but also he wrote scholarly articles in defence of Eritrean Independence in the magazine “Ethiopian Review” in response to those who were critical of Eritrean Independence and the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic front (EPRDF). On our first visit to Boston he took me and Elsa in an area where every corner is a university. I marvelled Boston as a city of Universities. We walked and walked with fascination. Jordan had no interest in driving a car only Priscilla used to drive us around. When we took men’s outing in bars there was always a Bostonian called Berhane Haile – an ex-Addis Ababa University student, a conscious individual, a dreamer of a democratic Eritrea, who worked very hard to make the Boston Eritrean community Association free from the control of either the PFDJ or the opposition as communities should be. Berhane always gives richness to our talks as he was always inquisitive and loves debate which is in short supply in today’s Eritrea. We were extremely concerned that the interference of PFDJ has rendered all Eritrean community groups in Diaspora divided and weak. In London alone there are more than 28 Eritrean community groups. But today they are beginning to understand the need to connect with each other and to identity common denominators to work together.

Jordan used to dress simply and his simplicity was captivating. He was extremely humorous; by his jokes he instils laughter even in the middle of serious discussions. He was the kind of person one never gets tired of. I remember an unforgettable event back in 1987. He came to the United Kingdom this time with Priscilla and Benjamin (Binian) who was may be 6-8 years old at that time. We plan to have a family outing and I drove them to Kew Gardens to spend the whole day there. Kew Gardens is the most beautiful and famous garden in the United Kingdom. It houses flowers from all over the world including flowers that do not survive in a cold climate except in green houses. Tired of walking around the garden we went out to lunch and started to walk to choose a restaurant. My daughter Segen was a year and a half old. Ben felt very protective and he was adamant to push Segen’s push chair. All of a sudden ZAQ stopped and said. “What is wrong with the English, every where we go they invite us to use their toilets, I don’t need a toilet I need my lunch now.” Priscilla, Elsa and I looked at each other. I said this is ridiculous people are not invited to use a toilet, they just walk through. He said, “Read?” pointing at a big board on the wall. It read, “To let” not “to- i- let” and there were many around the high roads. In a spontaneous reaction Priscilla, Elsa and I burst into uncontrolled laughter, and even Ben was laughing. “To let” is synonymous “for rent” In all my life I have never seen a husband make his wife laugh as much as Jordan did. I though Priscilla was born to laugh with ease. What an ideal family.

The Pan-African Dimension: In mid 1980s, the leading African Statesman Abdurrahman Mohamed Babu moved from USA to the UK and Jordan asked him to contact me. Jordan implored Abdurrahman Babu to assist us in our revolutionary work indicating that we were young and inexperienced and needed his support. Jordan also rang me and advised me to get in touch with him through a Zanzibar Journalist with the BBC. Later on both will travel to Eritrea and the journalist would made a video and Babu would write many articles in many African Journals, particularly African Events, and gave talks in Sweden, Canada, USA and UK.

I soon realized that there is a pan-African dimension were Eritrean intellectual have played a leading role. Among them were Kassahun Checole, Dr. Bereket Habte-Sellasie, Jordan Gebre-Medhin, and Tekie Fitzehazion. A lot of the materials of the book “Never Knell Down”, by Dr.Stuart Holland, labour MP and shadow minister of overseas development and James Firebraces were gathered by Tekie from public records office in London.

These elements of Eritrean intellectuals were committed to Africa in a more profound manner than many arm-chair African revolutionaries studying in foreign universities, East or West. In the spirit of Pan- Africanism they advocated for economic cooperation, free movement of people and goods, common market and eventually political union in Africa. It was of these shared ideas and pan-Africanism that the Eritrean Intellectuals in the States saw in Babu and persuaded him to get involved.

Babu became more than an Eritrean Ambassador he became an advocate for the right of the people of Eritrea to determine their own future. He reached out to many African intellectuals, musicians, poets and singers. Eritrean evenings in UK had an African input. Many events were booked to take place in University big halls mostly School of African and Oriental studies (SOAS), University of London and were booked by African Students Union for free. In the evenings various African cultural bands took turns together with our Eritrean cultural groups.

There were also two famous poets one from South Africa, a member of PAC (Pan African Congress of South Africa) called Pitika N’utili and one from Senegal called Ahmed Sheik who would became a director of culture for Pan-African movement based in Uganda. He was invited to do poetry in Asmara at the Municipality Hall in commemoration of A. Babu shortly after his death in London in 1996.

Kassahun’s effort to build an African publishing house was a pan African victory and success story for Eritrean intellectuals. Through out the struggle Eritrean Intellectuals were being undermined by the front leaders. Their inputs have not yet been acknowledged. On the other hand African intellectuals and writers had an added problem in that the main stream publishing houses in the Western countries were not interested to write books written by African writers. Kassahun worked hard to change all these and he did it by building the formidable “Red Sea Press”. He managed to publish books otherwise marginalized by the main stream Western Publishing house. That was his dream come true and he did it with the active support of his African American Wife, Ayo.

When Eritrean independence was announced several of the African artists launched a night at African Centre in London. They were x members of a band called African down, a Congolese band, the Walla sound and from Mali with the talking drums. The slogan was “Eritrea is free the people have spoken”. It is with sadness that they would eventually learn that the people have not yet spoken. Their voice was suppressed by their own brothers and sisters in power. The people of Eritrea has won the war for independence but failed to win the peace and tranquillity.

When the policy of militarizing education in Eritrea is changed Jordan’s book together with other books would be in Libraries in Universities and high schools in democratic Eritrea. We will have a renaissance in pursuit of the treasury of knowledge which our young people are missing. Through his book Jordan will live in the hearts of many book lovers. His book will represent a gift for Eritrea. Jordan is survived by his wife Priscilla and his son Benjamin. Benjamin has grown to be conscious of the problems of developing countries he did spend some time in Eritrea working for his thesis and he spend 2 years as a peace core working with Palestinians in Jordan. He is continuing his higher studies today. He was under extreme pressure recently, like his mother he was besides his father in those critical days.

Farewell my beloved friend.


It is with great sadness that we hear of the untimely death of our friend and brother, Dr. Jordan Gebre-Medhin. A scholar, a patriot, a citizen a nationalist and a person of the finest pedigree departs from us in an untimely death.

Jordan was an amazing man of great personal qualities. He was a gentile giant, an affable personality with dignity, yet kind and gracious by temperament. One of the unforgettable memories that I will have of Jordan is his gravitas, his personal integrity, his intellectual courage and deep commitment to honest research. Jordan detested impressionistic and superficial research. He believed intellectual pursuit should be rooted in meticulously gathered data, sifted and analyzed on the basis of indisputable objectivity. “If it is not scientific, it is not worth publishing” he would say. He was an intellectual lion, a scholar of genuine integrity whose untimely death will create a void in the already weakened Eritrean scholarship.

At the most critical phase of the Eritrean struggle, Jordan’s book, Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea: A Critique of Ethiopian Studies, came out in 1989 to give wide publicity to the lone struggle of the Eritrean people. No doubt his book cast a stern gaze on the merits for Eritrean independence. Those scholars already committed to the “Greater Ethiopia” orthodoxy, were not enthralled by the book’s central theme. They were shrill and intemperate against this giant truth-teller. His reasoning, his data, his analysis and his conclusion were indisputable and no amount of windy cacophony was going to dent this bastion of integrity. Hard-hitting truths gather loud adversities, but they remain steadfast as was the case with Professor Jordan Gebre-Medhin’s work.

Jordan hopped post-struggle Eritrea would be friendly to intellectuals where they can gather in, revitalize, and shape Asmara University to a citadel of learning of world class standards. It is truly sad that such a nationalist scholar, and a genuine patriot whose writings added great measure of substance to the rational for Eritrean independence will not be around to see such an eventuality.

Jordan, my dear brother and friend, I bid you farewell not in tears for tears are not becoming of you, but in the eternal memory of a few hours we discussed the welfare of our noble people – a nobility ingrained in you and you displayed through and through. May you rest in peace!

Tseggai Isaac, PhD.
Associate Professor
Political Science
Missouri University of Science and Technology
Rolla, Missouri 65401

Awate Obituary

Dr. Jordan Gebre-Medhin, scholar, professor and author, passed away on Monday, December 8 around 9 PM at his home in Cambridge, MA. He is survived by his wife Priscilla and his son Beniam (Benjamim) who were by his side in his last hours.

Dr. Jordan is perhaps best known for authoring “Peasants and Nationalism in Eritrea: A Critique of Ethiopian Studies.” (Red Sea Press, 1989.) The book was based on his doctoral thesis and it was one of the first to attempt to correct the prevailing and erroneous characterizations of Eritrea’s two liberation fronts.

A professor long associated with Northeastern University, Dr. Jodran Gebre-Medhin is described by his friends as a “committed nationalist and a dedicated pan-Africanist” and one whose “love of life was as big as his build.”