Poetry by Ribka Sibhatu


There are people who starve to death,
others who sleep rough in the winter
and then there are those who fly
from one end of the earth to the other
to stare open-mouthed at eclipses.


For a bride, her virginity is just as important as her eyes, if not more so. According to our country’s traditions, if a bride isn’t a virgin, she’s taken back to her parents’ house after her wedding and made to sit astride a donkey while wearing a wonciòi. This is considered to be a disgrace for the whole family. During the war, people from the cities took refuge in the countryside, and in order to integrate, they had to make many sacrifices, for instance like shouldering twenty liters of water back home even if the well was two or three miles away. In 1981, I was sheltering in Adi Hamuscté, about twenty kilometres from Asmara. One afternoon, a handsome youth and four old men showed up and they told me that the youth, whom I’d never seen before that day, wanted to marry me because the previous day he’d suffered the misfortune of learning that his bride had been violated! If my father had agreed with the prospective groom and I’d refused their proposal, I would have run the risk of being married off against my will regardless, or worse, to be cursed by my father. Children greatly fear the might of their parents’s curses! It was at this time that an idea occurred to me, which was to claim that I too had suffered an irreparable incident! I’ll leave you to picture my father’s reaction, who later fell in disgrace in our community’s eyes. The young man, for his part, went off wordlessly in search of his virgin!


Ribka Sibhatu

Ribka Sibhatu was born in Asmara, Eritrea, in 1962. Following a year of imprisonment in 1979, she fled the country in 1980, and finally settled in Rome, Italy in 1996, where she has lived ever since. Her publications include Aulò! Canto Poesia dall'Eritrea (Aulò: Eritrean Bardic Songs; Sinnos, 1993), a collection of poetry, and Il numero esatto delle stelle e altre fiabe eritree (The Exact Number of Stars and Other Eritrean Fables; Sinnos, 2012), a collection of Eritrean folk tales. Ribka Sibhatu speaks five languages and currently works as a trainer, consultant, and interpreter for the Italian judicial system and various international organizations.

André Naffis-Sahely

André Naffis-Sahely is the author of the collection The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin, 2017) and the pamphlet The Other Side of Nowhere (Rough Trade Books, 2019). He is also the editor of The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, 2020). He has translated over twenty titles of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Abdellatif Laâbi, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Frankétienne.

Copyright (c) Ribka Sibhatu, 1993. English translation copyright (c) André Naffis-Sahely, 2020.