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Five Women & the Five Things I Learned in Rainy August

I remember meeting her for the first time. The AWiB board had finalized our difficult yet interesting task of shortlisting to five nominees from the twenty that were interviewed.

I had read her profile and listened to a summary of her interview with one of the board members. Yet now I sat in a small office waiting to interview her again for the documentary. She walks in and we greet each other. Fix the mic on her lapel; adjust seating and microphone levels; “three, two, one…rolling” says the camera guy and I proceed to ask her the interview questions. Sara Mohamed, starts out timidly sharing with me where she was born and raised and the trajectory her life took from her birth city of Dire Dawa to the glamour of Paris and back to Addis Ababa where she in her own right has now become the “go to gal” to learn fashion design in the city. The conversations unravel into so many more interesting stories and with each remark she makes and each question she answers, she takes me through a visual journey of her life, accompanied by the fervor alive in her voice that is growing from timid to passionate with each sentence. Her hand gestures become a tad bit animated. A wave of excitement takes over her as she shares her life’s work. All through our conversation, I am taken by the consistency of her faith. A successful business owner that she is, Sara exudes humility and strength in her faith to take her and what she stands for to higher ground. I left her office dazzled by how passion, experience and giving back can intersect in a meaningful and successful business model as evidenced through one of AWiB’s Women of Excellence, Sara Mohamed.

Driving onward through Atekelt Tera is a feat on its own. Weaving and waving through potholed streets, blocked streets and massive traffic jams, Mission for Community Development Program (MCDP) is the final destination. Mulu’s small office space is located in a humble building built by MCDP as part of its community programming and houses a community library stocked with plenty of books. This is not my first trip here as I was tasked with conducting a preliminary interview with Mulu before the Board’s shortlisting process for the Women of Excellence Awards. I felt instantaneously connected to Mulu even before I had a chance to converse with her the first time and so the second visit was nothing short of visiting a favorite aunt. The camera crew and I are treated to delicious lunch and some hot tea in her office space as she shows us the products made by some of the weavers groups under her programming. I have been told on another day by one of her staff members that Mulu was not an average Director, in the sense that she did not work only at the top level but knew the intricacies of her operation. He was right. She shares with me in detail their program deliverables interlaced with stories of the project beneficiaries. I am astounded by the magnitude of their work and intervention areas. But more importantly, I am fascinated that this woman with both international and national expertise and years of experience under her belt, gave up a high paying job with an international organization to serve the community that needed her in the most unglamorous of areas. Mulu’s lesson on that rainy Tuesday afternoon was nestled in between finding and living a meaningful life by trading personal glory for community wellbeing.

Six floors up in a gold windowed building, located in the midst of drilling, digging andexcavating activities that are transforming roads to what will become light rail tracks, sits perched Melika Bedri’s Office. Melika carries the energy of a boss you can befriend as the Vice President of Information Systems at Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. Clad in a satiny red jacket with a floral scarf cascading down her shoulders, her presence oozes an air of confidence inherent in authentic female leadership and steadfastness in one of the largest public corporations in Ethiopia. Our conversation is light as we prepare to shoot, yet in the middle of our recorded conversations, I am realizing that this modest woman I am in the company of is perhaps one of the very few women in such a senior role within the IT sector serving a large public entity in Ethiopia. I am mesmerized by her dedication and commitment to the organization she has served for over thirty years. I am inspired by the connections she makes between her role within the organization and the organization itself as vehicles for the development of the country. But mostly, I am taken by how Melika is not a person who takes credit for herself, but understands that success is shared amongst team mates.

A few days later, my Friday morning took me into the warm embrace of Sister Tibebe Maco – the Founder and Executive Director of Hiwot Integrated Development Association. Reading her profile beforehand and having exchanged emails and talked to her on the phone, I had obviously drawn a mental image of what Sister Tibebe looked like. Fast forward to that Friday morning and I am received by a petite and vivacious personality clad in a warm pink jacket and black dress. A few exchanges later, I drop the title \”Sister\” for simply Tibebe and the formal antu for anchi – she is that personable. The environment and issues that Tibebe has been engaged in for the past 14 years are not for the faint at heart. Directly treating and working alongside bedridden and HIV/AIDS infected men, women and children, Tibebe has witnessed life disappear. She has witnessed the pain and anguish of stigmatized communities and the inflexibility and stubbornness of sections of society unwilling to change their attitudes and behaviors. She has had stones thrown at her and been the brunt of insults and abuse in her attempts to raise awareness on the issues of HIV/AIDS. Yet her perseverance over the years has birthed an organization reaching out to some of the destitute and forgotten sections of our society. The smile she wears on her face; the open heart she carries on her sleeve, and the animated and vibrant personality she possesses uncharacteristic of the hard topics she deals with. Yet her strength is exemplified in her treatment of obstacles in the journey of life. Through her story, Tibiti (as her staff affectionately call her) taught me that obstacles are opportunities for us to pause and reflect whether we are headed in the right direction or not.

My last week in August blew me away to say the least. In this encounter, I saw an embodiment of what a female Prime Minister of Ethiopia could look like. I have briefly come across Yetneberesh Nigussie in a different platform before yet never had the chance to experience the depth of this youngen like I did in August. If I had to only use three words to describe how I experienced Yetneberesh that morning, I would use articulate, mind-blowing and absolutely remarkable. From the minute she opened her mouth to share her story, I sat spell-bound wishing that our time will not come to a close. The eloquence with which she expressed herself and her work coupled with her vision and ideals for our community left me wanting a generation of Yetnebereshs’. Having lost her eye sight at the tender age of 5 and then leading a young life filled with many achievements, those of us with 100% eye sight are left wondering when we really stopped seeing. As the Executive Director of the Ethiopian Center for Disability Development spearheading so many initiatives that defy our norms of treating disability in Ethiopia, Yetneberesh challenges us to rethink what we normatively view as a dis-ability. From my vantage point, I see a young woman much more able to see beyond the scotomas we have purposely erected for ourselves.

 

These short stories are only snippets of what this year’s Women of Excellence are about. I feel so privileged to have shared a moment with them and learn from their limitless experiences. I do hope that you, our readers, will join us October 27th at the Sheraton Addis to celebrate and honor these fantastic Ethiopian women!