Legendary Women of Africa

Last month marked one of the most important days in the recognition and celebration of African women.  The 31st of July has been celebrated every year since its conception within the African Union in 1962.  African Women\’s Day 2020 was also grandly celebrated online and as part of the celebration, it brought various African women to the spotlight.  Ethiopia’s very own Empress Taytu Betul and Col. Athlete Derartu Tulu were among the selected as Legendary Black Women of Africa.

In our modern quest in celebrating African women, it is refreshing to peek back into history for validation.  Powerful and influential women are part of every country’s history, and Ethiopia is no exception.  Empress Taytu Betul, is arguably Ethiopia’s most impactful woman.  Correspondingly, in the spirit of African Women\’s Day, let’s remember and pay tribute to the legendary African women who dared to say, “No” in front of the bloody jaws of colonialization.

Taytu wielded considerable political power way before she was married to Menelik.  The Betul family, an aristocratic lineage that dates back centuries, had an influential ruling foothold in old Ethiopia.  It is said her courage was only matched by her maverick personality even at an early age.  She is acclaimed for her patriotism and boldness; however, her most undaunted achievements came after her fourth and final marriage with Menelik of Shewa and the two were crowned Emperor and Empress of Ethiopia in 1889.

Empress Taytu’s most audacious attainments came in the mid of colonization when Ethiopia was facing imminent annexation by Italy.  Deeply suspicious of European intentions towards Ethiopia, she was a key player in the conflict over the Treaty of Wuchale with Italy, in which the Italian version made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, while the Amharic version did not do so. Empress Taytu was the first to agitate the hesitant Emperor and other men to stand up for liberty, dignity, and against Italian aggression.

The Empress held a hard line against the Italians and even tore up the Treaty of Wuchale in the face of Italian diplomats.  When an Italian diplomat in Ethiopia cautioned that the annulment of the treaty might cause Italy to lose its “dignity,” the Empress replied: “We too must retain our dignity…you want other countries to see Ethiopia as your protégé, but that would never be.”

When talks eventually broke down, and Italy invaded the Empire from its Eritrean state, she didn’t sit back while Menelik drove troops to the war front.  Instead, she led 5,600 infantry and cavalier men into battle and took the stead of military counselor to the generals in command.  Leading up to the decisive Battle of Adwa, she suggested a decisive strategy to weaken the opposing troops – cutting off the water supply to the Italian fort rather than attack it directly.

With the great military and moral contribution of the Empress, the Italian colonizers were quashed in the historic battle of Adwa.  After a humiliating defeat of the Italians, diplomats looked to the peace treaty to achieve their colonial ambitions through a deceptive technicality that would allow them to have protectorate rights over Ethiopia.  Taytu again stopped at nothing to revoke the treaty, which she did successfully.

In peacetime, Taytu and Menelik capitalized on their separate strengths to build a formidable and forward-bound nation out of the newly reconstituted Ethiopia.  Most notably, Menelik, who often postponed unpleasant decisions by answering, \”Yes, tomorrow,\” found it useful to have his wife be in a powerful enough position to say, \”Absolutely not,\” to people and issues he just did not want to personally offend or refuse.

While Menelik traveled to quell rebellions within the country, Taytu stayed in the new capital, Addis Ababa, a city she had selected and named herself.  She pioneered industrial growth by setting up the first wool factory in Ethiopia after consulting with experts from Turkey and India.  She also encouraged the growth of cosmopolitan life by opening the country’s first modern hotel that served both local and international cuisine.

After the death of Menelik, she slowly faded from the political scene and lived out the rest of her life at the old palace next to the Entoto Maryam Church overlooking Addis Ababa.  In the end, she was buried next to her husband at the Taeka Negest Ba\’eta Le Mariam Monastery in Addis Ababa and lives on in history and in the hearts of Ethiopians.  To this day, Empress Taytu remains a linguistic legend in Italy.  The Phrase “Chi si cerde di essere, la regina Taitu?” (Who does she think she is, Empress Taytu?) is still used to describe women who act like royalty.

The commemoration of African Women’s Day provides an important occasion to reflect on history but also to explore governmental commitments to pay tribute to these legendary African women.  Many historians and gender activists point out that there have been no concrete actions taken to honor Empress Taytu.  Most ironically, Empress Taytu despite being the one who founded and named Addis Ababa, doesn’t have a single statute to memorialize her efforts.  As we celebrate this year’s African Women’s Day, we need to ask how are we actually paying homage to legendary women of Africa?

Written by: Hileleule Getachew