Unsung Heroines

Last week marked a monumental day in Ethiopian history: the 124th anniversary of the Victory of Adwa.  It was a game-changing triumph for Ethiopians under the leadership of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taytu over the highly armed Italian Colonial army.  Considered by historians as the first victory of Africans against colonizers, it inspired many African countries and black people across the world to launch organized arms struggle against European invaders.

Turn out for the celebration in Addis Ababa is said to be a record high in the last thirty years. Bedecked in lion mane collars, warriors’ headdresses, military fatigues, and traditional attire, thousands of Ethiopians descended on Addis Ababa’s main squares to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, chanting Ethiopian war poems and classic patriotic songs.  The celebration in Addis Ababa near Emperor Menelik II Square in the center of the city was especially colorful.

As an Ethiopian taking part in the celebrations, one is bound to feel a wave of patriotism in their mind and an overwhelming sense of black pride deep in their heart.  The feelings grab a tighter hold of one’s starving sense of nationalism with an emphasis on ethnicity of current times.  On the journey to understanding and celebrating our collective past better, it is morally evident we need to raise questions on how and to what extent we tell our stories.

It is undeniable that the Adwa victory is yet to be fully told and understood worldwide as a milestone in black history.  This phenomenal triumph of freedom over fascism is only understood from afar or not known at all.  What is more is that such historical events are rarely portrayed from the point of view of the various sections of Ethiopians.  While the call to introspect our past wisely and promote our rich history is essential, that demands border discussion; I want to focus on a particular point of view to reflect nuanced versions of the story. To commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, I want to shine a light on a marvelous novel that tells our beloved history of colonial resistance from a woman’s point of view.

Maaza Mengiste’s worldwide acclaimed new novel, The Shadow King casts light on women warriors left out of the historical record.  Set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, it tells a beautiful and thoughtful story that celebrates the role of women in the Ethiopian resistance.  It is a gorgeously crafted demonstration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce and brilliant voice at its heart, shaping an indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

The story mainly revolves around Hirut, an orphaned young woman in the resistance to fight against the fascist colonizers.  She notices one of the fighter’s resemblance to Emperor Haile Selassie, who was in exile in England at the time.  Hirut brings the idea to disguise him as the Emperor to reinvigorate popular confidence in the fighters that the colonialists can be defeated.  A different novel might have put this curious interlude at its heart but in Maaza’s story, Hirut is the protagonist from which the whole story is told.  She goes through a series of ordeals as a result of the war but also from all sides because of her gender.

Stories about female warriors are nearly absent in most cultures in general.  It’s not that their stories are poorly told.  It’s that their stories are simply not told in our literature, film and popular culture.  In recent narratives, they mostly appear as refugees and casualties.  In war stories both old and new, women are nurses to the wounded, victims of rape and war’s tormenting shadow. Rarely are they depicted as warriors.

Relatively speaking, Ethiopian history recognizes the contribution of women warriors better than other historical records.  It is known that women played a big role in the mobilization of troops, organization, transportation of supplies and provisions, raising the morale of fighters, gathering intelligence information, nursing the wounded, and in the actual fighting within the resistance. Furthermore, women that did not go to battlefields had to carry the burden of men’s work at the home front.

There are even numerous women leaders who played important roles during both colonial invasions.  The most known example is the strategic brilliance of Empress Taytu which was key to the victory of Adwa.  Another example is the intelligence operation run by Shewareged Gedlie during the Italian occupation, which was vital to planning guerilla attacks against military convoys.  Despite our relatively progressive position on recognizing women warriors there are still many untold stories and big room for improvement in our culture.

What makes The Shadow King unique is in addition to memorializing the centrality of women in war, it goes a step further and masterfully illustrates how being a woman in this world in itself is often a kind of warfare.  Maaza writes in her author’s note, “The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle.”

You can find Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King here.

Written by: Hileleule Getachew

Keywords: #Adwa #Heroine #TheShadowKing #March8

Image source: Angie Wang