Behind the Words: Ethiopian Women Authors
What would our world be like without writers and authors? Talented individuals that are capable of coming up with well-crafted pieces for us to read and enjoy. Using the fundamentals of language and playing with words in a way that evokes the readers’ imaginations and interests? Educating us all the while entertaining us? It’s a beautiful profession that deserves recognition, especially in the case of female writers and authors.
Although it may seem the literacy world is over-saturated with male authors, there are indeed a plethora of authors who happen to be women right here in Ethiopia. AWiB decided to share a few stories of these women in different realms of their writing journeys to get a little insight on their experiences. It goes without saying that throughout history female writers have been known to break barriers, challenge the status quo and change up the rules through their writings. As with any other field, women continue to make their mark in transforming literature’s landscape and directly affect our reading and writing culture and history.
We do not have a strong reading culture in Ethiopia. You rarely find individuals enjoying a read at cafés, on the bus ride or other public transportation. Of course, it could be easily argued that public transportation is not an easy place to whip out a book to read—not in the general sense—like we see the westerners do it. It could also be argued that we are a developing country and literacy for the larger population may not be at its highest level. Public schools also don’t stress reading as a requirement because our education system still has miles to go in providing a well-rounded curriculum especially for children living under the poverty level. The living condition of the many less fortunate doesn’t allow for leisure reading for that matter. Reading has yet to be a culture here in Ethiopia.
Yet, this is not to say we don’t have readers—adamant readers at that; there are people who truly enjoy immersing themselves in books. Even so though, a factor that stands out is most people only look for English books written and brought from abroad. While that is worthy, it is not often one hears mention of an Ethiopian writer or an Amharic book they enjoyed. Ethiopia is home to some of the greatest writers with some of the most exceptional books, novels, autobiographies, biographies, fiction, crime stories and poetry to say the least, yet we lack the habit of recognizing our own talents.
Writing something to be published in this country is not as easy task. First, although free speech is said to be practiced, it comes with its hidden boundaries. Second, funding for publication and marketing is not easily attained nor is it practiced effectively with respect to the writers and authors. It takes guts to first put one’s words to paper for others to read, and it takes another sort of commitment to see it through to publication with all the bureaucracy involved in printing and cosigning to distributers. Unfortunately, writing in Ethiopia is not categorically a profit-making profession. And the way to change all that is to push for the reading culture and promote Ethiopian writers, authors, and the Ethiopian Amharic books. That can only be the first step towards a change in our writing and reading culture in Ethiopia.
Wudalat remembers having been told to write a poem on the topic of “freedom” in the second grade, with the best poem to be read out loud to parents and faculty. She was able to put together a poem that was ultimately chosen as the best in class and remembers confidently reading it out loud when the day came to present it. The audience’s response in applause and standing ovation did something to her that day that she carried with her throughout her schooling. She fell in love with words and literacy. She continued to surprise everyone around her in school and at home with her capabilities of memorizing poetry at such a young age. Then she began writing her own poetry. She had always been an adamant reader and was a member in every art and drama club that was ever available to her. Mesmerized with poetry and fiction stories, she began compiling all her pieces from the very beginning of her knowing that she had a talent for writing.
Married at a very young age, by her early 20s Wudalat was a mother of three and found herself taking care of her family while going to school at night. Committed to get her degree in literature, coincidence would have it that by the time she was almost done with her extended night studies at Addis Ababa University, her daughter was enrolled at the same university and they graduated together. This remarkable story made headlines with the different news outlets and platforms that wanted to share their story which in turn sparked Wudalat’s idea for her first book published shortly after their graduation; it was appropriately named እናት ፡ እና ፡ ልጅ “Inat Ina Lij” (Mother and Child). The book is a collection of her favorite poetry and stories. Thus, she began her journey as an author. She has now published 12 books.
Wudalat believes communication is the one main thing that holds human beings together; the true connection of humanity. And so, to her, language is of great power. As such, she has always strived to construct her thoughts and ideas with lucidity, expressing herself through her words with clarity and intelligibility. She worked in communications and was involved in the Females Writer’s Association which continued to strengthen and build her writing aptitude. To Wudalat writing comes organically, never needing specific timing or space. Any idea for a poem or a story can come to her at any given time. For as long as she can remember—in the last 40 years or so—she has never been without pen or paper in her purse. She even remembers being inspired for a poem while at a funeral and having to use one of her tissue papers to write down her thoughts right there. She believes that thoughts and ideas that come in these forms are very powerful and need to be recorded immediately not to be forgotten and need to be retained at that exact moment’s feeling as the words come forth. She even remembers having once written on a leaf while on a walk in the forest; to her inspiration can come from anywhere, anytime.
Wudalat writes a lot about nature and about the human condition, specifically societal gaps and the different challenges and obstacles human beings face in her Ethiopian society. She intertwines her daily perceptions of life as she sees and feels them in her poems and fictional short stories. She wants to focus on writing about her country, its people, its state of affairs in terms of the society and living conditions, women empowering stories and even more so the condition of Ethiopia’s children and youth. After studying children’s psychology, she wrote six children’s books. She strongly feels like the new generation is slipping away from vital information, and that substantial values and characteristics are not being implemented enough into their world. Yet, she has hope and wants to continue focusing her writing on this matter.
As a part time author, Wudalat doesn’t view this venture as her profession but as a passionate hobby and more importantly as her duty to provide to her society and country. Working as a civil servant for most of her life and involved in many volunteering opportunities, she always sustained her writing by publishing her own books—with the support of friends and family—and through the hard work of saving and applying the profits of her sold books for her future publications.
Writing is no small feat for Wudalat; she strongly believes in the responsibilities that come with it. As a writer, Wudalat says she felt the need to contribute on an even higher level, stepping away from her fictional stories and wrote a historical, true-life events novel about a horrific incident that took place in the small town she grew up in some 46 years ago; the book is called ያልተነገረው ፡ እልቂት ፡ ታሪክ “Yaltenegerew ilqit Tarik” (The Untold Story of a Massacre). A story, she says, that was about an event that was quietly forgotten in history but one nonetheless needed to be known by the public. She received praise for this and recalls feeling internally satisfied for having finally published a book that was, to her, of substance and of contribution to her country as a historic record of events in set time. Even with all the honors, rewards, praise and recognition she has received throughout the years, she says this was the first time she truly felt she fulfilled what it meant to be an author.
Wudalat has always fought any negative blockage that came her way in terms of her writing process and when challenged, she just kept writing and writing and writing. For aspiring writers, her advice is to read, read, read…and read some more. No true writer exists without being a great reader and a lover of books. A good story doesn’t just come to anyone, but to the one who has that writing inclination within themselves. A good story, in Wudalat’s opinion, is one that is backed with evidence and a tangible plot line; you must be able to get your reader to feel like they either know the story already, are convinced that the story could in fact be true, or believe it to be a story that could most likely happen to any given person. A good story is one that is relatable considering the society or the world for that matter.
Wudalat feels a writer might be inclined to be selfish in their needs to be recognized and liked, but one must take care of how they handle their ego for that will stray you away from the purpose of writing. For at the end of the day, Wudalat says, writing is not for the self and not for the need of accreditation; rather, the talent is bestowed upon one to be able to share with one’s society the stories that need to be told in writing. And even with all the obstacles that one may face as a writer in Ethiopia, to not be discouraged and maintain their spirit and love for the art.
Yemowdish Bekele Weldegebriel
Yemowdish has published nine books herself and six in collaboration with others. She studied journalism and worked for the police force, documenting crimes and other related issues. Writing and the love of storytelling came to Yemowdish way back in the fourth grade at age 10. She was so captivated with poetry and enjoyed writing fun poems, witticisms and sayings to and about her friends. As a youth during the Derg regime, she won a writing competition that led to her publishing her first book. She always gravitated towards stories about the human condition, youth concerns, and women’s issues in particular. Her second book titled የበከነ ፡ ግዜ “Yebakene Gizay” (Waisted Time) was a short stories book concerning specific women’s struggles of being refugees. She even wrote a book about true life events of imprisoned women who she interviewed at a local prison, documenting their reasons for committing crime and the consequences they faced.
Yemowdish believes a true writer is one who internalizes her or his environment, someone who has the ability to always perceive their surroundings and feel for others in such a way they want to share people’s stories. Her third book is titled እብዷ ፡ በለጠች “Ibdwa Beletech” (The Mad Woman Won), a fictional story of a woman who had so much to say about the state of affairs of her country, had opinions about everything going on in her society and environment and because free speech was not necessarily practiced—especially for women in the story—she decided to act as though she had gone mad and was placed in an insane asylum. There, doctors were treating her for what they believed to be madness and giving her medication they thought she was taking. All day long, she would just talk and share her opinion on everything that bothered her until one day she was done and then opened up to the facility that she was not mad anymore, hence, the mad woman winning in the end because she found a way to voice her opinion.
Yemowdish continued to write her fourth through ninth book mostly on true story novels and poetry collections. She focused a lot on real stories of people struggling with addiction and the obstacles they faced trying to live a better life when trying to change their ways. She wrote a book that documented 20 cases of women who had suffered abuse, with interviews she gained access to through working as a board member for a safe haven, an association for women dealing with abuse. She also wrote a biography about a friend of who had struggled with addiction and his strives to a better life; the documentation gained recognition. She always found herself wanting to share people’s stories of struggles and their ways to health and success. As a writer, it is important to Yemowdish to share these stories so readers can understand the other side of the picture of so many individuals judged because of their profession, their condition, or their lifestyle choices. She maintains the belief that everyone has a story behind the reasons why they do the things they do that may be unacceptable and are looked down upon by the general public. She wants to always write about stories that inevitably give an optimistic view of a better way forward and above all, hope for the future.
Yemowdish has also published six books, short stories and poems, through various collaborations that again focused on humanity’s conditions. These works specifically focused on women’s stories of success through hardships, and of course drug and alcohol addiction. To Yemowdish, these issues are so close to her heart because she has seen the effect on people and their daily lives, and it’s important for her to share these stories in hopes that it might change someone in the same situation lucky and able to read her books. She says that a writer has not two but four eyes of which to view the world. A writer must be able to understand anyone’s story from various angles and go deeper into the root cause of what makes that person’s story one to share for others to benefit and gain perspective from. She enjoys receiving feedback from her readers so as to always create better material in tune with her reader society’s wants and needs.
As a writer one of the most challenging things to Yemowdish was the publishing and sales aspect of it all. Ethiopia unfortunately doesn’t have publishing houses as much as would be appreciated by writers. And so, finding funding and the persisting confidence to go forth with one’s publishing endeavors can prove hard, but Yemowdish says this struggle should not break one’s spirit and desire to write. The country also has certain unspoken rules about free speech and that may be discouraging; some roads may seem blocked when sharing politically or societal-sensitive matters. Nonetheless, writers need to continue to push forth in order to bring change. To be creative is Yemowdish’s advice to aspiring young writers in addition to indulging in extreme reading. Because to her, only through reading—and reading different spectrums of genres—can a writer really gain broader perspectives on how stories are portrayed. A writer must be empathetic to humanity and the world’s condition at large.
Yemowdish, after retiring from her former journalism career at the police force, is now the founder of a local NGO called ሴቶች ፡ ይችላሉ “Setoch Yichilalu” (Women Can Do) and hosts a local radio program. Unfortunately, being an author does not provide enough profit for living in Ethiopia, she says.
Yemowdish’s favorite book of all time is ፍቅር ፡ እስከ ፡ መቃብር “Fikir iske Meqabir” (Love Until Death). She enjoys books by renowned writers such as Endalegeta Kebede, Alemayehu Gelaguy, and Ba’alu Girma.
Fitsum Kidanemariam (AWiBer)
A topic popped up in Fitsum’s mind during one of her Toastmaster’s sessions: to write her autobiography. As she was sharing her personal stories and practicing her speeches for her sessions, she realized she wanted to share an in-depth story of her life, a story she knew people would never expect to be part of her work-life journey. She became certain that her story was one she wanted to share with the younger generation. She reflected upon the challenges that she knew many women, herself included, struggled within their careers in what she considers a patriarchal system that is mostly male-dominated. Fitsum wanted to make sure she shed light on what it meant to her to overcome and beat the status quo.
Only when she sat down to begin her first book during the Covid lockdown did Fitsum truly understand the power of language. She initially thought it would be an easy endeavor. But she came to realize— as she wrote, edited and re-edited the first draft of her autobiography—just how much more difficult it is to construct one’s ideas and thoughts into readable material for others to enjoy. The process proved challenging. Writing alone was taxing as it required her to maintain her confidence in finishing what she started. Then going through the many edits she had to go through to create a complete book was an adventure of its own. She was introduced to a new world: the publishing world of writers. Finding the finances needed to publish and the many small details involved in finalizing the book was not an easy feat. Yet, she attributes the support of her friends and family as well as her AWiB affiliates in bringing her book to life.
Fitsum can now say, after the publication of her first book, that she has acquired an in-depth understanding and appreciation for seasoned and well-renowned writers. Passion and self-belief are the primary drives for one to complete the task of writing a book, she said. She believes writing comes from a deep connection within oneself, and that also required her to be bold, courageous and honest with herself. These characteristics are what make or break a writer.
Writing her autobiography was Fitsum’s first attempt at writing, and doing so showed her so much about writing as a profession. She says she gained much more respect for writers and the talent of writing itself through her own experience, an experience she atones to being extremely more gratifying than that of her going through school and receiving her degrees. She realized writing to be a noble act and that writing with boldness and honesty might be a hard stance but is very commendable. Fitsum also realizes now that writers are held accountable for what is shared and thus must take care and heed in their writing. As a new author (and one very much interested in pursuing this freshly-discovered talent) she understands now that as a writer she must find the simplicity in connecting with her readers and make sure that the ego doesn’t play a factor in her continuous trials at writing. Clarity of what one is writing about and expressing truth are very important.
Although writing may be fulfilling to her, Fitsum doesn’t believe she is in a place to only be a writer and continues her training and consultancy career. Her friends and family have supported throughout her writing journey, and she appreciates all the encouragement and positive feedback she has received so far from her readers. Her advice to aspiring writers is to continue to write and to challenge the status quo.
Fitsum’s favorite books that she believes have influenced, changed and inspired her include:
- The Bible
- ፍቅር ፡ እስከ ፡ መቃብር “Fikir iske Meqabir” (Love Until Death) by Haddis Alemayehu
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
- Office Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel
Even as a young girl, Aida always enjoyed reading. Stories of mystery and romance allowed her to enter a fictional world and escape on her own as a teen. Words to her are what create worlds where young minds can be shaped and molded. Stories, she believes, shape children and youth’s expectations of the world and ultimately their reactions to others. Aida discovered that writing came easily to her about 15 years ago. She accepted a position to help high school students write extended essays which required them to do research, analyze, and structure their thoughts. Around 2010, she had her first idea for a children’s book. She has since then contributed to op-eds for newspapers and magazines. In recent years—especially since Covid-19 changed the world—she found herself more comfortable communicating her thoughts and ideas via the written word. She shares her thoughts and experiences on education and holistic child development online and through Telegram and WhatsApp chat groups.
Aida saw the lack of quality but also fun and vibrant, educational books and material for children in Amharic. It steered in her a need to start her publishing journey that way. With the very few didactic materials that support the teaching-learning process, especially for Amharic, available on the open market, this was her starting point as a children’s author. This need prompted her first book ፊደል ፡ ለተማሪ “Fidell Letemari 1” and “Fidell Letemari 2,” a two-part poster book on Fidell, the Ethiopian Alphabets.
Aida’s current writing process is like stringing one thread through several needles or like going through an obstacle course without missing any of the hoops and loops. She carries out extensive research on the environment (teachers and schools), children (teaching-learning process), society (expectations and desires of parents and the larger community) and other factors that deeply affect the teaching-learning process. Armed with this data and information, she now creates books and educational tools that will make the teaching-learning process less painful for children and their teachers. These books and flash cards, although their beginnings may be humble, are imbued with the Ethiopian identity, culture and way of life. Throughout her creative process, she always keeps in mind how to create products that are marketable and how she can package them for sale and distribution for public consumption while keeping them sustainably affordable. One of the challenges she faces is creating these products in formats that are acceptable and presentable to government entities.
Having worked nearly two decades in the education industry at all levels, it is difficult for Aida to miss the gaps, chasms and cracks through which so much falls through. She strongly feels as though there is so much that is needed; to her, the most neglected area is that of early childhood—the time and place where the foundation of a person’s life is set. That is why she decided to start from the beginning. She did her research on how schools set up their early childhood centers and how teachers taught Amharic literacy. She researched how children absorbed Amharic literacy. Having done more surveys of what was needed to support the literacy process, she realized that children needed a bridge from Fidell (Amharic characters) to actual reading books. Her second project is a series of books on sight words in Amharic – a way for children to practice putting together the characters they memorized into short words they can read.
Aida views her cognitive process as being fused into her emotional and spiritual processes. She has never been able to separate these processes. When she writes, she is constantly thinking logically and logistically of the concrete reality in Ethiopia, always gathering information from reliable international news sources. Sensing the intangibles—impressions, feelings, beliefs, the drives and the subtle nuances and shifts of society and those within herself—she seeks internal wisdom, guidance and understanding with an open mind. In tune with her own spirituality, she seeks different in-depth perspectives which she feels to be a rare and precious privilege.
As far as difficulties in the writing process, putting all her ideas and thoughts for a book in a reader-friendly way can sometimes prove challenging, Aida said. She heard of “writer’s block” but says she hasn’t faced it yet. She has felt stuck before, but not from writer’s block as such but more so when looking for a way to better structure her thoughts. As a writer, her fears lie in wanting to say one thing but running the risk of being misunderstood, which to her defeats the whole process. During the phase of publishing her first book, she realized she needed to consider her target audience and market. Publishing her first book taught her to be more sensitive to the needs, preferences and priorities of Ethiopian society. Aida admits that writing can be a draining process. At times she’s been afraid of grabbing hold of a new idea because it hurts her if she can’t see it through. She has come to acknowledge that not all projects see the light of day. To Aida, a good story encompasses a plot, is entertaining, and reflects the realities of particular societies. She is always striving to come up with original content and looks within, practicing personal reflection when seeking new ideas. She believes that reinventing the wheel is not always the way to go and allows herself to search and attain inspiration to come from anywhere and everywhere.
Aida is a teacher at heart and more recently a researcher. She intends to do teacher training and coaching while consulting on literacy. As far as what her family and friends think of her writing, she feels that because her published books have not yet shown financial profit, that they are skeptical but cordial about her endeavors as an author. It appears to her that parents and educators love the books. They make comments on the quality of printing and the price, but often there is mostly positive feedback. There are requests for more literacy material, more story books and, even more so, requests for English material.
Aida’s suggestion to anyone interested in writing and becoming an author is to start earlier. If she could go back in time and advise her younger self, she would have told herself to not be afraid. The fear of rejection, the fear of not finishing and the ever-lingering fear that one’s writing might be mediocre are all real traps. But she believes if one really wants to get into writing, one must fight through those fear traps which can sadly stop one from continuing and pushing forth. She says do not worry about showing your work to anyone until you are ready, but to start now!
Aida’s Favorite Books (includes):
- The Bible
- Machiavelli’s The Prince
- Confessions of an Economic Hitman
- From Good to Great
- Robert Kiyosaki’s books:
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad
- Cash Flow Quadrant
- Why ‘A’ Students Work for ‘C’ Students
Books/Flash Cards by Aida:
Project 1: Project 2:
Fidell Letemari 1 Qal b’ Qale 1
Fidell Letemari 2 Qal b’ Qale 2
Qal b’ Qale 3
These are only four shared experiences of the Ethiopian female writers journeys, and yet it’s a small look into the window of the inner workings of these imaginative individuals. Writing through their eyes, shows us the intense commitment it takes an individual to claim herself as a person of words. Their stories show us the beauty of their willingness to write for readers’ entertainment, inspiration and education, but more significantly the deep satisfaction of what the actual writing and letting of words pour into poetry and poems is to them. This should evoke in us the need to explore the many hidden written jewels of Ethiopian books and literature.
It reminds us to be humbled when we go to pick up our next book. We should always remember that there is a person behind the words that move and shape us and our world.
It reminds us to encourage reading throughout our societal circles and the youth especially. Gratefulness should only be the initiating feeling when we are happy to start a book; remembering to be thankful that an individual took the time to put the story together, or better yet, the journey in words that we are about to embark on as we read.
Consciousness is the next feeling we should embrace when opening a book; a mindful state of accepting that, what we are about to internalize through that reading, will open our eyes to a new perspective. Reading, at the end of the day, is what we all do for the mere purpose of broadening our horizons. Let us remember to keep in mind that the writers behind each of our favorite books, truly have our—we, the readers—in their minds and spirits. They do this for us.
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