A Sit-Down with Trailblazers: Revisiting WOE 2019

Women of Excellence are women in various fields that have shown great courage and bravery in currently utilizing their position, stature, and expertise for a cause.  They strive to build a great legacy in their career while also contributing to the success of others. They serve as an example of hard work and effective management.  They are women who demonstrate a powerful commitment to coaching other women and sponsoring them to reach their zenith.  They promote community service, changing the face of their community through initiatives that provide services that benefit others, particularly women.

On December 5, 2019, AWiB held the monthly event at Hilton Hotel presenting the five WOE 2019.  This gathering is held for people who missed the Gala Dinner in October and to have the opportunity to meet those outstanding women with a chance to ask them questions.  Of the five WOE, four of them were at the event.  First, short videos were displayed showing who they are and what the women are currently doing.  Then, the attendees were seated in circles of four groups, each WOE joining the circle for 20 minutes for questions.  This setting made it possible for everyone to meet all the women.

Zaf Gebre Tsadik is a pharmacist who founded ZAF Pharmaceuticals PLC.  The company delivers better health care solutions and makes it more accessible to the Ethiopian health sector market.  This is with a mission of meeting the ever increasing demand of the Ethiopian pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and diagnostics market by importing qualified point of care products from all over the world and distributing them as to sustain quality and affordability.  ZAF Pharmaceuticals has earned the reputation of being a major player in Ethiopia in stabilizing the market.  ZAF does not only import and distribute to wholesalers but also aims to minimize the unfair added tariffs at each level of distribution that makes medicines unaffordable to many.  The company has established working partnerships with government and private hospital pharmacies to supply all items directly.  This strategy is aimed in reaching the end user in shorter periods of time and minimizing the impact of the cost of sale on the end user.

Zaf was asked if her company gives trainings to the sales personnel.  She explained they have two teams.  The first ones are the promoters who go around marketing the medicine to the doctors and pharmacies.  Once interest is sparked, the sales team will do the actual selling.  Both teams get enough training and have adequate knowledge before they go out into the market.  She also explained how they give samples to the doctors but that some doctors sell the samples, going against what ZAF Pharmaceuticals stands for:  fair distribution of medicine.  Zaf mentioned how they had to start exporting coffee to tackle the foreign currency issue that has highly affected the importers side of the market.

Additional questions Zaf answered include:

Q #1:  How do you balance your professional life with your personal life?

Zaf:  It’s possible to balance, it might be a bit hard when your work is overwhelming but it’s possible especially when you have an understanding family, particularly the husband.

Q #2:  How do you scale your business in terms of motivations as well as finance and everything?

Zaf:  You need to be persistent.  Once, I was working in an NGO, the research department didn’t get paid for months and one day they were told to leave immediately.  So I went to the Business Ministry, got a license, but didn’t know what to do.  A friend suggested going to the Chinese Embassy so I went there and talked to them.  There was a communication problem since I didn’t know the language but found a translator.  Foreign trade helped me as well.  That office called the laid-off employees back to work but I didn’t stop my new project.  So we always need to be persistent.

Q #3:  How are the workforce and the engagement in human resources?  Is there skill set and commitment?

Zaf:  There is no drive in the youth but I have tried a lot to revive that.  The respect of work starts from yourself and discipline starts from you.  You lead by example, and then you educate the workers.  You need rules, regulations, rewards and recognitions.  They can only be productive when they are disciplined.  Our line of works involves people’s lives.  It’s drugs and medicine so we can’t be lenient.

Tigist Waltenigus is co-founder and Practitioner Counselor at “YeErq Ma’ed,” a radio show where she helps families and women in psychological crises through community dialogue, counseling and forgiveness.  Tigist, with her business partner, also established Erq Mead Community Support Project – ECOP–for individual and group therapy.  ECOP is subsidized by the revenue generated from the radio show so those who can’t afford therapy could be treated free of charge; to date 1,500 have been treated pro bono.

Erk Mead, which happens to be this month’s AWiB Focus, is a mental wellness center that specializes in trauma healing.  Through the radio show, people—mostly women—come on air to share their pain.  Tigist was asked if they track the progress of the people that have come on the show.  She explained how there are stories so horrifying that they don’t put them on air but rather constantly council the victims of the story.  Her team tracks the progress of the people that do come on the show and also those they council in private.

Tigist talked about how hard it was for her team to start the center due to the lack of mental health awareness in the Ethiopian society.  She said people would come to the office and ask them if they were hand readers or psychics.  It was after getting those kinds of responses that they decided to change course and move into the radio show business, which ended up being a huge success.  Another question Tigist was asked was about other areas of focus for which she replied that they are extending to parenting, teenage suicide and substance abuse.  “Prevention is the best medicine.  Intervention is costly,” said Tigist.  She also explained their new project titled SEED Wellness, which focuses on kids as they are the seeds of society.  They plan on extending the project to teach kids how to handle their emotions and also to make sure kids have access to qualified counselors.

Additional questions Tigist answered include:

Q #1:  Isn’t it hard to listen to all the problems?  Aren’t you scared that it might affect you in some way?

Tigist:  Indeed, it is very hard.  I used to cry every time when I started out.  It’s hard when you see a child needs love but he was rejected and when he grows to be a parent, that cycle continues and it breaks my heart.  Once, the hardest thing I heard was a mother was working at home carrying her baby on her back.  Her husband was an abuser so he came home that day and took a knife and went after her. While the woman tried to duck, he accidentally killed the baby.  These kinds of experiences break people but when they come here, talk about it, process it and heal, (our work) becomes worth it.  It gives me great joy to see people overcome their pain and get back to their normal lives.

Q #2:  People don’t speak up and talk about what they are going through because they feel ashamed and we don’t have the culture of giving people the attention needed. How do you reach these people?

Tigist:  When they come to our organization it is not what it seems.  They come due to very simple reasons like simple pestering in marriages but it is usually about past experiences.  Since nobody talks about the past we decided to talk about it.  The pain is usually something kept hidden that wasn’t processed and healed properly so we focus on that.

Q #3: Ethiopia is a cultural- and religious-based country so how do we address the mass without attacking the core values?

Tigist:  We, Ethiopians, like stories.  We have a lot of sayings, quotes and stories.  So we try to use pictures and different graphical illustrations to help.

Q #4:  How do you reach people without access?

Tigist:  Our radio show is being broadcasted throughout the country and we are working on people with little access. We are also designing a project that is going to work on kids.

Dr. Selamenesh Tsige Legas—the 2019 WOE title holder and ambassador—is a pediatrician and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics & Child Health, consultant, and at 27 years old she took our city by storm.  Her resilience to reach her dream is beyond comprehension.  Dr. Selamenesh has accomplished a great deal at a young age but she is most known and appreciated for founding and leading Gojo, a safe haven to accommodate and serve as a temporary shelter for patients mostly coming from outside of Addis without financial means to stay in the city while completing their treatment at government hospitals.  The shelter has accommodated more than 76,650 patients in its short four years, playing a great role in healing patients from psychological and economical pain.

Dr. Selamenesh expressed the need for patience and persistence to complete the task of one’s passion.  At the beginning of the project, everyone was excited.  However, as the going got tough, people started giving up.  The patients were a constant source of hope and strength for her.

When asked what the future of Gojo looks like, Dr. Selamenesh explained how at the moment, Gojo can accommodate 52 people along with a person that takes care of them.  She said this is a very small number compared to their original plan.  They want to expand further and exceed their original expectations.  She also explained how they used to approach partners themselves and how the WOE publicity has shined a spotlight on Gojo.

Additional questions Dr. Selamenesh answered include:

Q #1:  How do you balance everything?

Selamenesh:  I don’t get enough sleep but I have people and family that support me.  The Gojo idea even came up from my husband.  Since I always go home and talk to him about the people I see, he told me to do something permanent about it and came up with the shelter.  I give priority for my job but any free time I get I give for Gojo.  I use my lunchtime, weekends, and any opening I can get.

Q #2:  How do you support Gojo financially?

Selamenesh:  That is the main problem we are facing but our main success right now is just the shelter.  We just provide food three days a week but we have volunteers to help out even though it’s hard to depend on that.

Q #3:  How did you build this awareness when you were a student?

Selamenesh:  I was a final year student and when I took care of patients, I saw the problem.  Once when I was working, a man from the countryside came.  He had a broken hand. This was in Yekatit 12 hospital and when I told him I was going to write a referral to Tikur Anbessa, the guy started crying since he didn’t have money for transport and shelter.  Then my friends and I helped him out.  We did a research and found 70 people just like that just from Tikur Anbessa.  About 15 people came together to form a shelter.  We had everything but couldn’t get a building license.  It took 2 years to secure that and 5 of her friends gave up.  Her teachers told her she can’t handle it due to time but she passed all of these challenges and finally did it.

Azeb Worku is a successful producer, playwright and translator, actor, journalist and a feminist.  She stands firm on women’s issues, challenging stereotyping of women.  One of her major works intentionally casted a dark-skinned girl as the main character to defy the concept of beauty and to redefine it.  Azeb also uses her expertise, position and exposure to advocate for women’s rights.  One outstanding example was her campaign against an attempt by a popular social media activist who tried to hash a public uproar for justice for a girl who died of a gang rape.  The script that she wrote to fight the injustice of society’s judgment on rape victims—as if the victims had it coming— won a short movie award and got grant from the US embassy.

Azeb has translated French literature to Amharic and presented it to the Ethiopian society.  She was asked what about French literature attracted her to it.  She said that growing up with the love of reading books, she was exposed to French literature’s fame and appreciation.  Although she did not speak French at the time she was still drawn to it.  She also mentioned the fact that her husband is French helped in her learning and translating French literature.  Azeb explained how it took her over a year to translate a theater from a VCR cassette because she would have to rewind and pause while doing the translation.  She was then exposed to written manuscripts of theaters, which made her translation work much easier.  She decided to keep her work as a cassette and a book so it would be passed on for generations to come.

Regarding the wrong image created by the media when it comes to women, Azeb was asked what she is doing to challenge that.  She explained since playwrights are mostly men, there is no one telling the woman’s perspective.  The media has portrayed women to be quiet, composed and submissive.  In her translated work of the French literature “Eight Women,” Azeb says she wanted to present women as humans, with all the humanly flaws such as envy, treachery and greed.  Azeb says that a woman should not be confined by a set of behaviors; that we, too, can be greedy and envious.  She shared a story of the first time she wrote a play and got a very negative feedback from a male playwright.  When she did translation, Azeb was shielded from harsh criticism because she could say, “I just translated, it is not really my work and so not my fault.”  But now, having women like Azeb in the media encourages young and upcoming women playwrights to enter and disrupt the male-dominated media sector.

Additional questions Azeb answered include:

Q #1:  How do you always stay humble even through the Ethiopian way of viewing celebrities?  Plus you help people, so where do you get the energy?

Azeb:  I hate any form of attack.  It’s to the point I feel the pain through people’s story.  If I had to use my popularity, I will use it for good and when you have a lot you need to give back a lot as well.  Media is power.  What I don’t have you do and what you don’t have I do so I want to give back as much as I can.

Q #2:  You are in a male-dominated profession so what were your challenges?

Azeb:  There are still challenges but I never gave them attention.  There was this notion that producing and directing was a male profession and that girls were just actors but right now there are upcoming female directors and producers so we need to support that as much as we can.

The WOE were asked to give one final message, especially advice for the youth. We need to move from our challenges as soon as possible.  Zaf said that when we face a challenge we should not think we are facing it because we are women, but that we should take the challenge head-on and come out on the other side stronger and better. Tigist said we need to, “Clean under our beds,” and break up with our past because it affects us greatly.  We have unprocessed pain that we think won’t affect us because we don’t talk about them.  Deal with them and heal.  Pain can be transformed into a story.  Dr. Selamenesh said we are all born kind-hearted.  It takes an effort to be evil.  We should make sure we do not lose our natural kindness.  As kids we are giving and kind.  Look at mothers; they are selfless and give everything they have.  Everyone is generous so look for that inside you.  Find it and then go do something. Azeb said we have a lot so let us look and identify that and be grateful.  We all have a purpose.  We need to make something worth of it.

With those powerful remarks the event was concluded.  Twenty minutes fly by when you spend them with inspiring women like the WOE 2019!

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