AWiB presents the 6 WOE 2016 (for those who have not made it to the Gala Dinner), on December 1st, 2016 at Hilton Hotel

As a sequel of the Women of Excellence gala on October 30th a much more intimate conversation with the award nominees took place on December 1st in Hilton Hotel. Attendees were invited to revisit the award through a 12-minute video recap of the ceremony’s highlights. Those who were not present at the award had the chance to see the women enter the gala in all their glory to standing ovation from the audience and to observe the judges attempt to choose ‘the tallest Goliath amongst Goliaths’, a difficult feat that nevertheless resulted in the crowning of W/o Tsehay Roshli as the titleholder of 2016’s Women of Excellence award, and Hermella Wondimu as the year’s young woman of excellence. The video documented a certain judge’s speech in which he admitted that all except one of them had not known the titleholder’s name before the award despite all their lives having been touched by her work—a swift kick in the shin that served to remind attendees of why the Women of Excellence is a necessary recognition.

Following the visual recap, attendees watched short videos in which the nominees talked about their individual stories, their work, their motivating drive and their respective philosophies. The subjects the women addressed in these videos ranged from abstractions like the power of education, the significance of culture, and the importance of confidence to the inspirational prowess of Matt Damon and his charity work, but it was clear that all the women agreed on two things: mothers are strong role models and sources of inspiration, and women are pillars of the community.

The discussion was organized into four roundtables of about twenty attendees each, with the nominees rotating between the circles for a twenty minute question and answer session. Unfortunately, Dr. Senait Fisseha and W/o Selome Tadesse, whose introductory videos made the most powerful and lasting of impressions, were not present.

Emahoy Fikerte was the first nominee to be present at our table, where, it’s interesting to note, only three of the attendees were men, and only one of them was an active participant. Amongst the female attendees, there was a fair degree of participation, although the limited time allotted for questions meant the conversation was often dominated by two or three of the most active participants. The first question addressed to Emahoy Fekerte focused on the marriage of spirituality and social activism that is central to her work—how does one reconcile religion with the structure, organization and modernity of the work she does in Etegesemani nunnery? Emahoy Fekerte admitted that her first priority was God’s will, following closely by the communal aspect that determined how this will can be effectively implemented. Relating this to the second question of how the monks in the nunnery react to her work, she further explained that the Bible condemns idleness, tells of how strong women are, and supports the idea of women working, an interpretation that she claimed none of the monks appreciated.

According to Emahoy Fekerte, it makes the male monks at the monastery “sick” to see the women working, acting as agents, and assuming positions of responsibility like leading the afternoon prayers; they want the women to just pray. Emahoy Fekerte views this response as a willful misrepresentation of, and a lack of faithful adherence to, the word of God. She believes the monks feel inferior whenever women attain empowerment. Although dealing with such negativity was hard on Emahoy Fekerte, the more women she managed to lead to enlightenment and empowerment, the more she felt her own strength fortified by theirs. Emahoy Fikerte’s delighted response to a comment from a certain attendee, a religious woman who remarked that she found Emahoy Fikerte’s attitude an inspiration for her own spiritual principles, attested to the inner strength this nominee draws from her positive influence on other women.

In response to whether she had ever thought that she would be where she is now and the subsequent request to identify the most challenging time in her life, Emahoy Fekerte said she had only envisioned working within the system, not that she would be changing it. The pivotal point in her calling was instigated by the sadness she felt when she joined the monastery and witnessed the nuns’ utter lack of independence—they were not in charge of, and could not manage, their own finances. Emahoy Fikerte proceeded to modernize the budgeting/accounting system, and educate the nuns to enable them to manage their own finances, during which she faced her biggest challenge—strong resistance to the idea of women, especially those with a spiritual calling, working in administration.

Although attendees were eager to ask more questions, Emahoy was soon replaced by Hermella Wondimu, this year’s young woman of excellence. In response to the resounding congratulatory remarks directed at her from the attendees, Heremella admitted that the AWiB award comes with many responsibilities—to inspire other young women, to be a role model— whose hefty weight she’s now feeling. The same curious voice that had addressed Emahoy Fekerte (perhaps in an effort to uncover the secret behind extraordinary achievement), inquired if Hermella had ever thought she would receive such recognition. Hermella admitted that neither she nor the five other friends with whom she had started Drop of Water, had imagined that the small organization would go any further. When asked what motivated her to persist when the other co-founders pursued other career paths, she recalled their visit to a water deprived community inspired by Matt Damon’s charity work in the area: the deprivation they witnessed was beyond comprehension and impossible to fit into the narrative of the world she inhabited. Hermella had also pursued her own career after university but had always been haunted by the daily routine of the people she saw in that community, which involved traveling for 5 to 6 hours every morning in search of drinkable water; she realized that if circumstances had been different, this too would have replaced education and career as her daily routine. Hermella emphasized how much such a burden damaged members of the community, especially women, and deprived them of the freedom to think about anything else.

Predictably enough, one attendee followed up with a question that was on everyone’s mind: did Matt Damon know of the work he had inspired? Although Hermella confessed that she had never thought his acknowledgment was of any importance to her work, she related that, purely by coincidence, she’d met Matt Damon’s partner, an equal, if less famous, source of inspiration for Drop of Water, during a seminar she’d attended in Canada and that collaborative work with their organization was currently underway. As to where she sees herself and her organization 10 years from now, Hermella said that she could not envision the future without first understanding the contradiction she sees regarding the work being done in many communities where there’s no clean water supply—despite the millions that flow into these projects, no tangible change is often seen. The fact that extreme lack of clean water supply in still seen in areas where well funded NGO and government projects are in place, the pervasive ignorance that results in the community’s lack of awareness about its right to clean water, is her immediate concern, with her dream for access to clean water for all being her primary drive.

The third nominee to address our circle was Sabella Belaynesh Abay Kassa, who was asked how she had managed to consistently work on her vision without giving up. True to her deep involvement with Ethiopian culture, Sabella admitted that what had initially motivated her campaign to present a positive facet of Ethiopian culture was ‘pure Ethiopian obstinacy’. Her response to the widespread perception of Ethiopia as a place of famine and civil war was an immediate desire to contradict and replace this image. In the following couple of years, she managed to build seven soup kitchens for the homeless in Peru and present it as a gift from Ethiopia, crowning herself as the unofficial ambassador.

A recurring point that Sabella kept returning to in her story was the price her family has paid for the success of her project. As a mother of six, and a proud grandmother of four, Sabella admitted that working on such an extended project has not been easy on her and her family, both materially—the money for the project came from the family pocket—and in terms of personal ties, on which she commented that when a woman is working, the family is destabilized, marriage gets unsettled and children get hurt. Sabella’s gratitude for her family is immense—she compared her husband to a saint and emphasized again and again how none of her success would have been possible without his support, tolerance, and respect. Sabella’s story presented to attendees a useful example of when a woman’s success is supported and enhanced, instead of deterred by, male intervention.

One cannot help but admire how Sabella’s obstinacy eventually led her to learn about Ethiopia. Even as she started her project, her understanding of Ethiopian culture was superficial at best, as she retrospectively admits after having spent years travelling in and learning about Ethiopia. She claims that we, as a people, don’t know our country at all; we are indirectly colonized. Sabella places on mothers the responsibility to enable their children to escape this neocolonial burden.

Tsehay Roshli, this year’s titleholder, was the next, and last, speaker to address our circle. In a soft but entrancing voice, she recounted her move to Switzerland and her determination to never return to Ethiopia, a decision that was drastically undone by the images of famine and suffering she saw on the news. A few days later, she came to Ethiopia and started the project that grew into Selam Children’s Village. As Tsehay recounted this incredible act of determination, strength, and principle, an attendee next to me whispered, “Do you ever worry about remaining passive all your life?”, a question that, in one form or another seemed to be haunting all attendees listening to Tsehay’s story.

Even more important for each of us to ask is “What’s the difference between me and this woman who, in the span of a few days, abandoned the comfortable life she’d built so she could go back to Ethiopia and help famine victims?” The attendee’s questions to the nominees seemed to reflect this inquiry of difference: did you envision that you’d ever be where you are now? Is it because you envisioned it that you are now as accomplished? And of course, the implied question: what should I have done to be where you are now? What should I do? Even as we realize that we should start by supporting these women’s incredible social activism, these questions are important takeaways on which all of us should reflect.

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