“From Mother to Daughter: Lessons Senedu Gebru taught me” By Gohalem Assefa

First and foremost, my mother Senedu Gebru was a teacher. As I look back at my youth, there are some key lessons my mother imparted on us. Love of country stood out as did her conviction that women are just as capable as men to accomplish anything they want to. The key was education. As long as there was basic education, the subject matter of interest could be learned, at least from books.

Books were ever present in our home and in her hands. Both my parents were voracious readers and always encouraged us to read. I knew of my mother’s love of literature when I was just a little girl. My most vibrant childhood memories of activities with my mother revolve around reading together. We would discuss what I read and my thoughts around that. In turn she would tell me stories her father told her and about places he went to. I enjoyed fairy tales and was frequently invited to tell the stories I read to my siblings and my parents.

My mother’s way of sharing her love of country was to take us on trips to different places. I remember many trips to Mojo and Koka and a few trips to Harrar where she would point out the majestic mountains and peaceful valleys as well as the Eucalyptus forests in Furi and Addis Alem. Many years later, we were living in Germany when the Military Dictatorship began. At that time my mother prepared to go back home during this time of crisis. When I told her that I couldn’t understand how she could go back to that country now, she looked me square in the eyes and told me not to confuse my country and the government. She said governments come and go, but your country will always be your country.

With a firsthand knowledge of what it takes to raise children, I truly appreciate my mother’s ability to balance her roles as career woman, wife, and mother. As far back as I can remember, my mother was a working woman. I remember going with her to Etegue Mennen School where she would go into her office after handing me over to the Kindergarten teacher at the tender age of four. I remember driving to the parliament in the evenings with my father to pick up my mother from work.  I remember frequent trips to the Red Cross office where we waited for my mother’s meeting to end. In later years I remember accompanying my mother to the Rehabilitation Center for the Disabled where we were encouraged to explore the many crafts executed by disabled workers. She would beam with pride as she pointed to the exquisite carpets and the delicate Ethiopian fabrics being woven by some blind workers and tell us that everyone has a contribution to make if given the opportunity.

My mother was a simple woman. She wore simple outfits and virtually no makeup, even when attending major events.  When we tried to encourage her to add makeup, she would decline, saying that what she looked like was not as important as who she was. But it was with pride that she wore Ethiopian garments made by disabled workers to display their achievements.  It may be noteworthy that my mother never wore black at funerals and mourning. She told us that it is not the Ethiopian tradition, it was copied from Armenians.

I recall how she routinely engaged in deep discussions with my father about current events, their work and politics. The discussions were equally deep with other family members and friends in the course of a family dinner or a formal event. Dinnertime at home was our time. The children and parents always ate together; it was our time to talk about anything we wanted: our day at school, interesting things we learned and current and upcoming events, good and not so good things that happened. We were encouraged to ask questions and voice our opinions about everything.

My parents would probe further and ask why we felt one way or another, mostly trying to get us to look at issues from different perspectives, but never swaying us to choose one opinion over another. We were not only allowed but encouraged to form our own opinions and make our decisions since childhood. Our opinions were not judged and we were allowed to make our decisions even if they were mistakes. My mother was very protective of our needs; we were not only forgiven for our mistakes but taught to forgive ourselves. Today, I know that we were given a lot of respect.

Respect for people was another key lesson taught. My mother addressed people formally, even our young friends were referred to as Woizerit and Ato. Once, I accused her as being too formal and she told me that that is how we show respect. I countered that formality also brings distance. She told me that she had to be formal to command the respect she needed as well.

Decades later, when my mother was visiting in the US she got up [“nor”] every time my child and my nephews (all under ten years of age) came into the room. When we asked my mother to please remain seated, she stated that it was important to show the children proper Ethiopian etiquette. If we don’t get up every time they enter the room we are in, we cannot expect them to learn this part of our culture, she explained.

At all times, I was aware that my mother tried to expose us to the world, beginning with stories of her father’s travels and expeditions. She encouraged us to travel and plan our trips to include meeting foreign people. Learning multiple languages to communicate with people was not only encouraged but rewarded. I recall one summer after only one year of French in high school I was given a book (Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables) along with a French Dictionary to read. When I finished I was to tell her the story. My reward was a trip to Southern France with my sister.

I believe history shows that my mother was an advocate for women’s rights, starting with education. Growing up, we knew that women were equal to men; we didn’t realize that that equality had to be fought for. We certainly didn’t realize what it took to be to be taken seriously as a woman public figure at that time. Her daughters only knew they were just as capable as her sons; it was never a question. She also believed in the rule of law: The law must apply equally to all the people.  Follow the laws or get them changed. It made a lot of sense. We learned much later that you had to campaign to get elected to parliament and become part of the lawmakers.  My mother believed in serving your country during wartime and peacetime alike, from fighting wars for freedom to fighting to fighting to change unfair laws. My mother was a patriot who served her country, never confusing country and government.

It was much later in life that I gained a profound appreciation for the difficulty, the sacrifices, and the loneliness involved in being a woman in public life in her day as well as the contrast between the “iron lady” public image and the tender mother. Of all the things I admire about my mother, it is her courage to stand up for her convictions and engage in actions that supported her convictions.

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