Working A Peaceful Path: Dr. Ergogie Tesfaye

Emerging from the desk in her office in Kazanchis, Dr. Ergogie Tesfaye emitted royalty.  With a smile and a few words it was understood; the head wrap that gave the regal air to the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs was a sign of the times as hair shops like many businesses have generally shut down during the pandemic.  She also likes dressing this way sometimes.

Born in Hosanna, Hadiya Zone, Dr. Ergogie is a child of parents who served in the education sector.  She admires her parents for that.  “Gashe believes one changes with work,” she said of her father.  “Do what you can today!”  She carries that way of being to this day, she said.  Growing up in a family of five children (and always several additional young family members), the family moved to Addis Ababa as Dr. Ergogie entered the second grade.  The family having moved back to Hosanna after her 10th grade, she returned to the capital when attending Addis Ababa University to obtain her BA in Foreign Language & Literature.   Her father convinced Dr. Ergogie that she should to start work first in rural areas, so she became a high school English teacher for two years in Gimbichu.

Aside from women and men not having specific gender roles at home growing up, Dr. Ergogie recalls brief moments that reassured her—as a woman—she can do as she wished.  She remembers a story of going to a bakery in Hosanna with her siblings.  Their father had noticed they missed going to a certain bakery from their Addis Ababa days.  So he gave them money to treat themselves while he headed to work.  Community members were alarmed that young women were enjoying time at a bakery—alone—and laughing!  Reporting to the children’s father, the concerned community members were surprisingly dismissed with laughter.

Dr. Ergogie’s career path has led her to various experiences, and she continued her education while connecting with her community through work.  From lecturing English at St. Mary University to serving part time at ECA on projects through the department of agriculture and gender to a local NGO, she stayed engaged with the communities she lived in.  She received her Masters in Gender Studies.  Then she worked on her PhD in India:  Social Anthropology (political anthropology was her research, on conflict resolution in Ethiopia—specifically ethnic).  Dr. Ergogie conducted training on conflict resolution through the IPKTC, UNDP & AU.  She founded a training center and ran it for two years, guiding individuals and companies mainly on leadership, language, and computer skills.  Dr. Ergogie was director of the Gender & HIV Protection office at St. Mary’s.  Under the Ministry of Education, she addressed sexual harassment specifically at higher education institutes, assisting the gender policy strategy team.  Following her PhD, Dr. Ergogie worked as Research & Community Service VP at Wachamo University for two years.  There, she focused on community service and researched migration, gender-based violence and other projects with European Union partnership.  All the while, her focus has been how to help the community and women empowerment.  Dr. Ergogie is serving as board chair of Wollo University and board member of the Ethiopian Broadcast Corporation.  She also served as a board member in various humanitarian and development associations.

Dr. Ergogie said her current post of being a minister was not necessarily a choice or a grand plan she aimed for but an opportunity to serve the public.  As it is an assignment given by government and not only for party members, she sees it also as an assignment from the public.  She saw she can help with reform.  When the responsibility came, Dr. Ergogie accepted deciding she can help the people.  “It is an opportunity and a challenge.  I have accepted it. ”

What does the day-to-day look like for this minister?  Daily briefings with other state ministers are ideal but not always possible, so they connect about three times a week in the early morning.  Information is exchanged.  Activities are planned.  There are monthly, quarterly and annual events Dr. Ergogie has to plan, and spontaneous, urgent matters sometimes take place.  If an issue arises in a specific area, her team deals with it immediately.  Most of all, she faces this question: “How do we bring reform to this sector?”  Her office’s coverage is vast, she said, so it can resolve many issues in the country.

The office’s two proclamations focus on labor law and overseas employment and two, extensive national policies on social protection and labor administration.  Existing proclamations are revisited and the team asks how they can improve them.  The office addresses ideas and concerns of employers, workers, and the government.  It is quite a different office, Dr. Ergogie said, because the government can’t make decisions without having discussion with its social partners; tripartite dialogue is very important to constantly find balance.

There are many leadership styles, Dr. Ergogie said.  Leadership doesn’t mean coming to office giving orders.  It means action.  Let’s work.  It means working with colleagues.  Don’t be mechanical.  Have a human element.  Understand yourself.  Understand your surrounding.  You can’t change your environment if you haven’t changed yourself, she said.

“Esset” or value, Dr. Ergogie said, is what one leads life through.  What you value, at the end of the day, are foundations for your goals, she said.  It can be translated in so many ways including what one has.  You have to be honest, dedicated, selfless, and have integrity, she said.  Being human and serving or living for others are her values.  Everything else is extra.  Without values, one won’t have, “melihik,” (an anchor).  One won’t see her goals and can be influenced too easily without a firm stand without values.

Role models mirror your values.  Dr. Ergogie’s role models are her parents.  It is not because that is what is said, she reassures.  They have influenced her greatly.  “They taught us to set goals,” she said.  “Growing up we were taught and believed in discussion,” she added.  People have conflict, which is a natural occurrence, but everything in life can be resolved through dialogue, Dr. Ergogie’s parents communicated.  Dialogue over spankings, respecting others, and being truthful—not for people but for yourself—were ingrained in the children.  Her mother was part of women’s groups and taught the children they can perform alongside men.  While there may be other role models Dr. Ergogie has met professionally, her parents stand out.  She admires them.

Dr. Ergogie attributes her success and strength of character to her family growing up, her husband (who managed the household while she was away at work for a couple years), and her 14-year-old daughter.  Success means doing something that has meaning for your life, she said.  It is not about money or a degree.  It means leaving an imprint of impact from contributions made.  Numerous areas of life experiences stand out as important accomplishments to Dr. Ergogie.  Still, a few of the highlights are achieving her educational level and getting a chance to serve the nation.

“In every work I’ve done, we worked on empowering women,” Dr. Ergogie said.  Many have supported her, she said, acknowledging Ambassador Mulu Solomon as one example.  Many encourage and support her, in goodwill and thoughts, she said.  It is not just Ethiopian women.  Women encourage each other, she said.  “Educate yourself,” Dr. Ergogie said.  “I advise this to all women I meet.  Economic and political empowerment comes from this.”

So much of the work the minister does is intertwined with charitable projects; this is especially in social affairs.  Visiting people in connection to active projects sometimes goes beyond office space and time.  In the past she volunteered with the non-government organizations.

In her leisure time, Dr. Ergogie spends time with her family.  She says learning never ends.  We learn from people’s lives and what they say and do.  She notes a, “Message of the Day,” to ponder from interactions that move her.  She enjoys experimenting with the keyboard for music and singing “mezmur” (spiritulal songs).  Dr. Ergogie enjoys meeting a few ministers who are friends, and she still communicates with old friends, but lately it is more time with family.

Most grateful to God and for her family, Dr. Ergogie said she is now also grateful to be part of the reform, assigned to make change.  She appreciates working with a leader such as Dr. Abiy and the cabinet members.  It is a team that wants to help you, she said.

As for her philosophy in life, Dr. Ergogie said nature tells you a lot.  “We disrupted nature; (we must) connect with nature!”  And in connecting, she is not limiting ideas to features and elements such as trees and water—although she expresses her deep love for water.  One who is in tune with nature is in tune with self, Dr. Ergogie said.  Listen.

The contribution AWiB has made is not easy, Dr. Ergogie said.  Acknowledging the association for working for women at a large capacity, she said, “Nahu has dedicated so much!  It is not easy.  It takes a lot of energy.  One has to be daring.”  There are many effects one may not see right away, Dr. Ergogie noted.  She gave a nod to AWiB’s workshops and policy work.

To the younger generation, Dr. Ergogie—whose name means “Melkam Menged” (Peaceful Path)—upholds work is medicine.  Don’t be lazy.  Prayer helps if you put action to it.  Don’t give up.  Let’s try to understand ourselves, try to understand our environment, and then others will understand us.

Especially for women:  There are people who say you can’t do it, but your ideas will work out when you put action to them, not just talk about them.  You will be a role model.  At whatever level you are, do the work well.  Screen things; ask, “What helps me?”  Don’t be influenced by peer pressure.  Be yourself.  Be assertive (not aggressive).  Lead your life. 

AWiB thanks the minister for taking time out of her extremely busy day especially in such a time to accommodate our request to sit for an interview.

The AWiB team

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