A revolutionary nun
Emahoy Fekerte Mariam Bekele, the fifth child of nine, was born in Addis Ababa. She graduated high school from Medhanealem School and thereafter attained a diploma in Management from Winget General at the age of seventeen. Though she was a very good student academically, Emahoy Fekerte was inclined from a young age towards reading religious books, writing and life as a nun. Her wish to become a nun was met by resistance from her family and the community, leading her to leave for Asebo Harer for 10 months at the age of 18, without letting anyone know her whereabouts. In 1972 Emahoy Fekerte joined Etegesemani (Gethesemani) Mariam nunnery, which is her home to this date. From early on, Emahoy Fekerte held an idea of the type of nun she wanted to be. She somehow was against the traditional idea of nuns considered only religious and who deemed their lives over once joining a nunnery. She wanted to be an active, working and productive nun engaged in both social issues and a spiritual life that can help others.
Joining Etegesemani was difficult to get used to for Emahoy Fekerte in the beginning. She says, “I was very young and being a nun was very much misunderstood as people considered nunnery equal to the end of one’s life. Instead what the bible tells people choosing such a life is to give a spiritual service in a way for us to be spiritually and socially active and at service. When I first came in, the way things were done was completely opposite. I used to be very sad and disappointed on how things were handled. There was a big male dominance that all things were handled by men and the women were completely dependent on male administrators for their existence. There was no flow, system or path to follow while working and the attitude among men towards the nuns was discouraging that the nuns used to live under fear and worry.” Emahoy Fekerte felt very strongly that the place needed change. She began by taking part in agricultural and schooling activities and soon enough she was involved in implementing different plans, systems and mostly financial activities and budgeting. When the head nun fell sick, Emahoy Fekerte was approached with an opportunity to replace her and her nomination was sent to Patriarch, Abune Tekelhaymanot, for approval.
I was shocked to hear the nomination. I though I did not deserve it as I was so young and new. But they all believed in me and told me I could do it.
Once accepting the offer, it was not much of a question to serve with commitment and integrity, truth and honesty; she always cared about the group and the others. Service above self was the base for her.
“First I focused in changing people’s attitude which I thought was the base for change. Then I moved to creating systems, departments, rules and regulations to make the life there better and the administration easier.”
Emahoy Fekerte initially convinced the Church head and then moved on to revolutionize the whole system. In her view, although it was a nunnery for women, the nuns were totally administered by the priests and there was no system in place for the nuns to know their income, so their existence and quality of life depended on the generosity of the male members of the monastery. “It’s amazing how women consider their inferiority to men as something holy. As they go on with education and knowledge about the natural gender differences and how the bible has dealt with it fairly, they start to ease their thinking and change gradually occurred.” She admits it was very challenging along the way to bring that change. The challenges she faced were not only from the men, but also the women. She stresses the fact that the men in the compound had a very difficult time to accept that a female administrator can exist and can bring those changes. Per the regulations of the monastery, a head nun cannot serve more than 4 years but Emahoy Fekerte has been serving for the past three decades, owing to the revolutionary changes she introduced.
When Emahoy Fekerte joined the nunnery, she remembers that there were only a few nuns with limited activities undertaken for survival, like sewing and agriculture. Today it has grown to house 105 nuns, 240 children, around 100 staff members and over 1000 students from the community going to the religious school. With 12 different departments including accounting & audit, Emahoy Fekerte strategically and gradually moved the responsibilities to some of the nuns. By also shifting the nunnery’s accountability to the Orthodox Synod instead, Emahoy Fekerte enabled the nuns to control their own resources and live hoods with little interference and domination by the priests.
The current set up of the nunnery also cares for female orphans, where each nun assumes a motherhood role for at least 6 girls. Accordingly, Emahoy Fekerte lives with 9 children aged 5 to 18 that she cares for as a mother and they live as a family unit. In addition, the nunnery has grown to administer several activities including a school for the community children, agricultural activities, handicrafts, management of a guesthouse and so much more.
Emahoy Fekerte is still strong and ambitious. She wakes up early and works all day. She is involved in teaching, administration and agriculture mainly, in addition to the other activities she has to do every day. She can’t see her life without working, even though many people misunderstand that often. “People assume that once a person becomes a nun, they think all we do is just pray and spend our days in churches. That is not how it is at all as the bible says belief that is separated from work is a waste.”
I want to see a calm, contented and mature administrative skills from leaders both in Churches and in politics.
She recounts an incident that she was vilified for, by doing something people considered manly: “we were out for work one day with our driver who used to operate the only car we had. It was raining so hard and we saw a man by the road that was walking in the flood and I asked our driver if we could give him a ride. The driver was so mad that I asked and instead he parked the car in the middle of the road and left. None of us knew how to drive so it was such a shock for us to be left in the middle of nowhere. I was very mad and disappointed that day that I registered to attend driving license school next morning and after hours of training and passing the required tests, I got my licensee in no time. I was crucified for it – not only the men, but the women too. They questioned how I could do that because for them driving a car when you are a nun was unthinkable and not spiritual. Even people on roads use to call me nasty things when they see me driving a vehicle. But for me, being dependent was a sin”. Today the nunnery has six drivers and a few more cars. If one of them ever has to miss a day and she has to go someone, Emahoy Fekerte is not worried. She strongly feels that she is a revolutionary woman and that while she was born with it, she also taught herself to be even stronger through reading. “I think it’s a gift of God but part of it is also result of reading. I used to read how strong and fighters my ancestors used to be. I used to also read stories of dominant women in human history and focus on their strength and ways they overcome obstacles. This way I was able to understand what I should and should not do and how to do it.”
I worry about the future of the kids I raise in this center. We raised them so well that when they go to the outside community and mingle, they are considered too serious.
Emahoy Fekerte’s vision is to witness religious leaders working for love and peace for humanity despite their differences in belief or religious affiliations. “We are nothing without peace in the world. We need to serve God, and the human race with truth and loyalty.” She shares that it always makes her sad that God gave humanity a beautiful place to live in but that humanity destroyed it. She believes God provided us with clean air, fertile land and pure heart but we chose not to work hard and lose our patience with each other and have stopped making sacrifices for love and positive changes. “I want to see a generation that values the blessings we have been given. Looking at the world especially the situation of Ethiopians at the moment, it breaks my heart as I see the immigration, poverty, death and all.”
Talking of the services the nuns provide in raising the children in the orphanage, Emahoy Fekerte believes that children that are raised properly do not become a burden to the government or to the country. While none of the nuns get paid to take care of the children, she feels it is their responsibility to raise a well mannered, educated and cultured generation that will take over the country in later years. Her effort and success to open up a branch in Dire Dawa 11 years back is proof to this as they did a study and identified that the need existed. “We did a study and learnt that there is a big social chaos in the area because of chat, contraband, HIV and other issues. So we opened a center called, ‘Getesemane Betedenagel Tebabat Gedam’, organized there to take in children all the way from Melkajebdu, Harerge, Adama and more”.
Looking back, she feels that her major success is the management she exercised and the effect she brought to change the attitude and mental makeup of the nuns in the center. They used to think that there was no life once they become nuns and that all their life depended on the men around. “Now they have full confidence in themselves and understand that God has given life equal to men and women. They know that they can exercise spiritual life and freedom as much as men do. Based on the book and the rules of the bible, I have brought a better self out of them. Now they know they can do anything.”
She adds: “You know, if you think about it, the strength and quality of women goes back thousands of years. Even in the presence of guards, they were the ones who saw Jesus first when he was resurrected. I am so proud I worked on women and especially on making them strong and better. Today they ask ‘why’ whenever they see something not right.” She strongly believes that the best way for women to show their strength and show that they are equal as men is to prove it. “We keep on saying for generation that women have been disadvantaged and suppressed and partly they have but, I believe, that the way to win is to work hard and show men that we can do what they can and prove the equality b/n the two. Talking about it for generations has not brought about the change we always wanted so changing the tool may work.”
What do they think/say about Emahoy Fekerte?
One can learn commitment, persistence, courage, patience, relationship-building, forgiveness and love from her
Those that know Emahoy Fekerte from the nunnery describe her as a very strong person; a person of change and development; dedicated and someone whose work and life is a model for everyone. One of her close supporters recalls a time when the existence of the nunnery itself was challenged, with some people re-possessing parts of the land and building their own houses and bars. The fight she put up against these individuals is said to have threated her life as well. But her courage and perseverance is noted to have played a significant role in keeping the nunnery’s history, identity and sovereignty. Her supporter continues: “she fought to maintain our heritage.”