Multi-Passionate Veteran Journalist and Media Trainer
My childhood was fun; I was brought up to be a free person. I was very active in high school and was one of the only 2 Ethiopian women who played tennis. I acted in plays and performed in various schools, and I was the only Ethiopian woman competing in horse racing at the Racing Club. I did not have a horse of my own so I was competing with a horse that belonged to an Italian man. Hence he got all the prizes that I won. Eventually my father bought me a horse to ride privately.
After high school, I wanted to study social work but before I was admitted, I got a scholarship to go to Beirut to study Nursing in the American University of Beirut. After studying for a year, I was capped and started treating and medicating patients. One day, I gave the wrong medication to a patient. I was shocked and reported my mistake. I was given a warning that I would be dismissed if I made the same mistake again. I loved music and dancing and used to teach the other students dancing. About 2 or 3 months later, I committed the same mistake. Against my friends’ advice I reported it. A few weeks later, I was told by the administration “you have too many interests to be a nurse” and was dismissed.
“Let us, the women, take the lead and show how we can
fix our country by bringing positive change”
After I returned to Addis Ababa, I applied again for social work studies in what is now Addis Ababa University. Before I was accepted, an advertisement came out that English announcers were needed for the new External Services of Radio Ethiopia to be transmitted to Europe and parts of Africa. I applied, passed and was hired in 1962. That’s how my career as a radio, and eventually TV journalist, began. We were given on the job training by Americans (USAID) at the end of which I started working. Hence, I became one of the first two women journalists who were hired for the External Services of the Voice of Ethiopia as it was then known.
Music is my number one passion. During my high school years, I used to take piano lessons. Next is reading. As a radio journalist, I started presenting the news live and produced and presented various programs such as Guests of the Week and music shows both in Amharic and English through the years such as “Lie Back and Listen”, “I’ve Got A Song To Sing”, “Music To Remember” and in Amharic “Kezihem kezyamk” among others. One of my programs which I produced in 1988 on the subject ‘Shelter for the Homeless’ won me an award by the UNHCR.
I used to take my own collections of discs and records and catalogue them for the Library. I then started organizing the library and became the Head of the Transcription Library, again after being trained on the job. While at the same time producing, and presenting my programs and the news. I recorded individual musicians and orchestras with new songs in the studios for the Library. I collected so many discs of Ethiopian music that were recorded on 78 rpm’s during the Italian occupation, from my grandmother, aunts and so on as well as all of my personal collections and copied them on tape and catalogued and included them in the library. After I retired, I gave these historical discs of music collections to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. I have also helped Francis Falseto by providing him with records from my collection. Francis Falseto has collected and compiled Ethiopian music and had them recorded on more than 27 volumes of CDs known as Ethiopiques,
As it happened, I was the first person to ever appear on Ethiopian Television when it first started transmission on March 12, 1977. My assignment was to introduce the director general of ETV, Samuel Ferenji who introduced Emperor Haile Selassie. The Emperor then announced that he has graciously presented television for the Ethiopian people.
I worked both in radio and television for many years but eventually they put me only on TV as Program Producer/Presenter, News Caster and later Head of the Film Section. Amongst the Television programs I presented, live at that time, the most famous one was TVMAG, a weekly half-hour magazine program in which I conducted interviews with well-known national and international personalities and featured current events.
I used to be a master of ceremony for many functions and or narrator of documentary films free of charge for charity organizations. I used to work as a volunteer for the YWCA, the Ethiopian Women Welfare association, The Social Service Society, the Literacy Campaign and other charity organizations in my free time. When the director of the YWCA suddenly left, I went to my boss to ask for a one-year leave in order to fill the vacancy left by her and to administer the Vocational Schools of the YWCA. These included the Dressmaking School, for 8th grade drop outs, the Nursery Aids School and trainings of women on various skills and crafts. We helped them find jobs as well as market for their crafts. I was given a one-year leave of absence so I worked as the Coordinator of the Vocational School of the YWCA for some months. Within that year, the Derg took power. Many of the individuals who used to assist financially for the YWCA projects were arrested. Hence, I had to discontinue all the projects and in order for the students of the dressmaking school to complete their course, I went around and asked for donations. Luckily, individuals recognized me on ETV and were willing to assist. I decided I would not share the income by taking salary and resigned, leaving it for the teachers to take care. Unfortunately, the students never completed their course because the YWCA itself was nationalized and discontinued.
I didn’t want to go back to media and I decided to stay at home but continued working as volunteer in many organizations. One of my relatives, who came from abroad, insisted that I should not remain idle and pushed me to apply at the Radio Voice of Gospels (RVOG). So, even though the deadline had passed, I did and when they realized who I was, they hired me immediately.
Working for RVOG, was the best years of my career. The station was well organized and well equipped. As a radio journalist, I had the freedom to produce my weekly programs such Guest of the Week, Kaleidoscope, Sunday Music & others. I also presented the News in English for Europe and parts of Africa. Unfortunately, RVOG was nationalized after a year, and I was back to the Ministry of Information’s External Service. They permitted me to continue with my programs but with tighter controls. One day, after I transmitted the first part of a program about the educational broadcast on Kaleidoscope and invited my listeners to wait for the second part the following week, I was informed that my voice would not be heard again on radio. Even though I insisted to air the second part only, they said never. I still have no idea why. I was hurt and was wondering what they would do to me when I was promoted to be the Head of Audience Relations Office and served there until I retired.
“I would love to see journalists having more freedom. I wish this country would not arrest journalists. It’s the saddest thing to see many journalists imprisoned. That’s my dream. Freedom not only for journalists but also for politicians. I’d also like to see Ethiopia overcome poverty.”
Then beginning 1997 I became a BBC correspondent in Ethiopia. I set up the office with another international BBC correspondent. And again, I could say that my time as a correspondent for the BBC was my greatest days as journalist. I learned about journalism in the digital age. I started producing everything on the computer, from writing to editing and sending it online. I filed over 60 programs on various subjects up to June 2012. A couple of times I was arrested while working on stories, and interviewing individuals. One was when I was producing a story on street fast foods in American Gibi area in Merkato and the second time working on a story about an ox market in Kara area in Addis Ababa. In both instances, by the time I was released it was too late to send the stories so they did not air. Eventually I became what is known as a fixer: arranging visits and appointments with ministers & dignitaries for journalists from both BBC and German TV. I also featured in many documentary films one of which was about Child Brides of Ethiopia produced in 1988 and in which I played a major ‘starring’ role. We traveled to various regions of the country and witnessed little girls getting married, in spite of the fact that there is a law against it. The film was produced by Gill Barnes for Umbrella Pictures and transmitted on Channel 4 TV in London, in different TV stations in the USA and in Australia. For my role in this film I was presented with an Award for Patriotism, Efficiency and Service, by the Altrusa International Inc. London, England (June 2001). This documentary film, which highlights the traumatic and harmful effects of early marriages in Ethiopia, also turned out to be a major fundraiser for the Fistula Hospital.
My other engagements include narrating documentary films for EAL and for the ETO. I have acted in a feature film about the life of Rambou in Ethiopia during Menelik’s period along with Debebe Eshetu and Terence Stamp called “A Season in Hell.” Also, along with Debebe Eshetu and four other journalists, we used to broadcast programs (in Amharic, English & Tigrigna) for the United Nations Mission for Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). I was the coordinator of this project beginning in 2001 for five years. I am also a member of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRAT) and the African Women Media Committee (AWMA) as Advisory Committee member and others.
I have also been involved in the formation of the Ethiopian Media Women Association (EMWA) for journalists working in all types of media and have served on its Board until recently. There were two media associations in the country back in those days. One was only for government journalists and the other for the private. So, we decided to have one that would encompass everyone. Hence, about 8 of us journalists formed EMWA. We started off easily with the British Council giving us training of trainers, and then we started giving various types of trainings to women and men journalists on the job. EMWA focuses on the education aspect of empowering journalists. We also got involved in awareness creation of various issues going to the grassroots of our community. One was going to different parts of Ethiopia teaching the effects of Vitamin A on children. That was one of the most effective projects we implemented in EMWA. We taught many mothers and teachers. EMWA is still working actively in training all over the country.
I am now engaged in a few projects. One of these projects is conducting research on historical Ethiopian women. The most challenging part is that all Amharic history books do not have indexes so one has to read an entire book to find out if there are women mentioned. I’m lucky I may get 3 women mentioned. I have compiled over a hundred names and am researching about them. I’m planning to publish the stories of historical Ethiopian women in a book one day in the future. My other project is my parent’s diaries. My mother used to writer her diary practically daily, and so did my father.
I am most proud of my contributions include training many journalists and media professionals, mainly through EMWA. My greatest contribution, however is for the Transcription Library of Ethiopian Radio and Ministry of Information, not only by providing music discs and rare collections but also in cataloguing and organizing it. I am also proud of the fact that I was the only Ethiopian woman to ride a horse in international competitions and won many races. My other great contribution has been working as a volunteer and assisting Charity organizations such as those mentioned above and many others. At present I am assisting the Charity Association for all Ethiopian Persons with Disabilities (CAEPD).
To mentions some of my membership involvements other than in media associations: member of the International Women’s Club (IWC), Friends of the Institute of Social Studies, the YWCA as life member, NEWA etc. and am also involved in the Haile Selassie First Foundation’s Scholarship Committee. Until last month and since its establishment I was the Chairperson of the African Village Financial Service (AVFS) a micro finance institute particularly focusing on the improvement of the lives of poor women and still am a board member. Previously I was also a board member of Ethiopian Book for Children Foundation (EBCF). Among my hobbies, besides gardening and music, I have been a collector of stamps and coins focusing on Ethiopia, for many years. As such, along with three individuals, I was responsible for establishing the Ethiopian Philatelic Association.
Last October, my husband and I, Engineer Seyfu Lemma, celebrated our 50th marriage anniversary along with our daughters, grandchildren, friends and relatives. I’m most proud of my four daughters because I believe they turned out to be good and successful as individuals in whatever they are engaged in. I’m also proud of the programs I’ve produced on radio and television and I enjoyed producing them. I don’t know what kind of impact I created in the life of my audiences but I still get comments and complements from persons who suddenly recognize me at various occasions. I’m also very glad to have served charity organizations and NGO’s.
I believe what enables a woman to thrive is freedom. She has to feel free to be herself, to believe that she is capable. If a woman believes that she is inferior, she can’t do anything. First and foremost, every woman should believe in herself. We should raise our girls the way we raise our boys; telling them that they can. We have the responsibility to get rid of the harmful traditional practices and mentalities to help women thrive. Despite all those adversaries, we still have strong women personalities particularly in the rural Ethiopia. You can imagine how many more could have had thrived if otherwise.
“Do what you like, follow your passion. If you are something because someone put you there, you won’t be able to enjoy your work and we won’t be able to enjoy your work either.”
In the year 1984 I came across this message. It was written by Chesterfield in a letter to his son. I will say this to women before I close.
“Know the true value of Time,
snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it.
No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination:
Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
What do they think/say about Ellene?
“Ellene is a friend that I have learnt a lot from and a confidante who has advised me on some of my major career decisions. She’s always there when needed. Every time I hear music on radio and see it on TV, I know it’s Ellene’s foundation. She is a detail oriented and programmed leader. When new employees join the radio station, including her own department, Ellene used to take her time to train and coach so that everyone is on the same page and work as a team. The department she was leading was known for discipline, high performance and professionalism. Ellene does not tell you what to do but she shows you by doing it herself. ~ Debebe Eshetu – A Close Friend and Previous Colleague
“Ellene is a humanitarian, a harmonizer and a compassionate person. She is extremely helpful and extends her hands even before asked. Ellene creates connections between people around her. She is a woman of action and has immense patience. One of Ellene’s virtues is listening. She listens and tries to understand everyone. Those who work with her prefer to share their feelings, challenges and secrets with her because they know they get answers and solutions from her. For instance, there was an employee who got mentally sick and was marginalized by the staff. Ellene was the one who had helped him get treated and recover. She followed up on his health while she kept him at his job. He was extremely difficult at times but she was even more patient with him. Eventually, he recovered, got well and returned to his work in full capacity. Ellene has always been a role model for journalists around her, including myself. She is always eager to share her wisdom and ready to learn from others.” ~ Wro. Asegedech Yiberta – A Colleague at Ethiopian Radio and A friend
Ellene is the best mother anyone could have. She is loving, understanding, fun and beautiful. She’s a great mom. And as a person, she is the person I’ve always wanted to be. She is always positive and good with people and even with animals. She has the ability to have humor in the times of distress, anger and fear. ~ Wro. Qestela Seifu – Daughter