An unofficial cultural ambassador

Her Story


Sabella was born in Addis Ababa and raised in both the capital as well as Arsi. Her father, a renowned war hero who not only fought off Italian forces but also played a role in the development of the country, was a governor of a locality in Arsi. She credits her love, passion and dedication for her country to her father. Upon marriage, Sabella took up residency with her husband in Peru, and became a bold and proactive unofficial ambassador or even cultural minister for Ethiopia. Citing how this took shape, Sabella recounts that a European woman sees her at a party in Peru, and, admiring Sabella’s beauty and Ethiopian outfit, asks her where she is from. To Sabella’s response that she’s from Ethiopia, the woman tells her “YouareluckytobemarriedtoaWesternerandescapethehardshipsofyourcountry, andtobeherewithusatthisparty. Pleaseenjoyyourself!” This kind of statement was new to her, and Sabella was very surprised the woman had such a negative image of Ethiopia. She later realized that the woman’s impression came from Western media coverage of the 1985 Ethiopian famine and civil war; the ‘single story’ told about Ethiopia, which she believes, is still prevalent in Western media today. Taking a proactive approach to the situation, Sabella started an initiative called “The Other Face of Ethiopia,” or TOFOE. She mobilized her family and began to present Ethiopian art, history, culture, and cuisine first in Latin America and then to Westerners by organizing parties, events, and shows within her own home, at community parks, ballrooms, carnivals, and anywhere else she could find a platform. Sabella was determined to promote the beauty of Ethiopia and of its culture, in all of its diversity, to the people in each of the countries she travelled to. Her TOFOE initiative has earned her much recognition over the last thirty years, including from the Addis Ababa City Cultural and Tourism Bureau for her work in promoting Ethiopia’s diversity and culture across the globe, as well as within Ethiopia itself.

Ethiopia is like a tibeb: an en embroidery woven from the country’s history, tradition, landscape, language, people and so much more – all different aspects working together to create a beautiful work of art, or in this case, a beautiful nation.

Following her global travels as a self-appointed cultural ambassador, Sabella returned to Ethiopia to promote TOFOE, and expanded the initiative by adding development projects to provide services and livelihood opportunities for a select few localities in Ethiopia, through the implementation of sustainable tourism. While the TOFOE project didn’t take off in Ethiopia as Sabella had imagined, she would not accept NO for an answer and instead opened Berhan Ethiopia – her own cultural center, the first of its kind in the country. Sabella founded this center within a house given to her by Amarech Tademe – a volunteer who has supported Sabella’s cause for the past 24years. Sabella cites that Amarech is her hero. On this 960m2 piece of land, Sabella, through Berhan Ethiopia, represents what can arguably be called “Mini-Ethiopia” or “Little Ethiopia”; a center where the art, culture, and history of the entire country is so elegantly and impressively put together. What is most impressive about Berhan Ethiopia is not only that it is a privately-owned center promoting a national cause, but also the detail with which everything is so impeccably and meaningfully designed. From the doors to the walls, to the water fountain that forms an artificial river flowing around the compound, everything in Sabella’s design has (tacit and explicit) meaning and often tells a story. The center presents aspects both human-made and natural from each region within Ethiopia, through features such as the architectural design of its buildings, and the indigenous flora surrounding them. Sabella would like to see a greener Ethiopia, and has created her center with this image in mind; as such, she has planted a variety of herbs, trees, and flowers in the garden in order to show visitors what the Ethiopian environment is capable of providing. Another impressive aspect of the cultural center is the work that Sabella has put into it to ensure it is representative of the country’s diversity. The level of detail in portraying diversity is to ensure that while exploring the center local visitors are bound to recognize something in it – whether it is art, architecture, food, or even utensils – from their region. Sabella believes she’s not just running a cultural center, but conserving the nation’s history, culture, and knowledge, while inspiring the current and future generations. She recognizes that the center does not receive a lot of visitors, but her satisfaction is renewed every time students and other groups or individuals come in, learn, and return home asking themselves what they know about their country and what they are doing to serve their nation. She is satisfied when she rekindles or strikes the ‘Ethiopianism’ fever within them.

Another one of her flagship projects is Berhan Adwa. Upon visiting the center, you can see her dream model of the Berhan Adwa for Africa Cultural and Historical Center in Adwa. Convinced the Battle of Adwa was not only a victory for Ethiopians but for all Africans, Sabella envisions the Battle of Adwa be given greater recognition by maintaining the battlefield, creation of a museum and memorial for the heroes of the battle. She believes that UNESCO must register Adwa as a world heritage site, as it was home to one of the most historic battles between an African nation and a European nation. Resultantly, for the past seven years, Sabella has been calling for a livelier celebration of the Battle of Adwa within Adwa itself, and she is happy to see that recently it has received more attention from the public, as well as the government. Although she believes much more needs to be done in the area and has a vision for it, Sabella has also faced many challenges, which have prevented her vision from becoming a reality.

I dream of inspiring the rest of the world with Ethiopian art, music, language, culture, cuisine, nature and in doing so promote sustainable tourism in Ethiopia.

Sabella shares that she would like to see Ethiopian furniture, fashion, and even cultural centers all over the world – in cities such as Rome, Paris, Tokyo, and New York. Additionally, she wants her fellow Ethiopians to be aware and proud of their history and of their heritage, so that they may protect it and pass it on to future generations. She believes that one way this could be achieved is through the educational system; though it could also take place within the home, through the media, or even through government-led initiatives. She aspires to see a big cultural center established in Ethiopia and to see her vision for Berhan Adwa for Africa comes to fruition. She is proud to have kindled a movement around Adwa and looks forward to seeing the Pan African University in action, among other establishments in Adwa.

I also dream of a nation of Ethiopians who wish to remain in their country and change it for the better, rather than move far away and leave it behind them.

Sabella’s contribution to other women is her contribution to society in general. She promotes its culture and diversity, and preaches for all Ethiopians (men and women, boys and girls) to know themselves, encouraging them take inspiration from the actions of their forefathers, and from their country itself.She serves as a role model not only for young girls and women but for young boys and men as well. She teaches young women – who more so than young men struggle to find role models, especially female role models – that anything is possible. She inspires young women to want to contribute to their country and to serve their nation. Her life-long passion and source of energy is promoting Ethiopia and what she thinks of as “Ethiopianism”.

Being nominated for this award is a big deal; it’s a sign that I have come a long way.

Sabella wishes to use the Women of Excellence nomination to advocate further for unity within the country and awaken the consciousness of people and encourage them to interrogate their identity. She also believes this would open up the doors for her to advance her dream of establishing a national cultural center. As a cultural ambassador and keen admirer of everything Ethiopian, Sabella wants to use AWiB’s nomination to challenge all generations to not only read Ethiopia’s history, but to take part in writing its future.

What do they think/say about Sabella?

Sabella is viewed as a true champion and dedicated self-starter, a proactive and creative self-assigned Ambassador of Ethiopia. She is also seen as a unique Women of Excellence nominee because of her national rather than gender-based cause. Though her nomination, AWiB would be recognizing and acknowledging the work of a woman who has, for the past 30 years carried a national agenda to change the face of Ethiopia, using her own creativity and resources.