Founder and CEO, Mujujegwa Loka Women’s Development.
Tirhas Mezgebe was born and raised in Asmara, Eritrea and moved to Addis with some of her family members after she finished high school at about age twenty. She attended both her primary and high school education at Yishak Tewelde Medhin school. Talking about her family, Tirhas says, “I have eight other siblings and I am the fifth child in my family. My father and mother were two very different people but they were great parents, they’ve raised me well. My mother is a strict and tough woman while my father is very generous. My mother taught me strict discipline and the values that guide my life to this day. I am deeply grateful for them.”
Talking about how she drew up her life principles, Tirhas shares, “while I was a high school student, I decided to follow Jesus and accept Him as my savior and to this day it has been a guiding light and inspiration for my life and work. Jesus is my model for leadership, generosity, and everything I do.”
While waiting for an opportunity to move to Italy, her family suggested that it would be a good idea for her to get a job in the meantime. Hence, she moved to the then Pawe (now Benishagul- Gumuz region) to work for a big supermarket that served the staff members of Salini Construction in the area. After serving for a short period, she assumed a leadership position and began managing the supermarket business.
For some time, Tirhas was surrounded by staff members of the construction company and had little contact with the local people. Tirhas recalls, “they rarely came to the shop and I did not know what the life of local inhabitants was like”. Then with the help of a security guard that worked for the construction company she began to see more of the area she lived in and learned about their life style.
A few years passed, the supermarket closed and she went back to Addis to see about her visa process to travel to Italy. “But my heart was not in it … I wanted to go back to Pawe. But at the same time I was afraid of my family and what they would think if I refused to pursue the chance to live in a European country, as and still is an opportunity many would pay any price for.” Sure enough her family was disappointed and they thought she was wasting her life and that she should do what “normal” girls of her age were doing – marry someone and settle down in the city. She did not listen to them. She took the money that had been saved up for her possible trip to Europe and moved back to Pawe.
Tirhas gave up all pursuits of a young woman’s life to move to a place so far from home and live for group of people so different from herself. This decision would cost her so much along the way but she emphatically declares it is the best choice she has made in her life and she would do it all over again even if she is given a second chance to choose her life. By a conscious choice, Tirhas remains unmarried to this day.
Tirhas had no one to support her or even believe in her dreams but she went back with a clear purpose of helping the community she has come to love and yet did not know where to begin. One afternoon in 1987, she was driving through the forest with a friend, who was then the head of the Women’s Affairs office of the region, and they heard crying and wailing coming from the bushes nearby. They went to see what happened and what she witnessed changed her life ever after. It was a woman hanging on a tree with a dead newborn baby by her feet. She had committed suicide after losing her child. It was a heartbreaking scene and utterly confusing for Tirhas.
She kept on asking “but why?” and “how come she was here all by herself with a newborn baby?” In the responses she got she learned about a custom that she would fight to change for many years to come.
In Gumuz culture, a woman’s blood is considered cursed and would defile anyone who touches it or the woman who is bleeding. The community believes their god, Musa, fears a woman’s blood. Thus, any female on her menstrual cycle (period) is set apart from the community every month. She is handed food on a stick so that no one touches her. As soon as a pregnant woman begins having contractions or is in labor, she is sent away in to the woods to have her child all by herself. She labors alone and cuts the umbilical cord with her own hands. It is believed that if a woman gave birth in a house or anywhere outside of the forest the child would fall seriously ill or become physically disabled. Tirhas was shaken to her core by all this information. She could not believe the amount of pain a pregnant Gumuz woman was forced to endure so needlessly. She resolved to put an end to this pain and wanted to have Gumuz women give birth in houses in the village.
Although she was not sure how to share this idea of hers, Tirhas decided to get to know the community she wanted to help. She started going to the Gilgel Belles village once a week and having conversations with mothers, young women and anyone she could communicate with. In these trips in to the village, she took with her a local alcoholic drink ‘Areqe’ as a gift. Slowly but surely she was learning about their life and they were learning to trust her. It took three years before she would convince the elders to let a woman give birth in a house instead of the woods.
Passion in life
Tirhas has been driven by the motto, “no woman should die while giving birth!” She said, I would love to see a health center or a clinic in each zone accessible to all women but I know that will not even be enough. However, life would not get better even if there is safe delivery; hence, she also chooses to work on economic empowerment of women.
Tirhas wishes and hopes for her community to build a big hospital for women and children along with a care center or a shelter for the elderly. Second, she aspires to see to it that more women are in leadership positions. “I want to see women rising and holding key offices. I want to see a female Prime Minister of Ethiopia. There is no reason why that cannot happen!” says Tirhas with palpable passion in her voice.
Achievements Tirhas is Proud of:
Tirhas is the founder and CEO of Mujujegwa Loka Women’s Development Association. She has lived in Benishagul Gumuz region for about 24 years serving the community – one woman at a time. The words compassion, dedication and clarity of purpose are the heart and soul of Tirhas Mezgebe’s story. She is effortlessly compassionate, incredibly dedicated and knows what she wants and how to achieve it.
In Benishangul there are different zones and ethnic groups. Each has its own culture and within that many challenges that require intervention. The custom that forces women to give birth in the woods is a Gumuz culture and not prevalent in the Shinasha zones, whereas the Guba practice female genital mutilation. Tirhas works to educate the community about these interconnected practices that oppress women in different ways.
In Metekel zone of Benishalgul-Gumuz there are seven woredas and Tirhas has worked in Mandura and Dangur Woreda for more than a decade. In Mandura alone her work has impacted 19 Kebeles. When we compare the situation now with that of 16 years ago the problem is not as pervasive and many women are giving birth at home or in health centers. “It still needs a lot of work but we have reduced the harmful practice significantly”, says Tirhas. She added, with a hint of joy on her face tempered with an awareness of the remaining challenges, “I am proud of this but we have a long way to go for there are many other problems that need to be addressed in the community.”
After she worked on her own for a few years Tirhas joined the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Associations (NEWA) and received funding from German Development Service (DED). She used that to set up more than 30 women’s self-help associations within six months. This has helped many women and has also helped the project to receive further support.
Before Mujujegwa Loka Women’s Development Association came in to being, Tirhas had continued to speak to members of the community and after about a year they asked her to open a school for their children. She did not let them down. She built a school on a plot of land she got from the local administration or the ‘Woreda’ and furnished it using local bamboo trees. With two teachers as staff members, she opened the school and the local children began learning to read and write.
After a year, Tirhas was again busy trying to respond to another request from the community to build a flourmill. She used her own savings and collected money from family and friends to complete the flourmill. The women in the community were ecstatic and grateful since the mill would significantly reduce the physical labor required in preparing food for the family.
Sometime in 1990, it was her turn to tell the community what she wanted. They asked her what she would like to do next and she immediately said I would like you to allow women to give birth indoors. It took sometime but one of the wives of the village chief agreed to have her child wherever Tirhas wanted her to and she gave birth in a house that had been set-aside for that purpose. The baby she had grew up to be a very normal and healthy child. People chattered and then declared, “Tirhas’ God does not fear blood” and there after began to let their wives give birth in that house.
The challenges are complex and connected with one another. That is why Tirhas is determined to stay in the region and keep working on the root causes of the problems that affect women’s lives. To that end, she insists, improving access to education and economic problems are essential for maintaining the work Mujujegwa Loka has been doing since 1990.
Helping Other Women:
Tirhas Mezgebe’s life and work are extraordinary. This is visible in the choices she has made since she was a young woman. She gives all of her time not just some of it and she does so with the joy of a person who considers herself lucky to be doing what she does.
The people and community she chose to work for, do not look like her, dress like her, believe in her God nor do they speak her language. When asked how much of a challenge this was for her, she answers, “I don’t think about it like that. It was a new place but it didn’t occur to me to think of all that makes them different from me. I just wanted to be here. I wanted to make things better.”
And that is precisely what she did. She chose to stay with them and she made their lives better. “Still,” she insists, “… there is so much that needs to be done. I want to continue what I am doing and do it really well.”