The Woman I Strive To Be
The amount of women in the nontraditional workforce and entrepreneurship roles in Ethiopia continue to inspire me to work harder and chase my dreams. Being an Ethiopian woman and growing up in the States my whole life has taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I grew up trying to juggle the challenges of fitting into the cultural and traditional “norm”, per se, as an Ethiopian woman, and also wanting to mold into a bold and daring woman of color pursuing her career. I’m sure many Ethiopian women like myself can relate to the fact of growing up and being lost somewhere in the middle. Our parents telling us what type of a woman to be, in addition to being in the American school system and being told somewhat the opposite. This is just a part of our culture – our parents want the best for us and want us to follow a path that isn’t so risky. Our parents sometimes struggle to see our point of view in life, not only as a first-generation Ethiopian diaspora but also as women. The long lectures about unexpected pregnancy, the unending discussions about pursuing higher education, the constant reminder of how going out and partying will ruin our lives and my ultimate favorite, the cliché warning to stay away from men until after you’re done with college, are ones that I have grown to appreciate.
“Our parents sometimes struggle to see our point of view in life, not only as a first-generation Ethiopian diaspora but also as women.”
This is all to say that after coming to Ethiopia and having the opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange, I am realising that I am a unique woman who can do anything I put my mind to and nothing can get in the way of that. I carry the values my mother passed down to me as an Ethiopian woman but also bare my fierce and independent personality I developed through my multi cultural experiences. The typical depiction of Ethiopian women I unintentionally accepted growing up were the ones of the soft-spoken, submissive, domesticated, and fearful ones. To be fair, I did see those characteristics in some women in my community and it’s also how Ethiopian women are often depicted in movies – these observations supported the stereotypes I soon accepted. Receiving this fellowship and coming to Ethiopia has completely opened my eyes and revealed a more diverse truth about Ethiopian women. Starting from the training sessions we had in L.A. before coming to Ethiopia, I was introduced to a countless number of successful and hard working Ethiopian women. Amazing women leaders like Rediate Tekeste and Meseret Hailu – founders of the Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship, Ethiopia Habtemariam – President of Motown Records, and Aida Solomon – founder and CEO of Habesha LA – just to name a few. Then here in Addis, I have had the opportunity to learn about and meet women like, Abai Schulze- Founder and Creative Director of ZAAF, and Dr. Eleni – who is an Ethiopian economist, a former Chief Executive Officer of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), and also serves as Chief Executive Officer of Eleni LLC. Additionally, within the last 5 months I’ve been working at St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College, and have had the pleasure of working alongside Dr. Rania – who is the co-founder of Hello Doctor, a Telemed Medical Service company in Ethiopia and was the former Strategic Advisor for this institution. It has been a blessing being able to meet and connect with these successful women and I hope to meet many more during my time here as they are paving the way for the rest of us.
As I continued to see this trend of inspiring women leaders and business owners in the Ethiopian community, I became engaged and would hear about their personal stories of growing up in a traditional Ethiopian household like myself, and how it has shaped and fueled their tenacious dedication, hard work and success. I have also met individuals who still prescribe to the stereotypical idea of who a woman is and should be. Just the other week, the girls and I were at a cafe-restaurant having coffee and we ran into a friend of ours who happened to have a friend accompanying him. We joined tables and were just talking about random things in Ethiopia, then the guy we had just met said he had a question for us. This is how the conversation went after about 30 minutes of meeting each other:
Him: Do you know how many parts of a chicken go into Doro wot (a traditional Ethiopian dish)?
Me: Hmmm no, to be honest I don’t
Him: Does anybody from your group know?
The girls: No we don’t, do you know?
Him: I’m a man, I don’t need to know but I do happen to know, it’s 13.
Our other friend: No it’s actually 12 bro..
Him: Whatever, it’s either 12 or 13, something like that but they are women they should know..
Me: Oh ok that’s interesting..
Him: How could you not know this? How can you claim to be a woman if you don’t even know this?
Me: Me not knowing how many parts of a chicken goes into a dish defines my womanhood?
Him: Yes, it does. You’re a woman! You have to know everything about cooking and cleaning, that’s your job!
Me: Oh ok. So if knowing how to cook and clean is what makes me a woman then what makes you a man?
Him: What do you mean what makes me a man?
Me: Just like you said, how could I claim to be a woman if I didn’t know the chicken parts, I’m curious to know what defines your so called manhood?
Him: Hmmmmm. I’ve never been asked that question before. I need to think about it and get back to you.
Me: No problem. Take your time and get back to me when you can answer that for yourself. Then we can continue this conversation.
Him: (He sat there quiet with one hand over his mouth as if he was just slapped. In deep thought)
As we moved on from that topic, about 5-10 minutes later, he says, “Kidist, I can’t believe you asked me that question, but I will get you an answer. I am going to discuss it with the rest of my friends and I will get back to you.” I responded by saying, “It’s okay don’t get so worried about it, but just think about what you’re saying before you make such a bold statement.”
“I truly believe that being challenged is a crucial and a vital part of growth.”
The reason I wanted to share this interaction is to illustrate that there are those who still have the mindset of women being only domesticated. I grew up hearing this all the time, but it is because of this that I have become the woman I am today. We must be able to stimulate our thinking in positive ways by exchanging and absorbing information, rather than making inaccurate presumptions. I truly believe that being challenged is a crucial and a vital part of growth. As a woman, I have been challenged a lot, both in the gender and cultural context. Now that I am exposed to women that can identify with my experience and have overcome all the challenges and became successful, I feel revitalized. I meet or see at least 5 to 6 new women business owners, doctors, entrepreneurs, professors, and engineers a week. Not only that, there are numerous women working in the construction, agricultural, law enforcement, janitorial and plumbing industries of Ethiopia. It has been refreshing and motivating to witness such a positive light being shed on women. This is another reason why I love my country and want to stay longer to create change and be a role model for young girls. Empowerment is key and Ethiopia has some of the greatest women leaders that serve as role models for the next generation. Thank you to the women who have given me the push and support I needed when I was younger – I am ready to pay it forward by doing the same for others. What defines our womanhood isn’t knowing how many chicken parts go in Doro wot, it is the content of our character and the substance of our intellect. Thank you Ethiopia for teaching me a valuable lesson. I will continue to stand up for my womanhood with pride and confidence, and live only under my terms.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship the organization and the leadership.