Dispatch from Ethiopia – Part IV: Ethiopian Women Make the Country Work

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire?

Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia. (Thank you, Paul! And a special thank you to those who contributed these photos.) This is the fourth installment of his story, sent from Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia is famous for its coffee and its coffee ceremony. This woman is preparing coffee in a three-step process: roasting the beans over a charcoal burner, grinding the beans by hand with a mortar and pestle, and then boiling the grounds in a clay pot called a jebena. Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Bob Sturtevant.

It’s not easy being a woman in Ethiopia. It’s fair to say it’s not easy being a women anywhere in the world, even in the 21st century. But slowly Ethiopian women’s options will increase, just as it’s happening in developed countries. As the Ethiopian proverb says, “Suuta suuta hanqaquun mila lama deemti (slowly the egg walks on two legs).”

Injera is the staple food of Ethiopia. It’s made from a grain called teff. Stews, vegetables, and meat are placed on top of the injera, then pieces are torn off and used to scoop up the food by hand. Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Bob Sturtevant.

I’m careful not judge any country where women don’t have the same gender equality that we’ve achieved in the United States. First of all, we still have a ways to go ourselves. Second, it’s only really been in the last generation that women have made the greatest strides in being equal with men. For much of known human history, women have had a lower status than men. It took the U.S. a long time to get where we are, so we shouldn’t expect the rest of the world to catch up over night just because we’ve finally achieved some long overdue successes.

Women spend a lot time carrying heavy loads of water and firewood. 
This woman is carrying sugar cane to sell on the street or in the market.
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser.
Women help prepare for crop planting. Their home responsibilities will
be waiting for them when they return.
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser.

Most people in Ethiopia live in rural areas (an estimated 85%) and scratch out a living as subsistence farmers. Opportunities for a better life are limited. Rural women marry young and begin life as a homemaker. Women in developed countries have more life choices – college, careers, later marriage, even no marriage. These options don’t exist in the countryside. It’s an Ethiopian woman’s pride to have children and keep the home fires burning. Here cooking, cleaning, and raising children is “woman’s work.” That phrase is offensive in the U.S., but it’s the way things work here. It works for everyone, and unless you put yourself inside a different culture, judging this situation isn’t fair. An Ethiopian friend told me that if he even set foot in the kitchen, his wife would kick him out. Not out of the kitchen, out of the house. That was probably an exaggeration, but the home is the woman’s responsibility. It’s not that men never help with household duties, but for the most part they don’t get too involved.

These women take advantage of some free time by making decorative and
useful items for the home.  Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Jennifer Miller.

Girls grow up fast, caring for small siblings at a young age.
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Bob Sturtevant.

Women in urban areas have more options than in rural areas. For some, the way of life in the capital city of Addis Ababa can resemble the lifestyle we live. But this is a very small proportion of women. Most are employed in service jobs, not as lawyers, doctors, and business owners. More and more women are going to colleges and universities than ever before but unemployment makes gender advancement difficult at this time. At the teacher training college I work at, there were 422 males compared with 533 females last year. The teaching profession is definitely one area where women are becoming a presence. Most of the women end up in primary schools which holds less status, but that will change with time.

In the country, it’s often harder for girls to stay in school than boys because of their household duties. Families tend to be large with six or more children the norm. Ethiopia’s birthrate is one of the highest in the world at 5.5 children per woman. In order to keep a family that size functioning, the girls need to pitch in by collecting water and firewood, cleaning the house, preparing food, and caring for younger siblings. It’s a common sight to see small girls with babies wrapped to their backs. They can take care of small children while they’re small children themselves. Girls become young women fast. While taking on these household duties, girls have much less time than boys to study. Having said that, I’ve seen plenty of top students who are girls. It’s a testament to their strength, talent, commitment, and support from parents.

This little girl in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia was learning
the ropes of shepherding. Photo by Paul Voigt.


Although girls have a more difficult time staying in school because of
their household responsibilities, many girls excel in school.
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Daniel Thornton.

Young girls help care for the family, including cooking.
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser.

I don’t want to give the impression that every woman outside of urban areas works only in the home, although it’s a big job. It’s common in my small town to see women working at construction sites. And as you can imagine, they’re the ones working the hardest. They’re also making less money than the men (sound familiar?). But it’s always refreshing to see women breaking occupational gender lines. Women in my small town also run shops, small coffee houses, or small restaurants among other jobs outside the home.

Women carry the load in Ethiopia.
Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser.
Women often work on construction sites doing the
most “man”ual labor. Photo by Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser.
I had the pleasure of coordinating a summer camp for 34 Ethiopian girls with nine of my Peace Corps friends this year. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) was based on a model created in 1995 by two women Peace Corps volunteers in Romania. Their Camp GLOW creation is now thriving in many countries around the world. The camps train girls in leadership and life skills with crafts and games included for fun and variety. Every girl at our camp participated fully in the sessions and activities and were a complete joy to work with. It was the most rewarding experience I’ve had in the Peace Corps. I got to see firsthand the future female leaders of Ethiopia, and the future is bright.

Camp GLOW – Group photo of Camp GLOW 2012 in Nekemte, Ethiopia.
Photo by Paul Voigt.

While an entire book could be written about the lives of women in Ethiopia, my observations and comments represent a limited point of view after living here for 17 months. Obviously generalizations don’t hold true for an entire population of women, and there’s a lot more that could be discussed. Despite their obstacles, Ethiopian women are as strong and proud as any in the world. As Ethiopia continues to develop, it will be due in large part to the contributions of women. Suuta suuta…

Famous Women in Ethiopia
Bethlehem Tilahun is an entrepreneur in a country where female entrepreneurs are extremely rare. She started a shoe company called soleRebels that uses only Ethiopian materials and recycled tires for soles. She’s built an international footwear brand in Ethiopia and her growing company and employs 75 people at wages far above the average. Check out solerebels.com and soleRebels on Amazon.com. If you’re tempted to buy some, beware that sizes run very small.

Tirunesh Dibaba and Tiki Gelana were the pride of Ethiopia during this year’s summer Olympics. Tirunesh won gold in the 10,000 meters and Tiki won gold in the women’s marathon. When TIki crossed the finish line, I was in a small cafe, and in addition to the cheering there, I could hear people cheering all around town. Tirunesh and Tiki grew up in the small town of Bekoji, elevation 9,200 feet, which is renowned for producing award-winning runners.

Derartu Tulu is an amazing woman and a great athlete. She grew up in Bekoji like Tirunesh and Tiki. At the age of 20, she became the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal (Barcelona, 1992). She ran her victory lap with the second place finisher, a white South African athlete named Elana Mayer, as a tribute to post-apartheid peace.

Ethiopian Women in America
The White House pastry chef during President Clinton’s administration was an Ethiopian woman named Almaz Dama. She now runs her own restaurant and bakery in Arlington, VA.

My favorite Ethiopian singer, Gigi, lives in Washington, D.C. with her bassist/producer husband Bill Laswell. Her music is beautiful. If I was stranded on a deserted island with one CD, it would be a Gigi compilation. For a sample of her music, check out the songs Guramayle and Nafeken on YouTube or iTunes.


Join our community of travelers on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RollerbagGoddess

Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia. 
Look for additional updates from Paul Voigt in the near future. You can also send him your well wishes by leaving a comment here. 

Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.

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