Mary Tadesse’s memoir entitled My Life, My Ethiopia illuminates the life of one of Ethiopia’s greatest women leaders.
Born into a family that valued education, she was selected to travel and study abroad for the purpose of advancing not only herself, but the entire country, upon her return. Emperor Haile Selassie expected this first group of Ethiopian students to return with technical skills and scientific knowledge to help propel Ethiopia forward. Mary felt well aware of the rare honor and great responsibility accompanying this assignment in 1947: “We were cast as beacons of change that would hasten Ethiopia’s pace on the path of progress.” These students optimistically set out to see if the theoretical knowledge they’d gleaned from books could be put into practice in the real world of Ethiopia.
Upon her return, Mary was first assigned to the Ministry of Education, where she worked alongside experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Though the problems faced in Ethiopian education were daunting, the Ministry staff made “great strides in the areas of increased student enrollment, teacher education, and primary and secondary education.” Tadesse served on the front lines of change.
Her subsequent promotions and accomplishments are extraordinary: Assistant Minister in charge of fine arts, libraries, and museums; head of Ministry of Education’s Department of Foreign Aid; head of Scholarships Section overseeing the number of scholarships, fields of study, and mutual obligations between collaborating ministries; Vice Minister for Education and Cultural Affairs. In 1971, the First National Conference of Fine Arts and Culture for Schools was sponsored by her department. A two-hundred-page report followed, suggesting, among other things, that Amharic would be the language of instruction in all teacher institutions, fine arts would become standard school curriculum, and the “Ministry of Information might consider curtailing the showing of foreign films that contained violence and explicit language in an effort to control damaging effects on the young.” Her reach and influence extended to all of Ethiopia.
Then, in 1974, the unthinkable happened. Emperor Haile Selassie’s government officials were overthrown and imprisoned—some even murdered. She wrote: “The world as we knew it vanished.” From her diary: “Exile has a way of leveling everything.”
Organized into five sections, Tadesse’s chapters are carefully constructed using reminiscences from diary entries. She musters a magical array of people’s names, faces, and locations from her past. Her language is pragmatic, melodic, nostalgic. At times one may catch a whiff of agelgil fitfit, or injera with wot. If you don’t know what these are, Tadesse includes a glossary at the back of her book. (I peaked online at the national flower of Ethiopia, the Calla Lily, and the yellow Meskel flowers surrounding the garden at Mary’s house each September, signaling the end of the rainy season.)
Watching her grandchildren grow up in America, Tadesse wonders, “Will they forget their roots in Ethiopia? Will they know their history or identify the pioneers across time and space?” Her grandchildren will come to understand at least one true pioneer: Wolleta “Mary” Tadesse, their grandmother.
Ethiopia’s triumphs, wars, and tragedies are critical backdrops, but the memoir’s most notable feature is the leadership, camaraderie, and perseverance of Tadesse herself. I’d recommend this book for all women in general, and especially immigrant women, stateswomen, educators, and nation builders. There is much to consider and admire in this legacy of Ms. Tadesse’s work.