A controversial but important book about a 16th C. Ethiopian nun out by a U.S. Prof.



By Tedla, De Birhan


Wendy Laura Belcher describes herself on her own Website as “an associate professor of medieval, early modern, and modern African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies.”

Wendy grew up in Gonder, Ethiopia having moved from Seattle together with her parents when she was four.

She has translated and produced some of the most wonderful books on Ethiopia. She gave lights to Ethiopian books written by Ethiopians and were only read by people who read Amharic/Geez languages or alphabet. Her scholarship is appreciative of the contribution of Ethiopian/African medieval and early modern writers and scholars to Western and/or world scholarship and civilization. It could also be said an Afro or Ethiocentric, which makes it very interesting.

Some of her books include:

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton University Press, 2015),  Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford University Press, 2012),  Honey from the Lion: An African Journey (E. P. Dutton, 1988), and Early African Literature: An Anthology of Written Texts from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE 

Her upcoming books: The Black Queen of Sheba: The Global History of an African Idea and Selected Latin Letters of the Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609-1641)

Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner translated and published their latest book, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, published on October 2015.The book was originally written by an Ethiopian monk known as Galawdewos in 1672.

The introduction of the book reads “This is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman, and one of the few lives of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century. As such, it provides an exceedingly rare and valuable picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans, especially women, before the modern era. It is also an extraordinary account of a remarkable life—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph.”

Since its launch last month, the translation has began receiving reviews and promotions. Two core themes stand out in the reviews and synopsis given regarding the book : non violence, gender and sexuality.

The following quote is from the Book’s blurb; it presents how she is understood or interpreted by the translators as a pioneer nonviolent African/Ethiopian women and nun:

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (1672) tells the story of an Ethiopian saint who led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. When the Jesuits tried to convert the Ethiopians from their ancient form of Christianity, Walatta Petros (1592–1642), a noblewoman and the wife of one of the emperor’s counselors, risked her life by leaving her husband, who supported the conversion effort, and leading the struggle against the Jesuits. After her death, her disciples wrote this book, praising her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader.

This analysis of Saint Walatta Petros is probably correct. Given that the nature and activities of Walatta Petros. Therefore, a complex historical and contextual analysis of the nun’s radical roles or nonviolent activities might be less necessary.  It is vivid and less conflicting.

The controversy is on the writer’s interpretation of Walatta Petros’ sexuality.

Last year in December 2014 Professor Wendy Belcher gave a talk at Rutgers, New Brunswick, NJ titled “Same-Sex Intimacies in an Early Modern African Text about an Ethiopian Female Saint, Gadalla  Walatta Petros (1672)”.  The abstract of the conference stated that the book features “a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns.” After few lines, the same abstract cautions on how we interpret the book and the verses that relate to the intimacy   ” Interpreting the women’s relationships in this Ethiopian text requires care, but queer theory provides useful warnings, framing, and interpretive tools.”

Just around the same time, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church focused blog wrote an article cautioning how the hagiography of the Saint is interpreted and broadcast. The blogger also noted that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church had written its concern to the author regarding the interpretation of Walatta Petros’ relationship with another female nun.

However, that interpretation of a sexual/lesbian relationship between the Ethiopian Saint Walatta Petros and the other nun seems to have not changed and even made it to the book.

A short review of the book written on November 5, 2015 by Allison Miller of “Perspectives on History” confirms the continuity of the queer interpretation of the book:

She deeply loved another nun, Eheta Kristos. According to the text, after they met they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body. From that day onward, the two did not separate, neither in times of tribulation and persecution nor in those of tranquility, but only in death.” To Belcher, the relationship resembles a marriage: Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos lived together, proselytized together, worshiped together, worked together, and slept together.

“Loved another nun”, “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body”, and “the two did not separate” are the key phrases from the translation of the original book that the translators mainly used to interpret the book and scenarios or the nuns as same sex relationship. The review and the interview that Miller conducted with Wendy makes it vivid that Wendy and her co-author understand and pursue the “same sex relationship” interpretation of the book.

The next paragraph of this article gives another example or evidence why the Geldwdeos’ book is viewed or interpreted from the same sex relationship perspective:

But there is eroticism between women in The Life and Struggles. Walatta Petros herself reports untoward happenings to the head monk at her monastery. “It was evening and I was sitting in the house, facing the gate, when I saw some young nuns pressing against each other and being lustful with each other, each with a female companion,” she tells him. “Therefore, my heart caught fire and I began to argue with God, saying to him, ‘Did you put me [here] to show me this?'”

In the above quote the key word is lust/lustful. Finding such a sexual word in a 17th c Ethiopian book about nuns is interesting but still calls for caution of interpretation and understanding. It would be very very difficult to reach at such a bigger conclusion or interpretation based on such charged words and phrases that mean different things in different contexts, languages and times. For example, the word lust can have at least four different meanings in Amharic : which one did Galawdewos use to mean in 1672?

This is the most common issue that is observed in translated books. Since recently, the most read books in Ethiopia are translations of Western fiction and non fiction books. Those, who had read the English and Amharic versions of some of these books, know the amount of differences, errors and misinterpretations in the Amharic versions. If the original authors understood or read the Amharic versions, no wonder how angry they would be. In translation, the translator’s worldview, principles, language fluency, knowledge of the original language and context as well as the history are very important.

Two same people would not translate the same text in the same language and manner. The meanings and the understandings would also likely be different as well as the theories, paradigms or perspectives they use to interpret them. That is why academic works should be peer reviewed and externally examined.

Interpretation or analysis of a text or a translated text is even more difficult and requires much care and deeper research.

Four years ago, I tried to translate the hagiography of  Saint Kirstos Semra considered to be “the First Ethiopian/International Female Philosopher or peace-builder.” Looking back at it and reading similar translations, I have now come to believe that my translation, which surmised the original text and used a contextual translation approach needs a lot of improvement. My language skills (English and Amharic), knowledge of the religion, the contexts, history and reading of similar books have all improved. So if I was to translate it again, the translation would be a lot different and I would interpret Kirstos Serma more than a peace-builder. I would use further references and interview priests and theologians.

Walatta Pertros’ as well as Saint Kirstos Semra’s hagiographies are both full of discourses. Therefore, one of the best scientific methods of interpreting or analyzing such texts is by using Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA).

Norman Fairclough and Ta Van Dijk proffer the best methods and theoretical frameworks to analyse texts or discourses in any context.  At least some of these dimensions: analysis of (spoken or written) language texts, analysis of discourse practice (processes of text production, distribution and consumption) and analysis of discursive events as instances of sociocultural practice, must be studied in any discourse in order to analyse and conclude the framing or meaning of the texts. And that is a lot of work more than translation and interpretation.

Similarly, such technical texts do not merely have to be substantiated or corroborated with selectively chosen interviewees, some who only share or live  a similar lifestyle with us but we should interview and consult as many clergies, monks, writers, historians and hagiographers. As a result, we will be cautious of advancing a uni-dimensional interpretation of the discourse.

In a nut shell, I am superlatively thankful of what Prof. Wendy is doing in terms of putting the scholarly works and profiles of early history Ethiopians on the map as well as highlighting the contribution of Ethiopian civilization and scholarship to Western and world enlightenment. As much as I want her to do more with this regard, I would be glad if she would also takes our concerns into consideration in the future.

Well Done!