"The others would
laugh at Like when she goes to school if she were not
circumcised. It is a humiliation, not circumcising a
Photographs by MELISSA FARLOW. Interviews by VIVIENNE WALT
AT THE AGE OF 18, ZENEBU TULU WAS kidnapped by her future husband, Getachew (Getu) Mulleta, and taken to his brother's home. Tradition forbade the tearful Zenebu from returning to her parents and the pair was married after negotiations between the two families. Such forced unions are not uncommon in Ethiopia, where men often have near-total control over women's lives. For Zenebu, now 29, the abduction is a distant memory. For Getu, 32, it is a source of embarrassment-a reminder that he was "ignorant" as a young man.
The couple and their five children live in a family compound in the village of Moulo two-hour drive from Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa -- with Getu's parents, siblings, and grandmother. Their home is made of sticks cemented with mud and cattle dung; it leaks during the rainy season and needs constant work. Zenebu struggles to keep the yard clean and says her dream is to have "a very good yard and a garden!" On Sundays, she attends services at an Ethiopian Orthodox church -- a brief respite in a week of constant toil.
|Zenebu's biggest help is her daughter Like
(pronounced "lee-kay"), 10, who
spends the day pounding grain and pressing fresh dung
into the walls of their home (right). Like dreams
of going to school like her brother, Teshome, 12, an avid
student who wants to become a teacher, but Zenebu says
she needs the girl at home and that in any case the
family can't pay her school fees. Asked if she thinks
life will be better for her children, Zenebu, proud of
her son's progress, says that she hopes it will, but is
inclined to believe that not much will change.
|Viviemie Walt: Do your children help with
housework during the day?
Zenebu Tulu: Yes. They do help me. My daughter Like cleans the house, fetches water and makes me coffee. My son, Teshome, mostly takes care of the animals, and sometimes he fetches water for me. Like makes coffee when I am busy, when I am weaving, or when I am making injera. Teshome also makes coffee.
What about Getu? Does
he make coffee?
When you have some free time, what do you do?
And Getu? Does he have tine when he can go out and
just enjoy himself?
What do you hope for your daughters in the future?
Do you know what your children hope for their own
Does your daughter Like know what she wants to do
when she is older?
Will your children marry?
Do you want to send Like to school? Only Teshome
How far do you expect your daughters to go in
You do not want them to take over the farm when you
|Will they live with you when they are
I do not want them to live with me. I want them to be free -- to be educated and have their own life.
you want your children to look after you when you get
But what if they are far away?
Zenebu's son Teshome (above) is an enthusiastic first year student, here raptly listening to a lesson about human autonomy.
Vivienne: Getu, you told me that this is your second
marriage. How old were you when you married Zenebu?
Getu Mulleta (husband): Twenty-three.
How did you meet her?
Getu: I kidnapped her.
What!? You stole her heart away, is that what you mean?
Getu: I saw her on the street, And I fell in love and wanted her to be my wife and that is why I kidnapped her.
Did you go to her parents and ask?
Getu: You do not need any prior arrangements to kidnap a girl. You just do it on your own and then people negotiate after.
How did you negotiate to marry her?
Getu: Traditionally, old men are selected to be sent to the [woman's] family to work this out.
Did you know her name when you married her or had you just
Getu. I knew her name. I'd seen her once or twice when she was coming to visit her sister.
What did Zenebu think about becoming your wife?
Getu: I loved her. I had no idea whether she loved me or not. It was my decision.
Do you want your daughters to have this kind of marriage?
Getu: I don't want any of my daughters to be kidnapped. I did that out of ignorance. I am an illiterate person. That is why I decided to do things without permission. But I want my daughters to be educated and to have an office job. I want them to get married to someone who has an office job. I don't want them to have the kind of life I am experiencing.
A respite from a busy afternoon, Zenebu (above, in a green dress) takes a coffee break with her sister-in-law, Ayelech; her neice Zelalem, 10, does the brewing and serving. Zelalem is in the second year of school -- one of only four girls in a class of 18. Zenebu's daughter, Like, who is the same age, does not attend school, though she wants to. The reason, Zenebu says, is that the family cannot afford the required textbooks and clothing. In addition, Zenebu finds her daughter indispensible at home, where she helps to watch the other children, grind grain, collect firewood, patch the house, and fetch water.
|Zenebu, why did Getu's first marriage end?
Zenebu: She just left him She wanted to visit her family and he refused to let her, so she left.
How did Getu abduct you?
Where did he take you?
How did your parents feel?
How do your parents feel now?
Now they are happy because I have my own children. I have my own life. They seem very happy for me now.
And you-are you happy now?
Yes, I am very happy. It's better to get married than to stay at home with no children.
[Often a man kidnaps his intended bride so his family can avoid the high cost of giving a feast - which brings public recognition to a union in rural areas where marriage cannot be binding without firm agreement between both the bride's and the bride-groom's families. The man's family often knows of his plans well in advance, but the kidnapped woman may not, and has little or no say in the matter. -Ed.]
Vivienne: Zenebu, how many times have you been pregnant?
Zenebu: Six times. One child miscarried. I was coming back from grinding meal and I fell down. I was five months pregnant. It was the second child, after Teshome. After that I always had problems giving birth.
Did you plan all your children?
I wanted to have children before I gave birth to Teshome, but after Teshome I did not want any more babies. Then I had the child who died at birth and I prayed to God not to give birth to another child. But it always accidentally happens. I don't want any more children. If I were wealthy, if I had a better life and a better house, then I would want more.
Do you use contraceptives?
Is that what you're using?
If the clinic gave you contraceptives would you use
But are they too expensive at the moment to buy?
What do you want for your daughter Like? Do you
want her to have many children, or just one or two?
Within the community here, are women respected as
much as men?
Is this also the way it was during your mother's
Do you think it is different for women in other countries?
I've heard that women are treated as equals in many foreign countries, but I do not know it for a fact. For myself I want to stay as I am. I want to fit in this society, with this culture.
Vivienne: In our country, women are not circumcised. But
here it is common. What did your family do?
Zenebu: My daughters are not circumcised, but [my son] Teshome is already circumcised and I am circumcised. Since last year I have begun planning for my daughters to be circumcised. But this year is a system year, which happens once in eight years, and we are not allowed to circumcise children during this time. So I will do it soon after the system year is over. [Zenebu, a member of the Oromo-speaking group, is referring to gada - a complicated age-grading system that dictates when an Oromo person can undergo certain ceremonial rituals.-Ed].
Why is it important to circumcise them?
It is a tradition-our tradition. I have no idea why but it is a tradition.
Do you agree with the tradition?
The others would laugh at Like when she goes to school if she were not circumcised. It is a humiliation, not circumcising a daughter. It is terrible not to.
Have you talked about it with Like yet?
She keeps complaining that she is not circumcised. Like, herself is complaining. She says, "Many of my friends are circumcised and you did not circumcise me."
Zenebu, at what age were you circumcised?
I've been told it was when I was a year and a half old.
When your daughters are circumcised, who will do the
There are some people around here who do the circumcision.
Is it a traditional woman?
Yes, traditional. She comes here and we make porridge for her and give her butter to oil her hair and 2 birr [US $0.32].
What about something for the pain? Does she have medicines?
We buy a powder from private clinics. It is a Western medicine. I do not know what it is. We put it on the genitals.
Do the girls feel much pain, do you think?
Men suffer a lot. Not women.
Why not have the operation in a clinic?
For men - for Teshome, say - they do that. He was circumcised in Holeta at a private clinic. I do not think there is circumcision for women there.
Does the government allow this in the clinic?
For women it is not allowed. It is forbidden by the government.
Do you think there are health reasons why girls should not
In the clinic they complain about it. They say "You lose all this blood and it always ends up infected!" When a woman gives birth, the cervix will not relax sometimes, because of the infection. And they teach us that circumcised women can have problems in relations with a man.
What kind of problems?
They never tell us the details.
Hours before dawn Zenebu leads a calf from the house to join its mother in the field. Smoke drifts out the doorway as she lights the fire to make coffee and flat injera bread. Shy 10-year-old Like appears with a yawn, scoops up handfuls of still-warm cow dung, and begins her day by patching the walls of their new home. Zenebu sharply calls Like, who responds by picking up a clay pot, and running to the nearby stream. Getu comes to the door, wiping sleep from his eyes. Like reappears with a small bowl of water for Getu to wash his face.
It is a difficult life for Zenebu and her family. They live in a one-room dwelling with a single piece of furniture a crude wooden bed. On two walls are dung ledges for sitting around the cooking fire. At night the three oldest children wrap themselves in animal skins and sleep on the ledges. The thatched roof is terribly leaky as I discovered on the day that the skies opened to the rain that had been threatening during the entire visit. I was in the house and the roof started leaking everywhere. About a dozen people huddled inside many of them raising umbrellas against the gushing water.
When there's a break in the routine, Zenebu has coffee with her sister-in-law, Ayelech. The women roast beans in a metal pan, crush them, pour the powdery result into a pot of boiled water, and share secrets while waiting for the grounds to settle. The two women meet several times a day a routine that is important to both of them.
The children work very hard, especially Like. Teshome does a lot of the plowing and Like does everything but cook. I never saw her play. She will never get to go to school, although I think she wants to. Its hard not to wonder what will happen to her in ten years will her life be exactly like that of her mother?
-- MELISSA FARLOW, APRIL