Zenebu Tulu

"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."

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.

Conversation with Zenebu Tulu

Family and Nation

Population: 56 million
Population Density
: 1187 per sq mile
: 15/85
Rank of Affluence among UN Members
: 182 out of 185

Zenebu Tulu
: 29
Age at marriage
: 18
Dowry given by Getu's family to Zenebu
: Decorative box with clothing, jewelry, and household utensils.
Number of children
: 5
Number of children desired
: 1
Most important event in life
: Having children
: Homemaker and farmer
: Christian Orthodox
: Learned to read through national literacy campaign.
: No
Water supply
: Nearby stream
Cooking feul source
: Firewood gathered in tile forest one hour's walk away
Price Zenebu charges for a small handwoven basket at the local market
: 10 birr [US $l.60]
Other items Zenebu sells at market
: Eggs, roosters, and butter; alter harvest cereals
Cost to grind cereal each month at grinding mill
: 4 birr [Us $0.60]
Favorite task
: Washing clothes (in a drainage ditch a short walk from home)
Woman most admired
: A wornan she knows who has "only two children and a galloping horse."

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?
[Laughs] No, no. He does not make any coffee.

When you have some free time, what do you do?
It rarely happens. I do not do anything except cleaning, washing children, or combing hair.

And Getu? Does he have tine when he can go out and just enjoy himself?
I cannot answer this question. You better ask Getu. He does not have much to do early in the morning and at night.

What do you hope for your daughters in the future?
I want them to have a good education and get married.

Do you know what your children hope for their own future?
I only know about Teshome. He is eager to become a teacher.

Does your daughter Like know what she wants to do when she is older?
I have no idea. She does not talk to me about it. We do not discuss it.

Will your children marry?
I have no idea about my son Teshome. My daughter Like does not even want husbands to be mentioned in front of her. If we make a joke about marriage, she cries. She does not want to get married. In our culture girls never mention marriage. It is parents who arrange the match.

Do you want to send Like to school? Only Teshome goes now.
We plan to send Like to a village school, but I want her to help me at home now.

How far do you expect your daughters to go in school?
I want them to go through the 12th grade so they can get a job.

You do not want them to take over the farm when you are older?
No, I do not want them to be farmers. I do not want them to work as we are doing.

Will they live with you when they are grown up?
I do not want them to live with me. I want them to be free -- to be educated and have their own life.

Do you want your children to look after you when you get older?
Definitely that is my plan.

But what if they are far away?
The world is Getung narrower and narrower. I feel like they can help me from wherever they are.

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?
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?
: 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?
: 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 seen her?
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?
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?
: She just left him She wanted to visit her family and he refused to let her, so she left.

How did Getu abduct you?
I used to dance traditional dances and sing. I was selected by the farmers' association to be a member of the singing committee. I came to visit my sister [at the town where the dance was going to be] and I was kidnapped by Getu. I did not know him. That day was the first time I had even seen him. He might have seen me before, but I had not seen him. I was crying and shouting. I wanted to go back home.

Where did he take you?
He brought me to his brother's home.

How did your parents feel?
They were humiliated. After the second or third day elders were selected to negotiate with my parents. They settled on some amount of money and organized a marriage ceremony.

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?
: 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?
I do not use any family planning or any contraceptives or anything.

How come?
They teach us at the clinic how the family planning helps, but they do not give us any contraceptives. They teach us to use menstrual tabulation [the rhythm method -- Ed].

Is that what you're using?
I have not menstruated since giving birth [to Kebebe, the youngest boy - Ed]. It has been two years. I am breast-feeding now and I do not expect to menstruate until I stop.

If the clinic gave you contraceptives would you use them?

But are they too expensive at the moment to buy?
I do not know, but when there are missionaries here, they give them away.

What do you want for your daughter Like? Do you want her to have many children, or just one or two?
I want her to have two daughters and two sons only. In the future, I will advise her not to have many children.

Within the community here, are women respected as much as men?
No. When a girl is born, people are not very happy They think it is much better when a woman gives birth to a son. When a girl is born, people do not celebrate like they do with a boy.

Is this also the way it was during your mother's time?
It is the same. I want women to be equal, but it is our culture [for them not to be] and I accept that.

Women in Ethiopia

Ethiopians speak more than 250 different dialects, evidence of the country's remarkable diversity. In the north women could historically serve in the army and inherit property, wielding more power than in many societies. In other areas men controlled land but needed women's labor to maintain the household.

After the 1930s, moves toward modernization and Europeanization worsened women's position. The government, acting on British advice, barred women from the army and set up sex-segregated schools, as well as passing laws making women legal minors and restricting land inheritance. The socialist revolution of 1974 restored some rights, but widows, single women, and those in polygamous households still had to fight for access to land. And in coffee-producing areas, where men's and women's roles had been complementary, men's money from cash crops increased gender inequalities.

Several million women learned to read during the government's literacy campaign, but less than 40 percent of girls are currently enrolled in school. Two famines in the 1980s left thousands dispossessed, with economically vulnerable women hit the hardest. Many moved to cities, taking mostly low-paying, low-status jobs. In rural areas, women continue to do the bulk of the nation'swork without getting paid for it, while men typically work less and are paid more.

Some groups still practice polygamy, using this arrangement as a means of controlling labor. Ninety percent of women undergo female circumcision, a cultural practice that some Ethiopians believe controls women's sexuality, but one that can lead to infection, severe complications, and even death. Malnutrition and infectious diseases are widespread, and maternal mortality is high. Dozens of women's groups focus on health care and environmental issues, but governmental restrictions on their operation restrict their effectiveness.

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?
: 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 operation?
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 be circumcised?
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.

Field journal

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. It’s hard not to wonder what will happen to her in ten years – will her life be exactly like that of her mother?