By Heather O.
In honor of Women’s History Month, this week we will be doing a series (among other things) of excerpts and paraphrased (by me) conversations from the book _Women in the Material World_, by Faith D’aluisio and Peter Menzel. This book consists of interviews, pictures, and stories of women from around the world.
At the age of 18 Zenebu Tulu was kidnapped by her future husband, (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–a two hour drive from Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa. 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.”
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 (pronounced Lee-Kay) 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.
The family lives 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.
The children work very hard, especially Like. Teshome (Zenebu’s son, age 12) does a lot of the plowing and Like does everything but cook. I never saw her play. She will never go to school [like her brother], although I think she wants to. It’s hard not to wonder what will happen to her in 10 years–will her life be exactly like that of her mother?
EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEW WITH ZENEBU:
In our country, women are not circumcised. But here it is common. What did your family do?
Zenebu: My daughters are not circumcised, but 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 after the system year is over.
Why is it important to circumcise them?
It is a tradition–our tradition. I have no idea why, but it is a 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.
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 seocnd 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.
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 rythym method-Ed].
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 chidren. 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.
Notes: 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.
Interview by Vivienne Walt, field notes by Melissa Farlow, photographer.
For Wednesday: Madame Dentes Delfoart, from Haiti
P.S. This thread will not become a debate about female circumcision. Period.