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One Girl’s Fight to Learn in Ethiopia: An Interview with Writer Maaza Mengiste

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

[A version of this article was originally published by Of Note Magazine]

By Mikael Awake

Maaza Mengiste, now based in the United States, was born in Ethiopia and spent much of her life in Nigeria and Kenya. Her moving debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, tells the story of everyday Ethiopians surviving the overthrow of the empire and the ensuing dark years of violence under Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship. The book was a runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and an NAACP Image Award.

More recently, Maaza has leant her vision to a new project advancing the cause of girls’ education. Along with eight other global writers, Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) and Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) among them, she contributed a segment for Academy-Award-nominated director Richard Robbins’s documentary "Girl Rising." The film is part of a larger “global action campaign” called 10×10, which seeks “to deliver a simple, critical truth: Educate Girls and you will Change the World.” For the film, Maaza traveled to Ethiopia to tell the story of Azmera, a teenage girl who refused an arranged marriage to an older man. Meryl Streep narrates the segment. I wanted to learn more about the project and Maaza’s work on it, and since it had been a while since we last spoke, it was also a good excuse to catch up.

Q: How did you get involved with "Girl Rising"?

A: I was contacted by the director, Richard, through a mutual friend while I was living in Rome. The documentary sounded like an intriguing project, but I was worried about taking part in some kind of “tragedy of Ethiopia/Africa” story. I listened carefully to what the producers said when we talked on the phone, and they let me have some time to consider what issue I thought was the most significant obstacle in girls getting their education in Ethiopia. I thought of many issues, then I looked at statistics and Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of forced early marriage and I felt this was something significant to do.

Q: How did you find the girl you wrote about for the film?

A: I was given four videos of young girls who were narrowed down from countless others that Richard and the producers had talked to in Ethiopia. What I saw immediately was that they were looking for a young girl who had made a change in her life, someone who was not a “charity case,” but someone who had been strong enough to say “No” to her family, to friends, to her husband-to-be. They wanted to portray girls who had forced change and hope into their lives, and they wanted to focus on those kinds of stories. A kind of affirmation, but also a way to tell a different kind of story about Ethiopia and Africa. I liked that. So the task for me was to pick which of the four videos/girls I wanted to work with and write a story. It was the hardest thing to do. I asked for an extension on the deadline many times and they were very patient. Eventually, I settled on Azmera because no matter how many times I watched her, I kept seeing her shyness and timidity. The other girls were brave, forthright, telling the interviewers what they intended to do with their lives and how they intended to do it and how they were teaching their families to respect them. That was fantastic. But Azmera could barely talk on camera, and for a writer, that was a welcome challenge and a window into a larger story. (Watch Maaza Mengiste read an excerpt of the script she wrote on Azmera.)

Q: That’s interesting. Do you think there were any challenges or advantages to being a fiction writer covering a non-fictional person? Also, where do you see this project in the scope of your work as a fiction writer?

A: Since my last book (and my new one) is fiction based on non-fiction/history, this process with the documentary felt familiar. I had to look at what was real and see the story behind it. But really, we do that every day in our lives. We see moments on the subway or on the sidewalk and those become stories we share with friends. This felt like one of those moments, but I had a specific goal: which was to look at Azmera’s life and tell the story within it.

Q: I’m sure many Western cosmopolitan men like myself—probably a majority of men in Addis Ababa as well—will look at a situation like Azmera’s and ask themselves, “What is wrong with these men in the countryside that they want to marry little girls?” How would you respond to that? Are the men to blame for this situation?

A: The men who are marrying these girls are responsible for some of this. Even if they know it’s against the law, they will do what’s customary and what is easier for them. But also, I saw a lot of men taking a stand AGAINST force marriage. These men risked a lot to protect girls in their village or even some they didn’t know. Some became advocates to educate other men on how wrong this is. I saw this kind of man in Azmera’s life, too. It is something I included in the film. It was an incredibly powerful moment for me to realize she had a male figure fighting so hard for her education.

The reason that they’re so curious and the reason that they want to go to school are, I think, the same reasons that we pick up a book. We’re just trying to situate ourselves in the world that we’re in. We’re trying to figure out our place in what we see and what we don’t know.

Q: Even though I was born and raised in America, I often find myself in the position, among my non-Ethiopian friends, of being a spokesperson for all things Ethiopian. (How do you hold injera? Why was there starvation in the 1980s? How bad is AIDS these days?) After a while, the answers become a kind of routine. And then you visit Ethiopia, and your answers have to change because the country and people have transformed in significant or perhaps ineffable ways. For someone like you, who has spent a great deal of your life outside of Ethiopia as a kind of de facto spokesperson, what did you find most surprising or humbling about your  recent visit? Did any major assumptions or pre-conceptions about the country get rattled on account of your work on the film?

A: This was my first time in the countryside. Yilmana Densa is an area outside of Bahir Dar, and Azmera lived away from any modern infrastructure, amongst a cluster of huts and not much more. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I’d heard about people from the countryside are those stereotypes we Habesha all hear that somehow portray them as innocent and virtuous, as naive and unschooled, almost more genuine and authentic than city people. 

There’s a sense, I think, that they don’t dream big, that they don’t know anything except what’s in front of them. But I met young children and young adults with an intense restlessness, an eagerness to practice English and ask me questions. They had a familiar curiosity, one that I’ve felt and seen in others. It’s this curiosity, I think, that sends us to pick up books or take walks or look at art or spend time with friends talking. They don’t have all of those luxuries, but they know there’s more out there, and some of them want to go see what’s out in the world. So they compensate by telling stories, by reading what they can, by talking about what’s in Bahir Dar, if they can ever go there. I asked Azmera how far she’d traveled from her home and she said she’s gone no further than 5 to 6 kilometers. But someone in her family ran away, took his only shoes and got on a truck and tried to leave. Then he came back because he had to farm and support his family. This was someone old enough to be in college. The life he has may not be the life he should have had. In other circumstances, he could have done different things and he knows that. It was heartbreaking and helped me see another side to this story and to the people I met.

Q: Your answer makes me realize something that I’ve always believed but have never quite put into words: that there is a strong connection between a desire to hear and tell stories and a desire to be educated. Do you think that the curiosity of girls like Azmera comes from a kind of story-hunger?

A: I don’t know if the curiosity is why they like to read. The reason that they’re so curious and the reason that they want to go to school are, I think, the same reasons that we pick up a book. We’re just trying to situate ourselves in the world that we’re in. We’re trying to figure out our place in what we see and what we don’t know.

Q: Besides the issue of forced marriage, what do you see as other specific impediments to educating young girls in a country like Ethiopia?

A: In a broader sense I could say economics, because the reason these girls are getting married is because, number one, their family might not be able to take care of them so they can send them to a man’s house, and they’re able to get taken care of by that man. And I think a lot of parents think, at least Azerma’s family thought, that somebody would take care of her better than they could. So maybe it’s economics that is also a hinderance. But also part of it is the sense that girls don’t need to be educated, that they don’t need an education as much as a boy might. That’s still a hurdle that has to be overcome. But right now the girls are going to school. They are just as present in classrooms as any of the other little boys. They’re answering questions. The teacher is a female. And I think that they see their own potential in the classroom and I think that’s fantastic.

Q: What were the day-to-day interactions like with Azmera and her family? Based on my own kind of personal family-story-gathering missions, Ethiopians can be a shy and tight-lipped bunch. Did you encounter any resistance to yourself or your project?

A: By the time I got there it was the second visit with the crew, so they were already familiar with the camera, and with the foreigners that were coming there. Azmera is very, very shy. She’s painfully shy. But her mother was not as shy, and her grandmother was not as shy. Her aunts would duck in front of the camera, but they wanted to see if you’d got their picture. That wasn’t the difficult part. I think the hard part came in asking her mother and her grandmother about their own story, because I wanted to connect that. I wanted to understand where they came from. What experiences they were basing their decision to have Azmera married so early.

It turns out that Azmera’s grandmother, though she doesn’t know how old she was, was probably ten when she was married and had her child at maybe eleven. And then Azmera’s mother was the same story: also married around ten maybe eleven. So to them it was, “This is just what happens.” There’s no melodrama there. It’s just a fact. And asking them those questions, I think they were wondering, “Why is this important?” And that was an interesting thing. And then for me also, because I’m so Americanized, they really just didn’t know what to make of me at first. And they were really loving, they were warm, they enveloped me, but they just didn’t know sometimes. And it was cute. And then eventually they warmed up and then we could talk. You know, my Amharic is OK, but it’s not the best, and so they thought that was funny. We got along. So, it was an interesting and an easy relationship, but I think both sides had to kind of understand how we would take the other.

Q: How long were you in the countryside?

A: Five days. Maybe six.

Q: What relationship do you have with Azmera and her family now and more generally with the issue of forced marriage?

One of the things with these types of programs is what happens after the filming is done and after the film has been produced. I don’t want Azmera and her mother. . . to get forgotten in all the film releases and premieres.

A: I’ve been keeping in contact through other people. I’ve been in touch, not directly with Azmera, but I know what’s happening with her. I know how things are going with school, and that she is in school, and her family is doing okay. The crew went back after me, so I was able to get a little video greeting from them. So we’ve been in contact and I plan to stay in touch. I think one of the things with these types of programs is what happens after the filming is done and after the film has been produced. I don’t want Azmera and her mother, or the other girls who did the same thing but were not selected for the film, I don’t want them to get forgotten in all the film releases and premieres. I think the producers feel the same way, too.

Q: There’s a Kofi Annan quote I think about often, partly because I think it’s true, but also partly because it bothers me a bit. And it goes, “If we want to save Africa, we must save Africa’s women first.” It’s interesting how "Girl Rising" and the larger 10×10 movement refines Annan’s idea by saying, in essence, that “saving” Africa means “educating” Africa’s women.

A: I completely agree. It is about education. The statistics show that educating a girl doesn’t just impact her, it impacts her family, it impacts the children she will have, also the jobs she will have, the money she brings in to her family and her community. It’s been an incredible experience for me to see Azmera saying that she will keep going to school, and suddenly you see that all the little girls in her family, in her extended family—and there are many—have a future is different because of her. And just in that, there’s a profound change that’s taken place.

Q: I think that’s such a powerful idea. I’m looking forward to seeing the film. Last question: since you alluded to a new fiction project above, I figure I’ll attempt to open the door a bit wider, though feel free to slam it in my face: can you talk about what you’re working on now?

A: I’m working on another novel. It’s historically based. It’s set in the early days of World War II, 1935. And it is about Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the war and five-year occupation. But what I’ve been doing in this book that has been  a challenge, but also something really, really wonderful and eye-opening as a writer, is telling the story not only from the Ethiopian side, but also the Italian soldiers who were there. So I’ve been hard at work on that. And most of my free time is spent on the book.

 *****

*****

Mikael Awake’s fiction has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness, Callaloo, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Georgia, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife.

[Photo courtesy of Maaza Mengiste/OF NOTE Magazine]

 

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