History may remember the late Honorable Dr. Senedu Gebru foremost as the first woman elected to Parliament, but her contributions to this nation were so many and varied, she could rightly be considered Ethiopia’s Renaissance Woman of the 20th century.
An Account of the Life of Senedu Gebru, Ethiopia’s 20th Century Renaissance Woman
“It may be that the issues I have raised today as the lone woman here, have been defeated. But one day there shall be many of us standing here and you will listen to our voices then!”
Senedu Gebru addressing Parliament in the 1950’s.
Words that have been used to describe the late Honorable Dr. Senedu Gebru include Resistance fighter, philanthropist, educator, feminist, patriot, author, teacher and mother. Was this really one woman or do the descriptions refer to several all rolled up into one larger than life persona? History may remember her as the first woman elected to Parliament in Ethiopia and an early forerunner in the fight for women’s rights. But her contributions to this nation were many and varied. So much so that she could rightly be considered Ethiopia’s Renaissance Woman of the 20th century.
A Star is Born
Senedu Gebru was born in the small town of Addis Alem in 1915, the eldest daughter of Kentiba (Mayor) Gebru Desta. Her younger sister was Yewbdar Gebru – known today as Emahoy Tsige Mariam, the well known composer and pianist who lives in Jerusalem. After attending a Swedish Mission school until the eighth grade, Senedu and her sister were sent to a boarding school in Switzerland in 1928. Her father must have seen in her a glimpse of what she might become for he made a point of taking her to the palace as well as other places he went to in an official capacity. He even introduced her to then Ras Tafari Makonnen who was so impressed with the precocious young girl that he arranged for her to be sent abroad to continue her education as there were no schools in the country which girls could attend beyond a certain grade.
She was to remain abroad for 5 years until her return to Ethiopia in 1933 where she became a teacher at St. George School in Addis Ababa teaching a variety of subjects including French and Amharic writing. Shortly afterwards, she moved to Harar to be with a gentleman whom she had recently married – Dr. Lorenzo Taezaz, a young man from Eritrea who had quickly risen through the ranks of Emperor Haile Selassies administration and served in a number of capacities including ministerial posts. But it was to be a brief stay cut short by the Italian invasion at the end of 1935 which prompted them to return to Addis Ababa whereupon her husband left the country along with Emperor Haile Selassie to plead the nation’s case before the League of Nations (Dr. Lorenzo was subsequently appointed Permanent Delegate to the League of Nations by the Emperor).
The Freedom Fighter
Senedu remained behind and instead joined the resistance against the Italians, the first woman to join the Black Lions who were fighting under the leadership of Ras Imru Haile Selassie. But Ras Imru did not want her to fight and he asked Senedu to leave the country for a pre-arranged destination abroad. But she steadfastly refused believing that it was her patriotic duty to stay behind and do her part for the liberation of her country.
It seems like this may have been one of the real defining moments of her life. Although her fierce love for her country was already quite evident, the stand she took in adamantly insisting that she would serve alongside the cadets of the Black Lion resistance movement, gave clear sway to the powerful will that would manifest itself in many other ways throughout the rest of her life. At the same time, it gave clear credence to the sense that she would exercise her sense of duty without regard to longstanding and particularly powerful perceptions of appropriate gender roles in Ethiopia. Although other women came to join the Black Lions after her, she was the first and played an instrumental role in organizing the women into medical teams that would care for the cadets when they were wounded or sick. It was during this time that Senedu came to have an even greater knowledge and appreciation for her country due to her travels to many different parts of it during the resistance.
In 1937, Senedu (along with many of her compatriots) was captured when the Black Lions were cornered by the Italians and forced to lay down their arms. That surrender was to be a moment that she later stated was one of the greatest regrets of her life for she would have preferred to die fighting the occupying forces instead. Indeed, virtually all of the men captured that day were later executed in a single, vengeful act by the Fascist troops in retribution for the assassination attempt on Graziani. Amongst those executed was Senedu’s younger brother, Meshesha Gebru.
Senedu herself and the other woman captured alongside her (including her sister, Yewbdar) were imprisoned on the Italian island of Asinara where they were to spend two years before being released (and repatriated) by their captors in 1939.
After her return, Senedu – who had then been separated from Lorenzo Taezaz – married Dejazmatch Amede Wolde although this was also a marriage that was short-lived. A few years later, after the Italians had been defeated, Senedu was appointed director of a school in Dessie (Wzo. Sihin School) but it was not long before she was called back to Addis to eventually lead the Etege Menen School instead.
Wzo. Senedu Gebru was known as a strict disciplinarian and fierce advocate of women’s rights. She may not have been Ethiopia’s first feminist in a sense but she certainly gave voice to the women of Ethiopia like they had never had before. At a time when most girls were married at a young age, she was forceful in her views that her students complete their education one way or another. Her first preference was that girls not be married off before they finished school but even if they did, they should complete their education no matter what.
The activism she engaged in at the school and the strong imprint she left on the community, the students and their parents (who generally tended to be prominent, well-to-do families) prepared and in some ways catapulted her to the next phase of her life where she took her advocacy and activism to a national stage after leaving Etege Menen in 1954. By that time Senedu had married Major Assefa Lemma (her third and final marriage) and had her first child at the age of 38. She had a total of three children herself while also raising an adopted child as her own.
Throughout most of her life, Senedu had always been an avid reader. The French playwright Moliére was one of her favorites although her interests also ran to traditional and contemporary literature. Perhaps one of the lesser known aspects of her capabilities is her work as an author and playwright. The remarkable breadth of her work in the literary arts include fiction, plays and poetry in Amharic, English, French, German and Italian. Those who knew her well speculate that absent the call of duty that compelled her to carry out her important work in advocacy and the advancement of woman’s rights as well as other areas that she engaged in later on in life, she may well have made literature a very significant focus of her life. While at Etege Menen she wrote a number of plays which were performed by students including “Your Star Shall Yet Again Shine” and Ye’Libe Metsehaf (The Book Of My Heart). Significant portions of her literary work at this time related to the struggle to resist the Italians and other aspects of the recently concluded war once again affirming what an indelible impact those times had made on her. Overall, she wrote and published more than 10 books (poetry, fiction) and 32 of her manuscripts are kept today at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. There are many more unpublished works still archived by her family.
Senedu’s ascent to Parliament can rightly be considered one of her more extraordinary accomplishments. No woman had been there before and just the fact that she was running for Parliament caused resentment throughout the male dominated establishment and the wider society as well. But this is exactly where Senedu’s work at Etege Menen (which had earned her the respect of her community and the parents of her students) played a role in mitigating the negative perceptions attending her. But Senedu was also an inventive campaigner and worked hard to swing public opinion in her favor, perhaps culminating in a speech she gave to the Kibur Zebegna (Imperial Guard) at which she forcefully asserted her right to run for Parliament by reminding them that she had participated in the resistance against the Italians just as much as any of them had.
Once in Parliament, Senedu did not limit her activities to her traditional domain of woman’s rights, rather getting involved in debates on matters such as foreign policy and security. But her work on woman’s rights is what gave rise to some of her memorable moments in Parliament including the well known quote where she decried the body for rejecting her requests as a lone woman in Parliament. Her concrete policy aims were basically centered at instituting in the Civil Code, complete parity between men and women. Specific examples include her efforts to have terminology removed from it that referred to the husband as ‘head of the household’ as well as removing any age disparities in the eyes of the law between men and women.
Tenkir Tedla, a long time friend and colleague of hers in parliament recalls her time in Parliament. “She took stands on issues that concerned women. Many of her opinions and questions were rejected but she was forceful when she spoke that a husband should not borrow or lend more than 500 birr without the knowledge of his wife. Finally, this was approved and passed into law by the parliament.”
Another law that she fought against and was instrumental in defeating, was the ‘Mrs Rule’ where Ethiopian women were to be referred by their husband’s name as is common practice in the western world today. This was in fact one of the legislations in Parliament that she took great relish in having defeated, so opposed was she to what it would have implied.
After her term in parliament was over, Senedu took up other causes that were also near and dear to her. Serving as the head of the Red Cross in Ethiopia for some time, she also founded the very first disabled persons association at around the same time. In her capacity as the committee chair for the Red Cross, she did a fair amount of international travelling on the organization’s behalf at one time even having been invited for a visit to the United States by Eleanor Roosevelt herself.
In 1960, Colonel Assefa Lema was given the Ambassadorship to Germany and the entire family moved there as a result. Although Wzo. Senedu was given a nominal title as the Education Attache for the Embassy, it was well known that she in fact was involved in a good deal more than just education. She also did a fair amount of writing during this time although many of these works remain unpublished.
When the Derg came to power in the early 70’s, she and her family were still in Germany. Upon the execution of the Sixty high officials of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government, it was immediately evident that going back to Ethiopia would pose severe risk to the family. But Senedu’s time at the Italian prison island of Asinara had revealed to her that she could never live her life in exile away from the country she so loved. And so she bade farewell to her family and returned to Ethiopia shortly after the Derg’s mass executions. It is probably a testament to her gravitas and the enormous respect she commanded in the country that the Derg never bothered her in any significant way throughout its rule.
A Life of Service
In 2005, Wzo. Senedu was awarded an honorary PhD from Addis Ababa University in recognition of outstanding achievements throughout her life and career. Her life had been truly defined by her service to her country and her son, Dr. Samuel Assefa (current Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States) felt that in many ways, “She belonged to the public.” Literature may have been her greatest love but it was subjugated by her love and loyalty to a country she loved without bounds. In some ways, even her family received second billing to her steadfast dedication to the life of public service she had committed. Although she was unquestionably the matriarch of the extended clan and its supreme authority figure, there was an implicit understanding of her public calling. Dr. Samuel recalls that he never saw his mother in the kitchen and that the children knew they had a different type of family. In her later years, he asked her what she thought were the most important and defining moments of her life. She replied then that it was without question the time when she was a part of the resistance to the Italian occupation. It was then she learnt most of what she knew about the beauty and diversity of her country which only served to strengthen her love of the nation and her determination to live her life in service of it.
When the Honorable Doctor Senedu Gebru passed away on April 20, 2009 at the age of 94, this nation lost a great patriot and literary artist among other things, whose accomplishments shall remain indelibly imprinted in Ethiopian history.