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The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman

Written by Galawdewos. 
Translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner
Princeton University Press
October 2015. 544 pages. ISBN: 978-0691164212
Winner of the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women award for the best Scholarly Edition in Translation of 2015.

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This is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman, and one of the few lives of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century. As such, it provides an exceedingly rare and valuable picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans, especially women, before the modern era. It is also an extraordinary account of a remarkable life—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph.

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros (1672) tells the story of an Ethiopian saint who led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. When the Jesuits tried to convert the Ethiopians from their ancient form of Christianity, Walatta Petros (1592–1642), a noblewoman and the wife of one of the emperor’s counselors, risked her life by leaving her husband, who supported the conversion effort, and leading the struggle against the Jesuits. After her death, her disciples wrote this book, praising her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader. One of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence, this biography also provides a picture of domestic life, including Walatta Petros’s life-long relationship with a female companion. Richly illustrated with dozens of color illustrations from early manuscripts, this groundbreaking volume provides an authoritative and highly readable translation along with an extensive introduction. Other features include a chronology of Walatta Petros’s life, maps, a comprehensive glossary, and detailed notes on textual variants.

This volume won the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women (SSEMW) award for the best Scholarly Edition in Translation of 2015. "The committee admired your edition’s impressive scholarly apparatus and its lovingly crafted translation, which reveals a work of exceptional philological care. The committee also praised Wendy Belcher’s compelling personal recollection, the edition’s beautiful photographs, and its making Galawdewos’ hagiography accessible to scholars, but also to undergraduate readers and interested, non-specialist enthusiasts across a number of fields to greatly expand what we know about early modern women.  Congratulations to you both!"

“This beautifully translated biography tells the fascinating story of an influential seventeenth-century Ethiopian leader. Based on meticulous scholarship using the oldest manuscripts, and including an accessible introduction, color illustrations, and helpful footnotes, this is a significant contribution to Ethiopian and women’s studies as well as religious history.”—Alice Ogden Bellis, Howard University School of Divinity

“The revolutionary Ethiopian saint Walatta Petros finally has the translation into English that she deserves. Faithful, well-researched, and accessible, this volume brings to light a fascinating example of women’s leadership in the early modern world.”—Getatchew Haile, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University

“This eminently readable translation of a neglected and important work is a major contribution to scholarship, beautifully framed by the introduction and the book’s other features. Taken together, they provide almost a reference work on premodern Ethiopia, full of rich byways through which we are led with erudition and clarity.”—Samantha Kelly, Rutgers University

“This book provides an important contribution to the history of elite African women and to the scholarship on Ethiopia. The text reads fluently, the critical apparatus is very impressive, and the introduction does everything we could ask an introduction to do.”—John K. Thornton, Boston University

African History/Literature Instructors or Global Medieval Instructors or Early Modern Women's History Instructors may think about assigning the book for units on African history, global history, or early modern gender. Since the book documents an encounter between Africans and Europeans, it works well for a variety of units. In gneral, the instructor should always assign the Preface (pp. xvii-xxxiv), to orient students to the text's context, and then may assign the whole translation, titled "The Translation of the Life-Struggles of Walatta Petros" (pp. 77-272). Instructors can find questions to guide discussion or writing prompts in the book's Introduction, which is online. Instructors searching for more information on how to organize such a unit may consider the following lesson plan:

Lesson Plan for Unit on Sexualities and Religious Identity in Early Modern Africa [or Medieval Africa]. 

Book. If you are teaching a gender and/or sexuality studies class, always assign at least the following chapters in The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, for a total of about 20 pages: Belcher's preface (10 pages, xvii-xxxii), as well as Chapter 12: Our Mother Meets Her Life-Long Companion Eheta Kristos (2 pages; 113-115); Chapter 13: Our Mother and Eheta Kristos Decide to Live Together and Become Nuns (3 pages; 115-119); Chapter 31: The Queen Helps Eheta Kristos to Rejoin Our Mother (2 pages; 164-165); Chapter 86: Our Mother Sees Nuns Lusting after Each Other (2 pages; 254-257); and Chapter 91: Our Mother Appoints Eheta Kristos Her Successor (1 page; 266-267). If you are teaching an African literature class, assign at least Belcher's preface (10 pages, xvii-xxxii), as well as the artistic opening chapters (Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 72-85), the two miracles about stolen copies of the poems (the Seventh and Eighth miracle, pp. 299-312), and one or both of the poems (pp. 353-391). If you are teaching other topics, the index is detailed and should assist you. Assigning the whole translation is best if possible. Although it looks like 200 pages of reading (pp. 77-272), in fact, due to the extensive footnotes, it is only about 100 pages of reading.

Poems. You may also assign the hymns written in honor of the saint. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros itself has the best versions for teaching. To aid the scholar or student who does not read Gəˁəz but is interested in understanding the skill and elegance of the original as well as possible, we
have provided the poem in Gəˁəz characters, called fidäl, as well as in transliteration, in word-for-word English translation, and in poetic literary English translation. Just the literary English translations of the poems, and some explication of the genres, are available online: Portrait of Walatta Petros or Hail to Walatta Petros. You can also assign the audio file of an Ethiopian priest singing these poems.

Lecture Content. For assistance in explicating the text to students, the instructor may read various sections of Belcher's lengthy introduction to The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, available for free online, including information on the text's historical context, the encounter between the Jesuits and Ethiopians in this period and women's role as early anticolonial resisters (pp. 4-10) or a biography of Walatta Petros (pp. 43-46). Also, Belcher's article on the topic of sexuality provides rich material: “Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Female Saint.”

Lecture Images. For lecture images, you may want to display a few pages on the screen from the original manuscript, which is posted on academia.edu: Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros. It will give students a sense for the texture and orthography of these manuscripts. Some images from other manuscripts of the text are below. An excellent web page showing the process of making such manuscripts, and with many wonderful images, is the Online Exhibit: Ethiopic Manuscript Production

Discussions/Assignments. For assistance in discussing the text, or giving assignments to students, the instructor may read in The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, the section of the introduction titled New Directions for Scholarship on the Text (pp. 37-41), available for free online, which offers various ways of thinking about how the text thinks, including the way it represents female agency, animal agency, human sexuality and relations, other written texts, theology, and authorship.

Video. Assign the youtube talk with slides by Prof. Belcher titled Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672) about an Ethiopian Female Saint. You can assign all 42 minutes, or just the Introduction on the text and argument (min 0 - min 6); or also the section on Anecdote 1: Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos Meet (min 6 - min 17), or also the section on Anecdote 2: Same-Sex Desire (min 18 - min 32), or also the section on Theorizing about the Text (min 33 - min 42).

Article. Alternately, or in addition, you may assign the twenty-five-page peer-reviewed article that is an expansion of the video talk above, which is “Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Female Saint.” Special issue: Queer Valences in African Literatures and Film. Research in African Literatures 47, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 20-45. doi: 10.2979/reseafrilite.47.2.03

Coverage. Alternately, or in addition, you may have the students read Belcher's page responding to the public debates about the text and translation, which provides links to the articles about the text: Controversy over Sexuality in the Gadla Walatta Petros. Many of those links are below as well, including The Guardian article, Earliest Known Biography of an African Woman Translated to English for the First Time. If assigned, specify that the students should read the comments section, which illuminates the different ways that people around the world view the text and its representations of sexuality. 

Original

The original manuscript of the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (EMIP 2141; MS J), written down in Gəˁəz in 1672, is posted online for all to read (warning, the file is very large, 42 MB). MS J was microfilmed at the Ethiopian female saint Walatta Petros’s monastery of Qʷäraṭa on Lake Tana in the 1970s; but the attached is what was digitized there in 2010 by Belcher. 

Poems

You can download and listen to the audio file of an Ethiopian priest singing the poems in the book, which are in honor of the saint, one of which is titled Portrait of Walatta Petros.

You can read a pdf of the English translation of the poem Portrait of Walatta Petros

You can read a pdf of the English translation of the poem Hail to Walatta Petros.

Introduction and Table of Contents

You can read a pdf of part of the Introduction to the whole book.

You can read a pdf of book's Table of Contents.

Related Talks

You can listen to a fifty-minute presentation by Belcher analyzing one aspect of the text: "Women's Intimacies in an Early Ethiopian Text."

Selected Media and Coverage

First Known Biography of an African Woman Finally Receives English Translation Colorlines (December 7, 2015) 

An Extraordinary 17th Century African Woman BBC World Service Newsday Radio (December 6, 2015)

A Controversial But Important Book about a 16th C. Ethiopian Nun Out By A U.S. Prof De Birhan (December 7, 2015) 

Earliest Known Biography of an African Woman Translated to English for the First Time The Guardian (December 3, 2015). 17,461 shares on social media; 69 comments; reprinted or adapted in The Hindu, Ventures Africa, Smile and Mobile, Tadias Magazine, Voice Online, Melville HouseActualitté, The Journalist, Dire Tube, Neue Zürcher Zeitungm, MetaFilter, Women in the World, Bustle, and other outlets.

The African Woman Who Took on Rome Catholic Herald (November 12, 2015). 

The Saint Who Sent the Jesuits Packing: A New Translation of an Ethiopian Manuscript Sheds Light on African Women's Anticolonialism Perspectives on History (November 2015) 

New Translations of 17th Century Ethiopian Poems in Praise of Saint Walatta Petros, the “Daughter of Peter” Jacket 2 (November 2015) 

An Interview with Wendy Laura Belcher on The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros Princeton University Press

Reddit Ask Me Anything discussion (November 2015)

About the Translators

Wendy Laura Belcher is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson and Honey from the Lion: An African Journey. Michael Kleiner is a historian of Ethiopia and a translator. He has taught at the universities of Göttingen, Marburg, and Hamburg, as well as at Addis Ababa University.

Images

“How Christ gave Walatta Petros souls in the likeness of crystal vessels.” From MS A, f. 149v  © SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2

How Walatta Petros [made spring forth] "water while on her way to the wilderness of Waldeba.” From MS A, f. 148v  ©  SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2

“How the monk was overtaken [by a storm on the lake]” and “how our holy mother Walatta Petros saved him and returned him [to shore] from amid the lake.” From MS A, f. 156v © SLUB Mscr. Dresd.Eb.415.e,2

Controversy

Read Belcher's responses to the controversy over sexuality in the Gadla Walatta Petros.