- The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman by Galawdewos
When in the sixteenth century an invading Muslim army threatened the Christian highlands of Ethiopia, Emperor Lebna Dengel sought the assistance of the Portuguese. Having long desired contact with the land of Prester John, the Portuguese sent several hundred musketeers, who helped defeat the invading army. This action, however, brought on another sort of invasion—Jesuits intent on converting already Christian (Orthodox) Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. During the next one hundred years priests served royal families as advisors, educators, and diplomats to the West, and managed to convert two successive kings. These conversions generated ongoing rebellion that tore at the fabric of Ethiopian society. Some of the strongest resistance from those who remained faithful to the Ethiopian church came from women. Among such women was Walata Petros (1592–1642). Married to one of the king’s counselors and military commanders, who had converted, she not only refused to convert but conspired to leave her husband and become a nun. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walata Petros is her story as recorded by a monk named Galawdewos in 1672–73. The introduction, by Wendy Belcher, wonderfully contextualizes the manuscript and its author, providing an overview of the history, religion, and role of women in this period, and the text that follows is an [End Page 261] eminently readable translation by Michael Kleiner. Together they have made a significant contribution to the study of African literature and the early history of African resistance to European expansion into the continent. With the translation and annotation of this manuscript they have not only shattered, once again, the false notion of Africa as a continent that had no written literature before European contact, but most notably, they have done so with a manuscript in which “a woman was the subject of the text, a woman was the prompter of the text, and a woman authorized the writing of a text” (19).
The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walata Petros was translated from the Ge’ez (or Ethiopic), the ecclesiastical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It derives from a genre of Ethiopian literature known as gadla—Ge’ez for the “spiritual struggle” or “acts of” a saint—which record the biography and miracles of religious figures. Only a very few of the many hundreds of texts found in Ethiopia, as well as in museums and individual collections outside the country, have been translated. To distinguish the present work from these more fanciful hagiographies, Belcher defines Life and Struggles as a hagiobiography. This is a useful distinction; Galawdewos, the monk who compiled the manuscript, did so only thirty years after Walata Petros’s death and therefore he was able to collect eyewitness and oral accounts, many from women. However, if other gadla were just as carefully contextualized and translated, we might well be able to add these to the category of hagiobiography. What is clear is that the hagiography genre contains significant pieces of narrative history and has served as a rich repository for preserving indigenous thought. One hopes that Belcher and Kleiner’s pioneering effort will lead to the annotated translation of many more such works.
Kleiner’s outstanding translation and helpful transcriptions of Ge’ez vocabulary make the text easily accessible. Nevertheless, Life and Struggles is close to the original document. It consists of four parts: the life of Walata Petros, her twenty-seven miracles, a praise poem, and a hymn that acclaims her virtues. Each is prodigiously annotated for the specialist on Ethiopia, but there is also much here for the nonspecialist, including more than sixty of the manuscript’s illuminations, each beautifully reproduced in color. Also useful for a reader are the chronology and an expansive glossary of people, places, and terms. These...