Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner’s translation of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is the first English translation of the earliest-known book-length biography of an African woman predating the seventeenth century. The original author, Galawdewos, collected stories of Petros told by word of mouth from the leader and Saint’s disciples in 1672, thirty years after Petro’s death. Petros was a significant religious figure, who led a non-violent protest against European Jesuits forcing Ethiopians to abandon their African Christian faith. In this interview, Belcher, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, offers us valuable insight into who this woman was, and the historical context that shaped her fascinating life.
Your title calls this a “seventeenth-century African” text. Are there many African texts from this time?
WLB: There are lots of texts, the problem is that they are rarely preserved or translated. So we are glad to be bringing one to the attention of the public, in part to demolish this myth about Africa being a continent without a written literature. It’s a common assumption, even among scholars, that there is no writing in Africa before Europeans, but that is an error. This text was not written by or for Europeans or in a European language, but by Ethiopians for Ethiopians in an Ethiopian language about an Ethiopian woman.
So, why is this particular book important?
WLB: It’s the earliest-known book-length biography about an African woman. As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. For many Americans, it will be the first time they can learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms.
Who was this woman?
WLB: She was a revered religious leader who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism and was the founding abbess of her own monastery, which still exists today. She lead an amazing life: a woman who was born to an adoring father, lost three children in infancy, left her abusive husband, started a movement, defeated a wicked king, faced enraged hippos and lions, avoided lustful jailors, founded seven religious communities, routed male religious leaders, gathered many men and women around her, and guided her flock subject to no man, being the outright head of her community and even appointing abbots, who followed her orders. Her name is Walatta Petros (which means Daughter-of [Saint] Peter, a compound name that cannot be shortened) and she lived from 1592 to 1642.
This is a biography, not an autobiography. So who actually wrote it?
WLB: Thirty years after her death, her Ethiopian disciples (many of whom were women) gathered to tell stories of her life to a scribe named Galawdewos (Claudius in English). So, it is a kind of oral history of the community. They praised her as an adored daughter, the loving friend of women, a devoted reader, a disciplined ascetic, and a fierce leader.
This book was originally written on parchment. Nearby Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries copied it. We used twelve of these manuscript copies of the book to create our translation, including three from the saint’s own monastery. The text was written in the classical African language of Ethiopic, or Gəˁəz. Ethiopians innovated a writing system in the first millennium BCE and have been using it to write bounds books since the fourth century CE.
If this text wasn’t written for Europeans, how are Europe and Christianity involved?
WLB: It is confusing! First, the Christianity in this text is African. Ethiopians have been Christians since the fourth century, long before most of Europe. They have retained a distinctive form of Christianity in their Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Second, this book records an early encounter between Europeans and Africans from an African perspective. When the Jesuits came in the 1500s to try to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism, many Ethiopians resisted, especially the royal women. Walatta Petros was one of these women, and she led others in a successful fight to retain African Christian beliefs. For these acts, she was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Are there a lot of these Ethiopian biographies?
WLB: There are over 200 Ethiopian orthodox saints and over 100 of them have biographies. At least 17 of them are women and six of them have biographies (or, since they are saints, what are called hagiographies). Ethiopian stories about Ethiopian saints are a vital archive of African literature that has gone almost entirely unexplored outside Ethiopia. They are fascinating narratives about Ethiopian folk heroes as well as rich repositories of indigenous thought. This will be the first accessible translation into English of any of these stories. (There are three of the other hagiographies in English, but they exist only in art books that cost thousands of dollars each.)
Can you tell me more about yourself and your fellow translator?
WLB: Dr. Kleiner is a German scholar with an excellent knowledge of over a dozen languages, including Arabic, French, Amharic, Ethiopic, and English. He is widely acknowledged as one of the two best living translators of Ethiopic (or Gəˁəz) into English. I am an assistant professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. I spent part of my childhood in Ethiopia and I now work to bring attention to early African literature.
What other important figures from Walatta Petros’ life are mentioned in this text?
WLB: The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros features a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns. This is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in a sub-Saharan Africa text. Walatta Petros was in a life-long celibate relationship with another nun, Eheta Kristos, and they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body” until death. Interpreting the women’s relationships requires care and this scholarly edition and translation provides the necessary political, religious, and cultural context in all its richness. The same-sex relationships are a fascinating aspect of the text, but just one small part of it.
Read the introduction to The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros here.