The Martha Manifesto: An Ethiopian Woman’s Dream

This morning I finished reading Terarochin Yanketekete Tiwild (The Generation that Shook the Mountains), a compilation of biographies of some of Ethiopia’s revolutionaries of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—young minds that passionately fought against injustice, inequality, and oppression, and eventually brought down King Haile Sellasie and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam. One among those amazing, selfless martyrs mentioned in the book is Martha Mebrahtu whose tragic murder not only angered, but also inspired thousands of young men and women who stood up and waged a bitter struggle for democracy and gave Ethiopia’s oppressed the chance to finally see a light in the tunnel.

Martha was a daughter of a brigadier general who hailed from the province of Eritrea (Eritrea was then part of Ethiopia). She was a beautiful and intelligent medical student at Haile Sellasie I University (now Addis Abeba University) back in the 1970s (or 1960s in the Ethiopian calendar). She entered college when she was only 15 years old. And a few months away from graduating, the then government murdered her.

In addition to her academic excellence, Martha was an elected president of the university’s medical students’ association; one of the fiercest critics of the feudal system that exploited the poor (some years after she died, her father admitted that she always challenged and criticized him for being a part of an oppressive system); an advocate for women’s rights (her peers affectionately called her the Angela Davis of Ethiopia); and an active member of the then fledgling university students movement, which gradually matured and became Emperor Haile Sellasie’s worst nightmare.

Martha was born in Addis Abeba, and as a young girl she had a chance to study in Nigeria and to visit the US as an exchange student. Her US exposure as a high school student, in particular, introduced her to the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, the reasons of the movements, and the individuals that spearheaded them, such as Angela Davis. Upon her return and later on joining the university, it was obvious that she would become a passionate advocate for social change.

The 1950s and the 1960s were tough times in Ethiopia as students and teachers began to challenge the Monarchy system that ruled the country for over 3000 years. Girmame and Mengstu Neway, brothers and army commanders, who revolted against Haile Sellassie, and other African students, who struggled for independence from colonialism, were some of the key inspirations for those young Ethiopians. The feudal lords, of course, didn’t waste time to suppress the growing student movement from the word go, though their violent suppression only speeded their downfall.

With an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a plane on the 8th of December, 1972, Martha and her peers sacrificed their precious lives (the secret police on board gruesomely murdered nearly all of them, except one, just when they started ordering the pilot to change direction). But their sacrifice wasn’t in vain; it paved the way for other activists, it awoken the consciousness of the mass, proving to the then emperor and the dictator who took power after him that one can kill a person, but never an idea whose time has come. It is important to mention here that the plan to hijack the plane was never meant to harm anyone on board, but to only make legitimate demands on the imperial government.

The night before the hijacking attempt (Thursday, December 7, 1972), Martha wrote her manifesto, the reasons that compelled her to make sacrifice on the next day. She put her thoughts in words, and laid down her dreams.

Martha wrote (roughly translated from Amharic):

We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, have made our life ready to participate in a struggle, and we would like to explain the nature of our struggle to our sisters and brothers all over the world.

Our struggle demands a bitter sacrifice in order to liberate our oppressed and exploited people from the yokes of feudalism and imperialism. In this struggle we have to be bold and merciless. Our enemies can only understand such a language.

We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, are not only exploited as members of the working classes and peasants, we are also victims of gender inequality, treated as second class citizens. Therefore, our participation in this struggle must double the efforts of other oppressed groups; we must fight harder, we must be at the forefront.

We must equally participate in the struggle for economic and social justice that our brothers have waged. We have a responsibility to become a formidable force in the revolutionary army.

The rights for freedom and equality are not manna from heaven. We, women, have to be organized and have to make ourselves ready for any armed struggle. This fight will need financial, material, and moral support of progressive international women’s associations. We reach out to our sisters in other parts of the world so you can help us achieve this goal; we hope your support will reach us as we need it.

We affirm our full support for the oppressed people of the world who are struggling to free themselves from imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, and racism! We stand by the freedom fighters in Vietnam, Palestine, Guinea-Bissau, and in other African and Latin American countries; we also champion the Civil Rights leaders in North America.

Victory to the popular struggle of the people! May the people’s movement for freedom in both Ethiopia and Eritrea live forever! My sisters and my brothers, let’s keep on fighting!

That was Martha’s manifesto, Martha’s dream. Although she left the world tragically, her vision stayed on, and inspired many tigress women like her who not only broke down the shackles of oppression, but also proved to their men that they were equally capable of destroying the enemy. Martha gave birth to thousands of other Marthas through her martyrdom. Her commitment, discipline, and selfless mentality made her not only a great revolutionary, but also a role model to others who followed her footsteps!

Today, both Ethiopia and Eritrea need more Marthas who can shake the mountains of the present time.

May she rest in peace, and live forever in our minds!

“Martha Lemin Motech? Lemin, Lemin Motech??? … Why did Martha die? Why? Why did she die???” was a popular song, call it an anthem, that invaded Ethiopia right after her death. Those who knew the answer were the ones who followed her examples, and brought a change in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, a change that still needs to be fully realized. Today, we, the young generation, must ask ourselves that same question and come up with an answer in order to tackle the problems of our times, applying contemporary methods.

(P.S. the source for the information above is the book I mentioned in the beginning. I am responsible for the translation and opinion, however.)

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14 thoughts on “The Martha Manifesto: An Ethiopian Woman’s Dream

  1. That was the accursed generation that was baptized with a trash ideologies. It’s because of that particular generation that the once proud Ethiopians begun to worship everything coming out of Europe and America. What a shame!

    1. I disagree with that. Let’s not forget the universality of ideas, regardless of who articulated or put them to work first (the world is interdependent, people from one country are always going to borrow ideas from others as long as they find those ideas helpful to their cause. The quest for justice, equality, freedom and democracy is universal, and the method to achieve it is what you may consider unique to this region or that … Just because they borrowed Marxist ideas, they are accursed? How about the Ethiopians hundreds of years ago before them who borrowed or welcomed Islam or Christianity, are they also accursed? Apparently, those two religious ideologies are also foreign though indigenized; and depending on which “Ethiopian” you are talking to, what one considers “trash” can be gold to the other, and vice versa!).

      Speaking of borrowing ideas, where do you think Marx or any other “European” thinker got his Ideas from? Obviously, from other humans who lived in his region or in other, but he fortunately happened to be in a better position to understand, analyze, theorize and write down those ideas better than others (any intelligent person from any part of the world could have written the Das Kapital had he or she had the same opportunity to learn, study, and analyze human nature like Marx though perhaps not exactly like Marx wrote).

      Humans adopt, refine, add, and build on ideas that other humans had worked on before them. The Europeans borrowed their ideas from the Africans, Asians, from the indigenous people of the Americas and Australia … and they refined, added (came up with) new ideas to advance those ideas they borrowed for their survival, … and in time, there came a turn for those of us whose ideas were once “stolen” or “borrowed” to borrow from those who borrowed or stole. That is how I look at it. Is it possible to misuse or misinterpret borrowed or foreign ideas without localizing them? Certainly. But I see no shame in the act of borrowing as long as the purpose is to better our standard of living or expand our knowledge. No culture is immune from getting “baptized” by “foreign” ideas.

      But my friend, that is your opinion; you are entitled to it as I am to mine. πŸ˜€

  2. Elu, Eli, easy, eeesy!

    “Universal?” Some of the things you said sound Utopian. There is no universality in the minds and thoughts of many: There is “We” and “They”.

    Of course one has to learn in this small and interdependent world. What I was saying was, importing every garbage (what’s going to Africa is mostly garbage) in the name of β€œcivilization” is deadly wrong. That’s exactly what the current generation is doing. By doing so, some section of our populace is destroying some of the most sophisticated of human qualities: Justice, sense of Truth, modesty, generosity, politeness and love. We are ready to give away these very qualities to total strangers, even to our enemies, yet, reluctant to share them among our own brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers. Why do you think we are becoming cold and mean towards our fellow brothers and sisters, being suspicious in every possible interaction. Isn’t shameful, a tragedy to waste our time and energy testing each other constantly?

    Elyas, buddy! We all are here to learn, but learning should not be a one-way-street. The stupid arrogance of the ‘rich’ world is impeding its folks to acknowledge the fact that we all are dependent on one another. Their ignorance has blinded them to see that there is nothing new in this world.

    I heard a couple of days ago that scientists are on their way to discover a new element which could be faster than light. Do you know what this could mean? All the physical laws we know from physics are wrong, and the god of physics and the relativity theory, A. Einstein was a charlatan. (I will gladly recycle his noble-prize inside the hot lava lake of Erta Ale). The more we know the closer we are to knowing that we know nothing. There is nothing in existence now that did not exist 2000 years ago. There is no additional knowledge today. We cannot even figure out how they moved those huge rock to build those amazing obelisks at Axum. We have refined a few material things into different end items and use them and we still haven’t learned what we can actually do. Just when we think we have made it all, a whole new dimension is opened to us and we have to learn all over again. Nothing we do lasts and nothing we do keeps working without being replaced in this material world.

    By the way, where did you get the idea that Christianity is β€œimported” to Ethiopia? You may, at least, say it was β€œadopted”. Any ways, you better start reading right now the story of apostle Phillip and the Ethiopian from the Bible before the next hurricane struck the Big Apple.

  3. Hey Tariku! Thank you for your comment. πŸ™‚

    Though some aspects of your argument here are valid, I think we are going off topic somehow. I was merely reacting to your comment on the article, and trying to make sense out of it why you consider those young people who sacrificed their dear lives for the betterment of their people as accursed. Whatever method they used, whether borrowed or not, their intention was genuine, that you and I know for sure, and I don’t think it is fair or accurate to compare them with today’s MTV lovers (that includes me btw), and to consider their selfless sacrifice as shameful. They saw injustice, and they tackled it with the idea they knew best at the time, and at that time the dominant idea that engulfed more than half of the world population was Marxism, and even today it remains so, because of it’s mirror quality to reflect the disparity between the rich and the poor, the various races and classes, to expose the contradiction of class struggle. The young Ethiopians were no exceptions in using Marxism as an ideological tool to fight against oppression, it was the best literature on the subject at that point in time; unfortunately, other ideologies were not dominant and uniting enough… religion wasn’t obviously going to work as an ideological tool. So what do you expect them to do? To sit and watch while their people are starving and being treated like dirt while their exploiters enjoy a lavish lifestyle in a grand palace? Who is accursed? The poor students who dreamed of a better Ethiopia or those on the helm of power who sucked the poor’s blood like vampires? …

    If you don’t see the universality of people from every corner of the world wanting to be free, to have a decent living, to pursue happiness, to fight against oppression, etc, then I don’t know what to say, my friend. Despite the “us” vs “them” rhetoric, no one can deny the universality of liberty, equality, and fraternity; this is not a utopian thinking. I don’t deny, too, that what you said about superiority complex is true. But that can never replace the universality of our common desires, fears, needs, wants, etc.

    On another note, the statement “what goes to Africa is mostly garbage” is a bit rough, sure there are things we would prefer never crossed the ocean to come in, but it is up to us to monitor what goes in and out. And you can never completely stop the trans–boundary transfer of goods, services, and ideas, whether good or bad; especially the worst things find ways to penetrate even if you ban them or something. You just have to be watchful, educate your people through mass awareness.

    Regarding this “there is nothing new under the sun” perspective, well, philosophically speaking you could say it, but practically speaking, of course, there is plenty that is new today compared to 2000 years ago … we are not comparing humans with god here, but contemporary humans with the ancient ones … so as far as that comparison is concerned, there is of course something new under the sun, something that is a product of the human mind. Silicon existed for thousands of years as just an element, but today, we use it to make microchip … microchip is something new under the sun, but made out of an existing element, that is what I meant by adding on what has already existed…

    … As far as Christianity is concerned, yes it is an IMPORTED religion. I am aware of the story of Philip the baptist, and the Ethiopian who was on a trip to Jerusalem, got baptized, and brought Christianity back with him, according to the biblical account … so prior to that, there was no Christianity in the land now we call Ethiopia; traditional religious practices like Waaqeffannaa were the most common ones that were later on “trashed” as pagan cults, and so repressed or absorbed by both Islam and Christianity; not to mention the presence of Judaism, which was also imported, in some areas before the arrival of Christianity. … The historical significance of Ethiopia being one of the earliest Christian countries in the world does not erase the fact that the religion was imported and then adopted.

    And on science, I think the beauty of it is that it constantly rewrites itself! Nothing in science is absolute, unlike religion! So bro, don’t be surprised if a new understanding of the world replaces e=mc2. I don’t see that negatively affecting the progress of science.

    Btw the Big Apple knows how to handle Hurricanes, I worry for you in case you encounter it, but I pray that you won’t have to come across it. πŸ™‚

  4. martha figures (briefly) in the early stages of Cutting For Stone. And I’ve done my homework: you have not blogged about it; so chances are you have not read it πŸ™‚

    1. No I haven’t read that book yet, but it is one of those books I keep telling, I will read ya soon. Great to know she is mentioned in it. I was just asked if I knew whether she was profiled in English elsewhere either online or in a book; couldn’t come up with anything substantial except the amharic biography; I know she is mentioned in some scholarly books becherefta with the other leaders of the movement, but i was looking for something better on her. I can recommend this book now. Thanks for the info! πŸ™‚

  5. Hi Elyas, thanks for following my blog. I’m excited about reading your content, I especially enjoyed this post. I never knew about Martha and now I’m encouraged to go learn more about her. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hello my lost & found dear brother, browsing I bumped into your inspiring blog. Please keep in touch…no hiding under the sun:)

    1. Oh, Almaz! πŸ™‚ Long time no see! πŸ™‚ Am glad you found me here. Too bad I left FB long time ago for just personal reasons. And I should let you know that I am horrible at keeping in touch in either traditional or modern sense. πŸ™‚ But it is so nice to see you here!!

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