Ethiopia | One Girl’s Fight to Learn: An Interview with Writer Maaza Mengiste

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Maaza Mengiste. Girls Issue

Maaza Mengiste in Ethiopia with Azmera whose story is featured in the film, Girl Rising.

They were looking for a young girl who had made a change in her life, someone who was not a “charity case,” but someone who had been strong enough to say “No” to her family, to friends, to her husband-to-be. They wanted to portray girls who had forced change and hope into their lives. — Maaza Mengiste



Maaza Mengiste and I met six years ago. We were both in the audience of a literary reading called “The World Through the Eyes of Writers.” In hindsight, the title of the reading seems fitting because that’s the first thing I noticed about Maaza, her eyes: as big and bright as the eyes of saints in Coptic art. They gave her away as Ethiopian, as I’m sure mine did. I wasn’t used to seeing other Ethiopians at literary readings. We became friends.

Maaza stands nowadays on the grand stage of African diaspora literature. Her moving debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, tells the story of everyday Ethiopians surviving the overthrow of the empire and the ensuing dark years of violence under Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship. The book was a runner-up for the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and an NAACP Image Award.

More recently, Maaza has leant her vision to a new project advancing the cause of girls’ education. Along with eight other global writers, Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) and Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) among them, she contributed a segment for Academy-Award-nominated director Richard Robbins’s documentary Girl Rising. The film is part of a larger “global action campaign” called 10×10, which seeks “to deliver a simple, critical truth: Educate Girls and you will Change the World.” For the film, Maaza traveled to Ethiopia to tell the story of Azmera, a teenage girl who refused an arranged marriage to an older man. Meryl Streep narrates the segment. I wanted to learn more about the project and Maaza’s work on it, and since it had been a while since we last spoke, it was also a good excuse to catch up.


Girl Rising Trailer, featuring Azmera’s story. 

Q: How did you get involved with Girl Rising?

A: I was contacted by the director, Richard, through a mutual friend while I was living in Rome. The documentary sounded like an intriguing project, but I was worried about taking part in some kind of “tragedy of Ethiopia/Africa” story. I listened carefully to what the producers said when we talked on the phone, and they let me have some time to consider what issue I thought was the most significant obstacle in girls getting their education in Ethiopia. I thought of many issues, then I looked at statistics and Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of forced early marriage and I felt this was something significant to do.

Q: How did you find the girl you wrote about for the film?

A: I was given four videos of young girls who were narrowed down from countless others that Richard and the producers had talked to in Ethiopia. What I saw immediately was that they were looking for a young girl who had made a change in her life, someone who was not a “charity case,” but someone who had been strong enough to say “No” to her family, to friends, to her husband-to-be. They wanted to portray girls who had forced change and hope into their lives, and they wanted to focus on those kinds of stories. A kind of affirmation, but also a way to tell a different kind of story about Ethiopia and Africa. I liked that. So the task for me was to pick which of the four videos/girls I wanted to work with and write a story. It was the hardest thing to do. I asked for an extension on the deadline many times and they were very patient. Eventually, I settled on Azmera because no matter how many times I watched her, I kept seeing her shyness and timidity. The other girls were brave, forthright, telling the interviewers what they intended to do with their lives and how they intended to do it and how they were teaching their families to respect them. That was fantastic. But Azmera could barely talk on camera, and for a writer, that was a welcome challenge and a window into a larger story. (Watch Maaza Mengiste read an excerpt of the script she wrote on Azmera.)

Q: That’s interesting. Do you think there were any challenges or advantages to being a fiction writer covering a non-fictional person? Also, where do you see this project in the scope of your work as a fiction writer?

A: Since my last book (and my new one) is fiction based on non-fiction/history, this process with the documentary felt familiar. I had to look at what was real and see the story behind it. But really, we do that every day in our lives. We see moments on the subway or on the sidewalk and those become stories we share with friends. This felt like one of those moments, but I had a specific goal: which was to look at Azmera’s life and tell the story within it.

Q: I’m sure many Western cosmopolitan men like myself—probably a majority of men in Addis Ababa as well—will look at a situation like Azmera’s and ask themselves, “What is wrong with these men in the countryside that they want to marry little girls?” How would you respond to that? Are the men to blame for this situation?

A: The men who are marrying these girls are responsible for some of this. Even if they know it’s against the law, they will do what’s customary and what is easier for them. But also, I saw a lot of men taking a stand AGAINST force marriage. These men risked a lot to protect girls in their village or even some they didn’t know. Some became advocates to educate other men on how wrong this is. I saw this kind of man in Azmera’s life, too. It is something I included in the film. It was an incredibly powerful moment for me to realize she had a male figure fighting so hard for her education.

The reason that they’re so curious and the reason that they want to go to school are, I think, the same reasons that we pick up a book. We’re just trying to situate ourselves in the world that we’re in. We’re trying to figure out our place in what we see and what we don’t know.

Q: Even though I was born and raised in America, I often find myself in the position, among my non-Ethiopian friends, of being a spokesperson for all things Ethiopian. (How do you hold injera? Why was there starvation in the 1980s? How bad is AIDS these days?) After a while, the answers become a kind of routine. And then you visit Ethiopia, and your answers have to change because the country and people have transformed in significant or perhaps ineffable ways. For someone like you, who has spent a great deal of your life outside of Ethiopia as a kind of de facto spokesperson, what did you find most surprising or humbling about your  recent visit? Did any major assumptions or pre-conceptions about the country get rattled on account of your work on the film?

A: This was my first time in the countryside. Yilmana Densa is an area outside of Bahir Dar, and Azmera lived away from any modern infrastructure, amongst a cluster of huts and not much more. I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I’d heard about people from the countryside are those stereotypes we Habesha all hear that somehow portray them as innocent and virtuous, as naive and unschooled, almost more genuine and authentic than city people. 

There’s a sense, I think, that they don’t dream big, that they don’t know anything except what’s in front of them. But I met young children and young adults with an intense restlessness, an eagerness to practice English and ask me questions. They had a familiar curiosity, one that I’ve felt and seen in others. It’s this curiosity, I think, that sends us to pick up books or take walks or look at art or spend time with friends talking. They don’t have all of those luxuries, but they know there’s more out there, and some of them want to go see what’s out in the world. So they compensate by telling stories, by reading what they can, by talking about what’s in Bahir Dar, if they can ever go there. I asked Azmera how far she’d traveled from her home and she said she’s gone no further than 5 to 6 kilometers. But someone in her family ran away, took his only shoes and got on a truck and tried to leave. Then he came back because he had to farm and support his family. This was someone old enough to be in college. The life he has may not be the life he should have had. In other circumstances, he could have done different things and he knows that. It was heartbreaking and helped me see another side to this story and to the people I met.

Q: Your answer makes me realize something that I’ve always believed but have never quite put into words: that there is a strong connection between a desire to hear and tell stories and a desire to be educated. Do you think that the curiosity of girls like Azmera comes from a kind of story-hunger?

A: I don’t know if the curiosity is why they like to read. The reason that they’re so curious and the reason that they want to go to school are, I think, the same reasons that we pick up a book. We’re just trying to situate ourselves in the world that we’re in. We’re trying to figure out our place in what we see and what we don’t know.

Q: Besides the issue of forced marriage, what do you see as other specific impediments to educating young girls in a country like Ethiopia?

A: In a broader sense I could say economics, because the reason these girls are getting married is because, number one, their family might not be able to take care of them so they can send them to a man’s house, and they’re able to get taken care of by that man. And I think a lot of parents think, at least Azerma’s family thought, that somebody would take care of her better than they could. So maybe it’s economics that is also a hinderance. But also part of it is the sense that girls don’t need to be educated, that they don’t need an education as much as a boy might. That’s still a hurdle that has to be overcome. But right now the girls are going to school. They are just as present in classrooms as any of the other little boys. They’re answering questions. The teacher is a female. And I think that they see their own potential in the classroom and I think that’s fantastic.

Q: What were the day-to-day interactions like with Azmera and her family? Based on my own kind of personal family-story-gathering missions, Ethiopians can be a shy and tight-lipped bunch. Did you encounter any resistance to yourself or your project?

A: By the time I got there it was the second visit with the crew, so they were already familiar with the camera, and with the foreigners that were coming there. Azmera is very, very shy. She’s painfully shy. But her mother was not as shy, and her grandmother was not as shy. Her aunts would duck in front of the camera, but they wanted to see if you’d got their picture. That wasn’t the difficult part. I think the hard part came in asking her mother and her grandmother about their own story, because I wanted to connect that. I wanted to understand where they came from. What experiences they were basing their decision to have Azmera married so early.

It turns out that Azmera’s grandmother, though she doesn’t know how old she was, was probably ten when she was married and had her child at maybe eleven. And then Azmera’s mother was the same story: also married around ten maybe eleven. So to them it was, “This is just what happens.” There’s no melodrama there. It’s just a fact. And asking them those questions, I think they were wondering, “Why is this important?” And that was an interesting thing. And then for me also, because I’m so Americanized, they really just didn’t know what to make of me at first. And they were really loving, they were warm, they enveloped me, but they just didn’t know sometimes. And it was cute. And then eventually they warmed up and then we could talk. You know, my Amharic is OK, but it’s not the best, and so they thought that was funny. We got along. So, it was an interesting and an easy relationship, but I think both sides had to kind of understand how we would take the other.

Q: How long were you in the countryside?

A: Five days. Maybe six.

Q: What relationship do you have with Azmera and her family now and more generally with the issue of forced marriage?

One of the things with these types of programs is what happens after the filming is done and after the film has been produced. I don’t want Azmera and her mother. . . to get forgotten in all the film releases and premieres.

A: I’ve been keeping in contact through other people. I’ve been in touch, not directly with Azmera, but I know what’s happening with her. I know how things are going with school, and that she is in school, and her family is doing okay. The crew went back after me, so I was able to get a little video greeting from them. So we’ve been in contact and I plan to stay in touch. I think one of the things with these types of programs is what happens after the filming is done and after the film has been produced. I don’t want Azmera and her mother, or the other girls who did the same thing but were not selected for the film, I don’t want them to get forgotten in all the film releases and premieres. I think the producers feel the same way, too.

Q: There’s a Kofi Annan quote I think about often, partly because I think it’s true, but also partly because it bothers me a bit. And it goes, “If we want to save Africa, we must save Africa’s women first.” It’s interesting how Girl Rising and the larger 10×10 movement refines Annan’s idea by saying, in essence, that “saving” Africa means “educating” Africa’s women.

A: I completely agree. It is about education. The statistics show that educating a girl doesn’t just impact her, it impacts her family, it impacts the children she will have, also the jobs she will have, the money she brings in to her family and her community. It’s been an incredible experience for me to see Azmera saying that she will keep going to school, and suddenly you see that all the little girls in her family, in her extended family—and there are many—have a future is different because of her. And just in that, there’s a profound change that’s taken place.

Q: I think that’s such a powerful idea. I’m looking forward to seeing the film. Last question: since you alluded to a new fiction project above, I figure I’ll attempt to open the door a bit wider, though feel free to slam it in my face: can you talk about what you’re working on now?

A: I’m working on another novel. It’s historically based. It’s set in the early days of World War II, 1935. And it is about Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the war and five-year occupation. But what I’ve been doing in this book that has been  a challenge, but also something really, really wonderful and eye-opening as a writer, is telling the story not only from the Ethiopian side, but also the Italian soldiers who were there. So I’ve been hard at work on that. And most of my free time is spent on the book.


Mikael Awake’s fiction has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Witness, Callaloo, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Georgia, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife.




giveonlinebuttonOF NOTE Magazine is free to readers, free of advertising, and free of subscriptions—all made possible by generous supporters like you. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift

OF NOTE Magazine is a fiscally sponsored organization of Artspire, a program of the New York Foundation for the Arts, a 501 (c) (3), tax-exempt organization. All donations are 100% tax-deductible to the full extent of the law.

0 Flares Facebook 0 Twitter 0 0 Flares ×


132 Responses to “Ethiopia | One Girl’s Fight to Learn: An Interview with Writer Maaza Mengiste”
  1. businesses says:

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  2. I have been examinating out some of your articles and i must say pretty nice stuff. I will definitely bookmark your site.

  3. I have not checked in here for some time because I thought it was getting boring, but the last few posts are great quality so I guess I will add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend 🙂

  4. yeezys says:

    My spouse and i got so delighted Raymond managed to finish off his homework because of the ideas he discovered from your very own blog. It is now and again perplexing just to continually be making a gift of concepts which often other folks may have been making money from. So we discover we need the website owner to thank because of that. These explanations you have made, the straightforward blog menu, the relationships you can help foster – it’s got everything spectacular, and it’s assisting our son in addition to us reckon that the issue is interesting, and that’s highly mandatory. Thanks for the whole lot!

  5. My husband and i felt now comfortable Chris could carry out his researching from the ideas he obtained using your weblog. It’s not at all simplistic to just continually be offering steps which other people could have been making money from. And we discover we now have you to thank because of that. The main illustrations you have made, the straightforward website menu, the relationships you will make it easier to foster – it is many unbelievable, and it’s helping our son in addition to our family consider that this theme is fun, and that is extremely pressing. Thanks for everything!

  6. health care says:

    I really wanted to develop a small note to be able to say thanks to you for these lovely strategies you are writing at this site. My prolonged internet investigation has now been compensated with reliable facts and strategies to go over with my contacts. I would assert that most of us website visitors are really endowed to live in a useful network with so many special individuals with good ideas. I feel very grateful to have seen your webpages and look forward to some more pleasurable moments reading here. Thanks once more for a lot of things.

  7. e-commerce says:

    Fantastic beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your web site, how can i subscribe for a blog website? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear idea

  8. I not to mention my friends came going through the great tips and tricks from the blog then immediately I had a terrible suspicion I had not thanked the web site owner for them. Those guys came for this reason passionate to study all of them and already have surely been making the most of them. Appreciate your really being considerably accommodating and also for making a choice on this form of helpful areas most people are really eager to understand about. My sincere apologies for not expressing appreciation to you sooner.

  9. Thanks for sharing superb informations. Your web-site is so cool. I am impressed by the details that you have on this blog. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this web page, will come back for extra articles. You, my friend, ROCK! I found just the information I already searched all over the place and just could not come across. What a perfect website.

  10. Great paintings! This is the kind of information that are meant to be shared around the net. Shame on Google for no longer positioning this put up higher! Come on over and seek advice from my site . Thank you =)

  11. puma product says:

    you’re in point of fact a good webmaster. The site loading speed is amazing. It seems that you’re doing any unique trick. In addition, The contents are masterpiece. you’ve done a wonderful task on this subject!

  12. mathematic says:

    There is noticeably a lot to identify about this. I feel you made certain nice points in features also.

  13. home remodel says:

    Whats Happening i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It absolutely helpful and it has aided me out loads. I am hoping to contribute & assist different users like its aided me. Good job.

  14. I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this site. I’m hoping the same high-grade web site post from you in the upcoming as well. In fact your creative writing skills has inspired me to get my own website now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings fast. Your write up is a great example of it.

  15. i operate a small computer shop at home and most customers enjoy playing online games,.

  16. yeezy shoes says:

    I have to convey my love for your generosity for folks that must have guidance on your subject matter. Your special dedication to passing the solution throughout had become quite effective and has usually encouraged some individuals just like me to arrive at their aims. Your entire invaluable tutorial signifies this much a person like me and much more to my colleagues. Thanks a ton; from each one of us.

  17. I precisely desired to thank you so much again. I am not sure the things that I could possibly have made to happen without the actual methods shared by you on my theme. Certainly was a real distressing problem for me personally, but encountering a expert technique you resolved that took me to cry with happiness. Extremely happier for this guidance and believe you recognize what an amazing job that you are undertaking training some other people through your web page. More than likely you haven’t met any of us.

  18. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking you feeds also, Thanks.

  19. My husband and i got quite delighted that Louis could complete his reports via the precious recommendations he had through your web pages. It is now and again perplexing just to happen to be releasing techniques which some others may have been trying to sell. Therefore we do understand we need the blog owner to appreciate for that. The most important explanations you’ve made, the simple blog menu, the relationships you will give support to promote – it’s got many unbelievable, and it’s really helping our son and our family imagine that that theme is amusing, and that is pretty pressing. Many thanks for all!

  20. food truck says:

    I was suggested this blog by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed about my trouble. You are wonderful! Thanks!

  21. security says:

    I simply needed to thank you so much yet again. I’m not certain the things that I might have followed in the absence of the information revealed by you about that subject matter. Completely was a very intimidating scenario for me, but coming across this specialised mode you solved it forced me to cry with happiness. Extremely happy for your guidance and pray you are aware of a great job that you are accomplishing instructing people using your webpage. More than likely you have never met any of us.

  22. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one these days..

  23. It is in reality a great and helpful piece of information. I am satisfied that you shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Hello, Neat post. There’s a problem together with your web site in web explorer, could check this¡K IE still is the marketplace leader and a big part of folks will miss your great writing due to this problem.

  25. mathematic says:

    I am always searching online for ideas that can benefit me. Thank you!

  26. I would like to point out my appreciation for your kind-heartedness for folks that actually need guidance on that concern. Your very own dedication to getting the message around turned out to be certainly practical and have surely enabled girls just like me to attain their pursuits. Your own informative guidelines entails a great deal a person like me and additionally to my mates. Warm regards; from everyone of us.

  27. Daren Wanzer says:

    maintaining a healthy weight can be tricky because it revolves around genetics and some other factors;;

  28. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  29. nhl jerseys says:

    My wife and i have been very cheerful when Ervin could conclude his preliminary research from the precious recommendations he grabbed using your web pages. It is now and again perplexing just to be handing out ideas which often a number of people may have been trying to sell. So we discover we’ve got the website owner to appreciate for this. The most important explanations you made, the easy site navigation, the relationships your site make it possible to create – it’s got mostly astonishing, and it’s assisting our son in addition to our family reason why that matter is awesome, and that’s very indispensable. Thanks for the whole lot!

  30. Josef Rowlee says:

    How much of an helpful document, hold publishing special someone

  31. read more says:

    I simply want to tell you that I am just very new to blogging and actually savored you’re blog site. Most likely I’m going to bookmark your blog post . You certainly have amazing articles. Cheers for sharing your webpage.


0 Flares Facebook 0 Twitter 0 0 Flares ×