The Ethiopian saint Walatta Petros scolded her fellow females for wasting time on manicures instead of praying. She argued forcefully with the male leaders of her country. And she helped drive Portuguese missionaries from Ethiopia in the 17th century, preserving one of the earliest forms of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Today, Wendy Laura Belcher, assistant professor of African literature in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies, is bringing to life the story of this Ethiopian Orthodox saint through the study of a 340-year-old parchment manuscript. The centuries-old tome resides in a monastery near Lake Tana, the site of some of Ethiopia’s most important religious libraries, where it is read by Ethiopian monks and priests but little examined by Westerners. In studying the manuscript, Belcher, who herself lived in Ethiopia as a child, has revealed a world of rich African literature that few outside scholarly circles knew existed.
“Many people do not realize that Africa has a rich literature that stretches back for millennia,” Belcher said. “Walatta Petros’ story is one of the first biographies written about an African woman by an African author in an African language.”
The manuscript portrays the life of Walatta Petros (1594-1643), a wealthy woman who deserted her husband to travel the country and preach against conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jesuit priests had arrived from Europe in the early 1500s and were attempting to convince Ethiopians to give up their ancient form of Christianity, which they had adopted in the fourth century. The missionaries nearly succeeded, having swung the emperor to their side, but, partly due to the brave female saint mobilizing a large following of nonviolent resisters, the Jesuits were ousted in 1632.
“I came across a reference to Jesuits calling the royal women ‘diabolical’ and blaming them for the failure to convert Ethiopians,” Belcher said. “At first I thought this was just misogyny. But it turns out the Jesuits were right. I found the story of Walatta Petros and these courageous women to be irresistible.”
The survival of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church offers modern scholars a window into early forms of Christian worship, but Walatta Petros’ story also yields a glimpse of what life was like for Ethiopian women during this period. In 2011, Belcher spent a year in Ethiopia on a Fulbright fellowship researching ancient manuscripts illuminating the lives of Ethiopian royal women in Walatta Petros’ time.
“One of the really wonderful things about this book is that it is a story about women’s friendships,” Belcher said. “Women read to each other, they have fights with each other, they avoid their mothers-in-law — there are all sorts of wonderfully human moments in this text.”
Belcher is working with Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, to clarify the meaning of the text, parts of which are confusing due most likely to scribal errors. Another collaborator, Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar of the ancient Ethiopian language Gəˁəz and its literature, is translating the book from Gəˁəz into English.