By Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein
Long Live the Girls! It was a chant heard on the streets of Addis one rainy Wednesday afternoon in early August. Who were these girls breaking into spontaneous manifesto? These were young women writers with a message, arresting traffic in the bustling Arat Kilo neighborhood to provoke new thinking and dialogue on girls and women in Ethiopia. They are part of a new girls’ empowerment through creative writing initiative called Long Live the Girls, creating safe spaces for girls and women to have the power to speak out and write with freedom.
LLTG was founded in 2012 through a partnership between Break Arts: International Arts and Education Collaborative, and Action for Youth and Community Change, based in Hawassa, Ethiopia. Led by Kidist Tariku, a young women’s rights activist from Ethiopia, and Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, a poet from the U.S., the two designed the first LLTG project, GIRL MANIFESTO, to turn gender-speak on its head. They wanted to spark an active conversation that would challenge young women to think about the gap between gender policy and everyday life while also contributing to and strengthening a literary culture in Ethiopia.
GIRL MANIFESTO offered intensive writing and dialogue workshops for 30 girls and women ages 11-30. They critiqued Article 35 of the Ethiopian Constitution on Women’s Rights, debated the eight points, and responded creatively through the manifesto as a literary form. The manifesto is a playful, permissive literary form that unleashes a commanding voice, often unheard of from Ethiopian girls and women. The manifesto is a fitting form to respond to a political text, infusing the writing with a sense of power ushered in by the form itself. The best known manifesto written by an Ethiopian woman is the Martha Manifesto, a fiery call to action written by young student revolutionary Martha Mehbratu who had fought against a totalitarian regime, attempted a hijacking to make demands on the imperial government, and was eventually killed by them. The night before the hijacking, Martha wrote her manifesto. Her vision was clear:
Inspired the Martha Manifesto and other famous manifestos throughout literary and political history, a creative writing curriculum was shaped to encourage the crafting of new ideas on gender and equality. Throughout the GIRL MANIFESTO workshops, we used a variety of different methods to engage critical thinking and inspire original, creative writing. For three months, 3 days a week, for two-hours a day, young writers experimented with different poetry forms like the List Poem, the Catalogue Poem, and Couplets, striving for rich detail and specificity in their writing. At first, we used prompts, quotes, and open-ended questions. The biggest challenge for some girls was overcoming extreme, sometimes crippling shyness. As they wrote, they became more comfortable reading in front of the other girls. One of our most successful writing exercises empowered girls to transform old folk sayings about girls and women into new sayings infused with positive messages.
When a girl is educated, she can reach her dream.
When a girl is educated, she can be a role model for a boy.
When a girl is educated, she can lead her country.
When girls are together, maturity comes.
When girls are together, all things are systematic.
When girls are together, creativity comes.
When dogs are together, there’s only shouting.
When boys are together, there’s always fighting.
When girls are together, all solutions come.
When girls are together, birds arrive.
When boys are together, there’s only boxing.
When we introduced Article 35, we developed writing challenges for each of the eight sections. These challenges sparked dialogue and writing on themes like land rights, marriage, sexual health, workers’ rights, affirmative action, and maternity leave. None of the girls had heard of Article 35 but by the end of the workshops, they were debating these points like warriors for women’s rights.
After reading and debating the points in Article 35, the girls studied the history and form of the manifesto, and wrote personal manifestos and group manifestos informed by these debates. Their group manifesto was aptly named Long Live the Girls, A Manifesto! Two literary readings were arranged for the young writers to showcase this powerful text, one in Hawassa, Ethiopia and one in Addis Ababa, the capitol. To prepare for the literary readings, the girls decided which lines they wanted to share as part of their group manifesto, and volunteered their strongest work to read aloud. They practiced a group song and organized the structure and order of readers. The chant, eregem edi mi le setouche! (long live the girls!) looped in our heads after every practice.
Imagine a huge basketball court packed with children, youth and adults ready to hear the manifestos with a curious ear. A little platform was set up for One Love Theater’s house band to play classic Ethiopian hits between the readings. A mat was rolled out to make room for the circus performers and acrobats who also dazzled the crowd between readings. The Hawassa reading was graced by Almaz Kabede, Hawassa City Administration Bureau of Women, Children, and Youth, who presented a powerful opening speech on the importance of girls and women’s voices in civic life. With Kidest as our dynamic master of ceremonies, all thirty girls read their individual poems and stories in addition to presenting their group manifesto and song. Their words were met with wild applause by the audience, especially a few young men who were so inspired they got up and spontaneously read poems they’d written while listening to the girls’ poems.
A few days later, fifteen LLTG writers boarded a 6 a.m. minibus and traveled four hours north to the big city of Addis Ababa to present their manifestos at Asni Gallery in the Arat Kilo neighborhood. With an intimate audience, the girls had the chance to talk about their work and respond to some questions on gender equality posed by the listeners. We talked about how to promote gender equity without pitting girls and women against boys and men. One listener said, “the more we work together to promote what men and women each bring to the table, the less we have to focus on deficits of either one.” This was a powerful moment of revelation for the girls, who were as young as eleven years old and just starting to formulate ideas on gender, freedom, equality, and identity.
Empowered by the gallery reading the night before, the girls decided to hold a spontaneous, impromptu reading on the streets of Addis the following day. LLTG writers held a little march with our banner in Arat Kilo, a bustling university neighborhood, and the girls spontaneously volunteered to read their work to the public while the others cheered them on. At first onlookers were confused and even disdaining, but after hearing the girls perform their words, they were high-fiving the readers and cheering them on. Later that night, all the writers were excited to attend Poetic Jazz, a major poetry event at the National Theater of Ethiopia featuring well known poets like Miheret Kebede Alwabie of Netsa Arts Village. In a sold out, packed theater, the girls saw first-hand the power and respect for poetry and literary expression, as one by one readers shared their work to a captive audience. The LLTG writers returned to their hometown of Hawassa with a widened sense of themselves and their world.
The LLTG writers were transformed by the experience of writing their way to more confident versions of themselves. Empowering girls and women to open up and speak even to each other was a big challenge because, according to the girls, even within the family it can be nearly impossible to speak up. When pressed to explain why voice is so challenging to amplify, Kidest said that harassment is a social norm in Ethiopia. From a very young age, boys feel very powerful and often undermine girls without giving it a second thought. These boys grow up to be men who undermine women and it requires a great deal of social risk to address this kind of daily inequity. When girls and women speak up and out about behavior that bothers them, they face ridicule, intimidation, aggression, discrimination, and sometimes even physical violence. This is why writing in community is such a powerful expression of resistance against the status quo. It demands a new culture of listening.
So, what’s next for Long Live the Girls? The GIRL MANIFESTO will be produced and printed in beautifully-bound limited edition prints, to be released in December 2013. Sales from the books will hopefully fund new rounds of Long Live the Girls creative writing workshops in different regions of Ethiopia, which will lead to future readings, radio programs, and new creative print projects like poetry posters, magazines, and fliers. Break Arts is currently working on a new partnership with a girl-focused NGO in Ethiopia called IMAGE RISING and other like-minded organizations that put girls and women at the center of the conversation. Together we’ll work to grow a new generation of girl writers and activists in Ethiopia.
From the LLTG Girl Manifesto:
For more information on Long Live the Girls, check out their Twitter page @longlivegirls and Facebook page.