Read The First Biography Of An African Woman EVER

by Emma Oulton

Finally! The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is thought to be the earliest biography of an African woman ever, and it was finally translated into English so we all here can read it. It tells the story of Ethiopian religious leader Walatta Petros, who lived 1592 to 1642. This biography, and others of similarly powerful Ethiopian women, captured the imagination of translator Wendy Laura Belcher, who was thrilled to discover “biographies of powerful African women written by Africans in an African language” among a literary history largely narrated by the Europeans and Jesuits.

Unlike the 1970s Italian version, Belcher’s translation includes the earliest known depiction of same-sex female desire in sub-Saharan Africa, an element that was censored from the previous translation. This only adds to the importance of reading diverse perspectives like this: the story of a powerful African woman with a devout faith as well as romantic attraction to other women is a narrative that we are not often exposed to.

Petros became a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church for fighting the Jesuits' mission to convert Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism. Thirty years after her death, in 1672, her disciples wrote a hagiography about her in the Gəˁəz language.

“I knew then I wouldn’t rest until I had translated this priceless work into English,” Belcher told The Guardian. And she didn’t; in fact, she even learned the Gəˁəz language and worked with an Ethiopian priest in order to translate the text faithfully.

The biography has been translated twice before, into Amharic and Italian — but now, for the first time, English speakers will be able to read the work and, as Belcher points out, “learn about a pre-colonial African woman on her own terms.”

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is available to buy today, so it’s just in time to add to your Diverse December reading list.