ArticlePDF Available

Colonial Rewrite of African History Misinterpretaions and Distortions in Belcher & Kleiner's Life and Struggel of Wallata Petros



The Hagiography of Ethiopian Saint Woletta Petros was recently translated from Ge’ez into English by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner. Belcher has no knowledge of Ge’ez and simple errors in the translation suggest that Kleiner lacks the fluency required to accurately interpret the language. A western lens with a deliberate distortion of the facts has been applied to the text, using contemporary western understandings of marriage and monastic life to interpret a 17th century Ethiopian nun. Contemporary ethnic politics have been inserted into the interpretation in a way that reproduces negative racial binaries, and relies heavily on the colonial racialization of African identities and western color prejudice that does not exist in Ethiopia. This has resulted in a colonial rewrite of one of Ethiopia’s most holy books. Belcher represents Woletta Petros as a violent, diseased and lustful nun, reproducing racist stereotypes about black women. Sexual scenes and a same-sex partnership between nuns have been inserted into the text where they do not exist in the Ge’ez original. This article will detail the most significant misinterpretations in Belcher and Kleiner’s translation. It will also offer an Ethiopian interpretation of Woletta Petros, considering her legacy within context and drawing on the testimony of the local scholars. The article will show that the translation, as well as Belcher’s subsequent publications around Woletta Petros, constitute colonial scholarship, where a foreigner who cannot understand the language is elevated to the status of expert at the expense of the local people who can not only read and write the language, but also have decades long training in the interpretation of these important holy texts. The article will demonstrate that the colonial practice of taking African intellectual resources and using them to rewrite African history is not a relic of the past, but an ongoing and supported practice within universities. Major universities, as important sites of knowledge production, should not contribute to racial prejudices and distortions of African history by supporting projects that are carried out by scholars who deliberately exclude or distort the voices and experiences of local people. This article seeks to prompt a change in the writing of African history, where the agency of black people to narrate their own histories and experiences is respected and supported.
known as THE JOURNAL OF AFROASIATIC LANGUAGES (JAAL)LV published by the Institute
of Semitic Studies. JAAL brings forward contributions of history, culture and linguistics of all types
historical, comparative, theoretical, descriptive, and othersthat deal with Afroasiatic languages and
their speakers. JAAL welcomes book reviews in any area of linguistics and Afroasiatic studies,
reactions to articles in JAAL or to relevant issues raised anywhere, and addenda to articles. JAAL
intends to provide a forum for debates on specific issues, and invites suggestions.
Girma A. Demeke
Managing Editor:
Abebe Zegeye
Editorial Board:
Ephraim Isaac (Institute of Semitic Studies86$)
Assefa Balcha (:ROOR8QLYHUVLW\(WKLRSLD)
Zelealem Leyew (Addis Ababa University(WKLRSLD)
Ronny Meyer (,QDOFR/ODFDQ)UDQFH)
Ekkehard Wolff (Adama University(WKLRSLD)
Note to Contributors
For style rules to be followed in preparing manuscripts, see inside back cover.
Submitting Articlesand Book Reviews
Authors should send an electronic copy of the manuscript in Pdf format to the editor at JLUPD@ Authors will be required to submit, in case of acceptance the final copy Microsoft Word
JAAL urges authors submitting manuscripts to conform to the rules (cf. Style Sheet), except where
there is strong reason to do otherwise. In such cases, prior consultation with the Editor will be
appreciated. JAAL cannot overemphasize that improper presentation causes needless delays.
The identity of the contributor must be hidden from the reviewers. The identity should only be
known to the managing editor or the general editor for communication purposes. Therefore,
addresses and name /names of contributors must be written separately. Acknowledgment must
be avoided in the first submission, and when one quotes his previous work, he/she should avoid the
usage of I in reference to his/her work. For instance, instead of saying "as I discuss in my work (Yilma
1989)", one should say “as Yilma (1989) discusses…”. However, the former usage can be maintained
once the paper is accepted for publication.
Editorial procedure
Receipt of manuscripts will be acknowledged. Manuscripts will be evaluated by at least two reviewers
other than the Editor, and a decision on publication will be made in six month time.
Authors are entitled to get a single hard copy of the whole Journal in which their article appeared.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History, and Culture. Volume / Number /20
ISSN 0894-9824
Editor’s Note
Until volume VII, the Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and
Culture was known as the Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, JAAL. It
was established in 1988 by well-known Afroasiatic scholars with
Prof. Robert Hetzron being its editor-in-chief.
Founding editorial team
Editor: Robert Hetzron
Review Editor: Alan S. Kaye
Managing Editor: Joan Margolis Friedman
Editorial Board members: I. M. Diakonoff,
Gedion Goldenberg,
Richard J. Hayward,
Ephraim Isaac,
C. Douglas Johnson,
Janet H. Johnson,
Stephan J. Lieberman,
Rusell G. Schuh,
Richard Stenier, and
Andrzej Zaborski
† Deceased
Institute of Semitic Studies
Board of Directors & Founders
Princeton Theological Seminary
FRANK M. CROSS, Emeritus
Harvard University
University of Michigan
University of Chicago
UC, Berkeley
University of Pennsylvania
Johns Hopkins University
Manager, Palmer Square
Princeton, NJ
BRUCE L. R. SMITH, Emeritus
The Brookings Institution
University of Texas at Austin
Director of Technology
Research Directors
Research Director
Research Director
† Deceased
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture
Volume 9, Number 2, 2020
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Foreword: When Academics Fail ................................................................. v
Colonial Rewriting of African History: Misinterpretations and
Distortions in Belcher and Kleiner’s Life and Struggles of
Walatta Petros .................................................................................. 133
Abstract ............................................................................................... 133
Introduction ........................................................................................ 134
Historical and Cultural Context ...................................................... 136
Brief Historical Context ................................................................ 136
Woletta Petros’ Place in the Civil War ........................................ 137
Understanding the Monastery ..................................................... 140
Woletta Petros: Hermit, Abbess, Nun, Saint .............................. 144
Issues of Translation and Expertise ................................................ 149
Interpreting Woletta Petros .............................................................. 152
“Marriage” Between Two Nuns .................................................. 154
The Sexual Misinterpretation of Soul and Body ....................... 159
The Scene of the Lustful Nuns ..................................................... 162
“My Heart Caught Fire”: Woletta Petros as a Lustful Nun ..... 170
Woletta Petros as Violent .............................................................. 176
Linking Woletta Petros with Animals and Disease .................. 181
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Ethnicization of Ethiopian Identities .............................................. 186
The Violence of Misinterpretation .................................................. 193
The Foreigner as Expert: Using “Homophobia” to Deflect
Criticism .................................................................................... 194
Rewriting Ethiopian History: Implications for African
Identity ...................................................................................... 197
Impacts for the Monastic Community ....................................... 198
Ethical Concerns with Research Conduct ..................................... 202
Conclusion ......................................................................................... 205
References .......................................................................................... 210
Appendix I ......................................................................................... 217
Appendix II ........................................................................................ 218
About the Author .............................................................................. 220
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture
Volume 9, Number 2, 2020
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Colonial Rewriting of African History:
Misinterpretations and Distortions in
Belcher and Kleiner’s Life and Struggles of
Walatta Petros
Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes
The Hagiography of Ethiopian Saint Woletta Petros was recently
translated from Ge’ez into English by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner.
Belcher has no knowledge of Ge’ez and simple errors in the translation
suggest that Kleiner lacks the fluency required to accurately interpret the
language. A western lens with a deliberate distortion of the facts has been
applied to the text, using contemporary western understandings of
marriage and monastic life to interpret a 17th century Ethiopian nun.
Contemporary ethnic politics have been inserted into the interpretation in
a way that reproduces negative racial binaries, and relies heavily on the
colonial racialization of African identities and western color prejudice that
does not exist in Ethiopia. This has resulted in a colonial rewrite of one of
Ethiopia’s most holy books. Belcher represents Woletta Petros as a violent,
diseased and lustful nun, reproducing racist stereotypes about black
women. Sexual scenes and a same-sex partnership between nuns have been
inserted into the text where they do not exist in the Ge’ez original. This
article will detail the most significant misinterpretations in Belcher and
Kleiner’s translation. It will also offer an Ethiopian interpretation of
Woletta Petros, considering her legacy within context and drawing on the
testimony of the local scholars. The article will show that the translation,
as well as Belcher’s subsequent publications around Woletta Petros,
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
constitute colonial scholarship, where a foreigner who cannot understand
the language is elevated to the status of expert at the expense of the local
people who can not only read and write the language, but also have decades-
long training in the interpretation of these important holy texts. The article
will demonstrate that the colonial practice of taking African intellectual
resources and using them to rewrite African history is not a relic of the
past, but an ongoing and supported practice within universities. Major
universities, as important sites of knowledge production, should not
contribute to racial prejudices and distortions of African history by
supporting projects that are carried out by scholars who deliberately
exclude or distort the voices and experiences of local people. This article
seeks to prompt a change in the writing of African history, where the agency
of black people to narrate their own histories and experiences is respected
and supported.
Western museums, libraries and universities have large collections
of looted and unethically-acquired African artifacts and
manuscripts. Recently, there has been significant public debate on
whether these stolen intellectual and cultural items should be
returned to their countries of origin. However, the practice of
interpreting these texts in a way that harms the history, culture and
identity of the people from whom they were taken continues
unchallenged and without any public discussion.
This paper aims to address this issue by examining one case where
an African text has been translated and interpreted by western
scholars who have little to no knowledge of the language and
context in which the text was written. It will show that the 17th
century Ethiopian Ge’ez book ገድለ ቅድስት ወለተ ጴጥሮስ, published by
Princeton University Press as The Life and Struggles of Our Mother
Walatta Petros, was translated based on stereotypical assumptions.
The primary researcher, Wendy Belcher, takes the Ethiopian Saint
Woletta Petros and turns her into a sexualized, exoticized and
violent black woman. Belcher, with no knowledge of Ge’ez and
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
disregarding the cultural context in which the text was written, has
taken many anecdotes out of their historical and spiritual context.
Belcher and Kleiner have inserted words and concepts into the
translation that do not exist in the Ge’ez original. Indigenous
Ethiopian scholars with significant training and knowledge in
relation to this text have been consulted by Belcher but then ignored,
their expertise deemed irrelevant and at times antagonist to
Belcher’s own interpretation. This article argues that this is colonial
scholarship in action, with a western scholar rewriting the history of
this important Ethiopian saint within her own western lens and
ignoring the testimony of local experts. This amounts to a deliberate
distortion of history. It demonstrates how colonial scholarship
operates by enabling the scholar to act as if they are a decolonizer by
controlling the intellectual process of domination and liberation
through the inclusion of local elites who internalize western
epistemology while excluding people with local or indigenous
To readers unfamiliar with Woletta Petros’ legacy, I will first offer
an Ethiopian perspective on the saint’s life and provide historical
and cultural context to her hagiography. I will then examine Belcher
and Kleiner’s expertise, and provide a detailed examination of the
major misinterpretations in their translation, focused primarily on
how Woletta Petros is represented. Finally, this article will
demonstrate that western rewrites of African history have
significant implications for how Africans see themselves and their
place in the world. In the past, this practice has been criticized as the
theft of history, the colonization of the mind and the destruction of
African memory, among others (Goody 2006; wa Thiong’o 1994;
Park 2014; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018). This paper demonstrates how
“Westernized Universities” (Grosfoguel 2013) still incubate the
highest levels of racism towards black people by denying Africans
the agency to tell their own stories to the world and by supporting
research by unqualified scholars.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Historical and Cultural Context
Before addressing Belcher and Kleiner’s translation, I would like to
offer a historical and cultural background for the life and works of
Woletta Petros. It is important to understand the context in which
she lived, particularly the strict monastic rules that governed her
community. I will offer these from an Ethiopian perspective,
drawing on Ethiopian holy books and insights from Ethiopian
scholars who were interviewed as part of my 2019 fieldwork to Bahir
Dar, Gondar and Lalibela. The historical context provided below is
brief, but the examination of Ethiopian monastic life and rules is
more detailed in nature. It seeks to offer a counter to the distorted
interpretations of spiritual life in Belcher’s account of Woletta
Petros’ life.
Brief Historical Context
Christianity has a long history in Ethiopia. Ethiopian church
scholars teach that it arrived in the country during the times of the
Apostles through three ways: the baptism of the eunuch of Queen
Candice at the hands of Phillip (Acts 8:26-40), the participation of
Ge’ez speaking Ethiopians on the day of the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12)
and the coming of Matthew to preach the gospel in the country.
Though the Ethiopian state became a Christian country around 350
AD, Ephraim Isaac provides evidence for the arrival of Christianity
since the first century AD (2013, p. 17-18). Ethiopian Christianity is
therefore not an imposed colonial religion, but a uniquely African
tradition that is significantly older than western Christianity.
Ethiopians developed their indigenous Tewahido tradition by
producing their own literature and translating numerous religious
texts into Ge’ez, the then lingua-franca and liturgical language of the
country. The Ethiopian monastic tradition also developed around
this time and became the center of literature and spiritual life.
Monasteries interpreted religious texts using an indigenous African
lens, producing stories and ways of relating to the world and God
in ways that differ from western Christian practices. The Ethiopian
Gospels የገሪማ ወንጌል (Garima Gospels) are the earliest surviving
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
complete illuminated gospels in the world, written in Ge’ez on goat
skin between c. 330 and 570 AD. Many Ethiopian leaders before the
Marxist-Leninist Derg period (1974-1991) gave support to
monasteries. They regarded them as sacred and inviolable places of
moral leadership and discipline. Some leaders went to monasteries
to gain spiritual healing and instruction; others were buried there.
During the 16th and 17th century, foreign attempts to convert
Ethiopia to Catholicism endangered this tradition and led to
religious civil war. The conversion was initiated by Jesuits who were
allowed to stay in the country following Portuguese support of the
Ethiopian King in his war against Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi.
Ahmad was an Ethiopian Muslim warrior who fought the Christian
Kings from 1528-1544 with the support of the Ottoman Turks. After
he was defeated, Ethiopians saw the Jesuits as friends, but the Jesuits
viewed the Ethiopian Tewahido tradition as heresy that had to be
expunged. After many failed efforts, they succeeded in converting
Emperor Susenyos (1607-1632) to Roman Catholicism. Susenyos
declared allegiance to the Pope of Rome and ordered his people to
be rebaptized and follow the Catholic way. Most Ethiopians resisted
and a bloody religious civil war ensued. Many Ethiopians, especially
women like Woletta Petros, resisted the order of the king. The Jesuits
insisted on harsh treatment against those who resisted. The ongoing
violence forced Susenyos to realize that his people would never fully
accept European Christianity. He rescinded his edict and handed his
throne to his son Fasiledes (1632-1667). Fasiledes expelled the Jesuits
in 1632, and made alliances with neighboring costal forces to prevent
European entry to his empire. Europeans were not welcome in the
country for many years to come.
Woletta Petros’ Place in the Civil War
Woletta Petros lived during this time. She was born to a noble family
and was married to a man loyal to the converted king Susenyos. She
despised her husband’s conversion to Catholicism and started to
help Ethiopian resistance groups, as well as Tewahido church
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
priests, monks and nuns. When her husband marched to suppress
local resistance against Catholicism, she abandoned him and joined
a monastery. She was forced to return but started a hunger strike
and refused to communicate or sleep with her husband when she
learned that he accepted the clothes of the slayed Tewahido
Patriarch Abuna Simon as a reward from the king. Her
uncompromising determination forced him to comply with her
demands to leave him. She left, stayed with her brother for a short
time and planned to go to the monastery. As a noblewoman from
the court, she needed guidance about the countryside. A priest
introduced her to a nun, Ehete Kristos, who had also left her
husband, and the two became close friends. Shortly afterwards, she
took the vow and became a nun at 24 years old. She started
mobilizing people not to recognize the converted king, asking
priests not to call the usual praise for him during Mass. The king
brought her to court and forbade her teachings under threat of
death. She was sent to her family, but she was undeterred. She went
to the sacred Waldeba monastery and eventually started to live as a
hermit, surviving only on wild plants and fruits. According to her
hagiography, when she reached the last stage of monastic life, God
asked her to return to the world to save souls for His Kingdom. She
refused but eventually accepted her mission with divine assurances,
as shall be detailed later. She returned as a powerful critic of
Many Ethiopians saw Woletta Petros as a sign from God and started
to follow her. The king heard news of her influence and had his
soldiers bring her before him a second time. Susenyos told her to
accept Catholicism or die. She was fearless and refused conversion
again. As Isaac writes, she was “a person scornful of [religious]
compromises” (2013, p. 270). The king planned to kill her but his
advisors warned that this might incite rebellion from her relatives in
the Fetegar and Dewaro regions. She was exiled to the wilderness in
Zhebey for three years. In the desert, people were inspired by her
fearless resistance and open criticism of the king. She created her
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
first monastic community there. At a time when royals were killing
for a new religion, the story of a fearless noblewoman who
abandoned the court to be with her people spread quickly. Her
method of fighting back was to live the strictest form of spirituality.
Men who converted to the Catholic faith viewed a woman’s spiritual
authority as blasphemous, but the Ethiopian monastic tradition gave
her the language and authority to reinvigorate her country’s ancient
faith. While Catholicism regarded her faith as a heresy punishable
by death, Ethiopian monasticism gave her the power to overcome
death. This is the most important ideal of being a nun: to spiritually
leave this world and live in the afterlife while on earth. It involves
seeing the world through the lens of the soul, not the flesh, and to
submit to the salvation of the people, not to the cruel demands of the
powerful. Her faith was not a strategy or a means of resistance. It
was a way of life. Her commitment to her faith and the strict rules of
monastic life continued after Ethiopia returned to the Orthodox
Tewahido tradition. Isaac writes:
Woletta Petros showed tremendous energy and passionate zeal in
her fight against the Catholic movement which had gained
dominance during the reign of Susenyos. During the subsequent
reign of Fasiledes, after the restoration of Orthodoxy, she continued
to oppose with equal passion any belief, or any deviation from what
she considered true Christian discipline (2013, p. 270).
Woletta Petros is celebrated as one of the most devout and fearless
saints in Ethiopian Christianity. Her adherence to monasticism is
one of the keys to her holiness. Monastic life gave her the
philosophy, language and space to bring many people together. It is
important to note that monastic life in Ethiopia is practiced with
notable difference to monastic life in Europe. In Ethiopia,
monasteries are holy places where “dead” people live, as monks and
nuns metaphorically must die to be accepted in the order. This act
of “dying”, of forsaking family, relationships, comfort and
sustenance, means that monks and nuns live as if they are already
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
in heaven. They become members of the “bride city”, creating a
sacred bond with God (Revelation 21:2). This is what gives them
spiritual power. To deviate even slightly from monastic principles
and practices is a tremendous sin, to go against an assured place in
heaven. Furthermore, adherence to monastic rules are important to
keep monasteries as undefiled holy ground where people exist as
embodied souls. While Woletta Petros stood against Catholicism,
her equally important struggle was in ensuring that the people who
followed her lived according to the edicts of Ethiopian monasticism.
To better understand this uniquely powerful world, we need to
abandon our familiar viewpoints on monastic life and try to make
sense of 17th century Ethiopian monastic rites and beliefs.
Understanding the Monastery
In the 17th century, when religion was one of Ethiopia’s highest
preoccupations, monasticism was one of the most respected ways of
life. Monks and nuns were not only spiritual people, they were links
to the divine. Today, monks and nuns are still highly respected for
their devotion, though their way of life faces many threats and
challenges, as shall be discussed later.
Monastic values and practices today echo those of Woletta Petros’
time. People who join the monastery pass through three rigorous
spiritual paths. The first stage is አመክሮ (Amekro), a time when the
novice demonstrates their spiritual dedication through long hours
of hard work, eating only once a day, helping older monks and nuns,
and serving the community. This period lasts from three to seven
years, sometimes more. The novice must demonstrate endurance,
humility, silence and prayer before taking the vow to become a nun
or a monk because “it is better to take no vows than to take them
and not fulfill them” (Tzadua 1968, p. 75).
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
The 13th century Fetha Nagast (Justice of Kings) further provides
specific rules for novices, also known as virgins.1 It states, “Neither
shall a virgin appear to people at sunset… She shall not fatten her
body beyond the correct proportion. Food is the weapon of
concupiscence and solitary life is the first bond of purity” (Tzadua
1968, p. 75). Novices face hardship to ensure they will not break their
vow. They must ensure that they have conquered their desire to
have a family or sexual intimacy.2 Novices can return to their former
life if they are unsure about their ability to endure the silence and
hard work of monastic life, but while living in the monastery, they
are still expected to live by the strict monastic rules.
The novices who prove their endurance prepare to take the vow.
This is the second stage, named ምንኩስና (Minkusina). The person
closes their ears and eyes and swears in the name of God saying
አለሙ በእኔ ዘንድ የሞተ ነው፤ እኔም በአለሙ ዘንድ የሞትሁ ነኝ (Workneh 1956 et.c.
ድንግልና ሂወት p. 68-69)3. This means, “This world is dead to me and I
am dead to this world”. The person is placed in a grave or coffin and
is tied with መግነዝ, a robe normally used to tie a dead body.4 A funeral
rite is then performed as if he or she is dead, and “ቀብጹኒ እምልብ
1 Referring to novices as “virgins” is indicative of their “newness” to
monastic life. While many who joined were young people who had
never had sex, many others, like Woletta Petros, joined later in life after
leaving marriages and family life.
2 This is understandable given the rule in the Fetha Nagast: “A monk [or
nun] who renounces the world must detach himself [or herself]
completely from his [or her] parents, his [or her] relatives and from his
[or her] secular friends, just as the dead are separated from the living.
If his [or her] parents entered the monastery, their relationship shall be
spiritual only” (Tzadua 1968, p. 72).
3 In references, “et.c” refers to the Ethiopian Calendar.
4 This ritual differs from place to place. For example, in some places “the
candidate, having been brought into the presence of the prelate, is
paced in the midst of the assembled clergy; and then a circle of fire is
lighted around him…the attending priests chant the requiem for the
dead” (Wondmagegnehu and Motovu 1970, p 26).
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
ከመዘሞተ”: “I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind” (Psalm
31:12) is recited.5 In “dying”, nuns and monks forsake life as we
know it, including relationships, family, comfort, and pleasure.
Celibacy and humility are the cornerstones of monastic life. From
this moment onwards, monks and nuns are “መላእክት ዘበምድር ወሰብእ
ሰማውያን”: “Angels on earth and humans on heaven”. They are also
called Brides of Christ.
The status of the monk or nun as dead to this world cannot be
understated. While a monk or nun is ርሁቅ እምዓለም, distant from this
world or dead to this world, they are alive in the spiritual world.
Their devotion to monastic life means that they walk around on
earth as if they already exist in heaven. The monastery is regarded
as the collective body of monks and nuns. It is symbolic of the bride
city of Jerusalem which is “married” to God (Revelation 21: 2 & 9).
This is contrasted with the outside world where the adulterous city
of Babylon intoxicates its dwellers with sins of immorality
(Revelation 17:1). Life in the monastery is righteousness; breaking
any of its rules or showing desire for the outside world is
committing the sin of Babylon, which is collectively called “ዝሙት
(zimmut), meaning adultery (James 4:4-5; 1 John 2:15-17).6
Part of living this spiritual existence involves stringent rejection of
earthly pleasures. Monks and nuns eat very little, work hard and
pray constantly. Monastic life is also governed by the covenant of
5 In addition to the indigenous monastic books, the ceremony is
regarded as a literal realization of biblical references about putting to
death what belongs to our earthly nature (Col 3:5) and crucifying the
flesh with its earthly passions and desires (Gal 5:24).
6 The Ge’ez literature frequently refers to several biblical sources
without mentioning the exact chapter and number of the text. For
instance, it refers to Paul’s saying or John’s saying in the Bible without
providing the exact verse numbers. This is due to the fact that separate
Bible texts were translated into Ge’ez at different times before the Bible
took its present form.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
silence. Church scholars refer to a large body of biblical verses
including, “ወልሳንሂ እሳት ይእቲ” “And the tongue is a fire that defiles the
whole body” (James 3:6) and “life and death are in the power of the
tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). They say the key principle of monastic
silence is contained in the holy book Filksyous, which says “ጉየይ
እምሰብእ ወአርምሞ”, “depart from people and stay in silence” (1982, p.
16). This does not mean that people do not speak to each other at all.
Rather, their conversation is limited by spiritual necessity because
through prayer they are in constant dialogue with God. The Fetha
Nagast prescribes:
Monks [and nuns] shall live doing good among themselves and
towards all people. Never shall they walk through the squares and
the streets without modesty and gravity, nor shall they joke among
themselves irrelevantly or flippantly: rather they must be devoted
to silence and gravity (Tzadua 1968, p. 71).
To behave without modesty or even just to joke paves the way to
grave sin within the monastery, as it leads the monk or nun away
from the status of “living in the soul” towards “living in the body”.
The monastic holy books further state “ዘእንበለ ተራሕቆ እምዓለ ወተመትሮተ
ተናግሮት ምስለ ሰብእ ወአዝልፎ ኅድአት ኢትከውን ጸሎት እንበለ ፅርዓት”, which means,
“Without being distanced from the world, without abandoning
talking with people, without becoming a loner, constant prayer
cannot be made” (Filksyous 1982, p. 17).
Through adhering to monastic principles and constant prayer,
monks and nuns often start to have spiritual revelations. Some of
them become ባህታዊ (Bahitawian, hermits or “loners”). Bahtawi have
no community or home. Isaac describes their lives as follows:
Bahtawi are ascetic persons totally detached from the world, living
in caves, woods, or deserts. Dressed in sheepskins they can
occasionally turn up in a town or a court or even the king’s palace,
to utter some angry or pungent social and prophetic message
without political fears, and have always been regarded as very
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
useful political critics. Bahtawi literally means ‘the loner’ (2013, p.
The third and highest stage of monastic life is ፍጹማን (Fitsuman, the
perfects). They wear a special sign called አስኬማ (askema), and they
become ለባስያነ ምስቀል (wearers of the Cross). Bahtawi can become
Fitsuman, though it is not necessary to be Bahtawi in order to move
to this stage. Fitsuman communicate with angels, the Virgin Mary
and God. They can make miracles happen and their prayer is
dedicated towards the salvation of the monastery, the country and
the world. Fitsuman besiege God to forgive all people in the world.
Some of them hurt their body by wearing heavy metals and eating
ash and wild bitter plants. They will not stop until they receive
ቃልኪዳን, Kalkidan, a covenant that God will fulfil their wishes.
Fitsuman are mediators, offering their suffering as a sacrifice for the
salvation of others.
Fitsuman are known for what many would consider extremes. For
instance, Kristos Samra, an Ethiopian nun and saint, is known for
praying for twelve years in water, surrounded by spears, asking
God to reconcile with the Devil. God agrees but when the Devil
refuses, God grants Kristos Samra the right to bring souls out from
hell and deliver them to heaven (Filpos 1992 et.c). This is the power
of Fitsuman. Their strict, uncompromising commitment to their life
as “dead to this world” gives them the power, and responsibility, to
work for the salvation of others.
Woletta Petros: Hermit, Abbess, Nun, Saint
The Ge’ez text says Woletta Petros embraced her calling because
እስመ ኮነት ስክርተ በፍቅሩ”: “she was drunk with His [God’s] love”, and
her journey into a celibate monastic life was like “entering into a
heavenly wedding and to Jesus Christ the groom” (Galawdewos 17th
c, p. 14). She reached the stage of Fitsuman, founded many
monasteries and was elevated to the status of saint with several
miracles. Her longing, however, was to become a ባህታዊት, Bahtawit
(female singular of the plural Bahtawi), rather than an Abbess. She
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
went to Waldeba, a 4th century monastery of extreme asceticism.
There, she become a servant to a strict elderly nun, tirelessly serving
others. When the nun died, she distanced herself from others and
became a Bahtawit. She lived in caves, eating only wild plants for
seven months. One day, a Fitsum (singular form of plural Fitsuman)
named Melkea Kristos approached her to say goodbye as he knew
he was going to die soon. When he told her, she wished to die before
him. Knowing her thoughts, he told her that her time has not
arrived, that she would go on to found seven monasteries and save
many souls for God. But she did not want this responsibility. She
went to ፍልሰተ በረሃ, a wilderness where monks and nuns go alone to
pray until their soul departs from their body.
Her hagiography states that she was determined to be a hermit, but
God came to her and gave her a new mission of going out to the
world and saving souls for Him. Woletta Petros refused his request.
She said she was incapable, made of mud and soil: “እፎ ይከውነኒ ዝንቱ።
ወእፎ ይትከሀለኒ አድኅን ካልአነ ዘኢይክል አድኅኖ ርእስየ” (Galawdewos 17th c, p.
44): “How is it possible for me? How can I save others when I am
unable to save myself?” To her, fulfilling a divine responsibility of
saving others’ souls appeared impossible. God brought her doves
and precious glasses, saying, “these are the pure souls of your
children, keep them for me”. The doves and glasses represented the
souls of her followers. Her resistance was strong. She refused many
times, saying “what if they fly away from me and return to the
world? What if they get broken?” She feared the loss of a single soul.
Finally, God gave her a unique promise that removed her fear. It is
called ቃል ኪዳን, Kalkidan.
Kalkidan is a covenant between God and saints who pass through
extreme spiritual devotion. It contains a list of promises God
bestows upon the saint. Through their Kalkidan, saints obtain divine
power to perform miracles or other acts. God told Woletta Petros
that he would give her the power to make sure that anyone who
becomes a “soul” in her monastery would never return to the “flesh”
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
again. He granted her the ability to see her followers’ future, so that
she would know if their lives would lead to sin and damnation. He
promised “ወለእመ ሰአልክኒ ወፈቀድኪ ይሙት በዕለት ዘቦአ እገብር ለኪ ወእፌጽም
ፈቃደኪ” (Galawdewos 17th c, p.45-46): “If you beseech me wishing
someone to die the day they entered [the monastery], I will do so
and fulfil your wish”. This promise to end the life of a monk or nun
at Woletta Petros’ wish is in line with the responsibility God gives
her to “keep” the precious souls of her followers. If she should see
that they might sin, He promises to take them early so that their
souls may be saved. He declares: “ወኢይትኀጐል መኑሂ ዘይበውዕ ውስተ ቤትኪ
ወዘይትኀጐልሂ ኢይበውእ ውስተ ቤትኪ። ወቤትኪሂ ኢይፈልስ እስከ ኅልፈተ ዓለም ወዝንቱ
ውእቱ ትእምርተ ኪዳን ዘማዕከሌየ ወማዕከሌኪ።” (Galawdewos 17th c, p.45-46):
“No one who enters your house [the monastery] will be lost and no
one who would be lost will enter. Your house [the monastery] will
not perish till the end of the world. This is the covenant between me
and you.”
According to her hagiography, God’s promise, the Kalkidan, assured
Woletta Petros that all who came to her would be saved, but also
gave her a significant responsibility. She left Waldeba, and started
teaching at Tselemt. While she was a staunch opponent of the
converted king, her greatest concern was in “keeping” the souls in
her flock for God. As a result, she did everything she could to
enforce the strict rules of the monastery. For her followers to deviate
from this path was to forsaken the heavenly city of Jerusalem, the
holy bride of the Lamb, and become adulterous like the children of
These strict rules were based on Ethiopian scriptures. In her
monasteries, women and men are separated. Members give away all
their belongings and share whatever meagre food they have
together. When they leave for service, she told them to go in pairs
like the way Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs (Luke 10:1; Mark
6:7). Following the monastic rules of silence, she ordered them “ከመ
ኢይትናገሩ ቃለ በክላህ አላ በልኆሳስ”: “to never speak loudly but softly”. For
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Woletta Petros, the covenant of silence is an integral principle of
monastic spirituality. Monks and nuns are in constant conversation
with the spirit world. They should not speak loudly because the
monastery is not a place for play and socializing. It is a place where
the scripture is practiced daily: “There be no filthiness nor foolish
talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be
thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4; Ecclesiastes 5:6). It is also a place
where the flesh willfully receives suffering to successfully deliver
the soul into the hands of God. When monks and nuns physically
die (not just the “death” of being dead to this world when one takes
the vow), members of the monastic community celebrate the union
of the departed person’s soul with God and pray that they finish
their spiritual path likewise.
It is within this context, and within God’s Kalkidan, that Woletta
Petros wished some of her community members to die. Sometimes
she prayed for this when they were deeply spiritual and righteous
(Galawdewos 17th c, p. 80). To die when one is close to God assures
the greatest reward in Heaven. When she saw that they were on the
path of breaking monastic rules, she would scornfully chastise them
and ask God to keep them with her. In specific cases, she prayed for
a few members to die when they could not be stopped from
committing sin that would damn their souls forever. For instance,
two women fall sick by her prayers: one was flippantly boasting
about her physical beauty and another wanted to return to her
How could a woman become so celebrated when she prays for
people’s deaths? This may appear strange unless we see it within the
17th century Ethiopian monastic context and God’s Kalkidan. Once a
nun or monk takes the vow and is dead to the world, they cannot
return to the world of the flesh and the living. To break their vow is
to break the soul’s ties with God. This is the core of Woletta Petros’
struggle. As an Abbess, she would not allow any soul to return to
the world of the flesh and be forsaken. As shown above, God had
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
entrusted her to keep them for Him. When God revealed to her their
future, she would pray their body, the soul’s temporary shelter,
would perish rather than their souls. To keep their soul’s tie with
God, she had to break their soul’s tie with their body.
Often, she offered herself as a sacrifice for the sin of others, eating
ash and kosso (a bitter plant). As Jesus offered his pain and blood for
the souls of his followers, Woletta Petros’ likewise offered her pain
and suffering as a sacrifice for members of her community. This
extreme supplication for others’ souls echoes biblical traditions
where spiritual leaders ate or drunk bitter plants. The bitterness is a
reminder or expression of suffering, humility and sacrifice. For
example, God ordered the Israelites to eat the lamb with a bitter herb
(Exodus 12:8; Numbers 9:11). “I am nothing but dust and ashes,”
said Abraham (Genesis 18:27). “I sit in dust and ashes to show my
repentance,” said Job (42:6). Jesus tastes the hemlock and myrrh and
drunk the bitter cup which represented the sin of his people
(Matthew 20:22; John 18:11). Like Jesus, Woletta Petros suffered in
her body to absorb the sin of her flock. Her life was an embodiment
of extreme humility, self-mortification, and devotion. She slept on
the floor, walked without shoes, wore iron bracelets with sharp
points on her arms and ankles, and wore abrasive sack cloth under
her dress. She was the Abbess who swept the ashes from the oven.
She did all of this to save the souls – the pure doves and precious
glasses – that God entrusted to her.
Near the time of her death, the Virgin Mary came to Woletta Petros
and said, “እምፈቀድኩ አንሰ አዕርፍኪ እም ፃማ ዝንቱ ዓለም። ባህቱ አሕዘነኒ ብካዮሙ ዘዮም
ለደቂቅኪ ወለአዋልድኪ። ወበእንተዝ ኃደጉኪ ትንብሪ ሎሙ ኃዳጠ” (Galawdewos 17th
c, p. 115): “I wanted to give you rest from the sorrow of this world.
But I felt sad due to the cry of your sons and daughters. For their
sake, I left you to stay with them a little longer.” Here, we see Mary
saying she wished Woletta Petros to die, to have rest, but that she
left her for the sake of her followers. Shortly after this, Woletta Petros
died at the age of 50. On her deathbed, she called the priests to read
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
the monastic rules from the scriptures, reminding them to live by
them and follow Ehete Kristos as they had followed her. Thirty years
after her death, Galawdewos wrote her hagiography to inspire the
monastic community she left behind, as well as the laity of the
Ethiopian Tewahido Church. Today, centuries after her death, nuns
and monks still live by her legacy at the monasteries on Lake Tana.
Having offered an Ethiopian perspective on and context for Woletta
Petros’ life, I will now examine the interpretation offered by Belcher
and Kleiner in their translation of her hagiography and show how
misinterpretations have warped the important legacy of this African
holy woman.
Issues of Translation and Expertise
ገድለ ቅድስት ወለተ ጴጥሮስ (The Hagiography of Woletta Petros) has been
translated by Wendy Belcher and co-translator Michael Kleiner.
While Belcher has also made Woletta Petros the subject of many
articles and conference papers, this article focuses on The Life and
Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African
Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, published by Princeton University
Press, and a journal article based on this translation titled “Same-Sex
Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eros (1672):
Queer Reading an Ethiopian Woman Saint”. Belcher claims that
Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos were in a same-sex partnership
(though they remained celibate in keeping with their vows) and that
Woletta Petros felt desire upon seeing nuns being lustful with one
another. She has claimed that her translation is “one of the more
important academic findings in the history of same-sex desire in
Africa” (2016, p. 31).
Before proceeding with a detailed analysis of Belcher and Kleiner’s
translation and interpretation, it is important to note how this book
was translated. It involved a process of comparing multiple
manuscripts to examine discrepancies between the Ge’ez versions,
as well as a Conti Rossini version and Italian translation. They stress
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
repeatedly that their translation is as close to a literal translation as
possible: “Our translation is not a free literary rendition; it does not
take liberties with the Gəˁəz text but follows it closely” (2015, p. 66)
and “our translation is not a loose literary one, but as close to the
original as is possible in English” (Belcher 2016, p. 23). They also
explained that where they added words to make the translation
readable, they “have indicated these with square brackets” (Belcher
and Kleiner 2015, p. 67). It is important to note that Belcher does not
read or speak Ge’ez, so she relies on her co-translator Michael
Kleiner. She describes Kleiner as having, “excellent knowledge of
Gəˁəz and English (as well as many other languages) and a doctorate
in Ethiopian studies from the University of Hamburg, one of the
three leading centers of Ethiopian studies outside of Ethiopia” (2015,
p. xxiv).
As will be shown below, it is unclear how Kleiner could have made
so many simple errors if he has an excellent knowledge of Ge’ez,
especially if they were seeking to produce a translation that is as
close to the original as possible. It suggests that Kleiner, though he
may have knowledge of Ge’ez, does not have the fluency required
to translate a Ge’ez text with accuracy and nuance. Belcher also
refers to Wolf Leslau’s Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez.
I believe it is important to briefly explain my own positionality and
background in relation to this work. I came to examine it as an
Ethiopian scholar trained in both the traditional Ethiopian and
western education systems. I attended initial training in Ge’ez in the
traditional education system. At 16, I left my hometown Lalibela to
enter the Monastery of Daga Estifanos, a few kilometers from the
Monasteries of Woletta Petros. I experienced firsthand the ways of
monastic life: the long hours of fasting, prayer, and devotion. I never
made it past the Amekro stage, choosing to leave the monastery
before taking my vows.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
In 2019, I was granted sabbatical leave to conduct research into the
issue of knowledge grabbing and epistemic violence. I was
interested in how traditional Ethiopian scholars and students were
impacted by the loss of their manuscripts. I conducted fieldwork
and interviews at the traditional schools in Bahir Dar, Gondar and
Lalibela. I also travelled to western museums and institutions where
these manuscripts are held as artifacts and resources. Some of my
findings have been published in the article “‘Holding Living Bodies
in Graveyards’: The Violence of Keeping Ethiopian Manuscripts in
Western Institutions” (Woldeyes 2020).
During this research, I spoke with many traditional scholars in
Gondar and Bahir Dar about Woletta Petros and her hagiography. I
went to the Rema church at Lake Tana where I spoke with priests,
but I did not enter the Monastery where nuns continue to live by the
legacy of Woletta Petros as doing so is prohibited. Given that I do
not have access to the many manuscripts that Belcher and Kleiner
used in their work, I have opted to use the Ge’ez manuscript from
Lake Tana that Belcher suggests is the original manuscript by
Galawdewos. All of the Ge’ez quotes in this article about Woletta
Petros are taken from this manuscript, which Belcher digitized and
released on her profile. I have used the page numbers
Belcher inserted over each folio. I have also used a Ge’ez copy with
Amharic translations produced by the monastery.
While I have a good knowledge of Ge’ez, I do not claim to be an
expert because, according to Ethiopian tradition, one cannot become
an expert in Ge’ez without completing the proper training. In
Ethiopia, Ge’ez is not taught in the state-run school system, but in
the indigenous traditional school system. The Ge’ez language
requires at least five years of training at Qine Bet (The House of
Poetry) to understand it and another seven years to learn
interpretation using it in the special school of Tirguamme Bet (The
House of Interpretation). Ge’ez texts are written based on the
extensive literature the Ethiopian indigenous church scholars
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
developed since the 4th century. Their interpretation requires the
qualification of being መሪጌታ, Merigeta (lead scholar). Traditional
scholars cannot be recognized as an authority in Ge’ez translation
without this proper education and certification. Many western
orientalists view themselves as exempt from this African
requirement. Neither Belcher nor Kleiner have received any of this
training, and they have disregarded the testimony of local experts
who have. The entire traditional education system can last up to 30
years, after which, the learned scholar gains the title Arat Ayina,
“Four Eyed”, someone with the ability to see the past as well as the
Respecting the traditions of my homeland, I have checked all the
Ge’ez quoted in this article with traditionally trained scholars in
Ethiopia, as well as scholars currently living in Australia, Germany
and the USA. I did this for all the Ge’ez that appears here, even those
that I could myself read with confidence, to ensure that the proper
meanings and nuances were captured.
Interpreting Woletta Petros
The curious nature of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta
Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman
starts from the title. The use of the words “struggle” and
“biography” both desacralizes and secularizes the spiritual subject
of the book. The word “biography” secularizes the text to make it
responsive to non-spiritual themes. Belcher explains why she chose
the word “struggle”:
As one Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaədo Church priest said to me
privately, the Gəˁəz title for hagiographies is the word for “struggle”
(gädl)—which can only mean the struggle against temptation …
and Wälättä Pros herself struggled with desire (2016, p. 34).
Belcher inserts her own meaning into the information from the
priest, speculating that it “can only mean” the struggle against
temptation. While Belcher provides an account of the historical
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
background to Woletta Petros’ life, she does not use this in
interpreting the struggles that the saint endured, namely the
struggle against Catholicism and the struggle to save the souls of her
flock. By centering struggle with sexual desire in Woletta Petros’ life,
Belcher removes the spiritual and local context in which the saint
The main problem with the translation is not the title. Belcher’s
interpretation of the “Life and Struggles” of Woletta Petros depicts
colonialism’s stereotypical construction of black women’s sexuality
as an expression of a state of nature where pre-modern people
struggle with their violent and lascivious sexual drives. Woletta
Petros is invented as a black spiritual mother who desires her
publicly lustful young nuns, while wishing to murder them if they
are sleeping with the opposite sex.
No Ethiopian traditional scholar, including the monks and nuns
who guard Woletta Petros’ legacy at the Lake Tana Monasteries,
have arrived at this interpretation in their centuries of studying the
text. My own examination of the Ge’ez and the Amharic translations
of the text, as well as consultation with spiritual scholars trained in
Ge’ez and the interpretative practice of Tirguamme, cannot find
anything to suggest this interpretation. Belcher, despite not reading
or understanding Ge’ez or studying the monastic and cultural
context in detail,7 positions herself as the expert. This following
7 The failure to study the monastic context in detail can be seen in the lack
of references and discussions of Ethiopian sources and her overreliance
on western writers. For example, in the introduction to the translation,
which includes the 17th century historical context (2015, p 1- 10), there
is not a single reference to Ethiopian scholarly or local sources. The
introduction regarding “Täwaədo Church Monasticism” (2015, p. 13-
17) also does not include Ethiopian sources. Instead, it relies heavily on
a Masters Dissertation by Marta Camilla Wright which Belcher claims
is “the most important scholarly work” on the topic (2015, p. 16). The
entire bibliography shows a significant reliance on orientalist literature
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
analysis challenges Belcher’s interpretation. It is not my intention to
address every error in the translation. I also recognize the possibility
of mistakes and contamination in every translation. This paper will
therefore focus on the major issues around interpretation and the
larger claims that Belcher argues to be “important academic
“Marriage” Between Two Nuns
In Belcher’s interpretation, she argues that Woletta Petros and Ehete
Kristos are a same-sex couple. She argues that this union between
two nuns was arranged and sanctified by a priest. In the story,
Woletta Petros had left her brother’s home to become a nun, and was
living in disguise at Robeet. A priest called Aba Tsige Haymanot
heard the news and came to visit her. Belcher and Kleiner translate
the scene and their conversation as follows:
When he arrived there, he met with her and learned that she lived
alone. He said to her, ‘My child, how can you live alone without a
companion? This is not good for you.’ Our holy mother Walatta
Petros replied, ‘How do I do that? From where can I find a
companion who will live with me? Am I not a stranger in this town?’
He responded, ‘If you want, I myself will bring you one. There is a
fine woman named Eheta Kristos who, like you, left her husband
and home, became a nun, and now lives with her sister. This would
be good for both of you’ (2015, p. 113).
This translation seems fairly straightforward but there are some
subtle problems that are later used by Belcher to interpret this scene
as one where the priest is matchmaking Woletta Petros with Ehete
Kristos. For example, the Ge’ez text says “አንቲ ህጻን እፎ ትነብሪ ባህቲተኪ
ዘእንበለ ቢጽ”. Belcher and Kleiner translate this as “My child, how can
you live alone without a companion?” A more accurate translation
would be “you are young (like a child), how can you live without a
including those with racist and stereotypical views of Ethiopians, which
shall be discussed later.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
friend?” There are two issues with Belcher and Kleiner’s translation.
Firstly, the translation of ቢጽ is misleading. The Ge’ez word ቢጽ
means “friend” or “neighbor”, not “companion.” The word ቢጽ is
used to translate biblical references about “love your neighbor”.
አፍቅር ቢጸከ ከመ ነፍስከ” means “Love your neighbor as your soul or
yourself” (Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; Leviticus 19:18; Galatians
5:14). In English, the word “companion” can indicate a platonic
relationship, but it also relates to a sexual or romantic partner. The
word “companion” is not equivalent to ቢጽ, as the Ge’ez word does
not share the same double meaning. This may appear very minor
but, as will become clear, the word “companion” appears to have
been chosen to make the meaning closer to marriage.
Secondly, why did the priest say, “it is not good for you to live
without a friend”? The priest is following the biblical tradition of
care in spiritual journey where “two are better than one…If either of
them falls down, one can help the other up” (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10;
Proverbs 27:17). Moreover, examination of earlier passages offers an
explanation. Woletta Petros was a member of the highest class in
society, a noblewoman who abandoned her husband, stayed briefly
with her brother, and left in disguise to become a nun. When she left
home, she took maidservants: first three, later one. The last one
caused her trouble and left. For a noblewoman who was new to rural
life and whose family and relatives were hated for their conversion
to Catholicism, to be alone was not good. Until she starts her
monastic life, the society cannot see her as anything different from
her former noble background.
However, Belcher and Kleiner offer a different interpretation. In
their book, they state that, “someone starting off in the spiritual life
needs a guard on her virtue, to prevent against temptation” (2015,
p. 113). In her article, Belcher argues,
The puzzle is unraveled when we look at the abbot’s words more
closely—they are directly from the Bible and God’s rationale for
marriage. God created Eve for Adam because ‘It is not good for the
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ (Genesis 2:18).
This passage is recited twice in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaədo
marriage rite (Chaîne 266, 267, 274, 275). (2016, p. 24).
This interpretation is an absurd stretch, attempting to link God’s
creation of Eve for Adam to a priest suggesting that a woman early
in her spiritual journey should not be without a friend. Belcher
continues, claiming,
Like God, the abbot is a matchmaker, providing a life-mate suitable
for Wälättä P̣eros by introducing her to ‘a fine woman’ whose
‘character . . . is good’ (113, 114). By invoking the biblical language
of marriage, the author(s) represent the women’s relationship as a
holy and permanent partnership originating in the church. Thus, the
purpose of the anecdote in the text seems to be to give church
sanction to the women’s partnership (2016, p. 24).
This is a deliberate subversion of the text, one that is not even
present in the English translation Belcher and Kleiner provide. Even
within western marriage rites, where a couple stand before a priest
and take a vow, the priest’s suggestion that Woletta Petros needs a
friend does not constitute matchmaking or a marriage rite.
Furthermore, within the Ethiopian context, marriage by a priest is
officiated inside a church that has the replica of the Ark of the
Covenant, and involves the special marriage prayer called sereate
takilil, and the taking of holy communion by the couple. It is the holy
communion that make the uniting couples into one body, not the
mere presence of a priest. Moreover, Woletta Petros and Ehete
Kristos have left their husbands to become nuns but technically, they
are not divorcees. That means a priest would not perform the rite as
it violates the church’s rule of marriage.
Belcher does not claim that Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos
undergo a marriage rite. Rather, she claims that the “language” of
the priest and the subsequent meeting between the two indicate that
they become church-sanctioned companions similar to a marriage
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
and that the two felt romantic love for one another. Yet the words
used in the Ge’ez text do not support this interpretation.
Belcher and Kleiner translate what happened when the two nuns
first met:
As soon as our holy mother Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos saw
each other from afar, love was infused into both their hearts, love
for one another, and [approaching,] they exchanged the kiss of
greeting. Then they sat down and told each other stories [about the
workings] of God. There was no fear or mistrust between them.
They were like people who had known each other beforehand
because the Holy Spirit united them (2015, p. 115).
According to Belcher, this “description of their first encounter is
rapturous” (2016, p. 39). One of the Ge’ez scholars I consulted said
that the Ge’ez text provides a spiritual purpose for the meeting of
these two messengers of God. Woletta Petros was a woman from the
court, Ehete Kristos was a woman from the country. In the same way
God prepared Aron to help Moses in his struggle to free the
Israelites from the Pharaoh’s rule, God prepared Ehete Kristos to
help Woletta Petros in her struggle to free Ethiopians from
Catholicism. It was God who poured love into their hearts.
In their translation, Belcher and Kleiner dramatize the scene using
two keywords Belcher later uses to eroticize the meeting: “kiss” and
“infused”. The Ge’ez word ተሰዓማ (“to exchange the kiss of greeting”)
is not in the text. The word “kiss” is further inserted into the English
translation whenever the nuns greet each other. For example, when
Ehete Kristos meets Woletta Petros after exile, the Ge’ez text says
ወተራከበት ምስሌሃ ወተአምኀታ” which means “she found her and greeted
her”. The Amharic translation for ወተአምኀታ is እጅ ነሳቻት (greeting by
bowing the head). Belcher and Kleiner add the word “kiss” to
romanticize the reunion. They write, “Eheta Kristos found her and
kissed her in greeting” (2015, p. 165). The reason why the word
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
“kiss” is added in the translation becomes clear when one reads
Belcher’s article. Of the initial meeting, Belcher argues:
The unusually ecstatic language of this passage is itself a sensual
marker. Then, all Ethiopians kiss close friends of either sex on the
cheeks, so the kiss was not sexual, but these two women were
strangers. They would not normally greet a stranger in such a way
on first meeting, so the author(s) seem to be suggesting a somatic
pull. Also, their feelings for each other occurred instantaneously
upon seeing each other (upon the gaze, their sight of each other’s
bodies), not later upon getting to know each other. The author(s)
depict Wälättä P̣eros and Eətä Krəstos as closely connected
physically, looking at and being invested in the other’s body (2016,
p. 26).
The statement that Ethiopians do not kiss strangers in greeting is
untrue. However, this is irrelevant given the insertion of the word
kiss, which does not appear in the Ge’ez. When “ወተአምሃ በበይናቲሆን
is translated as “they exchanged the kiss of greeting”, kiss is a
deliberate insertion to romanticize the meeting. “ወተአምሃ በበይናቲሆን
is a form of greeting exchanged by bowing one’s head, and does not
involve intimate hugging or kissing. Any Ethiopian who goes to the
Tewahido church can hear this during the Holy Mass when the
Deacon sings “ተኣምኁ በበይናቲክሙ”: the exact similar phrase in plural,
meaning “greet with one another”. Attendants of the Mass bow their
heads and greet the people around them singing, “እግዚአብሄር አምላክነ
ይደልወነ ከመ ንትአመን በበይናቲነ”: “May God our Lord enable us to greet
one another.” Belcher does not refer to this tradition, but it is this
tradition and context in which Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos
meet and become friends.
The other keyword “infused” is also taken out of context to suggest
a sudden attraction upon seeing each other’s bodies. The Ge’ez
author is writing in a spiritual context relating Woletta Petros and
Ehete Kristos’ love for each other as the work of the Holy Spirit, not
as a physical or earthly love. ተሰውጠ (“infused”) refers to the pouring
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
of something. In other spiritual texts, it is used to express a divine
gift, the pouring out of God’s love or spirit. It is used in Joel 2:28:
እምነ መንፈስየ ዲበ ኩሉ ዘሥጋ”: “I will pour out my Spirit on all
flesh”. Even in the manuscript Belcher suggests is the original, the
word is used in a sentence that explains how the smoke of the myrrh
poured into Woletta Petros’ body: “ወእምውእቱ ማዕጠንት ወፅአ ጢስ እጣን
ፀዓዳ በአምሳለ በረድ ወመልአ በአፉየ
ውስተ ከርስየ” (Galawdewos 17th c,
p. 114): “From the thurible, the smoke of the myrrh came out like a
cloud and it filled my mouth and poured into my stomach”. The
author of Woletta Petros’ hagiography is providing a spiritual
context where the word ተሰውጠ is used to express how the Holy Spirit
poured love into their hearts, suggesting that the friendship is
spiritual, not romantic. When Ge’ez authors want to express
romantic connection where the feeling of bodily love springs from
the body (not poured into it from the Divine), they often use words
such as “ተነድፈ”, “to be pierced with the emotion of love”: like “እስመ
ንድፍት አነ በፍቅሩ”: “for I am pierced by his love” (Songs 5:8). This
phrase is missing from the first meeting or from any subsequent
encounters between Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos.
The Sexual Misinterpretation of Soul and Body
Even when reading Belcher and Kleiner’s translation, the scene itself
does not suggest a rapturous meeting where two women fall in love
with one another and undergo a church-sanctioned union. Readers
of the English translation would no doubt find such an
interpretation baffling without the added speculation that Belcher
provides in her article. One such interpretation is the reading of
Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos as being of one “body and soul”.
Belcher and Kleiner translate that after meeting, the two nuns lived
“in mutual love, like soul and body. From that day onward, the two
did not separate, neither in times of tribulation and persecution nor
in those of tranquillity, but only in death” (2015, p. 116). In her
analysis, Belcher romanticizes the metaphor “soul and body”. She
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
The language of the passage is that of marriage vows. In the
Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaədo marriage rite, the priest asks God to
make the couple ‘one in body and soul’ (Chaîne 258, 259). Likewise,
the author(s) write that the two women constitute such a singularity
because their ‘love’ is that of the ‘body’ and the ‘soul’ for each other;
that is, together they make a unified whole in a perfect melding, two
alterities who need each other to be complete. They are not two
souls together, but two bodies and two souls that make up one
being. In this way, the author(s) make clear that the women had an
exclusive life-long partnership (2016, p. 26).
In this interpretation, Belcher highlights the act of becoming “one in
body and soul” in marriage but ignores the text’s own references to
how nuns and monks in the monastic community become “one in
body and soul”. Belcher and Kleiner translate passages about the
monastic community that read: “There were no strangers there and
no kin; rather, all were equal, of a single heart and of a single soul
while Christ was in their midst” (2015, p. 209) and “the members of
her community embraced one another in love, like soul and body,
brother with brother and sister with sister” (2015, p. 212).
In the monastic context, “soul and body” expresses harmony,
proportionality, mutual coexistence, and community. The monastic
world is sacred, and the people are not separate individuals but
communed and interconnected beings, forming the body of the
heavenly city who is wedded to the slaughtered Lamb Jesus.
Ethiopian monastic scriptures and rules underscore this reading.
They declare that nuns and monks live like a single person, a single
joined soul and body. The Fetha Nagast dictates six rules that monks
and nuns must follow throughout their lives. One of these rules
Monks [and nuns] shall live as a single soul, … and shall have one
thought only in their bodies. Even if they are many in body, their
chief is only one, namely God, Who unites [them into] this single
soul, which is made one by the bond of love. Each one of them lives
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
not only for himself [or herself], not one for another, to please God.
They serve [one another] equally and voluntarily, as a result of
which peace reigns among them. Each one takes the work of the
other and there is none among them who suffers injustice.
Therefore, they inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Their mind is
united in perfect obedience, and they live as they will in the life
which will come at the end of time (Tzadua 1968, p. 72).
This principle applies to all monasteries. The dissolution of many
bodies and souls into one soul and body, an everlasting
companionship among faithful followers, however strange it may
seem to the western gaze, is a reflection of the divine gift that unites
monks and nuns in Ethiopia. As the Fetha Nagast states, “monks [and
nuns] have no power over themselves, to detach themselves from
their like of spiritual fraternity, just as the natural unity of the parts
of the body cannot be dissolved except by death” (Tzadua 1968, p.
72). They are one, like soul and body, in this life and the afterlife.
This understanding of “body and soul” is clear in the text, as stated
above in Belcher and Kleiner’s own translations.
It is unclear why Belcher chose to interpret one instance of “body
and soul” as a marriage-like union, but not others. As demonstrated
in the previous section, there is no rapturous meeting to suggest
romance, with the Ge’ez words suggesting that God brings the nuns
together in a similar way that he brings the members of the monastic
community together. The nature of the bond between Woletta Petros
and Ehete Kristos is further emphasized in the text when it states:
ወኮና በኲሉ መዋዕለ ሕይወቶን ለወለተ ጴጥሮስ ወእኅተ ክርስቶስ ከመ እግዝእትነ ማርያም
ወከመ ሰሎሜ” (Galawdewos 17th c, p. 51-52): “for the remainder of
their lives Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos became like Our Lady
[Virgin Mary] and Solome [Mary’s sister].” Belcher and Kleiner
translates this in a similar fashion as, “Throughout their entire lives,
Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos were like our Lady Mary and
Salome” (2015, p. 157). In a footnote, they note that Solome was the
sister of Mary and the aunt of Jesus. The deeply spiritual and sisterly
love between Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos, likened to the bond
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
between the Virgin Mary and her sister, is clearly platonic.
Furthermore, the Ge’ez text provides how Woletta Petros started to
live with Ehete Kristos and other nuns after taking her vow:
ወሀለዋ ምስሌሀ አህተ ክርስቶስ ወወለተ ጳውሎስ ወለቱ ለአትናቴወስ ወሰናየ ኮነ ተራክቦቶን
ወንብረቶን ህቡረ በህየ በከመ ይቤ ዳዊት ሣህል ወርትዕ ተራከባ ጽድቅ ወሰላም ተሰዓማ ናሁ
ሠናይ ወናሁ ኣዳም ሶበ ይሄልዋ አኃት ኅቡረ (Galawdewos 17th c, p. 24).
Ehete Kristos and Woletta Pawulos, daughter of Atnatewos, lived
with Woletta Petros. As David said, ‘Behold, how good and how
pleasant it is for sisters to dwell together in unity.’
Here, the Ge’ez text replaces the Bible’s verse “how pleasant it is for
brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1) with “how
pleasant it is for sisters to dwell together in unity”, showing an
Ethiopian Tewahido church viewpoint on female and male
spirituality. In the Ge’ez text, Ehete Kristos, like all the other nuns,
addresses Woletta Petros as “Mother”. Belcher herself appears
aware of this, and that much of her interpretation relies on
speculation. She concedes that without a later anecdote about lustful
nuns, “Wälättä Pros and Eətä Krəstos have an exemplary female
friendship” (2016, p. 34-35). It is this anecdote that shall be the focus
in the next section.
The Scene of the Lustful Nuns
Woletta Petros is uncompromisingly dedicated to her flock and to
the ideals of monastic life. She expects her followers to adhere to the
strict monastic rules, and feels distraught when they do not follow
them. For Woletta Petros, the worst thing that can happen to a
person is not death, but the loss of one’s soul to the Devil. Often,
death is welcome if it ensures one’s entrance into heaven.
Belcher and Kleiner’s translation turns this spiritual zeal into
violence and sexual longing. In the translation, they invent a chapter
title: “Our Mother Sees Nuns Lusting after Each Other” (2015, p.
254). The original Ge’ez text does not have chapters or chapter titles,
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
so this is an invention. The anecdote in this chapter includes a
conversation between Woletta Petros and a Priest Monk Aba
Zahawariyat. The priest compels her to tell him why God has caused
many deaths among her flock. In this conversation, Belcher and
Kleiner translates Woletta Petros’ reply as follows:
Since you compel me, listen up and let me tell you. It was evening
and I was sitting in the house, facing the gate, when I saw some
young nuns8 pressing against each other and being lustful with each
other, each with a female companion. Therefore, my heart caught
fire and I began to argue with God, saying to him, ‘Did you put me
[here] to show me this? I now pray and beg you to relieve me of the
goods that you have entrusted to me. Or else take my life! I prefer
perishing to seeing these [sinful] daughters of mine perish [for
eternity]’ (2015, p. 255).
Belcher claims that in the above quote lies “one of the more
important academic findings in the history of same-sex desire in
Africa” (2016, p. 31). It is therefore important to examine the Ge’ez
closely. She translates “እንዘ . . . ይትማርዓበበይናቲሆን” as “being lustful
with each other”. The word of contention here is ይትማርዓ, or yitmarea.
To support her translation, Belcher uses Leslau’s dictionary where
she identifies two possible root words: መርዐ (marea) which according
to Leslau means “be lascivious, be lustful, be dissolute, be licentious,
be debauched, enjoy venereal pleasure” and መርሓ (mareha) which
8 The text does not say Woletta Petros saw “young nuns”. It says ርኢክዎን
አነ ለደናግል which literally means “I saw virgins”. As shown earlier in
the Fetha Nagast, there is a big difference between ደናግል (“virgins”,
novices) who have not taken their vows, and መነኮሳይት (nuns) who have.
Belcher and Kleiner inaccurately blur the difference between the two
by making age (young nuns vs. older nuns) the basis of the difference
between the two groups (2015 p. 15). This is an example of poor
translation or a failure to understand the difference between these two
stages of monastic life. However, while the two stages are very
different, it should be noted that novices were expected to strictly
adhere to the rules of monastic life while living in the monastery.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Leslau defines as “lead, guide, show (the way), prove” (qtd. in 2016,
p. 33).
Here, Belcher presumes the word with the sexual connotation
should be the correct root word and picks it. She declares that,
“according to the Gəˁəz-English dictionaries, [m-r-ˁ (መርዐ)] is
unequivocally sexual” (2016, p. 33). Unfortunately, this is a sign of a
poor understanding of the Ge’ez language. Depending on the
context, the meaning of the word marea (መርዐ) varies. The context in
which it is used renders meaning to it. In a monastery, church and
other spiritual contexts, the non-sexual meaning is always present.
In trying to understand the meaning based on its context, I
investigated how Ethiopian Ge’ez dictionaries (ሰዋሰው) translated the
word. There are four different meanings from well-known Ge’ez to
Amharic dictionaries. I cite here from መጽሐፈ ሰዋሰው (Metsehafe
- merea, ሰርግ፣ ሙሽራ = wedding, or bride or bridegroom.
The verb form is ተመርዐወ (te-merea-wo) means ተዳረ፣ ተሞሸረ = to
be wedded or to be beautified like a bride or groom (1963 et.c,
p. 158).
- merea, ጠወረ = to support an elderly person till he/she
dies (1963 et.c, p. 150).
- merea, ተዳራ = to behave adulterously (1963 et.c, p. 150).
- merea, አንድነት ግቢ = a compound or gathering area (1963
et.c, p. 153).9
Clearly, the meaning of the word depends on the context and the
context does not support Belcher’s interpretation. A scholar of
Tirguamme, interpretation, explained that in Ge’ez, it is common to
express the gravity of sins using metaphors. For instance, ሐሜት,
when two or more persons are gossiping, they are described as
committing cannibalism: የሰው ስጋ መብላት (yesew siga meblat) which
9 Some believe this book was originally written and published by Aleka
Taye in 1889. Tesfa Gebra Selassie republished it in 1963.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
literally means “eating human flesh”. Likewise, adultery is also used
to describe several instances of non-sexual sin. አፍቅሮተ ንዋይ, the love
of money, and ባእድ ኣምልኮ, worshipping another god, are common
examples. In fact, in a monastery where the scripture is strictly
followed and nuns and monks are regarded as dead to the world,
adultery is broadly defined as showing any form of love or lust for
this world. Monastic people strictly follow the scripture which says,
“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the
eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from
the world” (1 John 2:15-17). Likewise, in the book of James (4:4-5),
friendship with the world is regarded as adultery: “You
adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is
hostility toward God?” Adultery is used to describe sin in all of these
cases because the community as members of the church or heavenly
Jerusalem are “married” to Christ, as described in the Bible multiple
times (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34). Woletta Petros’ use of
the word and her reaction is consistent with Paul’s reaction in 2
Corinthians 11:2 “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for
I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a
chaste virgin to Christ”.
Since the scripture uses “wedding”, “love” and even “adultery” in a
spiritual context (as how Paul compares the union of husband and
wife to Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5:22-23), it is not the
word but the spiritual context that defines the meaning. Among the
manuscripts that Belcher and Kleiner examine, they note
discrepancies with the words used in this scene. Understanding the
above contexts explains why the manuscripts vary in using the word
merea (to behave adulterously) and merha (to lead in a game)
interchangeably as the essential meaning of both is the same: to
show love or friendship to this world, rather than the spiritual one.
Further evidence for this can be drawn from a similar reaction
Woletta Petros expressed to a nun who was boastful and proud of
her beauty. As will be discussed later, the action of the proud nun
was adulterous and Woletta Petros was enraged by her.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
According to the local scholars, one of the obvious reasons why one
has to follow this non-sexual interpretation of the word merea is by
looking at where the young novices were during the act. They were
openly visible to anyone in the monastery including their spiritual
Mother Woletta Petros. Hanging out and pushing each other in a
game in this case could be described as መዳራት, to behave
adulterously from a chaste life with Christ. It appears that Belcher
senses the importance of context but instead of following how the
text presents the spiritual context, she changes the context by
describing it as “a sexualized environment” (2016, p. 35). This
demonstrates why the school of Tirguamme (translation and
interpretation) is seen as a requirement to accurately interpret Ge’ez
texts. These examples and the testimony of the scholars clearly show
that in this context the word marea (መርዐ) does not have an
“unequivocally sexual” meaning.
In explaining the discrepancies between manuscripts, Belcher
reasons that in the 17th century, Ge’ez scholars must have had
difficulty knowing how to express female sexuality:
Perhaps Gälawdewos or Zä-awaryat did not have ready language
to describe women being sexual with one another and coined a
form, which a later scribe then assumed was an error and
consciously corrected. This would be something like an English
speaker coming across ‘she magnetized him’ and assuming it was a
mistake and changing it to ‘she magnified him,’ with neither being
particularly idiomatic (2016, p. 33).
If Belcher is unsure about the meaning of this crucial word and refers
to how English translators could mistranslate words, one may ask
why Ethiopian Ge’ez scholars were not consulted to verify the
accuracy of her translation. What is most concerning here is that she
did ask them, but she chose to disregard them. In the book, she
explains how she sought the assistance of Selamawit Mecca, her
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Ethiopian informant who is neither a follower of the Ethiopian
Orthodox Church nor has expertise in Ge’ez:
I decided to ask various experts what they thought of the passage
while I was in Ethiopia. Before we got started, however, Selamawit
warned me that if I told traditional Ethiopian scholars what I
thought the anecdote actually said, they would just politely agree
with me, telling me what I wanted to hear. Or, given the sensitivity
of the issue of same-sex desire in Ethiopia, my mere presence as an
American might skew the answer. I was grateful for her impeccable
field methodology. 10 So she and I parted and asked Ethiopian
scholars about the passage without hinting at our own thoughts. We
separately showed the Conti Rossini print edition passage to several
older Ethiopian male scholars. They all said that the two nuns were
not pushing each other around but following each other in a game,
being frivolous. Sound philological principles backed their
understanding of the passage, but playing tag hardly seemed to
warrant a deadly disease (2015, p. xxviii-xxx).
There is a lot to unpack here. The translation of “following each
other in a game, being frivolous” (2015, p. xxx) aligns with the
testimony I received from the numerous scholars I interviewed.
However, Belcher rules that this testimony is false because she does
not understand why frivolity would “warrant a deadly disease”
(2015, p. xxx). She applies her own western lens to her interpretation
of the book rather than seeking to understand how frivolity would
be understood in an Ethiopian monastic context. I appreciate that to
western audiences not familiar with Ethiopian monasticism, this
may indeed seem like an extreme reaction. However, it is important
to view the text within its 17th century Ethiopian monastic context,
10 This methodology seems to have been invented on the spot, suggesting
the lack of prior ethics approval for interviewing without full
disclosure. In my university, gathering information without obtaining
full and informed consent or without obtaining approval from the
academic ethics committee justifying minimal disclosure based on
compelling exceptions demonstrates ethically questionable practice.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
not within a western context in which it has never operated. Given
monks and nuns are “dead to this world” and “living as if already
in heaven”, forming the soul and body of the bride city of God, to
break monastic rules is akin to breaking the sacred communion with
Heaven. In short, it is a way towards damnation.
Since local Ge’ez experts do not provide the answer Belcher wants,
she disregards their testimony. Instead, she turns to someone else:
Selamawit recommended we approach a different type of scholar, a
young former monk for whom she had tremendous respect. aylä
əyon had grown up in the Täwaədo church but had left it, so he
had the scholarly background necessary to read the anecdote with
skill but also the distance to read it openly. aylä əyon took one
look at the anecdote and immediately said that it was about same-
sex desire (2015, p. xxx).
It is remarkable that Belcher has pinned her entire analysis on a
young former monk whose training in Ge’ez, if any, is not disclosed.
She has disregarded many local experts, many of whom train for
decades in order to fully understand and interpret Ge’ez, for a single
monk who left the order. Like Seyon, I grew up in the church and
entered, but then left, the monastery. My knowledge of Ge’ez,
alongside my consultation with local experts (and, indeed, Belcher’s
own consultation with local experts), does not confer with his
What we see here is the white scholar situating herself as the only
objective judge of black people’s history. Black experts who do not
confirm her analysis are replaced by those who do, regardless as to
their lack of expertise. As a result of this, Belcher discards all
ambiguities surrounding the meaning of the word marea (መርዐ),
including how it operates in spiritual contexts.
After translating “እንዘ . . . ይትማርዓ በበይናቲሆን” as “being lustful with
each other” (2015, p. 255), Belcher introduces further changes to
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
intensify the erotic meaning of the scene. For example, she and
Kleiner translate the phrase “አሃቲ ምስለ አሃቲ” which literally means
“one with another” to mean “with a female companion”. The word
“companion”, again, has the double meaning that means it can also
be romantic or sexual. They also add in brackets the word “[sinful]”
which does not exist in the Ge’ez text. In her article, Belcher goes on
to further elaborate what Woletta Petros might have seen the young
novices doing: “kissing, caressing and pressing against each other”
(2016, p. 37). In the text, there is no mention of kissing or caressing.
This is Belcher’s speculation.
Belcher also translates yitgafaa, the word preceding yitmarea, with a
sensual connotation, as “pressing against each other”. This is
inaccurate. The root word for yitgafaa is gefaa (ገፍአ). When translated
into Amharic the last letter is dropped and becomes ገፋ. This
literally means “to push”. This phrase “እንዘ . . . ይትጋፍአዓ በበይናቲሆን
means “pushing one another”. It is a simple frivolity I myself grew
up playing with my friends. Not a single scholar I interviewed in
Ethiopia considers Belcher’s translation accurate. The text simply
suggests that the young novices Woletta Petros saw in the field were
being frivolous, playing a game. Belcher does not understand why
this is a serious cause of sorrow for Woletta Petros unless sexual sin
was involved.
As mentioned above, there are discrepancies between manuscripts.
Belcher claims that 10 manuscripts contain the word “m-r-ˁ”, and
that Kleiner suggests that the changed manuscripts amount to
censorship (2016, p. 33). If the meaning of the phrase “እንዘይትማርዓ
በበይናቲሆን” had a sexual meaning that later Ethiopian scribes would
seek to alter, especially given the contentious issue of same-sex
desire in Ethiopian politics, as Belcher notes, one would presume
that the word would be completely removed from modern
reproductions of the text. However, this is not the case. When I
travelled to the Lake Tana’s Rema Monastery in 2019, I bought a
copy of the Ge’ez manuscript Belcher and Kleiner translated with a
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
side by side Amharic translation. These copies are not in English, so
they are purely produced for Ethiopian visitors to the monastery. In
this current edition, the Ge’ez phrase “እንዘ ይትጋፍዓ ወይትማርዓ በበይናቲሆን
still exists today (See Appendix 1). The Ge’ez words are translated
into Amharic as “ሲጋፉና ሲላፉ” which means “playing frivolously by
pushing each other.” If the Ge’ez word has a same-sex connotation
as Belcher claims, it is inconceivable how the monastery would still
reproduce these words now and distribute it to anyone given that,
as Belcher states in her article, the administration of today’s
Ethiopian church does not support same-sex relations (2016, p. 40).
If Belcher continues to claim that the word means lustful when it is
still being reproduced in an environment where such a scene would
be viewed negatively, she is essentially saying that the monks and
nuns who reproduce the book do not know what it means. She is
situating herself above the people she is writing about, relying on
racist stereotypes that black people are so ignorant that they do not
know or understand their own books and history, and they need a
white woman who cannot speak the language to decode it for them.
“My Heart Caught Fire”: Woletta Petros as a Lustful Nun
As discussed, the above scene depicts novices frivolously
disregarding monastic rules and Woletta Petros responding with
despair, as she believes the only way to go to heaven is to live a
strictly devoted life. Her dedication to her followers is so strong that
she would rather die than see these women go to hell. This scene is
one of many that shows Woletta Petros’ love towards her followers,
as well as the uniquely strict spiritual rules of isolation and silence
that apply to all the people who live in monasteries.
However, Belcher needs this scene to depict lustful nuns as the Ge’ez
text shows no evidence of sexual intimacy or desire. Even after
Belcher invented Woletta Petros and Ehete Kristos as “exclusive
partners through thick-and-thin, a type of married couple” (2016, p.
27) who are “closely connected physically...and being invested in the
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
other’s body” (2016, p. 26), the text deprives Belcher of evidence of
a romantic life between the two. As quoted earlier, Belcher
recognizes this and says that, “without this anecdote, Wälättä Pros
and Eətä Krəstos have an exemplary female friendship” (2016, p.
Furthermore, Ehete Kristos does not appear in the text as much as
would be expected for a life-partner. Belcher senses this as a problem
and asks, “why does Eətä Krəstos fall out of the text?” (2016, p. 37).
She suspects “they [the authors] are trying to hint to careful readers
that Eətä Krəstos was part of the problem, that she had to be
banished if Wälättä Pros was to avoid stains on her soul before her
death” (2016, p. 37). This speculation is at odds with Belcher’s
previous assertion that the arranged partnership between the two
was holy and proper, sanctified by a priest and God. Belcher also
speculates that Woletta Petros’ same-sex partner was being
promiscuous: “perhaps an unnamed Eətä Krəstos was one of the
lustful nuns whom Wälättä Pros saw that day” (2016, p. 37). She
insists that her readers should focus on the scene of the lustful nuns
in order to understand what is happening to Woletta Petros. Belcher
reinvents this scene as a place and time where Woletta Petros
discovers a new meaning for her own sexual identity. She
Thus, if Wälättä Pros had been kissing, caressing, and pressing
against Eətä Krəstos, she may have thought nothing of it until she
saw other women doing the same. The reason the saint had such an
intense affective response—confusedly calling out for the nuns’
death and then her own and then allowing yet more women to be
brought in to solve the problem—is because her own behavior had
been illuminated. She suddenly knew herself as a woman who
wanted women, who had been in denial about what she was doing,
and who was terrified (2016, p. 37).
It is remarkable that Belcher, from a misinterpreted word, can
interpret Woletta Petros’ despair at nuns disobeying monastic rules
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
as being a sudden realization of her own sexual identity and desire.
Since the Ge’ez text provides no evidence of Woletta Petros being
lustful, Belcher refers her readers to go back to the scene of lustful
nuns and read the second sentence in the conversation between
Woletta Petros and the priest:
Therefore, my heart caught fire and I began to argue with God,
saying to him, ‘Did you put me [here] to show me this? I now pray
and beg you to relieve me of the goods that you have entrusted to
me. Or else take my life! I prefer perishing to seeing these [sinful]
daughters of mine perish [for eternity]’ (2015, p. 255).
When I asked Ge’ez scholars, particularly those trained in the art of
interpretation, how I should read “my heart caught fire”, all of them
explained that Woletta Petros was enraged or distraught. This is ቅዱስ
ቁጣ, holy anger, with fire representing the Holy Spirit. None of them
suggested desire.
In an attempt to justify her interpretation, Belcher found it useful to
exploit a traditional Ethiopian practice called samena worq which
literally means “wax and gold”. It is an indigenous method of
interpreting riddles and texts, as well as an Ethiopian literary system
and interpretative philosophy (Girma 2011). The wax is the literal
meaning of the word and the gold is the hidden meaning. Ethiopians
with excellent linguistic and cultural knowledge test each other to
find the gold that is hidden within the wax, the gold being the
message in a word, poem, or text. Belcher seeks to apply samena worq
to find meaning for the phrase “my heart caught fire”.
Tragic violence against culture occurs through removing its
meanings from its contexts, through corrupting its most beautiful
and creative legacy to attack itself, and rendering into its creative
core narratives of barbarism, sensuality and irrationality. Belcher
seeks to apply samena worq to sexualize the life of Woletta Petros, so
she presents the core of this Ethiopian indigenous method of
creative exchange as sexual. She writes, “a common aspect of säm-
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
ənna wärq is a surface religious meaning with a hidden sexual
meaning” (2016, p. 34). Belcher claims her informant Hayla Seyon,
the former monk, told her “my heart caught fire” is an example of
samena worq:
On the surface, it expresses her [Woletta Petros’] anger against God
for showing her this scene, but the words chosen also suggest that
she is angry because she felt desire upon looking at the scene (2015,
p. 255).
In Belcher’s analysis, fire has a double meaning: anger and sexual
desire. In Ethiopia, fire as a metaphor can be interpreted in many
ways. In everyday life, fire has numerous meanings. For example,
እሳት የበላ፣ “someone who ate fire” could mean “brave”; እሳት የላሰ
“someone who licks fire” could mean “fearless”; እሳት እራት , could
mean “a dinner of fire”, the name of an insect that runs to fire (like
a moth) or a person who takes a dangerous risk. In the church, it
symbolizes divine anger (Ephesians 4:26) or the Holy Spirit. In the
latter case, church scholars referred me to Luke 24:32. The phrase “ነደ
ልብየ”, “my heart burned” (according to Belcher and Kleiner, “my
heart caught fire”) is used in the plural by people whom Jesus was
talking to without revealing himself. As in all cases, context is
everything. Even if sexual meaning may be conveyed in samena worq,
this occurs only in relation to texts that involve non-spiritual
matters, not in spiritual books like Woletta Petros’ hagiography.
However, Belcher uses samena worq to interpret the scene thusly:
Thus, on the surface, in the wax layer, the author(s)’ metaphor about
a heart ‘catching fire’ or ‘flaring up’ expresses the saint’s anger
against God for showing her this sinful scene. Underneath, in the
hidden gold layer, the author(s)’ fiery verb suggests that Wälättä
Pros was angry because she felt desire upon looking at the scene.
That is, seeing women being sexual with one another made her
heart burn with desire (2016, p. 34).
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Once she claimed to have discovered the “gold” of the text, she
moves on to invent a bizarre mix of divine intervention through
black slaves and death. She writes, “upon her crying out to God
upon witnessing this scene, God immediately appeared, promising
to fulfill her ‘wish’” (2016, p. 35). Belcher creates two wishes for
Woletta Petros by treating “fire” as samena worq: a sexual wish
(desire as the gold for fire) and the wish to die (anger as the wax for
fire). Belcher writes that God “delivers to her ‘seven black
maidservants, namely, six strong young women in their prime and
one elder woman’” (2016, p. 35). Belcher writes, “God instructed
Wälättä Pros to have these women ‘carry out your wishes’ by
assigning each of the six young women to each of the lustful nuns
and keeping the elder woman with herself” (2016, p. 35). Although
Belcher does not make clear which of the two “wishes” were met by
the seven maidservants, her dramatic narrative does not exclude the
possibility of the fulfillment of both wishes. She writes, “the six
young maidservants are grim reapers assigned to kill the six lustful
young nuns” (2016, p. 36) but also renders God’s action as strange
and exotic:
The queerness of this anecdote reaches its apotheosis here, when
God sends beautiful young women to take care of women-desiring
women. Is it some type of joke: the women being desirable young
servants who were more appropriate sexual companions for the
nuns than their peers? (2016, p. 35).
Belcher’s interpretation leaves the scene inexplicable, bizarre, and
meaningless. This is a core element of racist constructions of African
spirituality, the voodooization of African beliefs, with strangeness
being its unique quality. She concludes that the “excess of the
metaphor suggests that content is being hidden” (2016, p. 35) and
that the hidden “gold” in this metaphor is that Woletta Petros was
also a lustful nun:
The author(s) inform us in the next anecdote that Wälättä Pros
herself fell sick and died not long after, presumably carried off by
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
the elderly maidservant God assigned. (In metaphorical terms, the
strong young maidservants killed six quickly, while the weak
elderly maidservant killed one slowly.) Despite her plea that she or
the lustful nuns perish, all died. That is, the author(s) hint, Wälättä
Pros was one of the lustful nuns who had to pay the ultimate price
(2016, p. 36).
This is how Belcher decided to end the character she invented using
the Hagiography of Woletta Petros. This is not reflected in the Ge’ez
text. Woletta Petros dies much later after the sexualized anecdote.
This interpretation, as detailed above, is the result of continually
taking the text out of context. A more likely interpretation was
offered by a scholar who told me that the seven maidservants were
sent to look after Woletta Petros’ seven monasteries.
Belcher extends her interpretation towards the entirety of Woletta
Petros’ flock, classifying the monastery as “a sexualized
environment” (2016, p. 35). For example, in the section where
Woletta Petros requires nuns and monks not to go out of the
monastery alone but in pairs, Belcher and Kleiner provide a sexual
rationale for this rule and explains why a previous Italian translation
“not to go out singly alone” was wrong:
Furthermore, our blessed mother Walatta Petros imposed a rule on
the brothers and sisters that they should not go out one with one
alone, but rather in pairs of twos … Here our translation differs
substantively from Ricci’s, who takes the first part of this phrase to
mean that they should not go out singly alone (non . . . ognuno a solo,
ma a due a due), thereby obscuring the sexual point of the rule (2015,
p. 212).
Although the translation of monks and nuns having to go out in
pairs is correct, to imply that there is a hidden sexual point to this is
their own speculation. Alongside the scene of the lustful nuns, they
insert the world “flirt” into the text when it does not appear in the
Ge’ez. In one passage, Woletta Petros tells members of her
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
community not to speak with each other, except in prayer. The Ge’ez
in the text says “ከመ ኢይዛውዑ በበይናቲሆሙ”. This means “they should
not speak with one another”. A church scholar informed me that
these rules are not unique inventions, but are drawn from biblical
verses (such as Luke 10:1; Mark 6:7; Ephesians 5:4; Ecclesiastes 5:6;
Proverbs 18:8; Romans 12:2) and incorporated into the monastic
tradition for implementation without compromise. Belcher and
Kleiner translates “ከመ ኢይዛውዑ በበይናቲሆሙ”, “they should not speak
with one another” as “they should not talk and flirt with each other”
(2015, p. 204). The insertion of “flirt” is deliberate to construct life in
the monastery as a constant struggle with sexual desire.
In another anecdote, Belcher and Kleiner insert “flirt” to construct
Woletta Petros as having visceral reactions towards heterosexual
sex. The Ge’ez text says “እመ ርኢኩ በዓይንየ መነኮስ ወመነኮሳይት እንዘ ይዛውኡ
በበይናቲሆሙ እምፈቀድኩ ረጊዞቶሙ በረምሕ ሕቡረ ለክልኤሆሙ” (Galawdewos, 17th
c, p. 81). They translated this as “If with my own eyes I should see a
monk and a nun talking and flirting with each other, I would want
to jointly pierce them through, both of them, with a spear” (2015, p.
205). Flirting is not equivalent to the Geez word ይዛውዑ, which means
talking. Again, the insertion of “flirting” is a deliberate strategy to
invent a sexually suppressed community struggling with its own
rules. This interpretation of Woletta Petros and her community is a
clear manifestation of epistemic racism. Belcher has imposed a
sexualized identity on the devout spirituality of black African nuns
and monks whose texts she cannot read and whose scholars she
deliberately ignored.
Woletta Petros as Violent
As mentioned earlier, God gave Woletta Petros a promise, a
Kalkidan, that all who came to her shall be saved. He gave her the
significant responsibility of “keeping” the souls of her followers, of
ensuring they keep their vow. Sometimes, this would involve asking
God to take souls early.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
For instance, the Ge’ez text says this:
ወሶበ አእመረት እምነ ቅድስት ወቡርክት ወለተ ጴጥሮስ ሕሊናሆሙ ወዘይረክቦሙ በደኃሪ
መዋዕል ትጼሊ ወትስእል ሃበ እግዚአብሔር ከመ ይሙቱ ፍጡነ በሥጋሆሙ ወይሕየው
በነፍሶሙ ሕይወተ ዘለዐለም ወዘኢየሓልቅ ለትውልደ ትውልድ። (Galawdewos 17th c,
This can be translated as follows:
When she knew their thoughts and what they will face in their later
life, she prays to God to let them die in their flesh and be saved in
their souls in the everlasting life that will not end from generation
to generation.
When Woletta Petros knew someone’s life would lead to sin, she
would step in to ensure they would die and go to heaven before they
could commit any sin that would see their soul damned for all
eternity. Her zeal is powerfully expressed in a passage Belcher and
Kleiner misinterpreted:
If with my own eyes I should see a monk and a nun talking and
flirting with each other, I would want to jointly pierce them
through, both of them, with a spear. I would not be worried that my
doing this would be considered a crime, for just like the [biblical]
priest Phinehas killed Zimri and the Midianite woman, and just like
Samuel killed Agag—even though Phinehas and Samuel were
priests who were not allowed to kill—they were moved by great
zeal for God, so it was not a crime for them. Rather God said to them,
‘You have given my heart relief’ (2015, p. 205).
Due to the insertion of the word “flirting”, Belcher interprets this as
Woletta Petros having “extreme reactions to heterosexual desire”
(2016, p. 29). She writes, “she wanted to murder the two with an act
of violent piercing that allegorized the act she despised” (2016, p. 29-
30). Woletta Petros, constructed as a nun who desires other nuns,
now wishes to cause violence towards heterosexuals. She continues
to interpret Woletta Petros as a lustful nun whose desire or disgust
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
causes her to commit violence. The violence Woletta Petros is being
accused of is in fact her prayers for God to take people before they
commit sin. When God takes these people, Belcher does not interpret
it as mercy, but as an act of violence. For instance, she inserts the
following chapter title into the text: “Chapter 66: Our Mother
Cripples the Disobedient Nuns”. This passage tells the story of
Amete Kristos, a nun who dies after boasting of her beauty. It is not
possible to interpret this story without understanding the monastic
world as a place where the flesh dies to allow the soul to exist in
heaven. Belcher and Kleiner translate the scene as:
One day our holy mother Walatta Petros saw her bragging and
arguing with a companion. Instantly, Walatta Petros summoned her
and made her stand before her. With an angry eye, Walatta Petros
looked her up and down and said to her, ‘What is it with this
curviness [of yours]? What about [attaining spiritual] beauty
[instead] through eating little food and drinking cold water? So far
as I am concerned, I would like to pierce you with a spear and kill
you!’ (2015, p. 219).
As mentioned above, the rule in the Fetha Nagast states, “Food is the
weapon of concupiscence and solitary life is the first bond of purity”
(Tzadua 1968, p. 75). Woletta Petros reminds Amete Kristos what
the flesh is made of: earthly food and water. She would seek for
Amete Kristos to die through spiritual means (the “spear”/God)
instead of continuing on her path of sinning within the monastic
context. The word “curviness” does not exist in the Ge’ez text. The
word of contention here is “ላህይ”, meaning “beauty or appearance”.
In footnotes, Belcher and Kleiner provide two translations: “Lit.,
gəzäf (density, stoutness, obesity). Ricci translates gəzäf as [the Italian
word] floridezza (flowering, blossoming)” (2015, p. 219). Belcher and
Kleiner have merged their literal meaning with how Ricci translated
it into Italian. Merging the Italian and Ge’ez, they get “curviness”, a
word that eroticizes the scene. Belcher argues that “someone’s
devotion to the flesh caused Wälättä Pros to call for a spear, to
drive out desire with the phallus of violence” (2016, p. 30). Through
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
this interpretation, Belcher activates the racist identity of the angry
and irrational black woman who would kill based on her emotions.
Later in the story, Amete Kristos falls sick and eventually dies.
Belcher and Kleiner provide a medical diagnosis for her “piercing
It is unlikely she had a stroke (since they are rarely painful).
Rheumatism is a somewhat more likely possibility, even if it only
rarely sets in at a young age. Alternatively, Amätä Krəstos’s
symptoms might have resulted from severe depression.
Condemned for pride, perhaps the vivacious girl took to her bed
and stayed there, losing muscle mass and becoming incapacitated.
Not wanting to eat or move around due to chronic pain, she further
deteriorated, becoming paralyzed and wasted (2015, p. 219).
The spiritual here is turned into a disease that can be explained by
science. This example of applying a western scientific lens to an
African spiritual text shall be discussed in more depth in the next
section. For now, it is important to note how Belcher interprets this
anecdote, among others: “Wälättä Pros threatens sinners, yes, but
she kills tempters. Is it because she herself was tempted by them?”
(2016, p. 31). Belcher directs her readers to interpret the activities of
Woletta Petros as the policing of a “sexualized environment” by a
black Abbess who is guided by her own intense disgust or desire.
Belcher constructs this by inserting and picking phrases and
sentences from the entire body of the Ge’ez text, decontextualizing
and mistranslating these words, and finally piecing them together
in her analysis. As Ann Stoler states, “sexuality is the most salient
marker of otherness and therefore figures in a racist ideology” (1989,
p. 636). This rendering of Woletta Petros as a woman driven to
violence due to her own sexual desire or distaste draws on racial
stereotypes of Africans as irrational, sexual and savage.
Woletta Petros also prays for what all monks and nuns desire: to go
to God when they are their most spiritual. She also has the ability to
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
heal and halt death. She prayed for numerous people to be healed
from their physical illnesses. She sends the sick members of her
community to be healed with holy water called ፀበል (tsebel). She also
healed others after her death (Galawdewos 17th c, p. 120-123). While
Belcher and Kleiner include these passages in their translation, it is
the examples of so-called “violence” that Belcher focuses on in her
introduction of the book and her article where she casts Woletta
Petros as a woman viscerally disgusted by heterosexual sex.
This interpretation that privileges violence also appears in
translations that are not only taken out of context, but are
mistranslated. For instance, in one scene, Woletta Petros is
approached by a priest named Aba Ze-Selassie who says he wishes
suffering and death in the community to end. Belcher and Kleiner
incorrectly translated their conversation as follows:
Abba Za-Sillasé said to our holy mother Walatta Petros … ‘Since
those who see and hear loathe us, let it be done and enough! May
we be spared this death [of slow decay]!’ Our holy mother Walatta
Petros replied to him [CR resumes], ‘Do you want death to come
[now]?’ Abba Za-Sillasé responded, ‘Yes, I do.’ So our holy mother
Walatta Petros said to him, ‘If you want it, then let it be as you have
said,’ and right away death struck, just as she had commanded it
(2015, p. 260).
The Ge’ez text reads as follows:
ይቤላ አባ ዘስላሴ ለእምነ ቅድስት ወለተ ጴጥሮስእምአመ ተወጥነ አስከ ይእዜ ወኃጣእኩ
ዕረፍተ ወእለሂ ይሬእዩ ወይሰምዑ አስቆረሩነ እምይእዜሰ ኮነ ወአከለ ወይእትት እምኔነ ዝንቱ
ሞት። አውሥአቶ እምነ ቅድስት ወቡርክት ወለተ ጴጥሮስ ወትቤሎ ቦኑ ትፈቅድ አንተ ከመ ይቁም
ወይቤላ እወ እፈቅድ ወትቤሎ እምነ ቅድስት ወክቡርት ወለተ ጴጥሮስ እመሰ ፈቀድከ ይኩን
በከመ ትቤ ወሶቤሃ ቆመ በከመ አዘዘቶ (Galawdewos 17th c, p. 115).
Aba Ze-Selassie said to our Holy Mother Woletta Petros…‘From the
beginning until now, I couldn’t rest, and those who see and hear
abhor us. From now on it is completely enough. Let this death go
away from us.’ Our Holy Mother Woletta Petros said to him, ‘do
you want this to stop?’, and he said to her, ‘yes, I want [it to stop]’.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Our Holy Mother Woletta Petros said to him, ‘if you want, let it be
as you said.’ Immediately, it stopped as she ordered it.
The above translation, verified with Ethiopian scholars, and
compared with the Amharic translation, is the opposite of Belcher
and Kleiner’s translation. Woletta Petros did not order death to
strike her own community in a time of sickness. Rather, she ordered
death to stop.
Linking Woletta Petros with Animals and Disease
As has been shown above, the misinterpretation of a few words can
significantly impact how a text is translated. Another example
removes Woletta Petros from a spiritual association with Jesus and
instead links her to an animal. In a section where the Ge’ez text
details how Woletta Petros carried out her pastoral duty, Belcher
and Kleiner translate:
As for her, she guarded them like the pupils of her eyes and watched
[over them] like the ostrich watches over her eggs. Walatta Petros
watched over their souls in the same way, day and night. But every
day she had to swallow ashes and dung on account of them, just as
our Lord had to drink bile and myrrh when he tasted death for the
redemption of the entire world (2015, p. 231).
The Ge’ez text reads:
ወይእትኒ ነበረት እንዘ ተዐቅቦሙ ከመ ብንተ ዓይን ወከመ ታስተሐይጽ ሰገኖ ሃበ አንቅሆሃ።
ወከማሁ ታስተሐይጽ ሃበ ነፍሳቲሆሙ መዐልተ ወሌሊተ። ወኩሎ አሚረ ትሴሰይ ሐመደ ወኮሶ
በእንቲአሆሙ። በከመ ሰተየ እግዜነ ሐሞተ ወከርቤ (Galawdewos 17th c, p. 87).
She shielded them like the pupils of her eyes. She watched over their
souls days and night like an ostrich that watches over her eggs. She
ate ash and kosso on their behalf, like Jesus drunk the hemlock and
The phrase “she had to swallow … dung” is translated incorrectly.
The equivalent word for “dung” does not exist in the Ge’ez text. The
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Ge’ez phrase says “ትሴሰይ ሐመደ ወኮሶ በእንቲያሆሙ በከመ ሰትየ እግዚእነ ሐሞተ
ወከርቤ” means “she would eat ash and kosso”. Kosso, as stated earlier,
is a bitter herb. Woletta Petros follows the example in the story of
Jesus where he tasted the hemlock and myrrh and drunk from the
bitter cup on behalf of his people. She does the same with ashes and
kosso on behalf of her spiritual children. Belcher and Kleiner
mistranslate ኮሶ (Kosso) into ኩስ kuss, (excrement). To suggest, even
metaphorically, that Woletta Petros ate dung or excrement is deeply
degrading. It speaks to Belcher’s lack of knowledge and Kleiner’s
lack of fluency in Ge’ez. They have relied here on Ricci’s previous
Italian translations, as they note in the translation: “Ricci put in his
note, kos is not a proper Gəˁəz term but a variant of Amharic kʷəs or
kus (excrements, animal manure, bird droppings, dung)” (2015, p.
Woletta Petros is further aligned to the literal (rather than
metaphorical) behavior of an ostrich with a footnote that explains,
“ostriches … are a species of East Africa known to swallow sand and
pebbles to aid digestion” (2015, p. 213). The Ge’ez version shows
Woletta Petros watching over her flock in a motherly fashion, and
suffering, like Jesus, in order to redeem the people for whom she is
responsible. This English interpretation represents Woletta Petros as
a strange being who swallows dung like an exotic animal.
Woletta Petros’ spiritual suffering is further made strange when
Belcher and Kleiner insert medical speculations into the text.
Woletta Petros, alongside the ability to see her followers’ future,
feels their pain and suffers for them. In the Bible, righteous people
often suffer for others, and Woletta Petros is no different. Belcher
and Kleiner interpret her suffering using the lens of desire and
disgust, and apply a medical lens to speculate on what disease she
may have. Returning to the scene where Woletta Petros talks of the
“flirting” monk and nun:
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Furthermore, if our holy mother Walatta Petros was informed that
a monk and a nun had violated this [rule], she would suffer
exceedingly. She would moan and roll around on the ground, until
she was vomiting, as well as urinating blood and pus (2015, p. 205).
Given that Woletta Petros wore abrasive cloth and iron bracelets
with sharp points, it is understandable that she would be wounded
in the process. This is also a spiritual affliction, where she suffers
similar to Jesus for the sins of others. However, Belcher and Kleiner
provide another interpretation:
We can only speculate about the physical and/or spiritual nature of
this response. It may be some kind of intestinal problem
(gastroenteritis, a peptic ulcer) that causes similar symptoms and
can be provoked by such stressors as receiving upsetting news.
Urinating blood and pus suggests a urinary or vaginal infection,
common disorders. Among these are sexually transmitted diseases,
which WP may have contracted long ago from her husband, or
which may be WP psychically taking on the consequences of the
inappropriate sexual behavior of her flock (2015, p. 205).
For Belcher and Kleiner, the cause of Woletta Petros’ suffering is not
her righteous and spiritual empathy, it is disease. They later
speculate that this may have been “endometritis” (2015, p. 206).
Even when they consider the spiritual aspect, they speculate that
Woletta Petros is psychically suffering for the sexual immorality of
her flock, further sexualizing the monks and nuns under her care.
According to Belcher, Woletta Petros’ own desire is also the cause of
her suffering, where “the author(s) represent heterosexual desire as
disgusting, the cause of revolting physical symptoms, and Wälättä
Pros as having visceral reactions to the very idea of men and
women having sex with each other” (2016, p. 30). Belcher further
suspects that Woletta Petros might have,
Contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her much older and
sometimes violent husband. Or perhaps this husband’s behavior
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
later caused in her a posttraumatic stress disorder reaction to the
very idea of heterosexual sex, her gushing body a kind of feminist
stigmata (2016, p. 30).
The Ge’ez text never presents any member of the monastic
community as committing sexual sin, nor does it provide medical
explanations for Woletta Petros’ suffering. To label Woletta Petros
suffering as a “feminist stigmata” obscures how Belcher’s
interpretation imposes the worst manifestation of patriarchy onto
the saint: the view that women are incapable of overcoming their
weak and emotional nature. She invents Woletta Petros’s body as a
Freudian “dark continent” where sexual anxiety and disease is
The application of scientific speculation to the text continually seeks
to understand its themes according to a contemporary western lens,
not the Ethiopian monastic context in which it is set. Within this
interpretation, monks and nuns do not suffer spiritual afflictions or
die through God’s mercy. Rather, they have disease and perish. As
mentioned before, Belcher and Kleiner speculate that Amete Kristos
dies from rheumatism or complications from severe depression.
They later speculate that a monk was suffering from “leprosy” or
“hypothyroidism” (2015, p. 319). The spiritual cause of deaths in the
monastery are hypothesized within a scientific lens that extends
disease to the whole country: “The contagious diseases in Ethiopia
that could have caused an epidemic were typhus (nədad), cholera
(fängəl), smallpox (bädädo, kufañ), dysentery (əmamä fänänt,
əmamä araqi), influenza, and the plague (däwe qʷəsl)” (2015, p.
188). The monastery is also called a place “without good sanitation”
(2016, p. 29). There are no references in the Ge’ez text to poor
sanitation. This is an invention that reproduces harmful stereotypes
about Africa as a place of dirtiness and disease, and strips a holy text
of its spiritual intentions.
Many of these interpretations emerge from a colonial legacy.
Belcher’s basis of inventing Woletta Petros as a black queer woman
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
desiring her own spiritual children while killing some of them, is an
attempt to invent a black erotic figure from a pre-modern world.
Belcher claims that the text “demonstrates that the earliest written
records on African sexualities are not European” (2016, p. 21),
obscuring her reliance on colonial themes by seeming to champion
African narratives of sexuality as authored by Africans. The irony
here is that Belcher has authored this narrative about African
sexuality herself, inserting sexual themes into a book where there
are none. In this orientalist reincarnation of Heart of Darkness
(Achebe 2016; Said 1978), Belcher presents Woletta Petros as an
African ancestor of modern queer women, one that experiences
“revolting physical symptoms” (2016, p. 30) and “kills tempters”
(2016, p. 31) due to her own disgust towards heterosexual sex. This
further draws on stereotypical images of black people as irrationally
driven to savagery and violence. Spiritual afflictions are removed
from their Ethiopian monastic context and are speculatively
examined using the lens of western science. The following quote
from Belcher’s interpretation of Woletta Petros summarizes this:
In Ethiopian hagiobiographies of female saints, female sainthood
represents the ascent of a woman who is not sweetly kind but
brutally powerful. She will not fit Protestant or Roman Catholic
ideas of how a saint should behave. In a word, she is not ‘nice.’
When Christ comes to her in person, Walatta Petros refuses to do as
he commands, repeatedly rejecting his advice. In other instances,
she lies. She is quick to judge and punish. Faced with others’ natural
emotions of fear or sadness, she rebukes rather than comforts. She
forbids a mother to weep over her dead son. We might forgive such
‘sins’ in a male saint, but other acts are harder for modern readers
to stomach from a woman or a man (2015, p. 37).
This is the consequence of removing a holy text from its context and
attempting to translate it with little or no fluency in the language of
said text, while also disregarding local experts.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Ethnicization of Ethiopian Identities
In the previous section, I have focused only on how Woletta Petros
is represented. There are several other issues, one of which is the
essentialization and ethnicization of 17th century Ethiopian
identities. Here it is important to remind readers of the Ethiopian
context in relation to ethnicism. Firstly, in Ethiopia, ethnicity has
become a highly politicized issue since 1991 due to the
reorganization of the country based on ethnic identities. I
acknowledge that there is a variety of views on the issue of
ethnicism. My interest is not to engage with these debates, but to
address the Ge’ez text and how modern politics is being applied
Belcher interprets Ethiopian linguistic and cultural differences and
relationships using the lens of western color prejudice. She presents
Woletta Petros and “highland” people called Habesha as those who
view themselves as “red” people whose ethnocentric views exclude
“black” others as savages and slaves. She uses the name Habesha to
present Orthodox Christians as racially and linguistically distinct
from other groups. In the Ge’ez text, there is not a single reference
to “Habesha”. The term “Ethiopian” is used. However, Belcher uses
abäša” 130 times in her book with Kleiner. In her 2012 book on
Samuel Johnson, Belcher states that:
I have chosen to use the term ‘Habesha’ for this culture, rather than
‘Ethiopian,’ ‘Eritrean,’ ‘Abyssinian,’ ‘Amhara,’ or ‘Tigrinya,’
because these other words have changed meanings regularly over
the centuries, do not refer to the whole, or are ethnically charged
(2012, p. 19).
This appears to be reasonable at the beginning, especially when
Belcher claims to use it in a unifying context when she says that
“Habesha” is often “used by young Ethiopians and Eritreans to
forge connections across time and space” (2012, p. 19). However,
although young Ethiopians use this term in a unifying way, western
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
orientalists who dominate the field of Ethiopian history frequently
apply it to alienate Ethiopia’s indigenous civilization from the
African continent. They present the Ethiopian writing system,
Tewahido Christianity, agriculture, architecture and other traditions
as imports from South Arabian settlers called the Semites and the
Habesha. For instance, when introducing his translation of the Kebra
Nagast, Budge wrote the origin of the name Habesha as follows:
In the eleventh or tenth century before CHRIST a further invasion
of ABYSSINIA by Asiatic SEMITES took place, and it was they who
taught the Abyssinians the elements of civilization. The principal
tribe of the invaders was called ‘ABASHA’, and they came from
YAMAN in western SOUTH ARABIA. They gave the name of
ABESH’ to this part of AFRICA in which they settled, and it is
from this that the modern name of ‘ABYSSINIA’ is derived (1932, p.
Budge further writes that “the SEMITES found them [indigenous
Ethiopians] negro savages, and taught them civilization and culture
and the whole scriptures on which their whole literature is based”
(1932, p. x).
This view does not have support from the numerous indigenous
manuscripts in Ethiopia. It is a Eurocentric colonialist archive that
racially bifurcated linguistic and religious diversity in Ethiopia into
essentialist tribal identities which gained currency due to the rise of
ethnic politics since 1991. Belcher’s use of the term “Habesha” in the
translation of Woletta Petros is combined with other ethnic terms in
a way that implies that the Hagiography is situating Habesha as
superior to other Ethiopians. She presents Habesha as viewing
themselves as civilized, literate and Christian, while others are
savage and primitive.
Before looking at the absence of evidence in the Ge’ez text, I would
like to introduce new readers to the two opposite epistemological
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
positions on the origin of Ethiopian civilization.11 The first position
follows the Hegelian assumption that Africans do not have their
own history, philosophy and civilization. They are people
“enveloped in the dark mantle of night” (Hegel 1956). This group,
sometimes known as western orientalists, prefer to see Ethiopia as
part of the Middle East and Arabia rather than black Africa. This
thinking can be traced to the Göttingen School of History which
applied Biblical terminologies of race to the peoples of the world
(based on the story about the children of Noah in Genesis 9). In the
story, Noah cursed Ham to become a slave for his brothers. The story
was modified later by making Ham black and justifying the
subjugation of Africans on the basis of the “curse of Ham”
(Goldenberg 2003). Arthur de Gobineau invented the Hamitic myth
for racial classifications (1853). The popularity of the idea served the
purpose of scientific racism and colonialism (Sanders 1969).
Travelers and anthropologists such as John Hanning Speke and S.G.
Seligman duplicated, modified, and applied it over diverse
linguistic identities in East Africa (Rigby 1996, p. 65-70). One of the
consequences of the Hamitic thesis was its contribution towards the
racialization process of Hutu and Tutsi identities that ultimately led
to the genocide in Rwanda (Mamdani 2001; Eltringham 2006).
European orientalists and some of their Ethiopian followers argue
that Ethiopian civilization emerged from the coming of white-
skinned South Arabian Semite settlers who enslaved and
intermarried with the local people (Budge 1932; Ludolf 1684;
Ullendorff 1965). Some ascribe what they regard as signs of
civilization such as Christianity, writing, agriculture, organized
administrative systems, empire, sainthood, morality and so on to the
11 I am not claiming that scholarship on the Ethiopian origin of history
can be neatly divided into these two groups. I am interested here to
show the power relationship between two major epistemological
positions, where one position is located in colonial scholarship and is
supported by modern institutional power, while the other is excluded
or suppressed.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Semites and later Habeshites from South Arabia, and present the rest
as Negroid, enslaved and primitive. For example, writing his
introduction to the Kebra Nagast, Budge inserted this:
the ABYSSINIANS or ETHIOPIANS, as the people themselves
prefer to be called, owe more to the SEMITES than to the HAMITES,
or NEGROES, or EGYPTIANS, or GREEKS, or any other people
with whom they came in contact in the prehistoric or historic
periods. The SEMITES found them negro savages, and taught them
civilization and culture, and gave them the Holy Scriptures on
which their whole literature is based, and set before their eyes
shining examples of righteous kings, prophets, priests, and holy
men (Budge, 1932 p. x).
This dualism frames every diversity in the country as a composite of
rival identities.
The second position relates to writings that challenge the distortion
or exclusion of African civilizations from history (Du Bois 1946; Diop
1974; Means 1945). It argues that Ethiopian civilization belongs to
black Africa. Over 90 percent of the Ethiopian population are
speakers of Semitic, Cushitic and Omotic language families. All of
these families belong to the bigger language family/phylum called
Afroasiatic which is assumed to have originated in Africa around
ten thousand years ago. Part of the Semitic group crossed the Red
Sea, taking civilization from Africa to the Middle East, not the other
way around (Bernal 1987). Based on his analysis on the Sabean
inscriptions, A. K. Irvine presented his conclusion on the term
Habesha as follows:
There is little or no reason to suppose that any case of Habasat or
Habasa refers to a South Arabian tribe or distinct… The equation of
Habasa with Abyssinia is moreover the most natural one. The onus
of proof really lies with those who maintain otherwise and there is
little doubt that the earlier views of Glaser and Conti Rossini were
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
largely founded on a priori assumptions, if not wishful thinking
(Irvine 1965, p. 194).
Girma A. Demeke’s work in particular examines the linguistic
history of the country in detail, showing the indigenous, non-
essentialist and non-racialist origin of the name Habesha, among
other topics (2018, Vol 1). Based on a critical analysis of the literature
on Ethiopian languages and a consideration of local scientific
sources, Demeke showed that the thesis which views Semitic
languages as an import from South Arabia is false (2014, chapter 4).
Looking at the Ge’ez language’s extensive development and other
archaeological evidence, Ethiopia was more advanced than Yemen
or South Arabia. For instance, Ethiopia controlled parts of South
Arabia at various times between the third and six century AD
(Bowersock 2013). According to Richard Pankhurst, “it was from
Ge’ez, it is believed, that the Armenians, a religiously kindred
people, borrowed several of their letters” (2005, p. 2).
The first position developed from the colonial period. Among
others, Wallis Budge and Conti Rossini were prominent advocates
of the Hamitic-Semitic or Negroid-Caucasian thesis, and they
inserted this classification of races into their translation and
interpretation of Ge’ez manuscripts. This view is still advanced by
powerful western institutions of Ethiopian studies, which control
and produce knowledge about Ethiopians using European
languages, for the benefit of those who can understand western
languages. The existence of these two divergent viewpoints is not a
problem in and of itself. In fact, many European scholars who shared
the first viewpoint have made significant contributions to our
knowledge of Ethiopia. Their position on the origin of Ethiopian
civilization was not an ideological position but a recognition of the
dominant scholarship of that time. However, there are others who
dogmatically view the first position as neutral, scientific and
objective, and seek to use their academic power to dismiss any
scholarship that opposes it. They disparage Africans who base their
analysis on indigenous knowledges, claiming them to be dogmatic
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
and unscientific, while supporting the racially-biased authors of the
past who regarded Africans as Negros, Hamites, savages and
primitives, claiming them to be scientific sources. Modern Ethiopian
education policy also adopted their Eurocentric framework,
decentering the country’s rich history and language. Ethiopians who
support the second position find it difficult to gain institutional
support to research or publish their studies while supporters of the
first position are acknowledged as original thinkers.
I am giving this background to contextualize the position of
Belcher’s translation and how it plays in today’s politicization of
identities, despite the Ge’ez text having no reference to such topics.
Belcher has the right to follow either of the two positions above but
in a translation where not a single word of “Habesha” exists in the
original, she is reinventing Ethiopians as superior vs. inferior,
insiders vs. outsiders, civilized vs. uncivilized, and Christians vs.
pagans. The sources of her analysis and references on Ethiopia rely
heavily on the orientalist group, including Wallis Budge and Conti
Rossini who follow Speke’s racist classification of East Africans, and
ignores the second viewpoint. As a result, she presents Ethiopians
as being in constant struggle along ethnic lines.
Other identities, such as the Woyito and the Kemant, are also
inserted into the text. For example, when a woman lost her tuaff, an
offering she bought to light in the church of Woletta Petros, she
becomes sorrowful, thinking the loss was a sign that her offering
was not accepted because she had sinned. She prays to Woletta
Petros saying, “አኮኑ ይቤ አምላክኪ ኢመጻእኩ እጸው ጻድቃነ አላ ኃጥአነ?” which
means “didn’t your Lord say I came to call the sinners, not the
righteous?” Belcher and Kleiner speculate that the woman bringing
the offering was perhaps not a Habesha. They write, “As the woman
doesn’t say ‘our Lord,’ perhaps she is not a Christian, but from one
of the local ethnic groups that had not been Christianized, like the
Wäyo” (2015, p. 291-3). This interpretation presents Ethiopian
Christianity as ethnocentric, excluding groups based on ethnic and
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
linguistic differences while compelling non-Christians to bring
offerings to the church.
In another anecdote, Belcher and Kleiner again speculate about the
ethnic identity of a woman whose Godmother was an old nun at
Woletta Petros’ monastery. The Ge’ez text describes their spiritual
relationship saying, “ወለይእቲ ብእሲት አብአታ ክርስትና አሐቲ አረጊት እምነ ማህበር
(Galawdewos 17th c, p. 133) which means “Among members of the
monastery there was an old nun who christened her”. Belcher and
Kleiner translate “አብአታ ክርስትና” to mean “abəˀata krəstənna (had
induced her into Christianity)” (2015, p. 306) and suggest that,
Abəˀata krəstənna indicates that the elder woman persuaded the
younger one to embrace Christianity when the latter was already an
adult …. Although Christianity was widespread among the Amhara
around Lake ana at this time, there were non-Christians among
immigrants to the area and other ethnic groups, like the Kəmant
(2015, p. 306).
Firstly, the Ge’ez does not specify when the woman was baptized or
christened. Secondly, identifying these women as Amhara and
Kemant does not appear in the text.
People who are unfamiliar with the modern ethnicization of
Ethiopian identities may consider these references harmless. As a
person researching historical, social, and epistemic injustices, I do
appreciate scholars’ efforts to uncover power relationships and call
for injustices to end. However, this speculation, alongside Belcher’s
practice of replacing the word “Ethiopian” with “Habesha” does not
seek to celebrate diversity or challenge oppression. Rather, it seeks
to essentialize and invent “Habesha” as antagonistic to other ethnic
groups. The classing of Habesha as “red” and others as “black” is
one example of how western color prejudice is applied to the text.
The classifying of people according to color does not exist in the
Ge’ez, nor does color classification have the same meaning in
Ethiopia as it does in the west. For instance, I am from the region
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Wollo, and I am called “teyim”, meaning “dark brown”. That means,
I am not “black” to my friends. My maternal grandmother and
mother are “keyi”, meaning “red”, my paternal grandfather is
tikur”, meaning “black”,” and my siblings are “red” or “brown”
depending on how dark they are. This is not a racial classification,
but rather an observation, similar to how one may be called “pale”,
“white”, or “olive” skinned in Europe.
Regardless as to one’s position on ethnic politics in Ethiopia now, to
apply these politics to 17th century Ethiopian holy books where they
do not appear renders Ethiopians as forever divided by ethnic lines.
People in the west may see the speculation of scholars over African
identities as an attempt to get at the bottom of the text. For Africans
however, the writing of ethnic identities by an outsider scholar from
a reputable university serves a dangerous political agenda locally.
The Rwandan genocide was partly engineered by Belgian colonists
and local elites who applied the Semitic or Hamitic classification
over Tutsis and Hutus by creating a connection with Ethiopia
(Mamdani 2001; Eltringham 2006). African scholars have shown
tremendous concern at the essentialization and ethnicization of
Africa’s diverse cultural identities, as it has served the cultural and
political capital of political elites who utilize the colonial library for
their own advantage (Mudimbe 1988; Nyamnjoh and Rowlands
1998; Vail 1989; Zeleza 2006). The extent to which western
institutions still allow the invention and reproduction of
antagonistic and tribalist identities is deeply concerning given the
politicization of identity around the world.
The Violence of Misinterpretation
In the previous sections, I examined Belcher and Kleiner’s
translation and Belcher’s interpretation of Woletta Petros, and
showed how various misinterpretations have removed this saint
from her African context. While I have already discussed some of
the harmful implications of this rewriting of African history, this
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
section shall examine the violence of this scholarship on the
monastery and the people in more detail.
The Foreigner as Expert: Using “Homophobia” to Deflect
Belcher notes in her article that same-sex and LGBTQ peoples in
Ethiopia and East Africa live in “increasingly hostile environments”
(2016, p. 40). She cites an instance where the Patriarch of the
Ethiopian Orthodox Church declared that, “‘Ethiopia shall be the
graveyard of sodomy, not its breeding ground’” and notes that some
have claimed that “same-sex sex exists in Ethiopia today due to
‘cultural colonization’ by Westerners” (2016, p. 40). The life of
Woletta Petros, she argues, “proves that modern African states,
including Ethiopia, cannot use the false claim that same-sex sex is a
Western import as grounds for anti-‘homosexual’ legislation” (2016,
p 40). When she received backlash for her interpretation, she
published a defense on her website in which she referred to herself
in the third person. Of one criticism, she states:
Although Belcher has repeatedly stated that the two women were
life partners who did not have sex, many Ethiopians have
sexualized the matter and accused her of depicting the celibate saint
as in an ongoing sexual relationship. These false accusations have to
do with current Ethiopian politics around LGBTIQA issues rather
than the translation (n.p.).
Repeatedly in her publications about Woletta Petros, Belcher
highlights the hostile environment for LGBTQ people in Ethiopia,
claiming that criticism towards her has to do with “current
Ethiopian politics”. She highlights the most extreme cases, such as
the Patriarch’s statement about sodomy, while excluding legitimate
criticism she received from the church. For example, she received a
letter from Archbishop Aba Matewos, writing on behalf of the
Patriarchate Head Office in 2007 et.c (2015 in the Gregorian
Calendar) (See Appendix 2). In the letter, Aba Matewos states that
the church was “extremely happy” to learn that Belcher was
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
translating the hagiography because it would mean that Woletta
Petros’ deeds would “unfold to the wider community” and gain
“global attention”. He then adds that “we very regrettably learn that
you came up with a wrong interpretation of part of the text that there
was an act of same sex relations in between nuns who were monastic
sisters.” On behalf of the church, he expresses “pain and anger” and
hopes that the manuscript she is working from is authentic. The
need to understand context is also stressed, with Aba Matewos
writing, “it is our hope that you recognized how the language needs
thorough knowledge and care to freely understand the message
even a word carries in a context. We wish you could contact Scholars
of the language”. This reasonable request on behalf of the church is
not mentioned in Belcher’s defense.
Belcher’s highlighting of homophobia in Ethiopian politics renders
any Ethiopian opposition as immediately suspect. Indeed, I suspect
it will also be falsely applied to my own criticism of her work. While
homophobia is a reality in Ethiopia, and I am sure she has received
criticism from those who hold homophobic views, to imply that this
is the only reason that her work is being critiqued is deeply
disingenuous. To further apply this to the local experts and scholars,
erasing their knowledge with the label of “homophobic”, relies
heavily on the racist assumption that black people are barbaric and
ignorant enough not to accept the truth about their own history. She
does this through privilege that positions the western expert as
objective, while black people are biased and homophobic.
Belcher fully utilizes this privilege. In her online defense, she
references the sentence that refers to the lustful nuns and states that,
“No one who reads Gəˁəz has disputed the English translation of
this sentence as it appears in The Life and Struggles of Our Mother
Walatta Petros” (n.p.). By her own admission, it is not true to say that
“no one who reads Ge’ez” disputes her claim, as she details how she
asked Ethiopian traditional scholars what the Ge’ez meant and they
gave her a different answer. Furthermore, this statement is
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
misleading and speaks to Belcher’s privilege in operating in a world
that privileges English and western knowledge. Critical scholars
have shown the prevalence of linguicism, racism in languages,
leading to the loss of diverse perspectives across the world
(Skutnabb-Kangas 2000). Most experts in Ge’ez are traditional
scholars who cannot speak English and can therefore not use their
significant expertise to refute Belcher’s translation in western
academic or public discourse.
In this defense on her website, Belcher uses the Leslau dictionary
and the misinterpretation of marea and yitmarea to argue, “thus, the
English translation of this sentence about ‘lustful nuns’ cannot be
disputed” (n.p.). It is remarkable that Belcher, who does not speak
Ge’ez, feels that her reliance on a dictionary and a single monk who
left the order, in stark contrast to local experts who can read and
understand the context of the text, means that her translation
“cannot be disputed”.
To use homophobia as a way of deflecting criticism is not, as it may
appear, an attempt to stand with LGBTQ Ethiopians. It is a smoke
screen that seeks not to invalidate the claims of powerful or
homophobic people, but to attack the vulnerable and voiceless
scholars, nuns and monks whose only interest is in the spiritual
legacy of Woletta Petros. The monastic community has no interest
in engaging in debates within Ethiopian politics, yet politics is called
upon to invalidate their expertise. This speaks to a very real problem
within academia, where colonial practices persist but are often
disguised through rendering Africans as antagonistic to progress. It
also speaks to what bell hooks termed as “the servant-served
paradigm” whereby some white female scholars focus on the black
female body to advance their own professional power (hooks 1994,
p. 103-4). Belcher is a white American scholar who cannot speak the
language of the text she is translating, yet she has more authority
than the black, indigenous scholars who can not only read the book,
but understand all the nuances and contexts in which it exists. This
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
results in the rewriting of African history within colonial or racist
perspectives. This has a significant impact on how the world
understands Africa, and how Africans understand themselves.
Rewriting Ethiopian History: Implications for African
Western institutions hold extensive collections of Ethiopian
manuscripts12, often to the detriment of local scholars and students
in the traditional education system, where such manuscripts are
textbooks (Woldeyes 2020). In this process, Ethiopian manuscripts
serve as raw data for the reproduction of “new” knowledges by
western experts. Ethiopian Ge’ez scholars are reduced to
informants, data suppliers and facilitators.
Belcher and Kleiner’s access to the many Woletta Petros manuscripts
scattered through the world is not enjoyed by the local scholars of
Ge’ez. Local Ethiopian scholars cannot publish their own history
and culture of ancient and medieval Ethiopia without travelling and
gaining access to the numerous western universities and museums
that control many Ge’ez manuscripts. Given they operate in a
system that is not supported by state funding, and students of the
traditional system face the highest levels of poverty, this is simply
not possible. Digitized manuscripts, made available online, are
entirely catalogued in European languages. Even if students in the
traditional system had reliable access to the internet (which they do
not), they cannot navigate catalogues in languages they cannot read.
The lack of access and resources local writers face has made western
Ethiopianists almost the sole producers of knowledge about
Ethiopian history and culture. As such, Belcher becomes the world
expert on Woletta Petros. Given her many misinterpretations, this is
concerning for how Ethiopians come to know their own history and
12 Amsalu Tefera calculated that currently 6928 manuscripts and scrolls
exist outside Ethiopia. He noted that this figure considers only officially
recognized and recorded Ethiopian materials held in foreign
universities and institutions (2019, p. 41).
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
is a disservice to many western scholars past and present who enrich
our knowledge of Ethiopia with their genuine academic works.
The texts produced by orientalist scholars remain dominant not just
in Ethiopian Studies but also in the Ethiopian education system
since its inception (Isaac 2007; Kebede 2008; Woldeyes 2017). Despite
never being colonized, Ethiopia has a western education system
with English as the medium of instruction (Negash 2006; 2010).
Unlike Ethiopian languages, English is viewed as a neutral language
(Zewde 2008). Western control over knowledge production and the
use of a European language in education has the detrimental effect
of inventing new identities, subjectivities and histories that translate
into material effects in the lives of African people (wa Thiong’o 1994;
Phillipson 1996; Brock-Utne 2001). Tribalism and ethnicism invented
or promoted through western knowledge gains validation in global
media and local politics, in return becoming the basis of conflicts
over essentialist identities (Lo Bianco 2017; Wai 2012). In this way,
Ethiopians (and people all over Africa) internalize western
understandings of themselves and their history as primitive and in
need of development or outside intervention.
Impacts for the Monastic Community
Woletta Petros’ Rema Monastery at Lake Tana still exists today.
Nuns live there as keepers of the memory of their founder and live
by monastic rules: lifelong celibacy, silence, devotion, regular
prayers for the Ethiopian people and love for each other as sisters.
Since their establishment in the 4th century, Ethiopian monasteries
were centers of spiritual literature where books like the
Hagiography of Woletta Petros were written. Monasteries
contributed church leaders, including Patriarchs for the Ethiopian
Orthodox church.
Since the 1960s, however, monks and nuns have faced an
increasingly urbanizing and modernizing country where state and
church leaders start to disregard their roles. The rise of the Derg, a
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
radical Marxist-Leninist government, in 1974 and its replacement
with ethnic politics since 1991 created structures that have divided
the country into a binary of urban and rural life. Despite being more
than 85% of the population, farmers, pastoralists, poor laborers and
servants in towns and cities are viewed as pre-modern, rural,
traditional and backward (Rahmato 2009; Woldeyes 2018). Political
leaders have sought to impose Patriarchs that suit their own political
interest. Monks and nuns are known to be vocal critics of the
collusion between church leaders and political authorities. The
administration of the church and the monastic community have
been in constant tension, especially since the Derg period
(Engedayehu 2014). As Wagaw states:
If there has been a single group of people in Ethiopian history who
have escaped official corruption and remained unintimidated by
rulers and their surrogates, it is this group of ascetics. Alas, in the
past three decades their numbers are few and their appearances in
cities and villages have become less frequent. It may be that the long
arms of self-serving rulers are reaching out to silence and perhaps
eliminate them (1990, p. 42).
Belcher continually presents the monastery as a “sexualized
environment”. She argues that “monastic institutions configure
queer family and kinship as normative” (2016, p. 40) and presents
homosexuality as a driver for many people to join the monastery,
stating that, “in Christian cultures where same-sex desire is
prohibited, some nuns become nuns precisely because they desire
other women and in monasteries find freedom in the spaces that
prohibit all desire” (2016, p. 42). She also states that she is aware that,
“even some Ethiopians sympathetic to LGBTIQA rights fear that
readings like mine endanger the many intense same-sex friendships
of Ethiopia, as homophobia makes those friendships more fraught”
and that she is “sensitive to these [and other] concerns” (2016, p. 38).
Unfortunately, she does not express sensitivity to how her
classifying the monastery within this lens may impact the nuns who
still live there today. It is important to recognize the danger her work
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
poses to the monastic community in Ethiopia, especially to nuns
who are most powerless in a male dominated system.
As discussed earlier, the monastery is a sanctuary where monks and
nuns are regarded as “earthly angels. … by giving up pleasure, and
by despising everything, themselves included” (Tzadua 1968, p. 65).
This monastic belief is an important basis for their existence as a
community of sacred beings. Depicting their lives as a struggle with
homosexuality in a context that severely criminalizes this practice
presents a pretext for outsiders to disrupt their lives. In recent years,
violence against monasteries have been orchestrated by political
groups who use pretexts to confiscate their communal properties
(Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2014, n.p.). In 2013,
government forces imprisoned and tortured some of the monks at
Waldeba, the sacred monastery where, according to her
hagiography, God revealed himself to Woletta Petros and made
covenant with her. They brought false political charges when the
monastic community resisted the desacralization of holy sites
(Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2014, n.p.). The
Ethiopian Women’s Human Rights Alliance (EWHRA), in its
submission to the Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia reported
In an effort to pave the way for a planned sugar factory and sugar
cane plantation, credible evidence exists that the Ethiopian
government desecrated gravesites at the Waldeba monastery and
forcibly removed monks who reside on the property. The
monastery is considered one of the holiest sites for Ethiopian
Orthodox Christians (OHCHR 2013, p. 4).
Monks and nuns feel a growing sense of unease in an environment
that increasingly devalues their existence. When I visited Rema
Monastery as part of my fieldwork, I asked if it was the nuns’ wish
to show their sacred books to foreigners. As one local resident
informed me, “The authorities consider manuscripts as artifacts and
treasures that should be available to visiting tourists. The nuns and
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
monks cannot question these authorities. They should cooperate to
build the country’s image in the eyes of foreign visitors”. They are
subjected to the “tourist gaze” (Urry 1992), as foreigners photograph
these nuns and put them into narratives they do not understand. It
is within this context that Belcher photographed “the two women
leaders of Walatta Petros’s Monastery”, the private “bed” of the
nuns and published these images in her book (2015, p. xxviii, xxxi).
Most rural and all monastic people in Ethiopia believe that Ge’ez
texts like The Hagiography of Woletta Petros are sacred, alive and
powerful. They are placed in a church and brought out for readings
during Mass and holydays and kissed by the faithful for blessings.
Belcher was given access to one of these manuscripts, which she
photographed and then made available online. She also reproduced
and published 59 images of sacred paintings in her book without
mentioning how she negotiated consent or what ethical guidelines
she followed in the use of these items. The notion of subjecting
sacred religious or indigenous materials into the hands of foreigners
whose religion is unknown is possible only under a repressive
structure that privileges whiteness in research and knowledge
production (Smith 1999; Moreton-Robinson 2004). This is a source of
great suffering for these spiritual people. As a local priest informed
It gives me enormous grief to see our Ethiopian church paintings
used as objects of entertainment or curiosity by people who do not
see them like we do. Our time is increasingly resembling to me like
the time of Woletta Petros when followers of our indigenous
Christian faith were dehumanized by ferenjis [foreigners] and their
The locals and recent reports claim this sentiment is particularly
strong due to a new evangelical movement that focuses on
proselyting youth, controlling political offices and essentializing
ethnic and religious identities in the country (Abatt 2020; Jeffrey
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
In conducting research about the cultural legacy of vulnerable
people, it is important to consider how one’s privilege plays a part
not only in interpretation, but in how said people may feel
compelled to participate in research. It is important to also be sure
that one’s interpretations are accurate, especially when constructing
a narrative that could potentially open up vulnerable people to
Ethical Concerns with Research Conduct
Alongside the harmful impacts of the research, as stated above,
Belcher’s fieldwork practice and overall approach to her research on
Woletta Petros raise various ethical concerns. Belcher states that she
and Selamawit Mecca conducted fieldwork at the monastery, where
they stayed for two days photographing manuscripts. Belcher
photographed some of the nuns (including a photo of their private
living conditions) and visited Woletta Petros’ grave (2015, p. xxvi-
xxviii). Later, they spoke to local Ethiopian scholars to ask them
about the meaning behind yitmarea, as has been detailed above. The
photograph of the nuns and their living conditions were published
in Belcher and Kleiner’s book (2015, p. xxviii, xxxi), and Belcher’s
website. Belcher freely states that she ignored the local scholars who
were consulted.
Academia enforces strict ethical guidelines on all scholars
conducting research projects, particularly those involving fieldwork
and human participants. The Belmont Report outlines three
fundamental requirements for any research that involves human
subjects. First, research should be respectful, which means treating
individuals as autonomous agents (National Commission for the
Protection of Human Subjects 1979). The investigators have the
responsibility to disclose information about the purpose of their
research, including possible risks and benefits to participants. This
must be done using a language that can be understood by the
participants. Informed consent must be sought, and participants
have the right to withdraw consent at any time.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Belcher does not state how she sought informed consent from the
monks and nuns whom she visited at Lake Tana. Given the nature
of her work, it is imperative that she should explain whether she
provided a consent form in the local language that was given to
participants to sign, whether they were given full information on
how the research would benefit them and in what way their
manuscripts and personal photographs would be used, whether
they were informed or asked about the existence of same-sex
relationships in monasteries, whether they were asked for their own
understandings of the text, and so on. It is clear that her participants
have not been respected, with photographs of the nuns and their
living conditions reproduced in an invasive and disrespectful
Most concerningly, Belcher also freely states that she did not fully
disclose the nature of her research to the local scholars who were
consulted, saying that she and Selamawit Mecca “asked Ethiopian
scholars about the passage without hinting at our own thoughts”
(2015, p. xxx). How did the scholars provide informed consent for
this research? Belcher may argue that her research is of minimal risk
and is therefore exempt under Princeton University’s guidelines.
However, as these guidelines state,
If the research involves deceiving the subjects regarding the nature
or purposes of the research, this exemption is not applicable unless
the subject authorizes the deception through a prospective
agreement to participate in research in circumstances in which the
subject is informed that he or she will be unaware of or misled
regarding the nature or purposes of the research (Princeton
Research Integrity and Assurance 2013, p. 6).
Belcher is aware of the power imbalance between herself and local
scholars, as she notes that her presence as an American could
“skew” the answer (2015, p. xxx), but appears to think it is acceptable
to conduct interviews without full disclosure. After conducting her
research in this way, she discarded the information she gathered
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
deceptively and portrayed the informants through her writings as
biased. These practices show that the local people are not treated
with respect as autonomous individuals.
This opens up questions about whether the participants have
benefited or been protected from harm in the conduct of this
research. The second requirement of the Belmont Report is
beneficence: the research should maximize benefits for the research
participants and the society. It should also avoid or minimize risk to
the participants (National Commission for the Protection of Human
Subjects 1979). The definition of harm, according to Princeton
University, is “anything that has negative effect on the welfare of
research participants; the nature of the harm may be social,
behavioral, psychological, physical, economic, legal, or
reputational” (Princeton Research Integrity and Assurance 2013, p.
In Belcher’s work, locals who disagree with her have been
represented as homophobic or ignorant about the truth behind their
own books. The monastery has been represented as a “sexualized
environment”, an image that presents a potential pretext for people
in power to disrupt their lives, as argued above. There have been no
benefits to the monks, nuns or local scholars. In the letter the church
sent to Belcher, they stated that they were happy if the holy message
of Woletta Petros could reach a wider audience through Belcher’s
work, a potential benefit. However, this benefit was not realized, as
they state how hurt they were by Belcher’s distortion of Woletta
Petros’ legacy. This misinterpretation of Woletta Petros impacts the
telling of Ethiopian history, but it has also directly hurt church
scholars, monks and nuns who have seen their religious beliefs
represented in a way that does not align with how they understand
themselves and their legacy.
The only people who have benefited from this research appears to
be Belcher, Kleiner and their research associates. This relates to the
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Belmont Report’s third requirement, which is justice or fairness in
the distribution of research benefits. The researcher is required to
show the benefits of the research to the participants. “The
application of justice means that investigators must not offer
potentially beneficial research only to some groups, nor select only
some accessible, vulnerable, or disadvantaged groups for research
that involves high risk or little prospect of direct benefit”
(Committee on Federal Research Regulations and Reporting
Requirements 2016).
Despite the intrusive practices she demonstrated in her research,
Belcher provides little to no information to her readers on the steps
she took to address ethical concerns. Furthermore, there is the whole
question of the use of inaccurately interpreted and deliberately
ignored data, how wrong information is used to distort the story of
living persons, and whether this amounts to serious academic
misconduct or fabrication in research. She, Kleiner and Princeton
University should be made to answer these concerns.
This article has demonstrated that Belcher and Kleiner have
mistranslated and misinterpreted the Hagiography of Saint Woletta
Petros, often by inserting words that do not exist in the Ge’ez
original. Belcher has used these insertions to interpret Woletta
Petros as a lustful nun whose visceral disgust for heterosexual sex
causes her to violently call on God to kill her own followers. They
also reproduce stereotypes about Africa as a place of poor sanitation
and disease, using western medical speculation as an explanation
for the text’s references to spiritual afflictions. Contemporary ethnic
politics have been inserted into the interpretation in a way that
reproduces negative racial binaries, and relies heavily on the
colonial racialization of African identities and western color
prejudice that does not exist in Ethiopia. Many of these
interpretations have occurred due to a deliberate disregard of the
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
views of indigenous scholars and removing the text from its 17th
century Ethiopian monastic context.
My analysis has drawn on my fieldwork and interviews with local
Ethiopian scholars, and my own expertise as an Ethiopian scholar
trained in both the western and Ethiopian traditional education
systems. All Ge’ez translations have been checked with scholars
trained in the traditional education system where Ge’ez is studied
for five years and Tirguamme (interpretation) is studied for seven
In the school of Tirguamme, the principle that drives the scholars’
work is ንባብ ይቀትል ወትርጓሜ የሃዩ። It means, “reading kills, but
meaning heals.” It is meant to suggest the importance of contextual
interpretation and understanding rather than mere reading. The
meanings we give to things are important. Belcher stripped local
meanings from her interpretation of Woletta Petros, not just in using
a western lens but in the practice of ignoring the local explanations
offered to her.
It is academically disingenuous to disregard the testimony of local
people with the decades-long training required to translate the work
Belcher and her research associates cannot read. This projection of
local experts as homophobic and therefore unreliable has resulted in
poor scholarship and a misleading translation, but, more
importantly, the corruption of the history of one of Ethiopia’s most
holy women. It speaks to the long-held dominance of white scholars
in the field of African studies, and to the ongoing and pervasive
racism in academic institutions where this practice goes
unchallenged. It is colonial scholarship in action, with the white
expert the only authority on black history and local informants
carefully selected to corroborate her western account at the expense
of vulnerable local people with the appropriate expertise.
Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture. Vol 9, No. 2, 2020
Clearly, Belcher’s errors, her lack of Ge’ez knowledge and her
propensity to ignore local people disqualifies her from translating
and interpreting Ethiopian manuscripts. Most concerningly,
however, is that her continuous misrepresentation and
misinterpretation of this important religious text does not seem to
come from her lack of Ge’ez knowledge or a proper understanding
of Ethiopian monastic life. Rather, it seems to be a deliberate
distortion of the facts.
Many Ge’ez manuscripts were initially looted in a context of
unequal power relationships and brought to Princeton University.
Subjecting these texts to unqualified and disingenuous individuals
and producing knowledge that is antagonistic to the original owners
is morally reprehensible. Currently, however, Belcher is writing a
book on The Teamere Mariam (contracted to Princeton University
Press as The Ladder of Heaven) and translating The Kebra Nagast with
Michael Kleiner. The Teamere Mariam contains the most venerated
stories of the Virgin Mary. The stories and the images in the texts are
produced within an Ethiopian indigenous lens and are often read at
Mass and holy celebrations. Mary’s stories are seen as sacred as holy
communion, so church goers who do not have holy communion13
still feel blessed from having heard her stories. The Kebra Nagast is a
national epic that tells the story of how the Ark of the Covenant
came to Ethiopia as God’s chosen holy land and established the
Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopian rulers. It was so important to the
status of kings that when it was stolen by the British at the Battle of
Maqdala in 1868, Emperor Yohannis IV pl