Billene Seyoum

Billene Seyoum

Thursday, 02 November 2017 12:47

Who’s Making the Table?

I realized recently that for the longest time I have been perhaps asking a seemingly outdated and passive question: “who’s at the table?” As of late, this question has popped up in my mind persistently on several occasions. Watching local and international news and witnessing who is invited to provide expert analysis on a given issue; panels and political gatherings; convening elders for dialogue on key national issues; political party negotiations; peace agreements; design of economic policies and interventions; decisions on national and international security, etc. The list of what are considered ‘hard’ subjects goes on and what continues to be glaringly apparent is that these spaces persist as male dominated arenas bearing the same results. But inclusion is not the only issue that dwells in this dilemma. Diversity of strategies is also an issue.

I define my tiresome question of “who’s at the table” as ‘outdated’ because the finding is a foregone conclusion. At least every time I have asked this question, I have seen only men claim these spaces as second nature and recycle the pattern of patriarchy that they have also been socialized to accept is the only way. The alternate male voices that imagine a system beyond this are far flung and unable to penetrate the patriarchal system for too long. See, the treacherous thing about leading with patriarchy is that it designs everything as a zero-sum game – there’s a winning side or there’s a losing side, but never a common ground. It leads from a place of assuming power for individualistic pursuits and not for influencing for the common good. It views the environment as a resource to be plundered and exploited and not balanced and harmonized for the collective. It thrives on divisiveness as a method of control. And it builds the narrative of scarcity so strongly that those under its influence are controlled by fear and hence plunder away. 

In the roles we have been expected to assume as women in society, we have all played the part of caretakers, homemakers, mediators, compassionate listeners in the private sphere. There may be women who have not played the role of decision-maker in the public space, but without a doubt there is not a woman who has not played the ascribed gender roles in the private space. We clean up after the mess; we care for the ailing and the sick; we are required to mediate between two or three warring factions in our households with impartiality; we whip up an “injera lasagne” by layering shiro and injera when that’s all we have; and we have intel on the happenings in our households and perhaps others; we listen to our partners, our community elders, our religious leaders, our political leaders. We are continuously subjugated to listening!

I remember a female friend I admire greatly stating that “If there’s something we consistently do as women everywhere, it’s that we listen.” Yet, in our socialization that has required us to listen more than speak; to care for others more than ourselves, we may have picked up on many insights and wisdom that have not been much more urgent to vocalize and utilize in the public arena as a unifying force, now more than ever. 

“It starts with the art of listening — the ability to put yourself into another’s shoes and build solutions from their perspective. Listening itself can be an act of generosity. You learn to communicate across lines of difference, and in the process, you develop a sense of your own identity as well as that of those around you. This entails work, to reflect on how you see yourself and also how others perceive you. You start to recognize the biases you hold that stop you from knowing others for their full humanity. Along the way, you develop the vision to imagine the world as it could be.”  

The above is an extract from a piece entitled “What It Takes to Move the World: 5 Traits for Moral Leaders.” As Ethiopian women who have listened quietly for long periods of time, now is the time that we’re being called upon to collectively shift our private sphere values and capacities into the public sphere towards the healing of our communities and nations. Not by replicating patriarchal patterns, but capitalizing on the compassion and care we have been socialized into, towards imagining and realizing a different political, economic and social system that thrives on unity and principles of social justice and equity.

This means that I and others like myself stop asking “who’s at the table” and begin making our own tables together. But not the kinds with plates, cups and pots at Iddirs. Rather, the kinds of tables where political, economic and social policies and actions are designed imbued with the values we have been led to believe are a sign of weakness – compassion & listening- yet are the saving grace we need to heal a broken world!


Billene is the Managing Director of Earuyan Solutions (www.earuyan.com) and also writes at www.africanfeminism.com

Tuesday, 27 June 2017 12:05

From Foetus to Woman

We were foetuses when they mapped out our lives

some of us would glide through birth canals

break open wombs

announce our arrival in bold wails

we were born protesting

then to be shushed at entry

and later made to believe our voices mattered little

“I believe that a key to leadership, particularly on our continent today, is having a clear, persuasive and achievable vision.” ~ Akere T. Muna

Last week I had the great pleasure of moderating a lecture discussion at the 6th Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa, hosted in Bahir Dar. The lecture entitled, “Leadership in Africa: Reflections on the Legacy of the Late Dr. Wangari Maathai, was part of the annual Meles Zenawi Lecture Series at the Tana Forum, and this year delivered by Barrister Akere T. Muna, Chairperson of the International Anti-Corruption conference and Sanctions Commissioner of the African Development Bank Group.

I was particularly delighted to moderate this dialogue for two reasons: firstly, Dr. Wangari Maathai was the first female leader that the Tana Forum was paying homage to since the launch of the lecture series in 2014. Secondly, the life,work and leadership of Dr. Maathai has often fascinated me. Delivering his lecture on Dr. Maathai’s legacy, Barrister Muna rightly noted that she was a woman of many firsts – the first female to earn a doctorate degree in East and Central Africa; the first female to ever Chair the Department of Veterinary Medicine and become an associate professor at the University of Nairobi; and the first female to ever receive a Nobel prize.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017 11:53

I Live For…

I live for,

That rare moment when you instantly connect with someone through

The grip of genuineness that strips you both of preconceptions

Stripping each other of stereotypical connotations  

miscellaneous misconceptions

eroding in a silent inflation of candid injections

making way for deeper exchanges


Monday, 15 August 2016 07:36

Voicing My Feminism

This article is originally written for www.africanfeminism.com as part of the ongoing “What Feminism Means to Me” series of writings by different African feminists.

I wonder though, as a feminist are you always expected to be vocal? It doesn’t seem like an easy way to live life.” That was the concern a friend shared with me a week ago. Although I did not have a fully formed answer to his question, I responded by sharing with him a quote from an article the President of the United States, Barack Obama, wrote recently on feminism in which he shares “Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard or feel unfairly judged based on their gender or race – or when they notice that happening to someone else.”

Friday, 06 May 2016 13:52

Two Positions to Watch in 2016

I remember attending a pan-African women’s conference in 2013 convened by the African Union Commission Chairperson, Dr. Dlamini Zuma, where she boldly stated, “we will have enough women leaders when we no more have to count them.” The large hall echoed with the applause and cheers of hundreds of women from all over the continent. Her statement then stayed with me for the last three years as it embodied a truth that I have grappled with for a very long time; women in key leadership roles are still a rarity in our modern world and institutions, that hearing of one traverse the plains of a normatively and historically male domain, always stirs a novel excitement.

I was taken by this wave of excitement in 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first African female President of her country, Liberia. Closer to home, Amsale Gualu became the first female airline captain in the history of Ethiopian Airlines in 2010. The continental victory of a female head of state was once again met in 2012 when Joyce Banda became the President of Malawi. Dr. Dlamini Zuma herself, assumed the role of Chairperson of the African Union Commission in October of 2012 – the first woman at the helm of the African Union and its predecessor –the Organization for African Unity (OAU). Later in the same year, I learned of the first African female bishop that had risen to religious leadership in a very conservative continental culture. Ellinah Wamukoya was consecrated as bishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, with a followership base of more than 45million across the Southern Africa region. 2012 it seemed was a year of many firsts for women in leadership in Africa.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016 02:28

Once in a Lifetime

There are great adventures we encounter by accident. And then there are epic adventures we design and participate in, which are fraught with danger but we take them anyway. What is an unexplored life worth anyways? These are the type of ‘once in a lifetime’ exploits. For me, this type of adventure came in November of last year in a visit to the hottest place on earth and one of the lowest points on the planet. The irony in that is perhaps that the trip coincided with one of my personal low points in life. In essence, travelling to explore Earth’s core also enabled me to explore my own core.

The four-day adventure, which felt like weeks, started in the town of Mekelle in the company of three great travel companions, as we made our way through winding roads into the Afar region. The main itinerary consisted of witnessing the hundreds of camel caravans coming out of the Danakil with their salt loaded camels; sunset visit to Lake Asale (one of the salt lakes in the Afar region); walking amidst the colorful sulfur springs in the Danakil Depression; seeing potassium and sodium lakes; and last but not least, hiking up steep volcanic rocks for three-hours in the dark to come face to face with the contents of earth’s belly – the very active Erta Ale volcano, spewing burnt orange lava.

Monday, 07 December 2015 07:03

Citizen Leadership

Citizen Leaders are the men, women, young adults and teens who take stock of the kind of world they want to help shape for the people they care about and act to make it so. ~ Peter Alduino 

There are certain junctions around town where without a traffic police in sight, navigating through the frenzied interlocking of cars quickly turns frustrating for any driver in Addis. Many a day we may have encountered a road where the congestion is beyond the benevolence of a few drivers who may try to make way for others to pass. And in such an instance one can witness the complexity that can arise in any given system. 

Consider it a metaphor for many blockages within our system, which at times can be created by one individual and the many others that fall prey to follow. For example, a few weeks back a car pulls to a complete stop in the middle of the road so that the driver can buy sheep parts being sold on the other side of the road. The driver engrossed in his or her own needs completely oblivious to the bottleneck created as a result of that behavior. Or perhaps, not so oblivious but uncaring about the impact of his/her decision. Now consider the many times when each of us are engrossed in our own needs within various spaces and multiply that by the many that dwell our city and the effects of that nonchalance on our systems – our social system, national system, family system, etc.

Monday, 28 September 2015 05:41

Pebbles of Life

*I originally wrote this piece in 2013 for a mindful living portal but I’m reposting it here again as I recently had the chance to scratch off one item from my bucket list which I had postponed for 2 and half years. I’m becoming more aware of these pebbles and would like to share with AWiB readers their story. *

Have you ever thought of your life in terms of the summers you have experienced and the summers you have left ahead of you? If you were to travel the journey of your life according to the number of summers you have left, how would you live it? Would it give you the perspective and courage to begin living out your dreams?

During a past work trip abroad I met a man who shared with me an inspirational story of Kingsley Holgate, which left me quite moved in terms of how I wanted to lead the rest of my life. Now the story of Kingsley Holgate is quite fascinating. He is a South African explorer who is considered the most travelled man in Africa and author of many books on his expeditions. To many who dream of the freedom that travel and exploration provide, he is an icon of such adventurous possibilities. Holgate and his family have travelled from one tip of Africa to another – the Cape to Cairo route – navigating Africa’s waterways. They have left their marks circling the Tropic of Capricorn through African and Australian deserts, the Andes and South American jungles and many more breathtaking explorations that have been captured on National Geographic.

The journey that many put off until retirement, until the children go to school, until a job is secured, until…The truth is the stories we keep spinning and telling ourselves about why we cannot realize the dreams we have will continue being justified by a vicious cycle of story building, unless we take ownership of our lives and do it despite our circumstances.

The story that moved me is that of Kingsley Holgate giving advice to one of his close friends. His friend, a 57 year old man, was one who had done well in setting up a business yet went through life unfulfilled of that accomplishment. The story goes that Holgate took seven pebbles as they sat on a beach, and placed them in a row. The seven pebbles, Holgate told his friend, represented his life. He then took the first four pebbles and threw them away, as the four presented each decade of his friend’s life that have already been lived right up to his late forties. He then picked up the fifth pebble and threw it away as well, as the fifth symbolized his fifties that were quickly coming to an end as well and nothing could be done about that. Holgate then threw the sixth stone away, saying “your seventies, too unpredictable and maybe too old to do anything meaningful”. With one pebble left, Holgate handed it to his friend and shared “this is the life you have left: ten years.” He advised his friend to keep that last pebble in his pocket, put it next to his bed at night, and constantly remind him of the few good summers he had left.

When Holgate was later asked what happened to his friend, he declared that the 57-year-old businessman had sold his business a year later and began living the life he was putting off “until things were just right”.

The morale of this true story is that life is not waiting for anyone. As a journey waiting to be explored, time will not stand still waiting for us to figure out when the “right” time is to become our full selves. When you calculate the number of summers you may have left to lead your life with purpose and impact, does it not want to make you get up right now and begin watering the seeds you have planted in dreams?

Billene Seyoum also blogs at www.africanfeminism.com.

Thursday, 13 August 2015 00:00

A Mind-Set Renaissance

“Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.” ~ Anne Sullivan 

The word renaissance finds its root in an old French word that translates into “rebirth” or in the modern French word renaître, which means, “be reborn”. The historical significance of the word is attached to the period referred to as the great revival of learning and classical art in Europe of the 14th century. In its broader definition, it is noted that the European Renaissance finding its origins in Italy, was an era of great intellectual and cultural growth that paved the way for practices, ideas and norms of the Middle Ages to be replaced by those of modernity. Some shifts attributed to the Renaissance include invention of the printing press and weaponry; realism in art captured in the works of the great Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci; booming of trade and commerce; exploration of new continents; the growth of humanism and its contribution to reforming the education system, rural to urban migration; growth of a middle class based on trade and manufacturing et cetera. One of the features of the European Renaissance that enabled the many sweeping changes and growth to occur is the disposition and will of the people to embrace intellectual curiosity and the space to challenge dominant and outdated mindsets.  

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