Girl power: Meet the Spice Girls of Ethiopia

The singers of Yegna have distinct, recognisable stage personae.

The singers of Yegna have distinct, recognisable stage personae.

“Women are sisters, women are mothers, women are wives. Let’s respect them. Tell that guy to respect girls and we will respect him.”

So go the lyrics of the song This House, sung by Yegna (pronounced Yen-ya, meaning “ours” in Amharic), an all-girl Ethiopian acting and pop group created in April 2013 by the internationally funded nongovernmental organisation Girl Hub.

The organisation’s country director for Ethiopia, Jillian Popkins, says that “52% of women aged 18 to 49 in the Amhara region are married by the age of 15. Once they marry it’s quite likely they will never have contact with their peer group or their family.”

The five-member band follows a tradition of media as a way for development across the continent. Their aim is to reach out to empower the young women of Ethiopia in ways that are accessible and relevant.

Each member of the group has a different stage persona and nickname. Melat (Teref Kassahun), the “city-girl princess”, dreams of becoming a singer, but her wealthy family has no time for her ambitions. Mimi (Lemlem Haile Michael) is the “tough, swaggering streetwise girl” who left the husband she was forced to marry at 13. “Steady maternal” Lemlem (Rahel Getu) is the only girl in her family, who takes care of her ill mother. Emuye (Zebiba Girma) is the “vivacious music-lover” whose father is a physically abusive alcoholic. Sara (Eyerusalem Kelemework), the “quiet, studious one”, comes from a well-educated family.

Yegna performs a biweekly radio drama and talk show broadcasting on Sheger FM in Addis Ababa, with a reach of 20-million listeners.

More than 500 girls were brought in as Yegna ambassadors with a mandate to organise listening parties, at which young people come together to listen to the drama and talk about what they’ve heard.

Their music is an upbeat mix of traditional Ethiopian music with pop and rock music references that appeal to Ethiopia’s youth.

Their first video, Abet, featuring Haile Roots, has been viewed more than 600?000 times online, making it one of the top 10 most viewed Ethiopian videos of all time. It also won the best single award at Leza Radio’s Listeners’ Choice Awards last year.

The second video, Taitu, in collaboration with legendary singer Aster Aweke, was directed by Darren Grant, who has worked with the likes of Destiny’s Child and India Arie. The title is culturally significant, as Taitu is the name of a revered 20th-century Ethiopian queen.

The initiative’s big price tag has drawn criticism. The United Kingdom’s department for international development provided £3.8-million, and a further £800?000 was donated by the Nike Foundation. Locally, critics of the project say the money is being wasted because the show reaches only a quarter of the country’s 80-million strong population. 

The UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact warned of deficiencies in governance and a deficiency in child protection policies. British conservatives have also spoken out against the project, saying the aid money could have been better used.

Responding to this criticism, band member Lemlem Haile Michael told the UK’s Mail Online: “It is definitely worth the cost – it is an amazing issue. It means a lot to Ethiopia and we are using the money effectively. It is a big change. We are like the Spice Girls except our music is not just for entertaining – it is educational.”

The tagline “Ethiopian Spice Girls” has certainly been an effective marketing gimmick to create visibility for the project, whose stated intention belies the analogy. In an Africa Report interview, Eyerusalem Kelemework said: “I’ve performed before, and what makes Yegna different is that I have seen girls who have similar lives to our characters, and so the issues are in my heart – they are our issues and Yegna means ‘ours’. It’s more than a job for me. Understanding their lives and feeling what they are feeling is the most important thing.”

Now entering the third series of radio drama and talk, it remains to be seen whether this social pop project can effect material change for young girls and women in Ethiopia.

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