The Story of Walatta Petros: Earliest Known Biography of African Woman

An illustration of Walatta Petros as she “[made spring forth] water while on her way to the wilderness of Waldeba”. (Photograph: MS A, f. 148v c SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2)

The Guardian

By Alison Flood

The earliest known book-length biography of an African woman, a 17th-century text detailing the life of the Ethiopian saint Walatta Petros, has been translated into English for the first time.

Walatta Petros was an Ethiopian religious leader who lived from 1592 to 1642. A noblewoman, she left her husband to lead the struggle against the Jesuits’ mission to convert Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism. It was for this that the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church elevated her to sainthood.

Walatta Petros’s story was written by her disciples in the Gəˁəz language in 1672, after her death. Translator and editor Wendy Laura Belcher, an associate professor at Princeton University, came across the biography while she was studying Samuel Johnson’s translation, A Voyage to Abyssinia. “I saw that Johnson was fascinated by the powerful noble Ethiopian women in the text,” said Belcher. “I was speaking with an Ethiopian priest about this admiration and he told me that the women were admired in Ethiopia as well, where some of them had become saints in the Ethiopian church and had had hagiographies written about them.”

Ten years later, Belcher still remembers how “thrilling” this revelation was. “What? Biographies of powerful African women written by Africans in an African language? And to be able to pair European and African texts about the same encounter? I knew then I wouldn’t rest until I had translated this priceless work into English.”

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