Literacy Breaking the Cage

The day my mother decided to move was not easy. I was sitting on the couch in my overalls studying for my exam. She seemed her perfectly normal quiet self. As soon as my father walked out the door, she ran up the stairs and returned with a packed luggage. I was confused at first, she didn’t give me time to change my clothes. “Sweetheart we have to go we can’t wait any longer.” she said to me.

I should have noticed, she was dressed less casual. She always dresses up for my father, she said a woman has got to keep her man interested. That day she didn’t care, we were leaving. She was in her pajamas while making breakfast, but looked beautiful as ever. I recall her taking a last glance at the house before we left. I remember him calling every day after we left. She never returned his calls or replied to his messages, but I could see in her eyes that she was tempted to do so. After all he had done to her, she loved him with all her heart. It has been five years since all of this happened, and I am happy to say my mother is living the life she always wanted.

I am an Ethiopian woman, from the east of Africa, with multiple traits that define who I am presently. My life has been given motivation by two biographies in particular, Oprah Winfrey Speaks, and The Excellent Doctor Blackwell: The Life of the First Woman Physician. Reading is the only way out to freedom that women in my country have from the aggression we face daily. Ethiopian women have a hard time going to school, we are oppressed by the men in our lives; little girls are under the control of their fathers and older women under the control of their husbands.

My mother was dominated by my father. As a child, the only power I had were my words and my books. The helplessness drove me to look for other ways to make a difference in my mother’s life; leading me to these two amazing books and into writing a persuasive essay based on them. These books shaped me to become a woman who is not afraid to fight and argue on matters I believe need attention, the literary stance I have now.

I am the youngest child in my family, the favorite. An Ethiopian family is a wide set, we all live together: grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle and the list goes on. All family members living in one house shows our unity and strength, at least that is how my mother explained it to me, but from the looks of it; it was just a symbol given by a culture. The unity has always been between the men in the family, no place for the women while they were the purpose to our strength and existence. My father had just gotten promoted to marketing assistant, which was not a big step up for him, but it was better pay. My mother on the contrary always advised him to quit his job and apply for another. She always thought he was underpaid for his potential, but she was a woman with no power to persuade her husband. In fact, she had no right to say anything at all. Women were not allowed to speak or stand up to men according to our culture.

Cover for the book Oprah Winfrey Speaks, featuring a head and shoulder photo of Ms. Winfrey, an African American woman with short dark hair with bangs, smiling wearing a brown top.The one time she had tried to stand up to him, I was in my bedroom working on a reflection on Oprah Winfrey’s biography. Writing reflections on books was never my strong suit, but I had to do it for a school assignment. I was dwelling in my room, walking back and forth thinking on how to get through this assignment. One of my favorite quotations, “Life’s so ironic. It takes sadness to know what happiness is, noise to appreciate silence and absence to value presence,” hung above my bed. I had blue prints everywhere, my favorite color. My bed sheets, my wall and my bookshelf, every opportunity to put that color in my room I did. While I was trying to block all the distractions, I heard a knock on the ground and my father screaming, “Your purpose is to be my slave, nothing more.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I was surprised when I heard the word “slave.” In Ethiopia, slavery had ended in the 1940s. When she came down the stairs her face was bruised. I asked what was going on while she was trying to cover up her face. She said, “Nothing sweetheart, don’t worry about it.”

I spent several hours after my mother tucked me in thinking how I could persuade my teacher into letting me write a research on struggles that women had to face all around the world, but it wasn’t an easy thing to do. Teachers in Ethiopia were never friendly or approachable. My mother walked me to class the next day like she always does. I was fourteen and capable of going to school on my own, but I had an over-protective mother. I could feel the fresh wind blowing across me as we walked in an awkward silence. The green trees and the different colored roses at the public garden across my school were as beautiful as ever. I never knew what was in my mother’s mind at that moment, but I could see she was in an illusion of freedom in those split seconds. As we approached the front door, I noticed other kids were running and yearning to get to class, but I felt more fear as we got closer to the school gate. I was on the safe zone once I passed that gate, but I knew she would never be. The second she left me, she was going to end up back in the invisible cage my father built around her. Giving her a comforting hug and telling her I loved her was all I could do. As I reached her shoulders to get a tight grip, I could smell the twisted peppermint perfume I had given her for her birthday.

The students in the class were sitting in silence, the teacher was getting ready to start the day’s lesson. I knocked on the door to get in, students getting in to class without knocking always made the teacher furious. “Come in,” the teacher said. As I slowly opened the door, all eyes were on me. “Take a seat,” the teacher said. I kept my head down as I walked past my classmates to get to my seat. I couldn’t concentrate through the whole lecture. All I could think of was my mother, how I felt her hands shaking and most of all how I could persuade my teacher into letting me write an argument instead of a reflection. My teacher agreed to allow me to write a reflection for extra-credit. I was so excited, I decided to walk straight home.

When I got home my parents were arguing. I wanted to know what they were arguing about, so I went upstairs to listen. Apparently, my mother had her Bachelor’s degree in journalism and wanted to be a reporter. I was surprised to learn my mother was educated, she always told me knowledge was power. It made me furious to know that she had the power to leave and take me with her, but she let him have control. I stepped closer to hear more and I heard her say, “All this time I took it and I stayed for her, so she could have a full life even though you broke me every day.” I ran back to my room the room right after my parents, and cried. I wanted to scream. I wanted to break everything around me. She kept saying that she had a job offer from a news channel, but I heard him putting her down, “That’s not your place, you are not clever enough, who would ever want to know what you have to say?” Ethiopian women on TV were very rare, because there were barely any who were educated.

The cover of the book The Excellent Doctor Blackwell by Julia Boyd featuring a black and white drawing of Elizabeth Blackwell's face, a caucasian woman from the Victorian era with her hair in an updo with bangs on an orange background with a black and white photograph of Blackwell in a hospital ward across the bottom quarter of the cover.That night I started my research about women who have made it and what obstacles they had to face to get there. I focused on two women: Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Blackwell. Even though Oprah Winfrey’s story was my basis to write my first important essay, Elizabeth Blackwell’s biography helped me argue that women can break society’s cage. She was the first woman to ever graduate medical school. She was motivated to go to medical school after she had learned that a friend of hers told her she would have felt less embarrassed to have a female physician look after her. As some other women did at the time, she studied independently with doctors before getting accepted in 1847 to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. Her acceptance was deemed by the student body as an administrative practical joke. She was also mocked by most of the students there, however she trudged through the challenges facing her and became a doctor respected by many of her peers. It took me three days to get the essay done; my teacher was moved by it. She said I was a motivation even to her, that it gave her a spark and opened her eyes in to following her dreams as well. My mother cried through every paragraph, she gave me the longest hug that day; it was the day I noticed that the type of writing I enjoyed was a persuasive essay. Writing arguments gave me strength over facing the world filled with criticism. Even though it looked like a coincidence that she decided to leave him the week I submitted my essay, I always like to think I persuaded her to do so.

My mother is currently a very successful journalist back home. I haven’t seen her in while so I can’t say I know how happy she is, but she tells me she is living the dream every time I talk to her. I think she is also happy because I am in a good place with good opportunities to pursue my dreams and become a doctor. My mother is the one who pays for my school, since I am an international student school is a bit expensive. My mother has always never cared for money as long as it is invested on something useful, she said I am the best investment she has ever made so far. My mother is supported by her parents, especially by her mother. Grandma has always wanted my mother to reach her best potential. I am positive she is proud of her as much as I am. My mother is my motivation, my idol, she is the one I look up to when I have hard time with my classes and with life. She is also my friend, I confide in her when I have problems and obstacles in my life. She is everything to me.

Today, I look out and I see a future where Ethiopian women can be respected enough to see their strength and independence. I have hope that they would all be free of that control and find their own way to a better life as my mother did. My room is very different from what it used to be back home, more organized. I have my own table to study on and a shelf to organize my books. The window is right above my bed, I love the way it makes my room bright in the morning. I have my own closet right across from my bed, one of the things that makes my bedroom here different from back home. I used to share a shelf-like drawer with my brother. As for now, I’m proud to say my mother is a free woman living the life she always wanted. She is a journalist for a new channel in Ethiopia. She helps me pay for my tuition and she is financially independent. She lives with one of her good friends. The whole family judged her and pressured her to apologize to my father and get back together at first. She reasoned with them and made sure to make them understand that it is her life, she had the right to do whatever she wanted. I would say her brothers and sisters are fully supportive of her current lifestyle, but her father still thinks she should rebuild her family again. Ultimately it is my mother who is my motivation, my role model. I am proud to have her and to see her grow like this. I hope other Ethiopian women in my country find this type of happiness and growth as well.


Author photo for Melat Mengistu, an Ethiopian woman with dark curly hair in an updo with bangs, large dark eyes, wearing a white v-neck top with bold magenta paddle-like shapes in a pattern extending out from the v-neck and across the shoulders.Melat Mengistu was born in Ethiopia, Mekelle, and raised in Addis Ababa. She is currently a college student majoring in Biotechnology. She’d ultimately like to go to medical school and become a heart surgeon.