First Known Biography of an African Woman Finally Receives English Translation

By Sameer Rao Dec 07, 2015

A 17th-century biography of an Ethiopian religious leader—the first known biography of an African woman—just received its first translation into English. It brings with it resurrected evidence of the saint’s "rapturous" same-sex relationship with another nun.

Walatta Petros, the subject of this biography, lived from 1592 to 1642. A noblewoman, Walatta Petros left her husband and lead the resistance against Jesuits and their mission to convert Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism. This work lead the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church to canonize her as a saint, and her biography was written by disciples in the Gəˁəz language in 1672. Since then, the biography has only been translated to Amharic, contemporary Ethiopia’s official language, and Italian, the language of Ethiopia’s 19th and 20th century European colonizers.

That is, until now. "The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros" was translated and edited by literary scholar and Princeton associate professor Wendy Laura Belcher, with the assistance of historian Michael Kleiner. The Guardian reports that Belcher’s new rendition of Walatta Petros’ biography includes a ground-breaking component from the original manuscript, which was left out of subsequent translations: several nuns in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, including her, were involved in same-sex romantic relationships: 

Belcher writes in the book’s preface that while she and Kleiner were translating the story from the Italian edition, they came across a “perplexing anecdote about a number of community members dying because some nuns had pushed each other around.” Kleiner suspected the manuscript had “been miscopied, perhaps deliberately, in order to censor the original, or merely by accident,” and speculated that “the nuns were not fighting but flirting with each other.”

After consulting with several Ethiopian scholars and looking at digitized copies of the original manuscripts, Kleiner and Belcher found the uncensored manuscript concurred. They translated the line as Petros seeing “some young nuns pressing against each other and being lustful with each other, each with a female companion.”

“This is the earliest anecdote we know of in which African women express desire for other women,” writes Belcher.

The academic also pointed to Walatta Petros’s relationship with her fellow nun Eheta Kristos, describing their first encounter with each other as “rapturous.” The text says that “love was infused into both their hearts, love for one another, and… they were like people who had known each other” their whole lives. Walatta Petros and Kristos “lived together 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”.

Belcher clarified with The Guardian that while she maintained celibacy as part of her vows, the record suggests that her relationship was nonetheless romantic in nature.

Note: This post has been corrected to accurately reflect Walatta Petros’s full name, per naming conventions explained in a message to Colorlines from Wendy Laura Belcher.