Pioneering journalist, activist and politician, Sophia Yilma Deressa

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Sophia Yilma Deressa, 75, is a pioneering Ethiopian journalist and a mentor and role model for many. She broke ground at the Ethiopian Herald in 1961 when she was hired as a reporter at the age of 19, becoming the first and only woman reporter at the time. That was few months after she got her start in journalism with a staff job at the Ethiopian Radio, working with other pioneering women– Romanework Kassahun and Ellene Mocria. At the Herald, she would rise to occupy important positions, and, running and editing a weekly “Women’s Page”. Her passion, wit, intelligence had earned the admiration of many of her colleagues, including the Herald’s editor, the late Tegegne Yeteshawork, who later became her husband. Though the marriage made it difficult for her to continue working at the same office with her husband, she went on to work as public relation office for the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation, also running the house magazine Telenegarit. Though enduring 7 months in prison, her husband’s executions during the 1974 Revolution and the imprisonment of her prominent father, Yilma Deressa and his death in the prison left a scar in her, she continued working for the customer service of telecommunication until her retirement in 1997. Subsequently, she joined as promotion officer and fundraiser for a well reputed nongovernmental organization, Birhan Social Development Training and Consultation Center for several years. The work helped her develop the ideas that gave focus to her emotional responses which would lead to political action. In later years, she took the plunge and joined the Ethiopian Democratic Party, coping with being one of only a small number of women in the upper echelons of the opposition party. Sophia these days is largely out of the public eye and lives in in the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ropack Real Estate. This article is based on an interview held at her house a year ago.
I was the second of six children born to Elsabeth Workeneh and Yilma Deressa, both prominent personalities in Ethiopian history. As my mother was daughter of Hakim Workneh Eshete, Ethiopia’s first modern-trained physician and surgeon, she was educated in England in her childhood. My father, Yilma Deressa began education in Addis Ababa’s Menelik School, later headed to Victoria Coll., in Alexandria, Egypt. He then studied at the London School of Economics but my brilliant mother was forced to drop out of school because of the Second World War and came back to Ethiopia. My father made monumental contributions, first as Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the United States from 1953-1957. After returning to Ethiopia, he worked hard to build up a new system of finance for the country and served as Finance Minister from 1957-1970. Both my parents were important forces in my life. They spent their life forming relationships with other countries and cultures, and I was exposed to that from a young age. We had a great connection. My parents always encouraged me to take up writing. Both my father and my mother had many passions, yet it was their love of books that remained most engraved upon me. And they had their own library.
Elsabeth Workeneh and Yilma Deressa
I had lived in US for most of my childhood and teenage years, because of my father’s posting as Ambassador. Oddly enough, I attended a number of schools: the Georgetown Day School, the Baldwin School for Girls in Washington D.C and Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. I have been blessed with the opportunities as a result of my father’s work. I have seen so much, met so many people. We came back to Addis Ababa without finishing twelfth grade. So, I finished high school at Haile Selassie First Day School (today Yekatit 12 School). Eventually, I started taking courses at the Haile Selassie I University, but dropped out because I wanted to be a journalist. When I was 19, I started doing woman’s program with Woizero Romanwork Kassahun, the first woman Ethiopian journalist. I had a tremendous admiration and affection for Romanwork, though I didn’t work for long with her. I realized that broadcasting was not my cup of tea. I preferred writing for a press. Then I joined the Ethiopian Herald. I was only 19 and I became both the newspaper’s youngest and first female reporter. A year later, I was appointed as editor of the Women’s Page.I thoroughly enjoyed being a beat reporter. I went around covering subjects that I was passionate about. I was getting all kinds of stories. Even when I got promoted to editing women’s section, I continued going around, interviewing professional women, doctors, nurses, fashion designers, artists, vocalists. I also reached people who were not so educated, not so privileged, daily labourers, small traders on the street. It was always to do with what was in their heart. The difficulties, the challenges, opportunities, the good things in life. I wrote in plain and simple English. With hindsight, I would have written more compelling and sophisticated sentences. Anyway, I had a large and appreciative readers who told me that they enjoyed my writings because of its simplicity. That was fine.
Working as a journalist, working with fascinating people and learning from them every day was a great experience, but I felt I needed to improve my skill. While I was at the Herald I’d taken two years to study journalism at the Free University of Berlin on government scholarship. I had a pleasant time in Berlin, which was a great city. I was in West Berlin and I remember crossing to the East Germany from time to time and the difference was night and day. After having my diploma, I came back home and continued working for the Herald. Well, I did not stay long. I left the Ethiopian Herald not long after I married the editor of the Herald, Tegegne. My husband and I met while working for the newspaper. He became my friend, confidant, and advisor. He was a very talented individual, a poet laureate and active participant of the student’s movement against the feudal regime. Our marriage went great, but it was hard to have a relationship where you work. So I resigned from the Herald and I came across a job vacancy in our own newspaper, for which I applied and secured: as Public Relations Officer at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Office, to produce the in-house magazine and led both internal and external public relations. My husband was eventually promoted to be the Vice Minister of Information towards the end of the Imperial regime, an unfortunate event that caused him to be in the list of the 60 ministers executed en masse at the start of the revolution. It was a moment of disbelief, apprehension, and anxiety, my father and my mother would also become victims of that brutal regime. It was chaos everywhere. I’ve never witnessed anything like it. I had a four year old son from Tegegne and I myself was picked up and arrested from Telecommunication office and put behind bars for seven months. During my imprisonment, my son had been cared for by my sister and cousins.

A Nightmare at the Derg’s Prison

I would never forget those times. The cruelty of the Derg regime and the inhuman treatment and conditions of people arrested without trial, it is hard to believe such cruel acts happened. I was at the office at the time of my detainment. When they came to the telecommunication office looking for me, there were eleven of them. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, my office was at the top stairs and when going down the stairs, one of the soldiers started to be rude and aggressive towards me, pushing me. It was steep stairs and I almost fell. In a natural reaction, I abruptly slapped him. The soldier became mad at me and he punched me in the head before he was stopped by the others. They asked me if I had a car and they put the aggressive guy in my car. Confiscating prisoner’s vehicle was becoming normal then. We drove all around town whilst they were picking up other people. They said they were taking me to the Derg’s headquarters. My son was already at St. Joseph school and I was supposed to collect him when school was over. But since I had no ways of informing my parents of my incarceration, he stayed the whole evening on the school ground with a guard. It was only late at night an anonymous person called my mom and told her about my situation and my parents went looking for my son at school. They put me at a crowded prison in the basement of the Menelik palace, an Italian stone building, with the previously arrested government officials, including Princess Tenagnework, Haregewoin Mahete Selassie. I had only the clothes I was wearing at the time. The inmates gave me sheets and other clothes. The whole prison was a hell of horrors and insanity. We were a number of people to share one bathroom. The place full of lice and other insects. A big rat would come out of the water container. We had not been given any trial. I stayed there for seven months. My mother was also arrested at the prison while taking food to my father. Both my father and mother were in prison for seven months – at first separately and later together. My father died behind bars five years later of stomach cancer. My mom was released yet was at the point of death.
Back to work
After the end of my confinement, I returned to Ethiopian Telecommunications, and restarted my public relations work, continuing to produce and edit the English and Amharic edition of the house magazine, Telenegarit. I later moved to the customer service, and I found that in a country where customer service wasn’t always a high priority, the Telecommunication office was a breath of fresh air. The service had an excellent reputation and so much so that visitors came from other countries to see how we did our work. Unfortunately, I stayed too long. I stayed forever! (Laugh).
Very oddly, as soon as I retired from Telecommunication in 1997, ending my government career, I joined an NGO called Integrated Holistic Urban Development Project. It is incredible how I went into it and how I changed my life. Actually, I was recruited by my lifelong friend, Sister Jember Tefera, to serve as public relations officer of the NGO that she founded to improve the conditions in the worst slums in Addis Ababa. I knew Jember along ago. She along with her late husband, who was the mayor of Addis Ababa was arrested and imprisoned after the revolution. She started the NGO after she came out of prison, and I ended up working for the project for ten years. I kind of discovered my country for the first time in that role, shocked by the extent of the appalling slums in the capital. I tracked Mercato in all its filth. In the beginning I got sick. I’ve never been exposed to something like that. After a while I became a champion. I worked, writing stories about people’s lives and successes, contacting donors, and supporters and providing regular updates on the status of the project. The work exposed me to the downtrodden human being. I went on an experience sharing program to Nairobi, Kibera, which is the largest slum in the world. I also went to India. What I found that the NGOs have very good relationship with the governments and they have a lot of input. After ten years, I left the organization, ready to pursue new activities.
Getting involved in politics
At that point, I became involved in political work. After the fall of the brutal military regime, that destroyed the country, I felt it was necessary for me to try to bring a meaningful change. In this role, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to form an opposition party, along with other professionals who were engineers, lawyers, doctors and some of the brightest of people. Somewhere in the middle, as there were too many political parties, our survival were not very ensured. The party was on the verge of disbanding, and at this moment in history, we were approached by a certain young man Lidetu Ayalew, who was creating a new party, Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP). He invited us to join his party and around eight of us did. I was extremely impressed with him, I found him to be a brilliant young man. I know many people have issues with him today, but it is a question of faith. I found him to be genuine, sincere and someone who loves his country. I became the Vice-President of the party, which lasted for two years. There were lots of defamatory allegations on Lidetu, in fact I would say the biggest hate campaign in the history of Ethiopian politics.

(Editor’s note: To contest the 2005 elections, EDP joined a four-party coalition called the Coalition of Unity and Democracy (CUD), known by its Amharic name Kinijit, which went on to win the election in Addis Ababa and other regions. Unfortunately, the incumbent invalidated the election and some of the CUD leaders refused to take their seats in Parliament. Even before that, there were divisions regarding rules and procedures of decision making in the four coalition parties split and Lidetu was blamed for falling out with Hailu Shawel and Berhanu Nega before he was ousted from the CUD in October 2005. Hailu, Berhanu and other CUD leaders were jailed for two years. Ultimately, Lidetu and other members of the EDP did take their seats in Parliament. Both he and the other members of his party lost their seats in the 2010 elections.)
After the disintegration of the Kinijit coalition, I joined Lidetu in rebuilding the party from scratch again.I ran for parliament myself in 2010, but lost along with the other opposition candidates. But I continued working for the party, keeping my vice presidency position. One of my proudest achievements was securing membership for the party in the African Liberal Network, a collective of a Pan-African liberal political parties in Africa, which now has 44 members. I have travelled on behalf of the party to South Africa, Congo Kinshasa and Birmingham for conferences.

Arefayné Fantahun
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2 Discussion to this post

  1. Ellene says:

    You are amazing Arefayne! Keep up the good work!

  2. It’s all about exposition that helped her to be such a multi talented woman, but we had others to who had no the opportunity!

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