YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Screams Across the Ocean

September 05, 1997|AL MARTINEZ

She has the cool, stately bearing of an African princess and the determination of a street fighter.

Her first name, Bogaletch, means a flash of light, and light is what this tall, patrician woman is trying to bring to her native Ethiopia.

Her last name is Gebre. She came to this country as a Fulbright scholar and now wants to return to her homeland on a mission of reform.

Included in her agenda are jobs and education for women of the ancient African kingdom, but more importantly she seeks elevation of their status as human beings.

In a nation, she says, "where women are considered no better than the cows they milk," the first order of her agenda is to end the cruel and painful practice of so-called female circumcision.

A victim of the "operation" with memories of pain that never abate, Gebre has vowed to fight a practice rooted in antiquity. The U.S. government shares her distaste for the custom and a year ago a measure was passed in California outlawing genital mutilation.

It was based on revelations that female castration had been brought to the state by families migrating from North Africa. Cases were discovered in Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Rosa and San Jose.

"The pain is excruciating," Gebre, now in her early 40s, said the other day in the Santa Monica home where she's staying with a friend. "I was 11. They took me behind the house, covered my face and held me down. There was no anesthetic. I was screaming . . . "


The screaming, in a way, has never stopped. Forty-one nations still practice excision of the clitoris on young girls, believing that it damps their pubescent sex drive and makes them more marriageable.

Gebre wants to return to Ethiopia to confront her government on ending the practice and to educate the populace against it. She says she already has seven acres of land in the district of Kembatta, 265 miles south of Addis Ababa, on which to build a center for women's studies.

Educated and outspoken, she is an anomaly in her native land, where neither education nor opinion is considered desirable or admirable in women.

The daughter of a farmer, she was raised in a mud-walled thatched hut in a village called Zato and taught to read and write by a relative. They studied by a campfire at night after the day's chores were completed. The fire provided the only available light.

Later, without her father's permission, she attended a community school under a tree, sneaking away from home with the help of her mother and an older sister who believed their little Bogaletch could make a difference.

In the end, acknowledging her drive and intelligence, Gebre's father reluctantly allowed her to go away to school in Addis Ababa on a government scholarship. This eventually took her to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and to a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Massachusetts.

In 1985 she founded Parents International Ethiopia in the U.S. to help fight her country's famine. Returning there for the first time in 13 years, she realized how desperate the plight of women had become and shifted the emphasis of her efforts.

She's going back again soon, this time to stay, this time to utilize her education for the benefit of women, this time to battle a custom traceable to a time before the dawn of the Christian era.


The territory she wants to cover embraces a population of half a million people in the Kembatta district south of the nation's capital.

It's part of Africa's Great Rift Valley, a rugged mix of fields and mountains that defies easy travel. Gebre plans on traversing it all.

To do so, she needs a four-wheel-drive vehicle and is hoping someone will donate one to Parents International in order for her to reach the greatest number of people, especially women, in her drive to free them from pain.

"During the time I was in Israel I saved enough scholarship money to build my father a new wooden house with a tin roof," she says. "People came from miles around to see what a woman could do. Now I want to do more."

A result of that effort, Gebre adds, is that villagers began letting their daughters attend school, but there is more to be done. "Female circumcision must be ended." There is no equivocation in her words. "It has to stop."

She adds: "It is like taking sheep to slaughter. No one can really understand what this does to a girl. I can still feel the pain."

Ethiopia is roughly 7,000 miles from L.A., but the distance is compressed by a growing awareness that we are all one on this small, blue planet.

Already unified by species and by needs, true empathy will only be established once we realize that we are also unified by pain. What affects one, affects all. Don't take my word for it. Listen closely and you'll hear the screams that Bogaletch Gebre hears. They'll send chills down your spine.

Al Martinez can be reached online at

'It is like taking sheep to slaughter. No one can really understand what this does to a girl.'


Al Martinez can e reached online at

Los Angeles Times Articles