As part of a continental project to empower women and encourage them to follow their dreams, a special cast of five young women are taking the ride of a lifetime. ASHENAFE ENDALE, SPECIAL TO FORTUNE, tells their stories and the ideas behind the characters they play.
The pamphlets are colourful and the marketing campaign is unlike any that Ethiopia has ever seen before. The streets of Addis Abeba are now home to flyers, posters and billboards, grabbing the attention of residents. The message is simple – “When you hear us; you will see us!”
Ethiopians are about to see the formation of five aspiring girls into a pop band, alike to the Spice Girls – an English pop-girl group formed, in 1994, on the premise of ‘Girl Power’.
Te’ref Kasahun is one of these five girls, although she is more recognised by the name of her character, Melat, branded as ‘the spoiled brat’. She is a singer, as well as an actress on a radio drama series, which launched on April 24, 2013. Pulling in a huge crowd, full of Addis Abeba’s luminaries, including Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, the event took place at the National Theatre, and was as colourful and chic as it could get.
It was part of a campaign designed to promote Yegna, literally translated as “Ours”, which has become the latest fad in the Ethiopian entertainment industry. It kicked off with the release of a music video by the five girls, dubbed Abet, two weeks ago.
A high-end production, the video became an instant hit, much liked by young men and women, with 7,000 people viewing it on youtube, within hours of its release. It also almost became viral on social media platforms.
Teref and the other girls performed the music live at the National Theatre, during the launch ceremony. The live performance was also opened to the public at the Theatre, two days after it was launched on the radio.
It was the very same venue that Teref first joined Yegna, after a series of four auditions held two years ago, and where she has worked for two years, as an actress. She moved to Addis Abeba from Jimma, after completing 10th Grade in the western town where she was born and raised.
She left Jimma eight years ago, with dreams of becoming a musician.
“I just wanted to sing,” she told Fortune. “And do anything related to music.”
As a public relations initiative of Girls Hub, Yegna provides a platform for her to showcase music and much more.
A continent-wide project, established in February 2010, Yegna was launched with a three-year grant from the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the Nike Foundation, aka Girls Hub. The total DfID grant was for 11.6 million pounds, with an additional 1.2 million pounds of in-kind support. Close to half is budgeted for Girl Hubs in four or five developing countries, including Rwanda and Nigeria.
The pledge for Ethiopia to carry out this campaign is 154 million Br.
The campaign is designed to introduce behavioural change among girls, targeting those between the ages of 12 to 15. With most parents being protective of their daughters during this period of troubled teenage life, many are isolated from the outside world and, hence, become victims of violence.
“We believe that this is the stage when they begin to become detached from society and don’t know how to deal with the outside world,” said Selome Tadesse, general manager of Emerge Leaders Consultancy & Training Plc. “We want to equip them with the tools necessary to assist them when they start going out into the wider society and help them to take care of themselves.”
Campaigners hope they will change this by instilling in girls self-awareness, confidence and camaraderie among their peers. It is an exercise to help young girls overcome their reticence and empower them to claim their future.
But first, there was a series of things the Yegna team set out to achieve in developing a concept and unleashing it through various communications platforms. They want to start by inspiring girls through music and by creating positive role models through radio dramas. Further to this, they want to engage them in radio talk-shows, before granting them the space they need to practice what they have come to learn and develop life skills.
It is with this objective that Yegna was established two years ago. Consisting of a radio drama, which follows the journey of five girls, representing different segments of Ethiopian society, it aims to forward the Nike Foundation’s businesslike commitment to creating a catalyst for change on the continent, by focussing its efforts on adolescent girls.
And so, Yegna set about the task of discovering five young ladies who could be the face of the campaign in Ethiopia. T’eref was selected from 85 girls auditioned by an expert from England, who works for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). They were after girls with both singing and acting talent. The audition was given for girls at various artistic institutions across the capital.
“The girl’s voices are so different and they are all very talented,” Tsedenia Gebremarkos, the Ethiopian pop idol who joined the campaign two months ago as a vocal coach, told Fortune.
Tsedenia is one of the many local and expatriate professionals who has provided coaching to the girls, from vocal trainers to creative teams.
“They even had to take breathing exercise,” said Selome.
Established in 1995 by Selome – a prominent personality in Ethiopia, known for her courageous management of the national TV company and as an assertive government spokesperson during Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, Emerge is one of the three companies that formed Yegna Be’t – a hub that has been organising the campaign. It provides the research and insight; while Aida Ashenafi’s Mango Production does the creative work and Deloitte Consulting was hired to oversee the finance and operations.
Yegna was Te’ref’s big break. She has worked previously as a tutor, teacher, barber, DJ and even a cashier, while waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself. As a child, T’eref sang songs everywhere she went, whether she was still or on the move. She even joined her neighbourhood circus, just so she could get a chance to perform.
After she came to Addis, she received her teaching degree, while at the same time continuing to pursue her passion for music. She even competed in the first round of Ethiopian Idol, reaching the top 40 before being eliminated. This was not, however, for a lack of talent or commitment.
“I had to survive,” she said.
Then she joined the National Theatre’s troupe in 2009. After taking a three-month training course; in vocals, acting and dance, she got the opportunity to participate in several plays there. She was part of the cast for Hindeke, a local play staged at the National Theatre, when she heard about the auditions for Yegna.
At 26 years old, Te’ref finally got the chance to fulfil her dream of becoming a musician.
“Alhough I didn’t know the bigger aims of Yegna at the time, I joined them because I love music and acting,” Te’ref told Fortune.
She was not alone.
Lemlem Hailemichael plays a character by the name of Mimi – A tomboy covered in specks of dirt; the face for the poorer segments of society, and known as ‘The Defender.’
The character and the actor playing her, however, are complete opposites. Lemlem was born in Agarfa, Bale Zone, Oromia Regional State, where she studied until 10th Grade. She completed her 10+3 studies at Holeta, in animal science and graduated from the Theatre and Arts Department at Addis Abeba University, in 2009.
Lemlem’s character, Mimi, is the favourite of Munit Mesfin, the music and creative director for the Yegna project. Munit has been with the project for two years, since its inception.
“She’s got spunk,” Munit said of Mimi.
Munit, who has been active and involved in various theatrical and musical projects, not only serves the project by guiding the story-telling in the music and managing the creative content, but is also a source of inspiration for the young ladies.
Lemlem, 26, is just as in love with music as the rest of her band mates, but her true passion lies in acting.
“Music was welcomed in our home, but I really wanted to be an actor,” she told Fortune.
She spends most of her free time watching movies and listening to music; a far cry from the hard tomboy character that she plays in Yegna. She sang on Hagere Zema, produced by Cool Roods Film, before joining the show.
Abegaz Shiota, a prominent musical personality, has been closely involved in making the musical dreams of these young ladies come to life. He has watched the five transform themselves musically and absorb all the training and coaching that has been thrown their way.
It seems that Yegna has massive pulling power, attracting many household names from the Ethiopian artistic world, including; Abraham Wolde, Jah lude and Fikadu Teklemariam.
“I never could have imagined that all of these giant artists would be around to equip me with everything I need,” said Te’ref.
Abegazu has seen significant improvements in the way these young ladies can perform.
“I think they can grow some more,” he told Fortune. “They’ve a lot of potential.”
Zebiba Girma, the third girl, from Lideta District in Addis Abeba, is another talented young lady, who was identified to play the character, Emuye, a ‘mysterious’ girl in the drama.
Zebiba, 21, was a singer and actor in a District youth association and has also worked with local music bands and educational dramas at a national level. She was taking acting and music training at ‘Father’s House’ – an endeavour by Tesfaye Abebe, a living legend in Ethiopia’s artistic landscape, when Yegna’s team came to her school to hold auditions.
Her first audition was held the same day that she took her 12th grade exams. She succeeded in both.
“I put the majority of my focus into the exam,” she told Fortune. “But, I did divert just a little to the audition.”
Even though her scores qualified her to join a university, she chose instead to join Yegna.
“Art is my life,” Zebiba said.
Eyerusalem Kelemework, 24, is girl number four, who play “the genius” character, Sara. She too was working in the Hindeke play, alongside Te’ref, when she heard about the Yegna auditions.
Born and raised in Filwuha area, Kirkos District, Eyerusalem graduated from Entoto Technical Vocational Educational Teaching; formerly, Tefferi Mekonnen School’s Music Department, in 2012. She started singing and writing poems when she was a freshman at high school. She would read her work aloud in front of her classmates before class started, at her Kimsha.
She is the opposite of her character, who has tight reigns enforced by her family.
“Sara is controlled tightly by her family,” she said. “I, on the other hand, am free as a bird.”
Rahel Getu was the girl who managed to climb further up the fame ladder than the rest of her band mates. She was working on her own music with a local producer when she heard about the Yegna auditions and decided to try out.
She worked at the Arat Kilo Children & Youth Theatre for six years, since she was 11. While she was attending the Drama School at Addis Abeba University, she moonlighted as a nightclub singer. Her performance experience is slightly more than her peers, having performed numerous plays, with a focus on women’s issues, whilst at school. She was one of the dancers on Netsanet Melese’s ‘Bye Bye’ and Balageru Guragigna, as well as numerous other music videos.
“I didn’t have to think twice about joining Yegna, because it was for the empowerment of young women,” she told Fortune.
She is 21, married, and recently, just seven months ago, became a mother for the first time.
“I didn’t take any time off during my pregnancy,” she said, explaining her dedication to the project.
Another hometown breed, she was born around Ambassador Cinema. Her character, Lemlem, is known as ‘The Dependable’ one.
“Our team is now one in spirit, our every step is synchronised and we have become best friends,” she told Fortune.
It was after the auditions that the five chosen young ladies met each other; some of them for the first time. Although they did not know each other previously, they bonded over their aspiration for music and art. Coming together from such different walks of life, the five started vocal, dancing and acting trainings under the Yegna project.
Their training, however, does not stop there. Their schedules are rigorous. They go to the gym and swimming at Vigor Fitness, in Laphto Mall.
“It has been intensive training, including Saturdays and Sundays, in order to empower them, which is the ultimate goal of Girl Hub,” said Aida of Mango Productions, who produced the talk show, dramas and music videos.
Mango, established in 2003, has recently produced an album for Jano Band. It was also the production company for Guzo, the first ever Ethiopian docu-drama, which received glowing reviews, both locally and on the international stage.
Once the group was formed, all five of the young ladies were given characters suitable to the theme of Yegna.
“I love my character,” Zebiba told Fortune.
She believes in living up to peoples’ expectations, especially after the drama and music video went public and she started getting attention.
But, the girls do not all have the same opinion about this. Te’ref thinks in a totally different manner.
“People should not expect my character to be similar in real life,” she said. “My real personality is more like Mimi, Lemlem’s character.”
The first year was spent conducting studies on the various characters in society, according to Selome.
The team discovered that there are five fundamental types of girls’ characters in Ethiopian society, which are manifested in the five girls that Yegna has branded. Each character has its own book, based on the research conducted, from which the scripts were written. Out of the six script writers, who travelled to different villages for two weeks, two were selected.
The scripts aim to promote trust and confidence among girls and persuade the community around them to allow space for engagement.
“We came up with the idea to achieve these goals through the girls,” Selome, of Emerge, told Fortune.
The first two companies have been working with their own financing, for over a year. It was after the agreement for representation was signed by the three companies, on December 30, 2012, that 5.4 million pounds was pledged by DfID, to be disbursed over three years, based on performance.
“The three companies have fused together so well that there are no clear lines between them,” said Selome. “It is the first ever functional cooperation I have seen between companies.”
Such cooperation is now yielding fruit, with a radio drama of 13 episodes launched on Sheger 102 FM station. Each episode will have its own music video, with music composed by Abegaz. The drama will be followed by a radio talk show, where people can phone up to join in. The final product is what campaigners call “Yegna Box” – a sort of toolkit, where five girls will be handed out games that will help them develop life skills and advance education, Selome disclosed.
This will be piloted in 15 locations outside Addis Abeba, according to Selome.
In addition to this, thereis a 600-strong army of young girls, brought in from colleges in Amhara Regional State, who have been designated the title of ambassadors to promote “girls’ empowerment” among their respective communities.
“Our society is not open to girls who want to follow their dreams and join the arts, or pursue their education,” said Zebiba. “They too easily give up on their dreams.”
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