The seventeenth-century Ethiopian book The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Wälättä Petros (Gadla Walatta Petros) features a life-long partnership between two women and the depiction of same-sex sexuality among nuns. The earliest known book-length biography about the life of an African woman, written in 1672 in the Ge'ez language, Gädlä Wällättä Petros is an extraordinary account of early modern African women's lives--full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph. It features revered Ethiopian religious leader Wällättä PÌ£etros (1592-1642), who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism in Ethiopia in a successful fight to retain African Christian beliefs, for which she was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church. An important part of the text is her friendship with another nun, as they "lived together in mutual love, like soul and body" until death. Interpreting the women's relationships in this Ethiopian text requires care, but queer theory provides useful warnings, framing, and interpretive tools.
Wendy Laura Belcher is associate professor of African literature in Princeton University’s Department of Comparative Literature and Center for African American Studies. She has been studying African literature for over two decades and is now working to bring attention to early African literature through her research and translation. She also studies how African thought has informed a global traffic of invention, recently publishing Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: English Thought in the Making of an English Author (Oxford, 2012) and is finalizing the translation of The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Translation of a Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an African Woman with Michael Kleiner, which is perhaps the earliest biography of an African woman.