Recently, I have had the chance to interview the venerable journalist Ellene Mocria whom I have known for some years. We met at Sidra International Hotel located close to her home twice, on each occasion the interview run for hours. During our meetings, Ellene was charming, open, direct, and communicative all the time.
Ellene is a major force in the history of Ethiopian journalism-one of the pioneers in radio and television broadcasting in the country.
She broke new ground for female journalists with a number of admirable achievements. She was the first female news caster and producer when the Voice of Ethiopia, as it was then known; began daily English broadcasts to Europe and West Africa in 1962, and added another broadcasting milestone to her career when she became the first woman television journalist in Ethiopia. “When Ethiopian Television began broadcasting, before Emperor Haile Selassie delivered his inaugural speech, the task of introducing him naturally fell on the Director General of ETV- Samuel Ferenji. However, someone had to introduce Samuel and summarize the first ETV program,” she recalls. She was that person and that made her not only the first female TV announcer, both in English and Amharic, but also the first person to ever appear on the screen.
She is a deadline-driven journalist at her core, having paid her dues as a cub reporter, foreign correspondent, general assignment presenter. Friends and colleagues say she loves journalism and was always engaged in getting the story right and telling it. The late Paul Henze, a former diplomat and expert on Ethiopian politics, described her as “a delightful traveling companion” after they travelled together from Addis Ababa to Wellega in the spring of 1988 along with other press people. “She was interested in everything, ready to jump out to explore a village or a market, talk to people or admire scenery. And she never hesitated to express her opinion of anything she saw,” Paul Henze wrote.
Ellene was born on October 10, 1941 to her mother Suzi Workneh and her father Mocria Wolde Selassie in Addis Ababa. Her father, Mocria Wolde Selassie, was an important figure, a hardworking agriculturalist and earning an Italian title, agronom jometra. He was one of the first students of Menelik II Secondary School where he was educated in French. Educated in Italy before the war, he also became proficient in Italian. Back home, he was to be one of the personalities who founded agricultural schools of Ambo, Jimma and Alemaya, after having worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and been in charge of Awash Valley Authority. He had also authored a number of books about coffee farm.
Ellene’s mother, Woizero Susie Workneh, came from large family and was one of the thirteen children of Hakim Workneh Eshete (also known as Dr. Charles Martin), the renowned statesman, diplomat and Ethiopia’s first western trained physician. Immediately following the attempt on the life of the Fascist Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani, Susie was arrested along with her mother Woizero Ketselawork Tullu, her sisters and was sent to Italy to the island of Asinara and moved to Ponza where they stayed for three years as prisoner. After returning to Ethiopia, she was married to Mocria Wolde Selassie and they had four daughters, one of them adopted. They also brought up four boys and lived for 58 years together. Though she spoke, wrote and read English well, Susie did not have a formal education. However, she encouraged her daughter’s academic progress and lived to see all her triumphs until she was 82 years old. Ellene says her mother was the official representative of all her family members and all handled all issues including court cases etc.
The young Ellene went to the Sanford English School where she was academically distinguished, becoming member of a girl’s scout, monitor and member of the theatrical group of the school. She enjoyed a carefree, tomboyish life riding horses, playing tennis. When her mother was out of town attending farming issues, she and her sister had to walk to school; thus she recalls “It was me who interfered whenever the unruly boys approached my sister,” she jokes. Ellene recalls that she used to be the only Ethiopian in the ladies horse race which was held regularly at the Racing Club, in front of Menelik Hospital in the 60’s, winning several times. “However, because the horse I raced on belonged to an Italian man, he was the one who received all the trophies,” she says.
After graduating from Sanford, she was given a scholarship and was sent to Lebanon to study nursing at the American University of Beirut along with two other young ladies. “I stayed there for a year. It was a boarding school. I used to teach dancing and sports to my classmates.”
One time, Ellene, in her eagerness to be useful, happened to give a wrong prescription to a patient, and immediately aware of her mistakes, she quickly informed her teacher. Thus, the school director warned her that one more incidence of this sort would mean expulsion. Unfortunately, the drug error was repeated, in spite of her friend’s insistence she not disclose this, Ellene went straight to the director and confessed. The director told her that she had too many interests and was too active to be a nurse. Hence, she was expelled and never completed the course.
Once back in Ethiopia, Ellene decided to join Addis Ababa University and prepare to go to social work. “I had no ambition to be a journalist. I wanted to be a social worker. I applied to the Addis Ababa University to pursue my dream but never had a response,” she recalls. In the meantime, responding to a job advertisement for an English radio announcer and newscaster, for the just established External Service of Radio Ethiopia (which would broadcast to different parts of Africa and Europe), Ellene’s dream for further studies was put to an end. She passed the written and voice test and was hired as program producer and news caster in English at the External Service on September 2, 1962. “That was how I came into media. It became my forte. I took some training on the job but it was my command of the English language that empowered me to become successful.” she recalls. Besides presenting the news live regularly, she also produced and presented various music programs; the most famous of these being “Music to Remember” and “Lie Back and Listen.” She found the job very interesting and having to spend a lot of time in the music library, she began to organize and catalogue the collections. Eventually, she was given a course in transcription librarianship and started to add more collections of her own and those of her friends and extended family. Eventually, she was promoted to head the Transcription Library as well as continuing to produce her various programs and the news.
During that period, she recorded music by the then existing bands and orchestras, and also built the library with a collection of well over a hundred 78 rpm records produced by the Italians during the occupation, almost from the inception of musical recording, she said. Some of the records are by such renowned singers as Negatwa Kelkye and her husband Ferede Golla, Etagennho Haile (also known as Zeraffay) Bafana Gobaze, Bogalech Yimer, Abebech Azene, Beyene Omardin, and Mesganaw Adugna. Some are essentially vocal, while others accompany the bagana, masenqo, kirar and other Ethiopian musical instruments.(Ellene had forgotten these precious discs at the ministry but some years after her retirement, she was reminded about them and they were sent back to her. Francis Falceto having heard of her collections, asked to borrow these historical records which she graciously lent him and he has digitalized and presented a few selections as CDs for his series ethiopiques collection. A few years ago, she presented these collections to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, and was officially thanked by the then director, Prof. Richard Pankhurst. Unfortunately, she recently found out that they were being kept in very bad condition there.)
Beyond her up-for-anything style, of course, is a dogged determination to blend in, to try something new. In the 1964, when the Ethiopian Television started its operation, Ellene along with Samuel Ferenji became one of the first television journalists in the country. At the same time, she was still working in radio productions and presented the news live, as well as two programs a week on television.TV Mag was one of her popular presentations. She also conducted interviews with well-known personalities in her program, “Guest of the Week” on ETV. As busy as she was, she still found time to organize the film library.
Her keen interest in social work has proved to be important to her subsequent work. A little before the dawn of the revolution, Ellene would quit TV and joined the Young Women Christian Association as Coordinator of their vocational schools, which included a dress making school for girls who have reached grade 7 but could not continue and a nursery aid school, for about a year. After the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, lots of the workers were arrested and the whole educational centre was suffering for lack of finances. Ellene then went around raising money from every corner so that the trainees would graduate –which they did. Eventually, the YWCA was nationalized and the schools closed down. Ellene took a low profile during those times, taking a break from media work. Then a friend who came from abroad persuaded her to apply to the Radio Voice of the Gospel (RVOG). Although Ellene handed in a late application, her reputation secured her a post. Owned by the Lutheran World Federation, seventy per cent of the RVOG’s programs were religious.RVOG provided a world-wide service in several languages and was later nationalized after the revolution and rechristened as the Voice of Revolutionary Ethiopia. Thus, she was back where she started under the Ministry of Information. Obviously, a lot of changes were made to the station. “The first thing we had to do was to heap insults on the previous government and glorify communism. Then we were allowed to start our programs.” Ellene used to present the news and host three programs per week, Guest of the Week, Introducing Ethiopia and Kaleidoscope.
Four years after EPRDF rebels arrived in Addis Ababa, she was told that her voice would not be heard over the radio. This made her very sad. However, a week later,for reasons best known to the officials at the ministry, she was promoted to Head of the Public Relations Office of the External Service of Radio Ethiopia. She was pensioned a year later, which Ellene counted as a “firing.” “They probably thought I was a member of the party of the Derg (the Military Junta) because I was a member of Shengo (parliament). Not because I chose to, nor was I a party member. Because I spoke English well, they wanted me to be with them when they travelled. In fact, I was imprisoned for a day because I refused to be a party member. Anyway, I got a chance to go to Russia and London as a delegate,” she says.
A year before she left her job, Ellene teamed up with friends and like-minded colleagues to form a company called SELMA. It was a share company comprised of professional women to act as consultancy and communication service. Ellene served as a chairperson for a number of years.
Ellene holds a number of journalists in high regard, speaking of their integrity and adherence to the professional standards including the first female journalist and author the late Romanworq Kassahun. Ellene particularly remembers Woizero Alemseged Herouy who passed away in 2014. “I’ve known her for many years. We were more or less hired together for the External Service of Radio Ethiopia: her in the French service and me for the English. She also worked as an Anglophone journalist. She was the only trained trainer of journalists and in that capacity, went all over Africa to train. She was very knowledgeable and professional in every aspect of life. Alem as she was affectionately called was a very careful and caring individual,” Ellene says.
Ellene says she had the good fortune to have such qualified men of caliber at External Service, Solomon Deressa and Gedamu Abraha for boss. “Solomon was a capable man. He called out fault where he saw it and he would get impatient with the staff who would keep making it. Because, he himself was a perfectionist. The late Gedamu was equally capable. He could be rather moody and fluctuated. But they were both kind to me. You don’t get many like them.”
One of the most cherished experiences in journalism was the time Ellene spent working as BBC correspondent after her retirements from the Ethiopian Ministry of Information. During her seven years as correspondent, she reported on several colourful and thought-provoking stories including lack of fair trade for Ethiopian coffee growers; cleaning Addis project; and the horrible experience of female circumcision, or genital mutilation. With insight and thoroughness, she brought news of the good, the bad with unwavering fairness.
Her journalism at times proved dangerous when even she was trying to report even about innocent looking subject as fast food in the streets of Addis Ababa. While on assignment for the BBC trying to talk to people engaged in fast food production in Mercato area, “A soldier came to me and asked about my intentions. I showed him my license which was given to me by the Ministry of Information and explained to him about the program I was doing. He was reluctant to listen to me and he called for assistance and a police car came over and they drove me to a police station. My daughter was with me and drove following us. She was so scared and tears streaming down her face. It was so ridiculous. I was told to sit and listened to him as he was telephoning here and there trying to justify himself till finally one official, who was in the other line, must have asked him the reason for my arrest. His answer, to my great surprise was “You know, she is broadcasting about our county’s economy”. The official told the security person that I had a right and ordered him to let me go,” Ellene recalls. Of course, by then it was too late to file interviews she had collected, hence it was never aired.
Throughout her career, Ellene produced and narrated films and video productions on Ethiopia and other topics for government and non-governmental organizations. She presented fashion shows for charity organizations i.e. Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Association; The International Women’s Club and others and acted as Master of Ceremonies for charity organizations voluntarily. She has regularly been English language presenter of live folk musical shows at the National Theatre, during special performances for visiting head of states and dignitaries.
In 2001, when the British Council gave a training of trainer course to journalists and Ellene was one of those personalities included in the training. After the course was over, she gave training to journalists on the job, also sponsored by the Council.
Beginning January 2002, for one year, she was the announcer in English of programs and also the coordinator for the United Nations Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) known as Radio UNMEE. This included broadcasts in English and in three other local languages, Amharic, Afaan Oromo and Tigrigna. The Amharic was presented by the famous radio and theatre personality, Debebe Eshetu.
Ellene was previously member of, to name a few the now extinct ones: Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Association, Social Service Society of Ethiopia; National Literacy Campaign of Ethiopia; and for many years as board member & treasurer of the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia (FGAE). Still active ones the Horticulture Society of Ethiopia; International Women’s Club, the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of the Addis Ababa University, the YWCA and Fund Raising member of the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Association(NEWA). Ellene is also program committee member of the Philatelic Association of Ethiopia. Ever since foundation, she has been the Chairperson and member of the African Village Financial Service (AVFS) a micro finance institute particularly focusing on the improvement of the lives of poor women. Regarding media and journalism, she is a founding member of the Ethiopian Media Women Association (EMWA) and is still active as board member. She was the only Ethiopian member of the following: International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRAT) and the African Women Media Committee (AWMA) as Advisory Committee member and others.
She was also a member of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) as a Senior Media Consultant having been employed in early May 2004, to assist with the International Conference on ‘The African Child and The Family’ which was held at African Union (AU) during May 21-22, 2004.
Over the course of her long career, she was honoured with various decorations and awards, and she was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles. Even as a 23-year-old novice journalist, Ellene made it to the cover the Ethiopia Mirror magazine, with a rewarding article written by Tegegne Yeteshawork, vividly portraying her youthful eagerness. She also made it to the cover of Italian language magazine Sestante, a semi-annual magazine edited by Mr. Mania Enrico and sponsored by the Ethiopian Ministry of Information. In recent years, she received an award from the UNHCR for a story she did about refugees. Another was for her major role in Channel Four documentary film, produced for Umbrella Pictures by Gill Barnes, about early marriages and their devastating effect on the girls in Ethiopia called Child Brides.
Although currently retired, Ellene is still very active recording narrations for documentary films for different NGOs, researching on various subjects, particularly on women, enjoying her hobbies which include music, photography, gardening, stamp & coins collections etc. “Trees For Life” is a book she had published by Shama Books in which many photos of unusual uses of tree are displayed and includes 100 names of trees in Amharic and English and poems and sayings etc. about trees.
Married to her teenage boyfriend Engineer Seyfu Lemma, for 50 years now, she is the mother of four girls (one adopted) and seven grandchildren. At present, she is also the assistant director of Telsem Media & Communications plc.
(In the second photo: Ellene Mocria is seen with Markos Bekele, another announcer of ETV in the 70’s.)