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Girl Power & Empowerment: Yegna, Ethiopia's Spice Girls

New campaign for girl's rights in Ethiopia spreads the message through a new girl group "Yegna"- Ethiopia's own version of the Spice Girls


In case you missed it, the UK Department for International Development and Girls' Hub (Nike) recently presented their very own version of the Spice Girls in Ethiopia. The combination of a campaign for girl's rights and a music campaign might seem a bit cheeky — but the response to the new power group Yegna and their hit single "Abet" featuring Haile Roots (above) suggests that the campaign is welcomed by audiences throughout the diaspora. Yegna means "ours" in Amharic and the campaign has been specially designed to "provide positive role models for Ethiopian young women and girls through music, radio, drama and so on. Since the project consists of a radio drama, it tells the story of 5 young women from different walks of life whose shared love of music creates an unlikely friendship that each character draws on as she faces different challenges.

The radio drama consists 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, and this will be piloted in 15 locations outside Addis Abeba.

In addition to media aspect of the initiative there will also be "an army of 600 young girls" brought in from colleges in Amhara Regional State, who have been designated the title of ambassadors to promote girl empowerment in their own communities. This project seems like a more practical and active way to address girls running the world, rather than just singing it — over and over again. But the idea does leave us with a few questions. While the original Spice Girls remain influential and popular enough to come out for a World Tour whenever they choose- we think it's fair to say that their model perhaps does not best serve as a template for positivity in young girlhood, particularly within a specific Ethiopian context. In many ways it appears that the initiative is cognizant of this and rather, the tagline "Ethiopian Spice Girls" is being called upon to create visibility for the project but not necessarily indicative of what Yegna truly signifies.

The Yegna project seems like what the Spice Girls wish they could have been in terms of girl or female empowerment (Girl power had many moments, but in reality the idea was somewhat empty and a commodified way to help build the brand that is "The Spice Girls"). Yegna is a creative way to campaign for girl's rights indeed, the question now is how will this translate into material change for young girls and women in Ethiopia- but of course, this is just the beginning.

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"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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