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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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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