Sophia Yilma Deressa: Ethiopian media legend

Phindile Xaba

Ethiopian media legend, whose legacy remains engraved in the hearts and minds of her compatriots for her social change agency, has nerves of steel. Once incarcerated without trial, her parents were imprisoned and her husband was executed for unknown reasons. She endured all this under the Derg regime but continued her unwavering civic activism until independence.

Sophia Yilma Deressa has come full circle. She and her five siblings lived and travelled all over the world and received part of their education in the United States. Deressa is the second of six children born to Elsabeth Workeneh and Yilma Deressa, both of whom held indelible places in Ethiopian history. Her mother was daughter to Hakim Workneh Eshete, Ethiopia’s first physician and surgeon, while her father, Yilma Deressa, was a member of the Oromo nobility of the Welega province.

Raised by diplomats

Deressa’s father was Ethiopia’s first ambassador to the US serving between 1953-1957, which is why they left home. She attended several institutions including the Georgetown Day School, the Baldwin School for Girls in Washington DC and Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. Upon returning to Ethiopia at the end of his ambassadorship, her father worked to build up a new system of finance for the country and served as finance minister between 1957 and 1970. Deressa would complete Grade 12 at Haile Selassie First Day School, now known as Yekatit 12 School.

“My parents always encouraged me to take up writing. Both my father and my mother had many passions, yet it was their love of books that remained most engraved upon me,” said Deressa during an interview with the Ethiopia Observer. That was to influence her career path as a print journalist.

Deressa’s journey in journalism

After high school Deressa studied at Haile Selassie I University, but dropped out to work for Ethiopian Radio with pioneering women broadcasters such as Romanework Kassahun and Ellene Mocria but was only there for a few months.

“I realised that broadcasting was not my cup of tea. I preferred writing for a press,” she said during an interview with the Observer.

At 19, in 1961 she walked into the Ethiopian Herald where she was hired as a reporter making her the youngest, first and only woman journalist. By 1962 she had been appointed editor of the women’s page and progressed to edit the whole section. Her commitment to prioritising women’s voices made her a recognisable figure.

While at the Ethiopian Herald, she felt the need to improve her skills and took two years to study journalism at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. After graduating with a diploma in journalism she went back home and continued to work at the Herald. She left the newspaper not long after marrying its editor Tegegne Yeteshawork and went to join Telecommunication Corporation as a public relation officer, producing an house magazine Telenegarit and leading both internal and external public relations. Yeteshawork and Deressa had a son together. Her husband would later leave the Herald to serve as deputy minister of information, in Haile Selassie’s government.

Revolution and imprisonment

In 1974 Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Selassie in a bloody coup, which allowed the iron fist military junta to reign until 1991, claiming at least 2 million lives. The coup was followed by rampant arrests and Mengistu’s henchmen assassinating the emperor and most of his cabinet at the time. However Deressa’s father’s life was spared as he had been at the core of the formation of the modern Ethiopian military, and the rank and file would not have accepted his killing. Instead he was imprisoned and would die five years later of untreated stomach cancer. Sophia’s husband was also arrested by the Derg and executed along with 60 other imperial officials on November 23, 1974. Sophia herself was arrested in 1976 and, with her mother, held in detention for seven months at the Kerchele Prison (commonly called Alem Bekagn – “Farewell to the World”), the same prison where her husband had been executed.

“It was chaos everywhere. I’ve never witnessed anything like it. I had a four-year-old son with Tegegne. I was picked up and arrested from the Telecommunication Office and put behind bars for seven months. During my imprisonment, my son had been cared for by my sister and cousins,” she told the Observer.

Politics and opposition

Upon her release from prison, she returned to Ethiopian Telecommunications, working in its public relations and customer service departments to support her family. She retired in 1997. After that she worked for eight years as public relations officer for the Integrated Holistic Approach Urban Development Project founded by Jember Tefere. The organisation mainly did developmental work in the country’s slums. She left after a while to venture into opposition politics.

In 2005 she founded the Ethiopian Democratic Action Group (EDAG), a liberal democratic party. She later joined Lidetu Ayalew at the Ethiopian Democratic Unity Party, where she became the party’s vice-president. The party was part of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy.

She ran again for parliament in the 2010 elections, but was defeated. Despite this setback, she worked to rebuild the party and re-branded it to the Ethiopian Democratic Party. She has taken a vocal role in the Ethiopian opposition. She remained vice-president of the party but these days she tends to stay out of the public eye, spending time in the Ropack Real Estate on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.

First published in on 26 March, 2019.

In collaboration with Mail and Guardian

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