DEBRE ZEIT, Ethiopia (GPI)-- Hanna Wedaje, 24, is the only woman here who owns and drives a horse-drawn cart for a living.
The horse-drawn cart, or “gari,” is the main form of transportation in Debre Zeit. Throughout Ethiopia, local men dominate the ownership and operation of gari transport.
But Wedaje is breaking the established custom by becoming the first and only female to own and drive a gari in the town, where she has lived for the past eight years.
Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, Wedaje says she dropped out of school in sixth grade.
“My parents couldn’t afford to pay my schooling any further,” she says at the gari park in Debre Zeit. She had a chance to go abroad to work as a maid, a common practice for uneducated Ethiopian girls. But she declined because she wanted to find work in her country.
She got a scholarship to be trained in beauty and hairdressing. But she couldn’t afford to buy the necessary equipment to open her own salon.
Today she is married and the mother of a 6-year-old daughter. She says she wanted to work to help support her family. So after asking her husband about how to become self-employed, she started her own job as a driver of a horse cart one year ago with 12,000 birr ($660) as capital.
“It is better to help myself than waiting for others to help me,” she says.
Wedaje says that she is doing well, earning a minimum of 70 birr ($4) a day. She lives with her family in an affordable home that she rents from the government.
She says she feels successful, and her husband’s support contributes much to her success.
“We are helping each other,” she says. “When he comes home early, he does the household activities that are considered to a women’s job in the community, such as cleaning the house, making stew and washing clothes.”
Wedaje and her husband are redefining gender roles in the small town of Debre Zeit, as she works as the first and only female gari driver while her husband takes care of domestic duties. Although some customers question a woman’s ability to drive a gari, authorities in the industry say that Wedaje has proven to be more responsible than her male counterparts. Wedaje says she aspires to educate her entire family and encourages all women to find an independent source of income so they too can care for their families.
Debre Zeit, which means “mountain of olives” in Amharic, the language spoken in Ethiopia, is often referred to by its Oromo name, Bishoftu. Although it is considered one of Ethiopia’s emerging towns, its infrastructure is underdeveloped. Most roads are gravel, and the primary means of transportation is still the traditional gari.
Wedaje’s husband, Samuel Ketema, says that he always wants to support his wife in her work, acknowledging that gari transport is a male-dominated business. He works as a daily laborer and takes care of every household activity, except baking “injera,” the staple food in Ethiopia made from a local grain.
“I face a challenge from the female and male members of the community for doing ‘women’s work,’” he says.
But he says this does not stop him from supporting his wife. In addition to taking on domestic duties, he says he sometimes helps her drive the cart when she tires on the sunny days.
“Women should have their own work and shall not depend on the mere income of their husband,” he says.