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6 October 2020

It is over three decades since Edward Said’s book Orientalism took as its epigraph the stark dictum, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” In the intervening years, Said’s work has transformed many disciplines in the humanities, but Ethiopian Studies remains dominated by an orientalist approach. At Princeton University, this manifests in scholarship where the ancient texts of Ethiopia are represented and reinterpreted by a scholar who cannot read them in their original language.


We refer here to the work of Professor Wendy Belcher in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Department for African American Studies. Professor Belcher translated and interpreted The Hagiography of Saint Woletta Petros, and is currently working on The Teamere Mariam, The Kebra Nagast and other texts. However, Professor Belcher does not know Ge’ez, the language of these texts. This, alongside her deliberate disregard for local experts, has resulted in a colonial rewrite of Ethiopian spiritual history.

Professor Belcher, and her co-translator Dr Michael Kleiner, made basic errors in their translation of the hagiography of Woletta Petros and inserted words into the text that distort its meaning. Concerningly, Professor Belcher states that she consulted local experts on the meaning of a key passage in the translation but chose to ignore their explanations. Professor Belcher does not know the language of the text she is co-translating, yet she presents herself as having more authority than the black indigenous scholars who can not only read the book, but understand all the nuances and contexts in which it exists.


In her reading Professor Belcher casts Woletta Petros as a lustful, diseased nun whose visceral disgust for heterosexual sex causes her to call on God to kill her own followers. The translation reproduces stereotypes about Africa as a place of poor sanitation and disease, using western medical speculation as an explanation for the text’s references to spiritual afflictions. 


In the past, Professor Belcher has characterized Ethiopian criticism of her work as homophobic. This is a cynical strategy to erase local experts’ knowledge, relying on the racist assumption that Africans are too ignorant to accept the truth about their own history. It speaks to a real problem within academia, where colonial practices persist but are disguised through rendering Africans as antagonistic to progress. Professor Belcher does this through privilege that positions the western expert as objective, while Africans are biased.


Princeton University has a large collection of Ethiopian Ge’ez manuscripts and scrolls. These texts were written by indigenous religious scholars who wanted to pass on their spiritual beliefs, history and culture to the next generation. It is morally reprehensible to dispossess Africans of their intellectual heritage and allow their books to be interpreted by someone who cannot read them but seeks to write their history. 


Princeton’s scholarship in Western Classics, Near Eastern Studies and Asian Studies is ranked among the highest in the world, a reputation that could not be achieved without high-level language competency. Western universities have a long tradition of requiring students wishing to study the classics to first commit several years to studying the language of primary texts. By supporting and enabling Professor Belcher to publish her translation and interpretation without any knowledge of the source language, Princeton University has violated this basic principle that is set to ensure quality research.


To quote Toni Morrison, a distinguished long-term member of the Princeton faculty, “Racism is a scholarly affair.” Academic freedom must be accompanied by scholarly rigor and compliance with standard ethical processes. Professor Belcher’s failures in both these respects are laid out in detail in Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’ article “Colonial Rewriting of African History: Misinterpretations and Distortions in Belcher and Kleiner’s Life and Struggles of Walatta Petros”, published in the Journal of Afroasiatic Languages, History and Culture (Vol. 9 No. 2 2020). Dr Woldeyes poses critical questions that we believe Princeton University must address about the ways in which the scholarship it supports impinges on the rights of Africans to narrate their own history. 


We, the undersigned, are calling on Princeton University and Princeton University Press to: 


  • Cease support for Professor Belcher and Dr Kleiner’s translation of The Kebra Nagast. 


  • Cease the forthcoming publication of the Princeton University Press title Ladder of Heaven: The Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ethiopian Literature and Art.


  • Ensure that future scholarship at Princeton does not reproduce racist stereotypes, sexualize or racialize black identities, or distort African history. 


  • Ensure that scholars with the appropriate indigenous Ge’ez expertise lead and direct scholarship that involves accessing, translating and interpreting Ethiopian manuscripts and scrolls in Princeton’s collection. Furthermore, translated texts should be presented and subjected to rigorous peer review by Ge’ez experts in Ethiopia before they are published. 


It is time for Africans to tell their own stories to the world. 




Ato Yikunnoamlak Mezgebu Zerabiruk

Director General

Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency, Ethiopia


Kesis Asteraye Tsige

Prominent Ge’ez Scholar

Head of Kansas Debre Sahel Medhanialem Church, USA


Prof. Ephraim Isaac

Board Director

Institute of Semitic Studies, USA

Prof. Bessie Dendrinos

Professor Emerita

National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece


Dr Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

Åbo Akademi University, Finland


Prof. Suvendrini Perera

John Curtin Distinguished Professor

Curtin University, Australia


Professor Tariq Rahman

Professor Emeritus and National Distinguished Professor

Beaconhouse National University, Pakistan


Prof. Robert Phillipson

Emeritus Professor

Copenhagen Business School, Denmark


Prof. Joseph Lo Bianco

Emeritus Professor

University of Melbourne, Australia


Prof. Baden Offord

Director, Centre for Human Rights Education

Curtin University, Australia


Prof. Phil Clark 


SOAS University of London


Prof. Mohamed Daoud


University of Carthage, Tunisia


Prof. Mitsuyo Sakamoto


Sophia University, Japan


Prof. Onwubiko Agozino


Virginia Tech, USA


Prof. Joseph Pugliese


Macquarie University, Australia


Prof. Fikru Negash Gebrekidan


St Thomas University, Canada


Prof. Biniyam Tibebu


Northern Virginia Community College, USA


Dr Aberra Molla

CEO and Founder



Dr Belhu Metaferia 

CEO, One Pupil Inc

Senior Research Scientist, Federal Institute, USA  


Dr Meredith Jones


Brunel University London, UK


Dr Caroline Fleay

Associate Professor

Curtin University, Australia


Dr Setargew Kenaw

Associate Professor

Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia


Dr. Joseph Venosa

Associate Professor

Salisbury University, USA


Dr Gabriel Guillén 
Associate Professor 
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, USA


Ato Agegnehu Adane

Director, Allé School of Fine Arts & Design

Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia


Dr Lisa Hartley

Senior Lecturer

Curtin University, Australia


Dr. Omid Tofighian

Adjunct Lecturer, University of New South Wales, Australia

Honorary Research Associate, University of Sydney, Australia

Dr Hiruiey Ermias

Scholar of Ge’ez Literature

Hamburg, Germany


Dr Mohammed Girma

Research Associate

University of Pretoria, South Africa


Dr Tayechalem Moges

Human Rights and Gender Equality Researcher

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Dr Mengistu Gobezie Worku

Assistant Professor

Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia


Dr Tilahun Emiru

Assistant Professor

Lake Forest College, USA


Dr Yonas Ashine Demisse

Assistant Professor

Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia


Dr Yohannes Gedamu


Georgia Gwinnett College, USA


Dr Dean Chan

Research Development Consultant

Curtin University, Australia


Dr. Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

LSE Fellow

London School of Economics and Political Science, UK


Dr Theodros A. Teklu

Lecturer, Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, Ethiopia

Research Fellow, Stellenbosch University, South Africa


Dr Rebecca Higgie

Scholar & Author

Perth, Australia


Ms Yodit Negede Gedamu

Researcher & Author

Wilmington University, USA

Ato Brook Abdu


Institute of Semitic Studies, USA


W/ro Mahlet Ayele Beyecha


Connect Africa, Netherlands


Ato Tekletsadik Belachew Nigru


Concordia Seminary, St. Louis MO, USA


Ato Shimeles Mekonen

Founder and Board Director

Your Ethiopian Professionals Network (YEP), USA


Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes

Senior Lecturer

Curtin University, Australia

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