Remembering Muluemebet Emiru: Africa’s First Woman Pilot

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This coming Saturday Ethiopia will celebrate the end to Italy’s invasion of the Horn of African country, as it has done every year for more than half a century. While the rest of Ethiopia commemorates the second victory of gallant Ethiopian patriots over a European power, May 5 evokes memories to one family in Addis Ababa of the dream of Africa’s first woman pilot, which was cut short by the invasion.
As it did to several lives and to Ethiopia as a nation, the 1936 Italian invasion and the subsequent occupation over five years discontinued Muluemebet’s dream of flying across borders and becoming a pioneer in African aviation history. However, it never took away the honour of being Africa’s first woman pilot, who flew across Addis Ababa over 70 years ago.
Muluemebet Emiru would have been in her 90’s had she lived to this day; and would have happily talked, as is the custom for most Ethiopian elders, about her youthful passion for flying, during a time when even the advanced West still maintained limiting stereotypes about women.  
At that time’s Ethiopian society, the highlight of women’s lives was generally linked to getting married and then keeping the family fed and the house in order.
“I was very young when the first planes came to Addis,” she was quoted in an early 1980’s issue of Selamta, the in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s best, which started service around the same time Muluemebet began her pilot training.
These planes were kept at an old Polo Ground in Addis Ababa from where they were flown every day for postal, military and training services.
Muluemebet was among the seven Ethiopian students who were trained by a few European teachers on two planes dedicated for training – a French model and an English Tiger Moth. She flew the Tiger Moth a number of times a week over Addis Ababa to the envy of her friends. Among the trainers was Colonel Baharu Kaba – who later became Ethiopian Airlines’ first pilot, and an African American, Colonel J. C. Robinson. 
To prepare herself to become a pilot, Muluemebet had to learn how to drive a car and acquire a drivers’ license, which also made her Ethiopia’s first female licensed driver.  She may be the first woman in all of Africa to obtain a driver’s license at that age.
“It was 1926 in the Ethiopian calendar; that would be 1934 in the world calendar,” she told Selamta. This was a time with no runways like today other than the grass Polo Ground. “I would fly several times a week – always over Addis. It was an unusual experience and my friends all envied me.”
The pilots then had the idea of starting air services in Ethiopia which she believed led to the birth of Ethiopian Airlines. “It didn’t get very far at the time of course, because of the invasion by Italy,” she said. And neither did her dream. After training for two years and making her first solo flight, the 1936 Italian invasion cut short the journey of a woman who saw the sky as the only limit.  
“I was overwhelmed. It was a tremendous thrill though I did not realize at the time… that I was Africa’s first woman pilot,” she spoke of the solo experience. 
She wanted a career as a pilot which was just a year away but was forced to marry and go into hiding for she was on the list of most wanted Ethiopians by the Italians.“But with the war, I gave up flying. Indeed I got married.”
The Italians wanted to apprehend her because they heard of Africa’s only woman pilot training while they were preparing to invade her country. And Muluemebet knew if she fell in the hands of the Italians, she would have been hanged. Hence, her family and relatives disseminated information that she went into exile with Emperor Haile-Selassie I.       
Now all that remains of that distant past are her story and some pictures, including a large one of her at the controls after her epic flight, being greeted by instructors Baharu and Robinson.
But some of her male colleagues graduated.  “Of course during the war with Italy they continued flying – taking supplies and fuel to the frontline. But I just dropped out. I suppose in those days they thought war was not a thing for a woman,” Muluemebet elaborated.      
Though Muluemebet’s dream of becoming a professional pilot was shattered by the invasion, her family now treasures the fact that she was the first African woman to break some of the age-old misconceptions about women.
At a time when the issue of women was not even worth a news headline, Muluemebet showed, not in theory, but by doing it herself, and in spite of prevailing attitudes that women were capable of doing anything, according to Aman Adinew, her grandson.
The highly motivated and driven Ethiopian-American grandson who worked for years in the aviation industry in the US and is now an investor in Ethiopia, attributes his work ethic and determination to make things happen, partly to the example his grandmother set during a time, he believed, that it was totally impossible to achieve what she achieved.
“I have always stated that determination and courage are virtues I learned from my grandmother. I am proud to be her grandson as well as to have known her… she was an amazing lady,” Aman states. “Her determination inspires me and my siblings to this day to pursue our dreams, and try new things which may be outside of the established view.”
Aman’s mother, Metasebiya Zewde, is one of Muluemebet’s daughters who still cherishes her courage and pioneering endeavours.
“She had a great moral and curiosity to try things by herself. She was very confident who never depended on someone else. And that is what I learnt from my mother,” said Metasebiya Zewde.   
And the dreams of the likes of Muluemebet gave birth to what is now one of the most preferred and successful airlines in the world, Ethiopian.
“I remember well when Ethiopian Airlines began operations in 1946. They had just a few small planes,” she recalled.
Now Ethiopian is the only African airliner to order the yet to be delivered huge Boeing 787 Dreameliner jet and the second in the word after the Japanese All Nippon Airways.  
“I would like to think that those of us who flew those little planes off the Polo Ground 50 years ago played some small part in making Ethiopian what it is now – Africa’s finest airline,” she said during the 1980’s interview with Selamata writer.           
Muluemebet raised seven children – six daughters and a son – with her spouse Lij Zewde Kidanewold. After the war ended, Muluemebet and her husband got into many businesses ventures including, Ras Mekonnen bar in Piazza (a night club that featured the first Italian musical band), a winery and later coffee farming in Harar until the end of Emperor Haile-Selassie’s regime in 1974.