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Maji-Da Abdi


 
Key Achievements:  

Wrote, produced and directed award-winning documentary film, The River that Divides, about women and children forcibly displaced by the Ethio-Eritrean War; successful film producer; director of the 2010 film festival in Addis called Images that Matter, training young East African filmmakers

Current Position: Film Producer, Nomad Films
Birth Place: Dire Dawa, Ethiopia
Birth Date: 1970
Current Home: Dakar, Senegal and Paris, France
 
       
  Primary School  
  Nairobi, Kenya
 
  Secondary School  
  London, Ontario, Canada
 
   
  BA, Business, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
 
   
  Film Producer
 
 
 
   
 

Maji-Da Abdi brings an eclectic array of experiences to her work as a film producer and an activist.  Her life path has taken her in many different directions and her openness to serendipity and her curiosity have brought her rich life experience.  After several years working first in journalism and then in video and film production for others, she created and directed her first film, The River that Divides, a documentary that tells the story of the women and children who were displaced by the Ethio-Eritrean war, which won a Canadian human rights prize.  She also produced The Father, a film directed by Ermias Wolde Amlak, a fictional account of the Red Terror period in Ethiopian history.   Committed to helping others find their voice, she directed the Images that Matter short film festival in Addis, training 137 young people from across East Africa and bringing one hundred films from all over the world to the screen in Addis Ababa.

Born in Diredawa on October 25, 1970, Maji grew up in Addis until she was 4, when her mother, by then divorced from her father, took her and her brother to Nairobi, Kenya, to escape the aftermath of the revolution that occurred in 1974.  After completing primary and most of her secondary school in Nairobi, Maji moved to Canada for her 12th grade year and beyond, completing 12th grade in Montreal and 13th grade in Toronto and then enrolling in the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario to study business and literature. Though she enjoyed her studies, she was acutely aware that most of the other students were hoping to land jobs on Wall Street in the investment business, but her interests lay elsewhere.  Though she completed her degree in business, she also did an honors program in French literature, which she adored.

One year, one of her roommates was a film student from Boston, Massachusetts in the US, who had what seemed to her the fantastically surreal opportunity to spend his time at university watching films and writing about them; it had never occurred to her that this was possible – or that there were parents wouldn’t object to their son or daughter doing this.  That was the first seed planted in her mind about the possibility of working in films.

After completing her degree in Canada, she spent about year in the late 1990’s backpacking in Japan, Nepal, and Thailand, working a bit in each place – teaching English in Japan and working as a forest guide in Nepal.  She was fascinated by Eastern philosophical and spiritual points of view and went to Buddhist retreats in Thailand and Nepal.  Her second push towards the world of film occurred while she was in Nepal in the 1990’s.  Arriving in Nepal, she noticed that a film was being shot in the village where she was staying and she began to photograph the film shoot.  By pure accident, she ran into the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, who was filming The Little Buddha, who invited her to join the other film trainees working with the production, giving her the chance to watch and learn about the process of film production.

Returning to Ethiopia, she began working in businesses owned by her mother, first in Jijiga in a trading and trucking company delivering cement and other building supplies through Jijiga to Gode for dam construction and, second, managing a supermarket in Addis.   Her experience managing the trucking operation was fascinating; her mother had persuaded the Somali chiefs along the road to allow the trucks through.  At first, Maji had a hard time finding a way of working effectively, but, determined to make it work, she eventually was successful in making friends, created a team and got the job done.  Returning to Addis after a few months, she began managing her mother’s supermarket.  In the mid 1990’s, she was introduced by her friend Andreas Eshete, who knew she was miserable at the supermarket, to a Dutch film crew making a documentary in Ethiopia who needed a production manager.  Though she had no real experience, she plunged enthusiastically into the job, gaining enormous experience and a lot of help from her Dutch colleagues who soon realized she was a novice but appreciated her energy and spirit.  From then on, she was in great demand as a production manager in Ethiopia for crews coming from abroad and worked for a number of years in that capacity.  During that period, she also worked as a TV journalist for CNN, long enough to decide that journalism was not what she wanted to do long term.

In 2000, she won a competition for an opportunity to produce her first fiction film, The Father, a story about choices and consequences set in the Red Terror period of the 1970’s in Ethiopia.  In 2001, she released a documentary she directed and produced called The River that Divides, that tells the story of women and children forced to relocate during the Ethio-Eritrean war; the documentary won a Canadian human rights prize.

Meeting her future husband, Mauritanian/Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000, she began to work with him producing films.  With his help, she also met Abraham Hailu Biru there; he was then working as a television cameraman in the Netherlands and she persuaded him to return to Ethiopia to shoot the film The Father for her production team.  Since his return to Ethiopia has been a boon for Ethiopian film, and especially for young people studying film in Ethiopia, Maji is glad to have been a part of bringing him back.   Eventually marrying Abderrahmane Sissako, Maji began to shuttle back and forth between Ethiopia and France where they produced his films and the films of others.  Most recently they created the short Tiye’s Dream in 2008, about a young woman in Ethiopia, as part of a series of short films highlighting the Millennium Development Goals.

Committed to promoting the development of film in Africa and in Ethiopia in particular, Maji directed the Images that Matter short film festival in Addis Ababa in the summer of 2010, in collaboration with Zelalem Woldemariam of Zelalem Productions, with the objective of encouraging the use of film as a personal, social and economic tool for development.  The festival featured workshops and training for over 130 young people and a competition between 25 East African young filmmakers and brought 100 films from around the world to the screen.  One of its high points was the screening of Desert Flower, the story of Somali model Waris Dirie’s escape from an oppressive culture where female genital cutting was the norm; the screening was followed by an intense and moving panel discussion involving experts from across Africa about the dangers and physical harm caused by the practice of female excision.  Maji was glad that the festival was able to shine a spotlight on the importance of eliminating this horrendous practice.  She hopes the festival will continue and help develop the voices of young East Africans in film.

Today the mother of two “divine” young children, Maji is working on completing a home in Senegal and helping to prepare for her husband’s next feature film.  A ballet dancer as a child until her hips began to develop, she is also interested in studying and writing about sacred dance, perhaps returning to school to earn her PhD.

Growing up, Maji was motivated by her desire to alleviate suffering and make the world a better place, a dream that is still with her.  Her heroes were Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, and her chi gong instructor; and she was and continues to be inspired by simple people doing what they do in a dignified way.   She doesn’t believe in obstacles as obstacles, but views them as situations that offer opportunities, adventures to wander upon.  With trust and patience, life will reveal a path.  Trying to achieve peace within herself, she takes time to retreat and meditate in order to find the peace that allows her to give and share.

Maji’s dreams for the future are to help build more peace and understanding; not a nationalist, she believes in universal humanity and looks for ways to help develop that idea.  She believes that women are inherently creative and, as mothers or potential mothers, geared toward love and peace and hope for a better world.  She says that if all of the leadership positions were held by women, there would be fewer wars.  She is especially concerned about the world’s water resources and about the environment generally.

Her advice to young women:  Look deeply inside of yourselves and be confident and patient.  Believe that everything is possible.  Be determined.  If you see something as an opportunity or an adventure to wander upon, you have a completely different energy and you can last longer.  Take heart from history and all the women who have done things against much greater odds than we face today.  Even when conditions seem to be getting worse, as for example is occurring for women in Timbuktu in Mali today,  keep your hope and your inner smile and don’t give up.

 
 
 
  Key Sources  
  Interview with Maji-Da Abdi, June 2012
 
  Researcher  
  Mary-Jane Wagle  
       
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No.
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7 Almaz Haile-Selassie Woderyeleh Gender Activist
 
1947 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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1943 Debre Berhan, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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11 Azeb Worku Sibane Theater, Film, Television  1975 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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1955 Harar, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
13 Berhane Daba Disability Activist
 
1965 Holeta, Oromiya, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
14 Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu Global Business  1980 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
15 Bruktawit Tigabu Tadesse Media: TV Producer Children’s Programming  1981 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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17 Camille De Stoop Environmentally Sound Development  1949 Kortrijk, Belgium Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
18 Catherine Hamlin (Dr.) Obstetric Fistula Care and Prevention  1924 Sydney, Australia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
19 Chachi Tadesse WoldeGiorgis Music, modeling, entrepreneur, community service  - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Atlanta, Georgia, USA Contemporary More ...
20 Derartu Tulu Gemechu, Colonel World Champion Athlete  1972 Bekoji, Arsi Zone, Oromia Region, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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25 Emebet Mulugeta Tefera (Dr.) Academic Teaching and Research  - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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27 Fana Hagos Berhane Education
 
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28 Fatuma Hate Hafilo Advocacy for the Empowerment of Women
 
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29 Frealem Shibabaw Yeneabat Education, Social Entrepreneur  - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Contemporary More ...
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