Tsahai Haile Selassie (1919–1942)

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Tsahai Haile Selassie (1919–1942)

Ethiopian princess and nurse. Name variations: Princess Tsahai Worq; Tsahaiwork; Tsehai. Born on October 13, 1919, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; died on August 17, 1942, in Lekemti, Ethiopia; youngest of six children of Tafari Makonnen, later Haile Selassie I (1892–1975), emperor of Ethiopia (r. 1930–1974), and Waizero Menen (1889–1962); attended schools in England and Switzerland; trained as a nurse at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children; graduated as a registered state children's nurse on August 25, 1939; married Colonel Abiye Ababa (a military officer), on April 26, 1942; no children.

The youngest daughter of Menen and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Princess Tsahai was born in 1919, when her father, a distant cousin of the ruling empress Zauditu , was still regent of Ethiopia and next in line for the throne. (Called "the garden of Africa," Ethiopia was at the time surrounded by colonial states, many of which were controlled by Italy.) As a young child, the princess lived with her six siblings in a compound known as the Little Gebbi (little palace), quite removed from the abject poverty of her country. From age eight, she attended school in England and Switzerland, and during vacations traveled with her royal relatives to France and Germany, learning each country's language as well as English. Even at her young age, the princess was impressed by the quality of life in Europe compared to the almost primitive conditions in her own nation.

Upon the death of Empress Zauditu in 1930 and the coronation of Haile Selassie as emperor, Tsahai's formal education was temporarily halted. She returned home and became involved in the royal activities of palace life. In the absence of her grown brothers and sisters, who had either married or were away at school, the princess became her father's close companion and confidante, accompanying him on official tours and frequently filling in for her mother at official dinners. Not yet a teenager, she was described at the time as possessing the dignity and grace of a mature woman.

By 1934, Haile Selassie had made great strides in reforming his country. Stone buildings were erected, foreign trade was increased, roads were widened, and schools and hospitals were built. In 1935, however, the emperor was sidetracked by Italy's attempt to absorb his country into its border colonies. A series of incidents in Ethiopia near the Italian frontiers deepened the threat of war, but when Haile Selassie appealed to the League of Nations to name Italy as an aggressor and impose sanctions, his plea fell on deaf ears. As her father prepared the country for battle, Tsahai convinced him to let her take an active role in the country's defense. In August 1935, under her sponsorship, the Ethiopian Women's Welfare Work Association (EWWWA) was formed, with a mission to expand health and welfare programs. With the threat of war, however, its members collected food and supplies for Ethiopian soldiers. The princess also worked with the new Ethiopian Red Cross, headed by Geuta Herrouy . Later, when the Italian army invaded, Tsahai worked as a volunteer with the first field ambulance of the emperor's army. As the war escalated, however, Ethiopia was crushed by Italian forces, and it became necessary for the emperor to send his wife and children to safety in England. As they were en route, Benito Mussolini announced the annexation of Ethiopia.

After another unsuccessful attempt to personally plead the cause of his country before the League of Nations in Geneva, Haile Selassie joined his family in Bath, England, where they lived in exile for the next five years. Welcomed as celebrities, the small group of Ethiopians was bombarded by journalists and news photographers. Princess Tsahai served as an interpreter for her mother and father and also became a spokesperson for her country, speaking before both large and small audiences about the plight of her people. The English were not only welcoming, but helpful to the Ethiopian cause. Sylvia Pankhurst founded and edited the New Times and Ethiopia News, in hopes of spreading the truth about Ethiopia. Other Englishwomen organized the Friends of Abyssinia, dedicated to helping Ethiopian war victims.

At age 17, Tsahai decided that she wanted to become a nurse. Up until that time, no Ethiopian woman had ever trained as a nurse, and no woman of royal blood had ever worked at a profession. Her father, however, believing that in the long run his people would benefit, gave his consent. Another Englishwoman, Lady Barton , the wife of the former British minister to Ethiopia, arranged for the princess to interview with the Matron of London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, where she began training as a resident student nurse in August 1936.

Tsahai asked for no favors or special treatment, working alongside the other student nurses for the required 56 hours a week and earning a year's salary of £20. In August 1939, she graduated as a State Registered Children's Nurse, then received permission to continue her studies at London's Guy's Hospital, with the intention of becoming a State Registered General Trained Nurse. With the outbreak of World War II, the Probationers' School of Guy's had been moved to Pembury Hospital, some 29 miles southeast of London, and it was there that she enrolled in February 1940. The temporary housing for students was primitive, with no central heating and minimal sanitary facilities. The princess accepted a room with five other nurses, and when later offered an opportunity to move to a private nurses' home attached to the main hospital, turned it down. "I would not think of leaving the other nurses," she said. "I must be treated like everyone else."

After a year at Pembury, during which time the Nazis made their first mass air bombing on London, Tsahai was transferred to Farnborough, another base hospital. In March 1941, she was transferred again, to Guy's Hospital in London. On May 5, 1941, just months before she was to take her final state examinations, Haile Selassie made his state entry into the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, to begin the process of liberation. The princess was ordered by her father to return home with her mother. Three British Red Cross Nurse volunteered to accompany the royal party to help her continue her nursing work in Ethiopia.

The journey home took three months, during which time the liberation was completed. Tsahai immediately went to work with the British Red Cross unit, setting up headquarters in the town of Dessie, which had suffered a massive air raid. They kept their London friends assessed of their progress through letters, one of which was published in the Nursing Mirror:

We are running three large clinics: the largest is at Dessie, where we have an average of 150 patients. The second clinic is at Lake Haik, sixteen miles away—a most lovely place—and the third is at Bartie on the edge of the desert….

The Senior Political officer here at Dessie is quite sure the Unit has been the greatest thing done to help the people, for they were in grave distress. The Princess works in the morning very hard; we do the afternoons and evenings.

In conjunction with her work at Dessie, Tsahai also reactivated the Ethiopian Women's Welfare Work Association, which had been shut down during the occupation.

In April 1942, the princess married Colonel Abiye Ababa, a former member of the emperor's imperial guard, whom she had met in England. Before leaving to live in Lekemti, where Abiye was the newly appointed governor, she told an English woman journalist that she intended to carry on her work of establishing hospitals and medical service throughout her country.

Princess Tsahai did not have the opportunity to achieve her goals. Less than four months after her marriage, on August 17, 1942, she died of a hemorrhage suffered during a miscarriage. Ironically, it was believed that she might have survived had she received proper medical attention. To honor her memory, her friends in England later established Ethiopia's Princess Tsahai Memorial Hospital and nurses' training school, on a site donated by the emperor.


McKown, Robin. Heroic Nurses. NY: Putnam, 1966.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts