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A Young Ethiopian Reconnecting with Her Roots in the Motherland

September 4, 2010

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

Her name is Samrawit Bereket Kiros and she just came back from her summer vacation in Ethiopia to Seattle, Washington, where she was born. Samrawit went to Ethiopia along with her Mom and her younger brother Romha and her stay coincided with the Ashenda festival. Ashenda (literally, tall grass in Tigrigna) is young girls and young women annual celebration during August that falls after Filseta, an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian holiday following a fortnight long lent.

Ashenda is celebrated in Tigray, the Tigrigna speaking part of Eritrea, and the Amhara Region of Ethiopia; in the latter case, there is a slight variation in the use of the term and it is pronounced as Shenda. Ashenda is very popular in Tigray and it is observed every year throughout the Region, but its practice has considerably diminished in Eritrea and in fact it is lost in the cities.

During Ashenda, the young girls and women go to great lengths, including long distance commute, to collect the tall grass mostly from banks of rivers, swamps, and wetlands, where the Ashenda grows in plenty. In some instances, merchants could bring the grasses over to the open market for sale, but that is not the traditional way. The collected grasses are then distributed evenly among the young girls and women and they wear it on top of their cloth, in such a way to colorfully blend with their attire but also to intentionally cover their waist and buttocks. The women also wear uniform traditional cloth known as Tilfi and a Tigrayan hairstyle, generally known as Quno but it can come in different modes known as Difin, Gilbich, and Gaame. They also wear jewelry including Kutisha (earrings) and Gobagub (necklace) and Kuhli (organic makeup for their eye lashes). This is one major event to enhance their beauty, and to be sure the women look incredibly gorgeous during Ashenda and they become center of attraction to say the least. 

When they are ready to usher the festivities, the Ashenda young girls and young women assemble at the village or town center and then break into several smaller groups, initiate their sojourn to different directions and knock at every door or gate of every house within their respective orbit, while at the same time sing and beat the drums.

The young women amicably challenge and confront men; they also sometimes flirt before young and even relatively older men. The men, at the outset, may look down unto the Ashenda women with pretense of disdain, immovability and unshaken resolve, but ultimately they yield to the power of the tall grass, and even reward the women with (depending on the locality) food, beverages, and/or money.

Samrawit is one of the many Ethiopians who traveled from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia to the motherland; and this Diaspora young Ethiopians, as a matter of course, encounter cross-cultural and comparative perception of two cultures, namely the Ethiopian and the Diasporan. For Samrawit, more specifically, it was an exposure to the cultural uniqueness and ethos of Ashenda, but it was also an opportunity for her to reconnect herself with her roots and begin to appreciate her cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage or culture in general is a patterned human behavior that is transmitted from generation to generation. The patterns in culture are reflected in shared beliefs, norms, and values. Without these patterns, or the culture as a whole, any people cannot function as a cohesive community, and it cannot meaningfully enjoy personality, pride, and identity. The latter, in turn, provides the essential framework of what people think of their identity and of what they do during cultural festivals, as in Ashenda, for instance.

All culture is learned and there is no such thing as genetic imprint of culture. The oft-expression of our culture is in our blood is egregiously unscientific. Samrawit, like all other girls, thus, was initiated in the Ashenda festival and learned some aspect of her cultural heritage.

The social poise of the young women in Tigray is a manifestation of who they are and what they ought to be a transition from adolescence to womanhood; in effect, it is a right of passage. It is also a reaffirmation of their role in society as productive citizens, both in the procreation and creativity (material culture) senses.

Finally, after a week of celebration, the young girls and women, who had gone different directions, again regroup at the village or town center and celebrate the conclusion of the Ashenda festival. This last celebration, however, is the climax of the festival and a tacit commitment for the forthcoming Ashenda. Samrawit is now an Ashenda initiate and she will always remember her joyous stay in Ethiopia, and most importantly her roots in the motherland.   

All Rights Reserved. Copyright IDEA, Inc. 2010. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for constructive and educational feedback at dr.garaia@africanidea.org