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Ashenda: The day when Tigranya women show the true colors of their beauty


The air in this Mekele City is filled with Ashenda songs. Everybody has been waiting for this. They know today they end fasting and yes, not only will they eat animal products but men will at last have “fellowship” with their wives. I have been noting here that the Orthodox faith has shaped the culture of this nation. But it’s not only the end of the 15 day fast. According to the culture in this part of Ethiopia, the young girls show case their beauty during these celebrations. You will not find it anywhere in Ethiopia, except in most parts of Tigray region and in Amehara regeion-  Agew zone (Seqouta) in North Ethiopia. I have been singing the Oh Lord My God when I am in awesome wonder…… song; as we drove for 5 days through the beautiful hills, the plains and the…… {I have forgotten my Geography}, before I see the beauty I will see in the next 6 hours.


Now this is serious. The whole Mekele exudes beauty. Men seem indifferent, life as usual, except the events business men who seem to make a killing. May be it is still too early. Time check 10:00am. The songs!! Oh yes. They range from appreciating Ashenda, Christian songs, love songs, appreciation of beauty etc. All have a characteristic beat, with the drum the most treasured instrument in this. This song is the most common: Yawey siye yegoualy diye    “I am singing because I am a girl; See I am beautiful let me decorates myself. It’s my day”


Ashenda culture 1
Mums for Mums group at the CIP stall

Numerous groups some big and others small – ranging from five to fifty (5- 50) girls go singing and dancing. They just dance for you. You will be so mean not to appreciate them. So 1 Birr to any amount you are interested to give them works [Birr is Ethiopian currency and 1 USD = 20.6 Birr]. I was warned before and given tips by the receptionist in Axum hotel so I had about 50 Birr just for that. Well as I take this “Made from Ethiopia” Bunna coffee, I watch this executive lady taking coffee too, outside on the coffee bar verandah.  I am wondering how much she’ll have paid by end of day. In 15 minutes, 5 groups have already gone around her and she has given each group some money. I am told this is the first day. They will even go house to house and get Ambush and/or Tella (local beverage). You can’t avoid them, so just be prepared and appreciate them.

I am told it is mainly relevant for girls. This is the best time to be noticed. The crops will be ready for harvest in 4 months’ time, and if she is noticed now, who knows, she may walk down the aisle in January with a suitor that noticed her this season. Fathers invest in their daughter’s by buying them special clothes, taking them to the salon and sponsoring their makeup. If a girl has not been able to buy new dresses or other decorative makeups, it is cultural to use her mother’s best dress or borrow from neighbor even if it was over size.  


It’s time to go to our CIP stall. We have the Mum for Mums group. I read their brochure and their planned activities and I am impressed. They have put on Ashenda. But this is for a reason. They are not surely targeting suitors. They are conveying a message “Orange fleshed Sweet potatoes are good for mothers and young children”. At this, I take my first photograph proudly donning my CIP T-shirt. This crop is new. So they will do as much as possible including cooking demos in this stall. People are still coming. Never mind, this is a 3 day event and today is the first day.


Ashenda culture 3
In Tigray beauty is everywhere. Are these descendants of Queen Sheba and King Solomon? I am asking Bible readers

For the five days I have been in this highland city (about 2,000m above sea level) I have already been impressed by the hotel business there but today I did not expect what I saw. This Geza Gebresilassie restaurant can sit 200 people. We go at 12:00 to avoid lining up. Today this restaurant will make USD 10,000.The patrons have not eaten meat for 15 days! Soothing music fills the room and there is an aura of celebration. People are already lining up to pay for lunch. With the nice tunes hitting my eardrum, I feel like I should compose an instant CIP OFSP Ashenda {love} song; go on stage and just sing –because I have seen a guitar in the corner; but I am reminded that I am a visitor so I need to “behave”. I have to admit, at this point, that my love for the guitar is getting out of control.

We have to see weather CIP is doing Ashenda in Woreda Hintalo Wujerat, 35km south of  Mekelle. Over the week, we had travelled and distributed T-shirts, as I mapped existing Decentralized Vine Multipliers (DVMs). The Ashenda celebration is everywhere in Tigray where we are travelling. As we drive through, numerous groups stop in the middle of the road dancing- definitely not a good day for truck drivers!

Many NGOs, businesses etc, both in town and villages use this opportunity to advertise their agenda. So CIP is not the first. It may actually end up competing with many other groups. In the village, I notice that it is not an affair of young girls only. There are children aged one, and women over the age of ninety participating in the celebrations. 


Village 1: Our good CIP agenda would not go unnoticed. So a few put on the CIP t-shirts over their Ashenda tunic. More dancing, My Kikiga dancing [My tribe is Mukiga, from Uganda, and we have a characteristic thumping -of -ground dance] is way off-tune, but for this event I will dance anyhow.


One young boy is curious of this outsider who does not know how to dance. He asks me a number of questions in Tigrinya language. Of-course, I cannot understand him, so I keep saying English, English, English. So he replies, Engelizigna?  I say yes. Now in Ethiopia, Tigray people speak Tigrigna; Welayta people speak Welaytigna and Sidama people speak Sidamigna. So the English people will speak Engelizigna. Simple logic. Is it not?


Village 2: In this village, the celebration is as alive as in Mekele. Children, teens, adults have poured in the town. All dance in groups to attract your attention. We finally reach our destination. Dr. Haile Tesfaye, who coordinates the CIP Tigray office, is greeted with enthusiasm by expectant ladies who have been getting vines from CIP. A few are wearing the orange T-shirts won over their Ashennda dresses. I vaguely wonder why they did not design lovely Ashenda dresses instead of T-shirts? Anyhow, I also join in the dancing but this time  I am  getting shy because I am awfully off beat and all eyes are on me;  but Haile encourages me, saying I am their “Tigray” CIP office queen dancer.


Talk about seizing the opportunity. This is what CIP did in this Ashenda celebration
Talk about seizing the opportunity. This is what CIP did in this Ashenda celebration

These ladies dance with their waist, shoulders, and head. Now sure, many nice looking ladies are struggling to get a chance to dance with me; even children are struggling to show me how they do it. Their smiles are infectious. The whole room now is full. Unfortunately we have to leave because I have to catch a plane back to Addis Ababa.


Haile tells me that is just the beginning of 3 days of celebration. This sort of OFSP promotion will be done in all the eight Woredas {a woreda is equivalent of a county in Kenya}. Surely the banner of OFSP is flying high. No wonder, everybody is so enthusiastic of OFSP. As we try to pull out to go back to Mekelle, children, old people surround the car like bees so that we can give them at least one OFSP root. We had carried a few roots, knowing that we need to distribute some roots to other Woredas.


I am now grudgingly leaving this celebration which has just started. I am thinking of many questions I have not asked; e.g what the different hair styles signify; what the different Ashenda dresses signify; and even shoes. I also want to see what happens in the late evenings. Is my restaurant still full of people? I have no opportunity to see what happens on Sunday and Monday. I hear that on Monday groups of girls will fight against each other; telling the other that they are more beautiful and organized.


I enter the plane and this air hostess tells me Melkam berera (Have a safe flight). Within me, I know I have left nice things in Mekele and once again, I begin missing my family.


This is not a full story. It is not meant to be. Please complete the story next year, when you visit this place; exactly at this time. I hope you spend the three days here. And just know that there is never such a great opportunity to promote OFSP than during Ashenda celebrations!

About Norman Kwikiriza

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