Three days of women! Ashenda is a holiday celebrating women here in Northern Ethiopia mostly in the Tigray region. It corresponds to the end of a two week fasting period for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians commemorating the Virgin Mary, but the holiday has grown way beyond that now. I’ve been hearing good and bad things about Ashenda since arriving in Ethiopia. Most of my local friends think this holiday is the best thing to happen all year. Some disagree and say that it objectifies women and encourages begging and is just another holiday in a region with too many holidays disrupting things. Some of my Peace Corps friends told me to hide away in my house because the harassment will be too much as women bombard you asking for mandatory “donations.” Other Peace Corps Volunteers told me to embrace it, stockpile a bunch of small bills and enjoy it. I chose the latter and had a great time over the past 3 days participating in Ashenda.
Ashenda Day 1
Prepare yourself for Ashenda! I was told by everyone to get ready for the best (or worst) holiday celebrated here. Depending on your perspective I guess. As usual, I really had no idea what to expect. I expected to spend money so I’d been saving my small bills for a week or two in anticipation. I got ready to go into my office as usual on Thursday and went in to find most of my colleagues there. A few hours into the day and all of a sudden the whole office just got up and declared that they were done working for the day since it was Ashenda. We all walked to the older part of town where there was supposed to be some sort of celebration for the holiday. Upon arrival to the market, which was transformed into a sort of amphitheater, I was greeted by a few of the local leaders of Abi Adi and told to sit in the “VIP Area” next to the stage. There was a band playing Ethiopian music and a few different singers taking turns singing traditional Ashenda songs.
The audience kept growing and growing until it seemed like the whole town was there watching the ceremony. I had a great seat in the little VIP area so I was happy to stay as long as necessary to see what developed. There were all sorts of interesting acts including dancers, skits, speeches, poems, and music. Ethiopian TV was there to cover the event, for national news I think, although I haven’t seen the report on the news yet. One of the producers told me to sit in the front and drink a glass of Mes (the local honey wine). I said what the hell and did as told. Maybe I’ll be on TV…
The whole ceremony had a bit of a competitive theme. It was Abi Adi versus Kola Tembien; think of it as town versus county. Every time there was an Abi Adi act, there was a rebuttal from Kola Tembien. I lost track of who was winning but enjoyed it all. The most bizarre thing I saw was an act performed by an older woman. She walked up to the stage and put her arm into her dress. I had no idea what she was doing and then she started flapping her arm to make armpit fart noises. She started simultaneously humming along to the beat set by the armpit farts to make a kind of one person rhythm section. People were giggling, but I thought it was hilarious. I’ve never seen anything like that here. Apparently this is a type of “traditional music” from our region called hanbetit. When I asked my friend about it later he told me that it is classical music comparable to that from a guitar or piano. Now that’s a stretch for me. Anyway the ceremony was great with lots of beautiful culture, dance, and music.
Ashenda Day 2
I prepared myself for the day by putting small bills in my easily accessible pockets and started wandering around town. It took about 2 minutes for the first group of girls to spot me. They rushed up to me and formed a circle around me. One of them had a drum and they all clapped along to the beat while singing one of the traditional Ashenda songs. I clapped along with them for a while and realized there was no way to get away from them. They literally surround you! I gave them some money, as is the custom, then they started singing their praises for me and let me move on, only to be faced by yet another group doing the same thing.
The women and girls of Abi Adi form special groups to go solicit money from men around town. They all get new outfits, headbands, hairstyles, and jewelry to “beautify” themselves. They set out with a hand drum to collect some “donations.” It’s pretty similar to trick or treating for Halloween in America. Once they target you, there is really not much you can do to escape politely. You must give them a donation. If it’s enough, they’ll praise your name. If it’s too little, they’ll make fun of you and call you cheap. The amount you give depends on the size of the group, their age, and in my opinion, the quality of the performance. Little girls get less than esteemed older women, of course. The money used to be given to the Church but now most of the girls keep it for themselves, dividing the profits among the group.
Along with the donations and singing, the local dance of Awers plays an important part in the Ashenda tradition. Awers is a traditional dance that originated in Abi Adi and Tembien. It involves a man and a woman. The guy jumps around the girl and basically shows off while the girl responds to his lead and moves around him. It’s a very stylized dance with a lot of variability, depending on the guy performing it, but there are certain moves and rhythms that everyone follows. I’m getting better at it and learned a lot by watching so many different guys perform it over the last few days.
Ashenda Day 3
See Ashenda Day 2…
This is such a departure from the typical holiday celebrated here. This time the holiday is all about the women and having fun. From my (limited) experience here, the holidays are usually based on significant religious dates and are celebrated by attending church and eating big elaborate meals at home. These meals are painstakingly prepared by the women of the household for a day or two prior to the holiday. The food is awesome and is usually accompanied by coffee ceremonies (prepared by the women) and other drinks like Sewah or Mes (local homebrews also prepared by the women of course). The women serve guests, usually men, as well as their own families. I’ve had a great time during these holidays as you can read about here. This time there is no food and no hosting. The women still spend a lot of effort and time preparing for this holiday but this time they are focused on themselves. They “beautify” themselves and form groups of friends to go out and solicit donations from the men. It’s kind of like payback time for all the other holidays. They are the center of attention and get to demand things from men, not the other way around.
There is a saying here, “never pick your wife during Ashenda,” or something to that effect. The point being that all the women here are beautiful during Ashenda. It’s pretty accurate!