Ergeat Solomon remembers a time when she would host her relatives from Addis Ababa in her humble abode while they visited to enjoy the festivities of Ashanda. Although she did not have much, she would make sure everyone felt welcome, well fed, and enjoying themselves.
She would braid her daughters’ and niece’s hair to help them look the part of an Ashanda-ready young women. Her three daughters and three nieces would fill the house with songs and celebration, adorning those who gifted them, saying “the gifts are pouring like the rains of August; what his lordship has given me will be enough for a year”.
But that was before 2020.
Ergeat is now in the hospital, days after undergoing surgery that she claims she cannot afford. Her health has deteriorated as a result of her constant anxiety and struggle, with two of her sons fighting in the northern Ethiopian war.
The nieces who used to sing and play in her house are now anxious about her health and their inability to send money to her on time. With no source of income and the absurdly expensive cost of living in Mekelle, the vacation she once loved and adored is the furthest thing from her mind.
“Thank God, we’re still alive. This is how it is. Isn’t this life is about?” she says after months of radio silence, while talking to her nieces in Addis. She has no reason to celebrate, but she keeps hope nearby as a companion.
Ashenda, a festival of women, sisterhood, and female joy celebrated every August in Tigray and Amhara regions and by their people worldwide, was on the edge of being inscribed on the World Heritage List.
It combines physical ornamentation, music, and dance to celebrate the feminine form, with female participants receiving food, drinks, and money from the rest of the community.
Despite its religious origins in remembering the ascension of the Virgin Mary, the festival has long been a forum for gendered emancipation and the rejection of violence against women and girls.
“I recall coming to Mekelle for the summer and being overjoyed when the 16-day fast came to an end. I’d get my hair done, go to see my relatives, and get into all kinds of trouble. It used to be the highlight of my summer,” said Yokabed Aynalem reminiscing about the good old days, despite the tragedy her beloved city had suffered and continues to suffer.
Before the catastrophe in Tigray, the celebrations extended all the way to Addis Ababa. People who used to attend the festivities had either immediate or extended relatives or are generally disheartened by their fellow citizens’ sufferings.
“I had planned to get my hair done, dress up, and do everything as a way of demonstrating solidarity and allowing the tradition to continue,” Lucy Haile said.
The war also hampered celebrations a year ago, but despite the pain, young women in refugee camps were reported to hold little parties that, if anything, exhibited resistance. The diaspora conducted small festivities in their homes, halls, and on the streets all across the world.
Ashenda emphasizes sisterhood and femininity, but it was permeated with gestures of togetherness, disobedience, and collective freedom during last year’s celebrations. Women and girls in Sudan’s Um Rakuba refugee camp danced, sang, and celebrated as a liminal community with love and enthusiasm.
Traditions and cultures are usually the manifestation of the philosophy of life for the community that owns them, but with the country’s current political scenario, smiles and festivities are dimming by the day.
What was once a cause for celebration is now a reminder of how difficult things have become.
A woman who requested anonymity stated that she is aware that people will celebrate it, and that they will do so for their own reasons. But she’s opting out of this one since doing so would seem like betraying her relatives there.
“I barely get to talk to my father because he does not have access to the internet. Our old neighborhood no longer resembles what it once was. Who knows how many of the individuals I played with are still alive. So rejoicing would feel weird to me right now “she said
Many others sit idly like her, trying to live their lives as normally as possible while spending every day in terror and misery surrounded by an environment that portrays normalcy.