Tigray women embrace first Ashenda festival after the end of devastating conflict
The past two years have been a harrowing period for the women of Tigray, a region plagued by agony. Countless lives have been lost, tearing families apart, as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) clashed with federal government forces in a senseless conflict. Reports from various human rights organizations, corroborated by the warring parties themselves, reveal a disturbing prevalence of sexual abuse throughout the region following the war.
The suffering endured by those with relatives in Tigray, residing in other parts of the country, cannot be understated. Their anxiety transcended mere worry, as many found themselves confined to concentration camps for months on end, their lives hanging in the balance as the war raged on.
Communication blackout further exacerbated their anguish, forcing them to wait desperately for any news from their loved ones. Mothers were torn apart from their children, and vice versa.
Although the tumultuous chapter of history may now be turning, the agonizing memories persist, etched vividly in their minds.
Nevertheless, the women of Tigray are now preparing to celebrate their first Ashenda since the signing of a peace agreement in Pretoria, which marked the end of the war in Tigray, as well as in the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar. Among them is Hamelmal Hagos, a 26-year-old resident of Adwa.
“Despite the trauma of war, I am purchasing items to celebrate either at Tenben or Aynewar, near Aksum,” shares Hamelmal.
Setting aside the haunting memories of a conflict that claimed the lives of many friends and subjected some to the horrors of sexual abuse at the hands of Eritrean forces – a brutal faction implicated in heinous crimes against humanity, as documented by reputable organizations such as Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Commission – Hamelmal now focuses on the cost of the festivities, comparing it to the pre-war era.
“Five years ago, when we bought clothes and other items for the celebration, the total expenses amounted to 1000 birr. Now, 3000 to 4000 birr is barely enough,” she laments.
Ashenda, also known as Shadey, Ashendiye, and, Solel is an annual festival celebrated in the Tigray and Amhara regions of Ethiopia, as well as neighboring Eritrea. This vibrant cultural event, which takes place between August 21st and August 24th, holds deep significance for the Ethiopian people worldwide, with Tigrayan, Amhara, and Agew women eagerly awaiting its arrival.
The name “Ashenda” is believed to be derived from the tall green grass, standing at a minimum height of 80 to 90 centimeters, which girls fashion into skirts and wear as decorative waistbands.
Originally rooted in religious observance, the festival marked the culmination of the two-week fast known as Filseta, symbolizing the heavenly ascension of the Virgin Mary after her dormition. Over time, Ashenda has evolved into a cultural holiday that transcends religious boundaries, embracing girls from all walks of life.
Yet, this year’s Ashenda arrives following the end of a dark chapter in the Tigray region. The devastating war has left deep scars on the lives of countless Tigrayan women.
As the Ashenda festival draws near, the resilient women of Tigray eagerly prepare to reclaim their cultural traditions and find solace in the aftermath of war. Among them is Awet Girmay, whose unwavering spirit embodies the essence of the festival.
To Awet, Ashenda represents more than just a festive occasion—it symbolizes women’s freedom and independence, a day where they can celebrate without constraints. For her, it is a manifestation of Maryam’s glory, a moment to honor the strength and resilience of women.
However, Awet harbors concerns about the preservation of these cherished traditions. She believes that the so-called modernization is gradually eroding their cultural heritage.
In the past, the celebration of Ashenda was tailored to women’s ages and experiences. Mothers who gave birth separately were celebrated in their own distinct way, while older mothers had their unique festivities. But now, everyone is celebrated together, losing the nuance and depth of the traditional practices, according to Awet.
Another aspect that worries Awet is the evolving attire worn during the festival. The authentic traditional dress consisted of a ribbon dress adorned with pearls. However, Awet laments that the introduction of fabric weaving from China has replaced the traditional garments. She notes that instead of using their own hair, which aligns with tradition, women now wear wigs made from synthetic materials.
“We have to reclaim our culture,” she says.
Yet as the festival unfolds, the women of Tigray find themselves reclaiming not only their cultural traditions but also their sense of agency, defying the shadows cast by war.