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Reliving Adwa: Tracing the footsteps of patriots
Art

Reliving Adwa: Tracing the footsteps of patriots

Guzo Adwa is on its sixth year of commemoration for the 123rd anniversary of the Adwa Battle, making the weeks-long trek from Addis Ababa to Adwa, Tigray. Starting off their journey in early January in Harar with 4 people, this group grew to 46 in Addis Ababa and 54 by the time they reached Wukiro. It seems more people are willing to undertake the more than 900 kilometer walk than previous editions.

The travelers visit historic sites along the road and read texts written about the battle. They spread knowledge and love among the communities they meet, often receiving food and hospitality in return. On the day of the anniversary, celebrations will continue throughout the country with a feast at the old Emperor Menelik II’s palace in Entoto as well as a concert featuring several artists including Mahmoud Ahmed, GetachewKassa, TadeleRoba and Betty G.

Guzo Adwa is not the alone in paying homage to the Adwa victory. Each year seems to get renewed celebrations by a younger crowd willing to experiment the format of the holiday.

Guzo Adwa has inspired similar initiatives driven to educating a wider set of people about Ethiopian history. Grassroots movements have spawned, taking locals on tours around historic sites in Addis Ababa and beyond.

Gofere is a social media based movement that’s exploring ideals of the Ethiopian identity and bravery. Founder of the movement,HenokMebratu explains that Gofere aims to remind a younger generation of the significance of the Adwa victory. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Gofere had launched an online challenge encouraging both men and women to grow out their afros like the warriors and post the images online. There was also a hot pepper eating challenge. “We wanted a fun way to remind people why we celebrate Adwa and what Ethiopian pride is all about,” says Henok.

He is also hoping the challenge helps change minds about natural hair and the social connotations it has held among the general public. He cites the political significance of hair, especially in Ethiopia. Resistance fighters in the Adwa had afros just as the student rebels resisting Haileselassie’s reign, as did the liberation army fighting the Derg. Gofere has been a symbol of opposition and resistance.

“Natural hair is deemed inappropriate. Women are encouraged to burn and straighten their hair. Men are called shifta (rebel or bandit) or dureye (delinquent or hooligan) when they wear their hair this way. Our standards of beauty are imported from the west and Gofere is counteracting that,” says Henok.

He says since Gofere launched the previous year, more people are proud to sport afros but also more are encouraged to know the Ethiopian history. “Being a part of this has helped me fill gaps in my knowledge of history.”

The significance of the Adwa both historically and to current times is uncontested. Ethiopia fought off colonial invasion and became an emblem for independence struggles across the African continent.

SamoreToure’s epic fight against the French in Mali and Guinea, the MajiMaji resistance in Tanzania and the struggles of the Ndebele people in Zimbabwe are few of the many African resistance movements taken against European colonizers. But Adwa is always memorable as the successful one able to stave off colonial aggression for several decades until the 1930s.

The significance of this victory echoes in modern times. Artists and designers increasingly look to the past for inspiration and to ask ‘what does it mean to be Ethiopian?’

Poetic Saturdays, an open mic performance space at Fendika Cultural Center will also be hosting its annual Poetic Adwa event. Last year’s installment had fukera and shelelto, patriotic songs and poetry commemorating Adwa and its brave warriors.

Lula, a poet whose name has been changed at her request, says she loves the holiday. “It’s a day that reminds me of where I come from. A lot of the times, I don’t really identify with anything but sometimes you need a reminder,” she says.

The poem Lula is planning to read at this year’s Poetic Saturdays is all about EmpressTaitu. “I think a lot of people forget the role women played. They went out and fought for their country. They were in the front lines; they organized people, fed and nursed them. Women have done a lot in Ethiopian history and we have to remember that.

Many have adopted the holiday to campaign for more unity in the nation, decrying ethnic animosity. But, we must be careful not to inject extreme nationalism in the name of patriotism, says Mikias, another poet.

“Sometimes, I worry, you know. I hate it when people say Ethiopians are not like other Africans. We are the same. Sure, we won at Adwa but we are still black and our victory should be about African victory. Sometimes this idea of pride makes me uncomfortable. We are still poor and we fight each other over meaningless things,”

History books can sometimes be battlegrounds for age-old resentments. Historical accounts of many instances are sometimes contested; the fraught legacy of Menelik II is example of that. Truths change depending on the narrator but legacies remain.

And the legacy of Adwa remains uncontested. Ethiopia stood a sovereign nation expelling Italy’s fascist forces, killing 6000 and capturing 3000 Italian prisoners. More than 5000 Ethiopian troops were killed and 8000 injured. The battle put Ethiopia on the global map as a force to be reckoned with and a beacon of hope to the rest of the continent.

The legacy is big but what do we do with it? Some are choosing to educate and undergo what foremothers and forefathers may have gone through, taking the physically grueling journey to the battle site, others are taking to social media and garnering youth support. Contemporary interpretations continue to question what younger generations can do with the freedoms they have been given because of Adwa.

As Henok puts it, “It’s about beginning a dialogue. Our movement is not connected to politics in any way. We are just asking for the freedom to choose who we are and what we look like. The way I see it, natural hair can be a metaphor for Ethiopia. If you just let it be, it grows the way it should; and it is beautiful as a whole.”