Ashenda, also known by the name Shadey in the Agaw society of Amhara region, is a unique traditional festival, mostly yearned by women, which takes place in August to mark the ending of an orthodox Christian fasting season and the Annunciation, the announcement by Gabriel of the incarnation of God to the Virgin Mary.
This week, I and a few of my social media friends had a heated argument following an announcement by the Tigray Culture & Tourism Bureau. In an effort to register Ashenda as an intangible cultural heritage of the world, the Bureau would have to reveal the type of traditional dress that should be worn by women in the Tigray region who are to participate in the festival.
The Bureau considered that the correct dress should be white linen, embroidered with traditionally designed patterns and made of pure cotton. This became a point of contention between my circle of friends.
Some of us said that the Bureau had made the right decision, others said they should have included other traditional costumes which are commonly made of nylon or silk, and there were some among us who even denounced clothing made of Abu Jadid as a non-traditional dress, as its Arabic-sounding name would indicate.
Our argument was a futile one; none of us could reach a consensus, it only triggered a whole lot of questions: What is traditional and what is not? For how long should a society maintain a certain type of clothing for it to be recognized as a traditional one?
Or is tradition not a mere aggregate of the ideas, beliefs, collective intellectual achievements and manifestation of social behaviours of a particular people living at a particular time in a society, and then bequeathed to descendants?
Would it be a mistake for the descendants to change or modify a tradition so that they put their own mark according to their own level of enlightenment and development?
And how can one explain the dilemma that people who run naked in the Amazon or southern Ethiopia’s jungles are considered ‘primitive’, while those who demonstrate nudity in the streets of Western countries are regarded as modern, free and liberated?
I will leave all these general questions open for debate and will proceed with the case in Ethiopia.
In parallel with the advancement of science and technology and the development of the human mind, the world has been modifying, changing or forbidding bad traditions, and conserving the important ones.
So far, Ethiopia has managed to have inscribed Fichee-Chambalaala, a New Year festival of the Sidama people; the Gada system, an indigenous socio-political system of the Oromo people; and Meskel, a Commemoration feast of the finding of the True Holy Cross of Christ, to the intangible cultural heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Though not fully, Ethiopians are also abandoning harmful traditions gradually such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, gender inequality, believing in the existence of the evil eye, witchcraft, ghosts, and so on.
If one took a good look into our history, conserving or abandoning a tradition based on its merits and demerits clearly shows that the fate of tradition is always at the mercy of time. The bestowals that we hold dear as “our traditions” by now were the mere creations or adoptions of our grandfathers for the sake of their survival or entertainment in their period.
If these same traditions do not have the sufficient power to entertain us or to help us thrive in this modern era, they are of no value and doomed to be forgotten, and we are free to create our own tradition or adopt what is important from the modern world.
It is when they see the way youth in urban areas dress that elders – self-appointed defenders of our culture – often express their disappointment, hence criticizing and advising the youth on how to dress “properly” according to tradition. But what is proper for one generation may not be proper for another. What the elders usually fail to understand is that the whole idea of dresses was not here since eternity, our ancestors were running around naked for some period before learning to cover their bodies with leaves and grass.
They, then, invented clothes to better cover, warm and comfort their bodies. Subsequently, they started to focus on aesthetic pleasure through style and fashion. Every previous generation had put its own mark on fashion, shaped its time as per its own will, and had chosen what best suits itself, as we will do ours.
So, let us be fair, nobody is at any position to tell a generation the “does” and “don’ts” of its time, what must be its traditions and what must not – there must be more choices.
Or would you say otherwise?
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