Ethiopian Festivities and the Role of Women in them
With a rich history of over 2,000 years, and many believe it to be the origin of human kind, Ethiopia is home for around 80 ethnic groups with 83 languages. Each ethnic group has a distinct culture and religious festivities. For centuries, Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups and religions have celebrated their respective culture and religion, some widely known, while others overshadowed by the dominant ethnic groups’ cultural and religious festivities taking center stage.
A society is the result of its cultural and religious diversity. As a whole it makes up the identity of a nation and our collective moral and religious values while outlining our social norms and taboos. It makes up who we are, regardless of which ethnic group we belong to or how we celebrate our cultural and religious festivities. Such diversity in culture and religion adds to the richness of a nation and identity. It contributes to arts and music, theatre and literature, education and health, through its diverse approach, values and outlooks. Beyond the above, cultural diversity adds to a rich and diverse political discourse and tolerance. To the extent there is a democratic space that allows freedom of expression and encourages the celebration of a nation’s diversity, while encouraging national unity and cohesion, it allows the expression of traditionally marginalized cultures to be celebrated equally without overshadowed by the more dominant cultures and religions. The current political reforms initiated by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed hopes to create such space without politicizing Ethiopia’s diversity, but rather celebrating it and embracing it as our collective national identity.
Festivals are the means of celebrating each culture and religion. They are a manifestation of cultural and religious expressions, a link with our past and a means of maintaining our history in changing times. Festivities fill our lives with joy and happiness, allowing us to take time out from our busy lives and spend time with our loved ones. As Aristotle said “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim of human existence.” Cultural and religious festivities, therefore, remind us of what is important in our lives. Through the various activities that we perform during cultural and religious festivals, we are also reminded that human beings are social animals, and such festivals center around social interactions, finding common grounds even with people who are from a different background and ethnic groups.
At the heart of Ethiopian cultural and religious festivals are women who are anchors of these events. Women are tasked with organizing festivities, cooking and cleaning, serving and generally undertaking all the household chorus to ensure the festival is planned and executed successfully. In most cases, the work women undertake in preparation for such festivals begins weeks in advance. Buying groceries, prepping and cooking which takes on a generational task, with grandmothers, mothers and daughters all working alongside each other, taking various responsibilities. For millions of women throughout Ethiopia, such festivities are so much more than celebrating a religious or cultural event. They are a testament to their womanhood and their societal and familial responsibilities they have been shouldering for thousands of years. In fact, women’s responsibilities during such festivities are simply an extension of their day to day household activities. No doubt many women are put under a lot of pressure during such times. Even though women are increasingly making up the majority of the working force in Ethiopia these days, and reaching ever higher positions in their careers, the traditional stereotypes of their role as a homemaker still persists – particularly visible during festivities.
To cite some examples of the role of women in various festivities across the nation, let’s take the Gumuz ethnic group found in the North Western part of Ethiopia. The major festival celebrated in the Gumuz culture is the New Year, celebrated after the end of the rainy season. During this period women and girls are tasked with the preparation of food and serving guests during the festival, and generally maintaining the comfort of their husbands and his guests, who usually gather around eating and drinking. The Gumuz society is patrilineal and patrilocal. As such, power is concentrated at the hands of the man/husband. A married Gumuz woman moves to her husband’s home, carries out a heavy work load taking care of him as well as her mother-in-law. In fact, women in Gumuz perform most of the key production and community functions in their respective communities beyond during festivities. Parallel to domestic chores women are involved in almost all of the agricultural fields of work, while men perform seasonal activities that do not take much time like preparing land, charcoal, building house and so on compared to those activities performed by women. Women also work side by side with the men in farming, sharing roles in preparing the land, cultivating, sowing and harvesting.
Similar to the Gumuz people’s celebration, ‘Gifaataa’ is another festival celebrated by the Wolaita people of Ethiopia. It is the most well-known festival among other festivals celebrated annually in the month of September. While there are no written document that tells when the celebration of ‘Gifaataa’ began, oral historians date the holiday hundreds of years. The celebration is rich with displays of various long-aged cultural activities and heritages that are indigenous to the people of Wolaita.
Fiche ‘Chembelala’ is a New Year festival for the Sidama people. The festival is determined by observing the movement of the stars and can vary from year to year. Elders of the community, called Ayaanto, observe such movements in the stars and herald the day of the New Year. The celebration lasts 15 days
and filled with a gamut of cultural and traditional ceremonies, music, dancing and food
Ashenda- another colorful festival celebrated in the Northern part of Ethiopia takes place in August to mark the end of fasting season called ‘Filseta’. The name of the festival ‘Ashenda’ comes from the name of a tall grass that girls in that part of the country make into a skirt and wear it around their waist as a decoration. Days leading up to the festival, young women and girls wear traditional dresses called ‘tilfi’ which is made of cotton and decorated with intricate traditional embroidery. They complement the dress with traditional ear and neck jewelry, put on ‘Kuhuli’ – an organic eye makeup and a Tigrian hair style characterized by braids. Decked out in such beautiful outfits, the young girls gather at a meeting point, break out in small groups, and go door-to-door singing with their drums. The weeklong festival is concluded with as much fanfare as the beginning led by young girls leading their respective villages in and dancing.
Finally, there is ‘Irrechaa’ – one of the major traditional religious celebrations of the Oromo people. Irrechaa is a Thanksgiving celebration held at the end September or beginning of October. The festival is usually held around a river or a lake as the people of Oromo believe the Almighty governs the seas and rivers of the world. The festivity is filled with prayers to God (Waaqaa) for peace and stability, prosperity and abundance, social order (to be maintained), and the environment to be protected as well as prayers for deliverance in times of difficulties and challenges.
All these traditional festivals of the various ethnic groups share a common factor, which is the role of women. In all of them, women take center stage in preparation and organization of the festivals. It is a daunting tasks for women already overburdened by their day-to-day tasks. In some cases, households compete to have the most extravagant ceremony among each other – in terms of food, drinks and cultural activities – and it is up to the women of that household to shoulder that responsibility of putting together the most extravagant ceremony. Another unique responsibility women have is also singing and dancing. While the men also partake in some singing and dancing activities, it is the women whose persistence in singing and dancing that keeps all these festivals lively and exciting.
The role of women extends beyond specific ethnic-based festivals. In other words, women’s central role in shouldering various cultural and religious festivals is not confined to ethnic based cultural festivals. They also have similar roles in religious festivals as well as social activities such as funerals and weddings. As one of the most religious nation, Ethiopia has various religious festivals celebrated throughout the country. Buhe is a national holiday held on August 19th (Nehase 13th EC). The Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor. The celebration starts before five days of the actual date where groups of boys gather to sing the theme song of the festival, ‘Hoya Hoye’, similar like the Ashenda festival where girls lead the singing. Young boys sing this song door-to-door phrasing and well-wishing each household – whereby in appreciation, the boys receive money and/or food, particularly a traditional bread called Mulmul baked by the women of the house. The day of the festivity is similar to the aforementioned festivities in terms of the role of women. Boys in this case, prepare bundles of stick called ‘chibo’ for the evening’s bonfire while the women tend to the preparation of food and drinks. The Buhe holiday leads to Enkutatash or Ethiopian New Year, literally meaning “gift of the jewels”.
The name Enkutatash goes back almost 3,000 years to Queen of Sheba of ancient Ethiopia and Yemen. When the Queen went to visit King Solomon of Israel in Jerusalem, she gifted him with 120 talents of gold (4.5 tons) as well as large amounts of unique spices and jewels. When the Queen returned to Ethiopia in September (Ethiopian New Year), her chiefs welcomed her with ‘enku’ or jewels to replenish her treasury – and hence the name Enkutatash was forever linked to Ethiopian New Year.
Enkutatash is both religious and secular and has similarities with other ethnic-based New Year celebrations such as the Gumuz and Chembelala. Days before the celebration, young girls gather from their villages singing ‘Abebayehush’, door-to-door, in appreciation of the greenery and the daisies that cover parts of the country during this season. The actual day of the festival begins with families attending church services followed by a feast of traditional Ethiopian dishes and traditional Ethiopian beer (Tej and Tela), prepared by the women of the house and enjoyed by a gathering of friends and family. Throughout the day, young children will receive small gifts of money or bread after the girls gather flowers and sing and boys paint pictures of saints and present it to their families and friends.
Then there’s Meskel – the finding of the True Cross. This important religious festival falls on Sep.27th (Meskerem 16 in EC), which comes only sixteen days after the September 11th New Year holiday. Meskel is celebrated to commemorate the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The significant part of the celebration is a large bonfire fired on a heap of a bundle of woods whereby the direction of the smoke is believed to imply the direction of the buried cross. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in 326 AD, Helena had prayed for guidance to find the cross on which Jesus was crucified and was directed by a smoke from a burning fire to the location. The tradition of the bonfire, called ‘Demera’, in Ethiopian vernacular, continues to this day where people usually gather in churches and central areas throughout the country to burn a massive Demera. Meskel is by far one of the most colorful festivals in the country where each region and culture adds their own indigenous flavor to the festival.
The next major holiday following Meskel is ‘Gena’ or Ethiopian Christmas. By far the biggest and widely celebrated holiday of the Ethiopian people, Gena falls on January 7th or Tahisas 29th in Ethiopian Calendar. This holiday is filled with activities and feasts. While less practiced, particularly in major cities, the men celebrate by playing a traditional field hockey game of sorts called ‘ye gena chewata’, while the women engage in preparing traditional holiday dishes of grand proportion. Every household during Gena prepares a distinctive dishes such as Chicken ‘Doro’ stew with boiled eggs, chopped collard seasoned greens, lamb, Kitfo (minced raw beef), Tibs. Gena celebration comes at the conclusion of a two months fasting season of food, particularly meat and chicken based dishes, are prepared and consumed heavily.
Similar to Gena, Timket (Epiphany) which commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ on the River Jordan, is among the most religious and widely celebrated holidays in Ethiopia. Timket falls on January 19th or Tirr 11th in Ethiopian Calendar. The celebration of Timket starts on the eve of the main festival known as ’Ketera’ – taken from the Amharic word ‘ketere’ which means to make a dam. In the afternoon of Ketera tabots (holy Arks) from each of the churches are carried by priests in a great procession involving millions of people throughout the country, to a significant water body. The main Timket ceremony, usually performed in the early morning hours of the day (believed to be the time Jesus Christ was baptized) includes Kidasie (morning prayers) performed by high priests throughout the country and the blessing and sprinkling of the holy water on the assembled congregation in commemoration of Christ’s baptism.
As a nation of multi-religion, ‘Eid Al Fir’ is among the major religious holidays celebrated nationally. Eid Al Fir comes at the conclusion of a one month fasting period (Ramadan) by Ethiopian Muslims where no food or water is consumed from sun up to sundown. Eid is also called the sugar feast or the sweet festival for the consumption of sweets that takes place at sundown prior to the main course. The main course includes a wide range of rice dishes with different kinds of meat and chicken based stews as well as soups. Eid is celebrated with ‘Eid’ prayers where people gather at Mosques or homes to pray as a group. Among the most popular gathering places are stadiums across the country including the National Stadium of
Addis Ababa. The day also requires followers to pay the ‘Zakatal Fitra’ or charity, before prayers. After prayer or ‘Salatel Eid’, Ethiopian Muslims go back to their homes to celebrate by eating the delicacy prepared for the occasion followed by sweets. The day continues to be celebrated as people visit friends and family to wish each other Eid Mubarak (Happy Holiday) in what is known as ‘Zeyira‘
Women’s role is not only limited to anchoring religious and cultural festivities. They also shoulder most of the responsibilities around other social events such as weddings and funerals. Funerals in Ethiopia have both a spiritual and a social support system imbedded in them. From death to burial and in most cases at least a month after a burial, funerals hold a special place in Ethiopian culture. In the Islamic burial ritual, the process is much more expedited with the deceased bathed, dressed and buried the same day as death. However, in both religions, families, friends and communities gather at the home of the deceased family to not only pay their respect but also to provide support and comfort to the families. Communities also cover funeral expenses through community groups called ‘Edir, which covers expenses for food, tents, chairs, cookware, etc. During this time hosting the deceased family and the guests are conducted by elder mothers of the village from making coffee and preparing food while the guys are mostly tasked with transportation of material and constructing a tent for the gathering space.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are Ethiopian weddings, a festive occasion, to be sure, that can last a few weeks. From time of sending an elder mediators to the bride’s family to seek the blessing of the her family, to all the various pre-wedding festivities hosted by various members of the family and friends, to the actual date of the wedding and the ‘mels’, (literally translated as the answer, which refers to a ceremony hosted by the member of the family that didn’t organize the wedding), weddings are part of the Ethiopian social contract. Like another events preparing the feast and making sure everything flows smoothly is mainly the role of the bride’s family especially the women. The men are mainly concerned with the financial aspect of it as well as expenses related with logistics and dowry.
Further, as family ties and social life are very strong in Ethiopian culture it is a given aspect that relatives pay a visit not only on special occasion but also on weekends to their parents’ and grandparents’ house. It is a time where families sit and talk for hours catching up, feasting and drinking traditional coffee.
As illustrated above, at all junctures of cultural, religious and social festivals, clear gender based roles are displayed. With the women in charge of organizing the events in terms of preparing food, drinks, decorating of homes and generally playing host during these festivities and events, while the men provide the financial resources and the occasional slaughtering of the sacrificial animal for the occasion. These gender based roles are the result of thousands of years of cultural, religious and social norms. As a religious society, Ethiopia’s gender roles, right or wrong, has been associated with religious beliefs and teachings, which essentially has delegated women as homemakers while men as bread winners. Over the course of thousands of years, cultural and society’s views on women’s role as a homemaker, has been influenced by the religion’s views of women and has been an accepted norm – even in the less religious households.
In the face of it, such delegation of gender roles around festivities is not a bad thing. Women, by in large, are better planners, organizers and executors. Our ability to multitask and our strong sense of family, serves as well to be better planners and organizers. Women’s traditional role in Ethiopian festivities adds to the richness of the culture and by in large, to the preservation of a long list of cultural and religious festivities. But there is a downside, particularly, as the aspirations of women has more and more shifted from simply being content as being a homemaker to having an education and a career. Women are increasingly becoming bread winners, sometimes earning more income than their male counterparts. Women have increasingly busier schedules which leaves little time to dedicate to the planning and execution of not only festivities, but also rearing children and tending to other household chorus. And in some cases, women are outright rejecting generational outlook of patriarchal views of their role and simply choosing to minimize their role in such festivities while demanding equal time allocation from their male partners. In the extreme case, the role of women in cultural and religious festivities could serve to continue the gender stereotype that has been the hallmark of Ethiopian society for over generations.
Submitted by Rabiat Sultan
Addis Ababa University
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