COVID-19 Affects Popular Girls Festival in Ethiopia

Every year, young women and girls gather together singing and dancing, dressed in traditional cultural wear and jewelry. Their voices reverberate throughout the neighborhood as the girls travel from house to house singing and dancing. The colorful festival Ashenda also known as Shadey, Solel, and Mariya, is a centuries-old cultural festival celebrated primarily in the northern region of Ethiopia. The festival’s unique aspect is it’s female-centered focus.

Ashenda is among the most popular festivals celebrated in Ethiopia. It has been celebrated annually for centuries in the Tigray and Amhara states, and more recently celebrations have taken place in the capital Addis Ababa. The festival marks the end of a 15-day fast known as Filseta. The celebrations last between three days to three weeks depending on the region, taking place between August and September.

Every girl wears a ‘tilfi’, a cotton dress embroidered from the neckline to the hemline of the dress, and braided hair styles that have been used for years. They pair that with jewelry and Ashenda grass tied at their waist to complement their colorful dresses. The girls divide themselves into smaller groups and go dancing amidst singing and drumming, performing from house to house. The songs range from Ashenda appreciation to Christian songs mixed with love songs and songs that appreciate their beauty. The melodies contain compelling beats which invite participants to dance along with the girls. As a form of appreciation to the girls, they are showered with gifts including money, food and drinks. The whole community up to government officials take part in the celebration which attracts thousands of people.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has been working to inscribe the unique festival as a world heritage. Festivals such as Ashenda enable the world to increase efforts at combatting child marriage and gender-based violence. While the festival allows for young women to showcase their elegance and beauty, it also heralds the freedom of young women and helps develop the confidence of girls and young women. It has been considered as a show of respect given to women throughout the year, and a means of declaring gender equality. The festival attracts both domestic and foreign tourists, with interest in participation growing from year to year. The efforts are ongoing to secure an intangible cultural heritage status under the United Nations Education, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) classification.

This year the government has announced that the festival will be celebrated at home. Due to the risk COVID-19 poses, government officials and religious leaders have called on the public to stay at home and maintain any ceremonies with social distance and limited participants. It is unprecedented for the lively cultural festival to be confined indoors. The virus poses a looming threat for the celebration of other major holidays approaching, such as Ethiopian New Year, causing locals to have to rethink how to celebrate age-old traditions.

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