Tigrayans in North Texas preserve culture, tradition through Ashenda, a day to honor women
As Bethlehem Haile tries to wrangle a group of 30 girls into a practice room, her voice is nearly drowned out by the sound of chatter.
“There is one very important rule: Young girls do exactly what the older girls are doing,” Haile says. “When they jump, you jump. When they clap, you clap. Raise your hand if you have any questions.”
A lone hand goes up in the air, but the girl quickly changes her mind, acting as if she was just trying to fix her hair.
“No? OK, good,” Haile says before playing a song through her mobile phone. As the girls start dancing along to the beat of drums, she joins in and starts to encourage them. “Yes! Good job!”
It’s just past 8 p.m. inside the Garland Convention and Reception Center, where Haile and hundreds of other Tigrayans are celebrating Ashenda. For years, Haile has taught Tigrayan girls in her community about the meaning of Ashenda and the dance that is a major part of the holiday. She remembers growing up dancing in the streets of Mek'ele, the capital city of the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The holiday, which is usually celebrated through a multiday festival in late August, recognizes women and the importance of their freedom. It is rooted in Orthodox Christianity, but the holiday is believed to date back to the Axum (or Aksum) Empire.
“There is a phrase we say: No one judges a girl on Ashenda day,” Haile says.
In Tigray, Ashenda is a holiday, but the day isn’t well known in North Texas outside the Tigrayan community. Haile says it’s up to people like her to pass along the traditions and culture to the younger generation.
Ashenda, after all, is not just about recognizing the freedom of women, but also the role women play in each other’s journey into womanhood.
“The mom or the auntie teaches the older sister, who can teach the little girls. That’s how it has been transferred from generation to generation,” Haile says.
Outside the practice room, family members and friends are waiting for the big dance performance.
Many of the women came wearing their tilfi, a white dress embroidered with colorful geometric patterns and crosses that stretch down the center. Traditionally, girls also wear skirts made of long reeds of green Ashenda grass — where the name of the holiday comes from — on top of their dresses. Many of the women and girls here substitute long green yarn or other material for the grass when celebrating in the U.S.
Also part of the Ashenda attire is handmade jewelry, often passed down from relatives. Many of the pendants on rings and necklaces are circular, with multiple rows of crowns radiating out from a central charm or stone.
Despite the colorful festivities, an air of solemnity hangs in the air.
Several people hand out flyers to attendees with information about the civil conflict in the Tigray region, which erupted in November 2020. People are excited to talk about how happy they are to celebrate Ashenda, but the conversations often wind down to, “Do you know what is happening in Tigray?”
Too often, they’ve heard stories of how hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray have starved or died because they don’t have access to basic health care due to a blockade imposed by the Ethiopian government. Many in the community feel anxious about not being able to reach relatives in Tigray. They fear receiving a phone call about losing a loved one, which has become painfully common in the small, close-knit community.
In July, many of the people who attended the Ashenda celebration were marching in downtown Dallas, braving the Texas summer heat to raise awareness about the situation in Tigray.
Despite a peace treaty between the Ethiopian government and the main political party that represents the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, many are still under oppression and struggling to survive, says Selam Ayele, who helped lead the demonstrations.
For her and many others in her community, celebrating Ashenda is not a way to forget the pain and suffering of Tigrayans, it’s a way of fighting back.
“We’re celebrating because we don’t want to lose our culture,” Ayele says.
Haile also says she feels a deeper calling to teach the young children in her community because of feeling that her culture and heritage is under threat. Haile, who has lived in North Texas for more than 20 years, says she only has sons, but sees the girls in her community as her own daughters.
She gains hope from seeing the second- and third-generation Tigrayan children embrace a culture that may seem foreign to them. She says it’s hard to not think about women and girls who have been victims of sex crimes and other atrocities, but seeing the youth in her community gives her the strength to celebrate.
“That’s why I’m so grateful and fascinated by these children, most of them haven’t even seen what Tigray looks like,” Haile says.
When Haile’s group finally makes its grand entrance into the banquet hall, they are greeted with a standing ovation. Fathers carry their daughters on their shoulders, some of whom are not old enough to be part of the dance.
Two of the older girls carrying drums at their sides lead a line of girls toward the front of the banquet hall, the younger girls following the older ones — just the way Haile taught them to. They sway from side-to-side while hopping to the beat of the drums while singing along to a traditional Ashenda music playing through the speaker system.
In the front of the banquet hall, the line morphs into a large circle that pulses along with the music as the girls jump up and down and clap to the beat of the drums. One of the younger girls is lifted onto the shoulders of a woman as children cheer. She waves to the crowd and continues to dance.
The girls then start dancing around each table, where they cheer on the attendees who in return give them small gifts, usually in the form of money. The entire room is swept up into the performance.
It’s not exactly how they celebrate Ashenda in Tigray, Haile says, but it’s what the community can manage.
Meareg Yalew, a board member of the Tigrayan Mutual Assistance Association, said he estimates there are about 1,000 people who are of Tigrayan descent in North Texas. He sees celebrating Tigrayan culture as an act of defiance that reminds people of the courage of the “sisters and mothers” in Tigray.
Tigrayans in North Texas have a reason to celebrate differently this year than in previous years, Yalew says. “We have more responsibility to celebrate this and pass off this culture because it is our identity and survival, as a society.”
Yalew says he’s heartened by the sight of his daughters participating and rejoicing in Tigrayan culture along with other girls in the community. He believes Tigrayans around the world and in North Texas are still hurting, but he knows they’re strong. They are here, and they will celebrate.
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