When the beles fruit get mushy and the hills are as green as they get all year, Tigray begins to gear up for Ashenda, a holiday like no other I’ve ever experienced. I really don’t understand the “why” behind it, but the three-day festival is a time for young, single girls and women to dress up in cultural clothes and roam the streets, accosting men with singing and dancing until they’re paid with pocket change or a few birr. The beautiful girls, who wear bright blue eye shadow and have their hair twisted in triceratops-like braids that end in a frizzy poof, then move on to the next victim, all the while, pounding drums and hootin’-n-hollerin.’
Ashenda starts off mild. The tiniest girls shyly recite their songs and then smile when they’re given something. By day three, the streets are literally full of young women, each one more elaborately adorned than the next. Loud speakers blast Ashenda songs and the sidewalks are lined with observers. Groups of the pretty panhandlers team up together and, all in good fun, of course, chase groups of men through the city and even face off in playful bouts of pushing and shoving.
Last year the holiday was canceled due to the death of Prime Minister Zenawi, so I didn’t get to experience the chaos that is Ashenda. This year I was able to observe the rowdy crowds in the wide streets of Mekele. In accordance with the customs of Halloween, my favorite American holiday, I handed out candy instead of money. Besides, I’m a single woman and traditionally only men are solicited for their coins. After seeing a city full of bold, confident women who have given up cooking and cleaning for a few days, I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t promote Ashenda in every country. Who needs boring International Women’s Day when you have a festive holiday to celebrate the beautiful women of the world?? Count me in.