Reflection: A different Ashenda this year but still a time for appreciation of God’s creation

Near the battle front women soldiers and their male colleagues celebrate and reflect on Ashenda this week.

The ancient Tigray festival, Ashenda, is different this year but even more important. I had lived in Tigray for the past seven years. Every year at the end of August on the western calendar the Ashenda festival would fill the city of Mekelle, capital of Tigray, with more than a million visitors. The festival is a celebration of the main harvest coming, the Virgin Mary, womanhood, and ethnic recognition of the people of Tigray. Often times it comes when there is still a rainy season going on but that does not stop young women in ceremonial dress from gathering in the city with lots of singing and dancing.

Ashenda celebration in downtown Mekelle in previous years

This year is different. Starvation, killings of innocents, atrocities to women, limited planting, and ongoing war have changed their world to horror.  Some internet trolls this year usually from the Amhara region wanted to sensationalize that this year Mekelle did not have the usual large crowds as well as suffering famine. In their twisted mind they imagined that an impingement in celebrating God’s creation was funny. They wished to demean the faith of Tegaru and especially of the Tegaru women.

Empty streets in Mekelle this August 2021

The book, The Sabbath, written by Hebrew Rabbi Abraham Heschel came to mind to help explain how the Tigray see Ashenda. As Rabbi Heschel writes that our celebration of our creation and being close to God is not defined by a place. That God in creating the universe designated a time not a place for this most important part of our being. Although he mostly talking about the day of the Sabbath this exactly also goes for Ashenda. Even in the midst of misery and war we must find time for the sacred and for reviewing our relationship with God.

This year in the midst of a terrible invasion which killed and abused tens of thousands it is more important then ever to appreciate God’s grace. So instead of huge crowds young women and their families are still celebrating God’s gift of creation, of Mary’s role in Christianity, and the hope that Jesus Christ brings ultimately justice for his followers.

The heart and soul of Tigray in the midst of catastrophe has not waivered. They do not believe God has abandoned them. Women’s role in being the mother to Christ, to sustaining Tigray society, and even fighting it’s battles of defense against horrific oppression has special significance this year more then ever.


The betrayal of the Tigray Region by Abiy Ahmed

In April 2018 Abiy Ahmed the new appointed Prime Minister of Ethiopia came to visit Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, with a message of hope, cooperation, and development. As a teenager in the Ethiopian Army he had served in the Tigray region and learned Tigrinya, the native language. He watched a circus show, sat with Tigray People Liberation Front leaders, and talked about a future together. Before his visit he had stated that it was time for a new era for all regions to work together. That the country should look forward and not be focused in the past.

Abiy Ahmed sits with TPLF leaders at the Mekelle Monument to Martyrs

He talked about infrastructure development including hydroelectric dams, a railroad project, the Mekelle water problem, giving support to private sector development , loans for investment, export support from the national bank, improving tourism,  bringing public meter taxi for Mekelle,  and a short lease proclamation for agriculture. None of these things ever happened.

Instead after his visit there came to be a movement in Ethiopia about the need to deal with the past.  In late 2018, the Prime Minister created a Reconciliation Commission “to maintain peace justice, national unity and consensus as well as Reconciliation among Ethiopian Peoples.”

Discussion began about injustice under the Monarchy, the Derg, and the Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Front under whose auspices Abiy Ahmed came to power as a compromise between Amhara and Oromia factions. Soon however, this effort which lacked any clear mandate, become a mechanism for consolidating power. 

By the 2019 budgets for the Tigray state which were calculated by population formulas used for all regions were beginning to be cut. Many former political leaders including those of the TPLF were sought out for arrest. Ethnic identity in the Amhara region, and other regions as well,  which normally had about 10% Tigray became an issue. There were pushes which began subtilty but then became open and forceful causing many Tigray to leave other regions and move back to Tigray.  Abiy Ahmed was using the usual formula for dictators by creating a Tigray strawman. He began to turn on even those who facilitated his rise namely Jawar Mohammed from Oromia.

On the occasion of the 2019 harvest and women’s festival Ashenda , Abiy Ahmed sent a message that Tigray culture was an important and vital part of Ethiopia. In a speech to Parliament he stated that the TPLF and Tigray leadership were examples to follow for other regions in Ethiopia. 

The Tigray Ethiopia conflict which was the end result of almost two years of escalating actions against the Tigrayan ethnicity was touted as a “law enforcement action”. That the Ethiopian government was going to free the Tegaru people from the crimes committed against them by the TPLF. Instead with its expatriate Eritrean allies it looted, killed, raped, and stole from the very people Abiy Ahmed said he would “liberate”. Finally he sarcastically complained that he had to remove his army from Mekelle because the Tegaru were helping the Tigray government too much. 

Today more than 300,000 Tegaru are suffering famine. Aid is being actively blocked by the Ethiopian government.  Revolts are now active in Beningshagul, Afar, Oromia, Agew, Somali, and Gambella who also feel betrayed.  Hope has been replaced to a fight for survival against a great betrayal.