Mothers’ Day: the Ethiopian version

Extracting the edible substance from Enset, one of the famous staple foods and an indigenous plant to Southern Ethiopia, is a rather complicated task to perform. Enset, a genus of Monocarpic plant and commonly referred to as the Abyssinia Banana or False Banana, is everything for the lives of the Gurage nationality and other ethnic groups in the South. According to studies conducted in the region, Enset is the major item of food for more than 48 ethnic groups in Ethiopia and it is celebrated for its rich nutritional value such as its starchy nature. The unique physical fitness and strength of the people is attributed to consuming Enset on a daily basis, a study details.

An article published by the African Studies Center of the Pennsylvania University deals in detail with the historical and cultural significance of Enset Ventricosum - otherwise known as the False Banana by exploring the long and laborious tasks of growing the plant for 6-9 years and then extracting the starchy foods content. Women of the South are inextricably  linked with Enset. Processing the plant into a delicious meal is a task that is exclusively performed by the women who are widely regarded as the masters of Enset in many parts of the south. Although the planting, cultivating and digging of the fermentation ground pit for Enset is a job that is usually performed by men, the long strenuous part of the job which involves extracting the edible part from the root of the plant will always be left to the women. It is the women who usually spend months in extracting the pulp, arranging the underground vessel for fermentation and perform the periodical checks.

As the principal crop of the Gurage, Enset has long impacted the lives of the community in many ways, but one ancient tradition of honoring the women or the mothers in the Gurage community is a unique custom that recognizes the plight of female heads of households to put food on the table; and especially when the food is Enset which entails a painstaking process to extract an edible substance. The Gurages have long recognized this and have been paying tribute to their women since ancient times. One can say that the Gurages had some sort of a ‘Mothers’ Day’ or a “Women’s Day’ dedicated to their hard-working female heads of the family. 

“I doubt if many people know that there was a Mothers’ Day in the Gurage community many years ago,” Tamiru Demsis (PhD), head of the research and study center at Wolkite University, says. In connection to the International Women’s Day (March 8), the university held an important event of resurrecting this tradition called Antrsohit, the Gurage version of March 8, last Saturday. According to the experts, sadly, the tradition is slowly fading away among the younger generation.  

The event, which marked the relevance of indigenous wisdom that are poorly preserved and pass on to the next generation, highlighted critical studies and surveys which focused on indigenous knowledge and traditions among the community. “I had not heard about it prior to joining the university but after I came to learn about the tradition, I found it to be very valuable to the community and conduct a case study on it,” says Netsebrak Tamene, social-anthropologist at the University. She said that her study of the Antroshit gave her insight into the incredible societal value that honored women in a typically patriarchal society.

“As a woman, it also gave me courage to dig deep and reignite the fading tradition,” Netsebrak says. Her findings state that Antroshit used to be held between November and January at which time women in community are relieved of their duties to rest and engage in various social activities. One of these activities is Gichamwe, a traditional dance only performed by the mothers who are head of their family. According to Netsebrak, this traditional music and performance has long been performed for close to three hundred years, at which time the women will be outdoors. On Antroshit it is customary for the women (mothers) to receive presents from their children.

When the first-born is a boy, then he would sacrifice a lamb in honor of his mother during Antroshit, and if the mother gave birth to a daughter then a girl would anoint her  mother’s head with fresh and best quality butter. This consequently leave the mothers in contest that they would play with one another boosting the presents they received from their children.

“This is a very important day in the lives of the Gurage mothers. They set themselves free of their daily duties and entertain as much as they can, leaving their men on the side,” Netsebrak says. She even goes further and points out the contextual error in one of the most famous Guragegna songs performed by the iconic Ethiopian vocalist Mahmud Ahmed called Gichamwe since it is basically a tune that the Gurage women play around Antroshit. Netsebrak argues that this traditional tune has an intrinsic meaning to the women and only the women.

In fact, this is not the only flaw with artists who played traditional music in an attempt to glorify the value of the society. They, however, fail to do so; they often care so much about the rhythm and language that they do little in scrutinizing the cultural background, according to Alemayehu Fanta, veteran artist and traditional music instructor at the Addis Ababa University—Yared School of Music.

Nevertheless, this time round, neither Gichamwe nor the tradition of Antroshit is alive in the small villages, experts argue. Most of these cultural heritages are running out of favor in many corners of the country, according to the researchers. “Not only Gichamwe, other women’s traditional activities are on the verge of death,” says Asteway Melese, head of public relations and instructor of Folklore and Arts at Wolkite University. “As far as my study goes, the Gurage women were among those few others who had a real enjoyment and honor in their traditional and uneducated community,” he says. Citing the epic legend of the Gurage woman, named Yekake Wurdwot, who struggled for the freedom and equality of women, Asteway explains the incredible tale of Ethiopian women in the past. “We will never benefit from an alien wisdom brought from outside as we can benefit much from our own indigenous wisdom,” he says.

In fact, legends passed on to this generation reveal the greatness of the traditional Ethiopian societies everywhere, the experts argue. Nevertheless, little has been done to reconnect ancient wisdom with the global or modern perception. Only a few authors and playwrights have studied the tale of these legendary figures to interpret them into today’s life.

According to Endalegeta Kebede, an author, the theater and other forms of the art should be focused on such eminent legends that advocate human rights, gender equality and other socio-economic issues. The prolific writer, who also wrote on the socio-cultural issues of the Guarge people in his book entitled Kershado, also argues that Ethiopia’s immense traditional wisdom is yet to be explored and one platform should be story-telling. More importantly, schools and academic institutions should have a center for indigenous wisdom research and development to enrich those pure wisdoms identified as “harmless tradition”.

The Wolkite University, in this regard, looks to be striving to emerge as a leading institute in the study and development of indigenous wisdom and legends. “We are planning to open a center for these activities and through time, it will grow up to the level of an independent college,” says Tamiru, who together with colleagues has already chartered the journey towards saving several traditional wisdoms and practices besides Antroshit at least in their locality.