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Ethnicity in Tigray : all you need to know

Friday | 15.4.22 | Last Updated 2022-04-15T20:37:45Z

Ethnicity in Tigray : all you need to know

 With a history dating back centuries, the Tigray people living in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are an ethnic group with a population of around 7 million (as of 2020). They are the fourth largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, after the Oromo, Amhara and Somalis. For the last two thousand years, the emperors who have ruled Ethiopia have been either Amharas or from Tigray. According to the history of the country, Menilik (son of King Solomon) was the founder of the kingdom of Ethiopia. History states that the Ark of the Covenant was captured by Menilik and his men from the Children of Israel, who was then brought to Aksum and is now known as Tigray. The Tigrayans speak Tigrinya, the official mother tongue of the region. 

Tigrinya is a language of the Ethiopian Semitic language family and is related to Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic (a language originating from Aramaic in Syria). Tigrinya is also closely related to Ethiopia's official language, Amharic. This means that most Tigraya people have no difficulty communicating in Amharic as well. Most of the letters used when writing these languages   are descended from the ancient Geez language. Tigrinya itself has various dialects that differ both grammatically and phonetically. No single dialect is considered a standard dialect.
Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the majority of the native population believed in and followed pagan worship. 

The gods include Utu (the sun god) and Almaqah (the moon god). Judaism is also embraced by certain tribes within the group. Early D'mt and Aksum were the most important polytheistic (belief in many gods) kingdoms. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity was not introduced in Tigray by the arrival of colonialism or missionaries. The Mediterranean world includes Aksum and Adowa, both cities in the Tigray region. This is where Christianity came in and grew around the same time as it was in Ireland. According to records, the Tigrayans began to embrace Christianity a hundred years before such an influence was seen in Europe. Today, the majority of native Christians are Oriental Orthodox, while a minority are Catholic. 

Religion and the Church are intertwined in the daily lives of the natives. Many of the churches on the ground were carved into the cliffs, while others were built from single blocks of stone. Each community in the Tigrayans has a church and patron saint.
The Tigrayan tribe converted to Islam when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers fled to the Kingdom of Aksum. When many of these followers returned to the Arabian Peninsula, many remained. Many natives were influenced by Islamic practices and soon converted to Islam. The new converts were known as Jeberti. Almost all Muslims in Tigraya are Sunni Muslims. Regarding clothing, there wasn't much difference between the Tigray region and Ethiopia. 

White clothing is considered traditional and Christian, with as little adornment as possible. For celebratory and church occasions, women choose to wear long dresses that extend to their ankles. Women in some central and northern regions made their clothes from a material called shemma. A cotton cloth about 90 cm wide, made by weaving long strips of cloth together. These strips are then sewn together. Clothes made of shemma are called habesha kemis. On occasion, shiny threads are woven or added to the fabric, producing an elegant effect. 

The bottom of the dress may have a decorated pattern in it. To produce enough clothes for one dress, it takes at least two or three weeks.
Women often wear scarves, netela or shash. Shash is tied around the neck. Shash is made of a material called shama or kuta. Both Muslim and Christian women use this item of clothing. While community elders wear a shash every day, younger women choose to wear a shash or scarf only during church. When in church, the shash is worn so that the shoulders are wrapped with the top hem. How to wear this scarf produces a cross (meskelya). Shiny threads appear on the border.

 For gloomy occasions such as funerals, it is worn so that the shiny thread is at the bottom (madegdeg). Accessories such as necklaces and bracelets made of silver or gold adorn the arms and legs. Today, modern clothes combined with traditional elements are made and worn by women in cities. Men's pants are ankle-length. The top of the pants (above the knees and hips) is loose and loose, while from the knees to the ankles they are tight. Shirts with long sleeves are worn. The shirt has a white collar and sometimes, a sweater is worn. Knee-high socks are worn. For ordinary men, the shirt extends to the knees, while for priests it is below the knees. The men also wear scarves over their shoulders. 

In today's time, many indigenous people have given up traditional clothes
 to adopt western clothes.
Tigray's main festival is Ashenda Mariam, a festival reserved for girls and younger women. The festival takes its name from the tall grass that women use to adorn their dresses. Other names for this festival are Shadey, Solel, Mariya and Ashendye. Ashenda is celebrated by Orthodox Christians and takes place any time between August and September every year. Ashenda duration varies between different locations. So it can last from a few days to even a whole month. This festival commemorates the heavenly accession of the Virgin Mary after She Asleep. Christians also use the occasion to mark the end of the fast called philseta. 

However, the main aspect of this festival is the girls and young women of the region. According to Tigrayan culture, it is on this occasion that girls (of appropriate age) dress up and adorn themselves to show their beauty and dancing skills. The goal is to attract suitors and get married before the next growing season. Sometimes, girls wear dresses called tilfi. The Tilfi is a cotton dress, the front of which is beautifully embroidered from top to bottom. From the waist down, the dress is adorned with tall grass known as ashenda. Apart from elaborate dresses, special jewelery and hairstyles were also worn. The girls and women met at a central place where they were divided into smaller groups. The girls then entertained the public by going from house to house, singing and dancing. 

Drumming and socializing are also part of the culture. The songs sung for this festival range from songs honoring Ashenda, songs of love, Christian songs and songs appreciating beauty. It is customary for people to give gifts to girls. From money to food and drink. The customs of the girls last all day and throughout the festival.
Folklore, poetry, puns and riddles were placed in a high place in society. The legends of ancient heroes are told through poetry. The art of 'poetic combat' or qene is much sought after in the tribe. A monastic educated individual is often employed by the community to demonstrate their poetry writing skills during public gatherings or celebrations. 

They are also employed during weddings to entertain guests. Their poetry will be filled with puns and riddles that may often mock any kind of undesirable quality in a person. Verbal skills and intelligence were also praised in royal and holy figures. Ethiopian folklore is filled with narratives of saints. According to one legend, Tekle Haymanot, an Ethiopian saint, defeated the devil with his verbal skills. Gebre Memfis Qudus was a monk who was made a saint because of his extraordinary compassion. Legend tells how the monk roamed among the wild animals. His compassion was displayed during one of the droughts in Ethiopia. Seeing a bird dying of thirst, the monk wept and quenched the bird's thirst with his tears. According to legend, the bird is the Holy Spirit.

The Tigrayan diet generally consists of local vegetables and meat cooked into a very spicy dish known as tsebhi. It is a thick soup served along with a sourdough sandwich called injera. Another regional dish is tihlo. It is made with moistened roasted barley flour that is kneaded and then broken into smaller shapes. This is then served with spicy meat stitches. A wooden fork is used to dip the pieces into the stew. Mes (honey wine) is also served with the dish. Orthodox Christians and Muslims do not eat pork because it is against their religious beliefs. On Wednesdays and Fridays and during the fasting period, meat and dairy products are not served or consumed. 

To counterbalance such religious beliefs, vegan meat is readily available in the region. It is customary for indigenous families and guests to eat from a shared food basket (masob). No cutlery used. Food is eaten with the right hand, while flatbread is used 
to scoop out the contents.
Men are the sole breadwinners and heads of families. Until recently, the law stated that men were disciplinarians of children and owners of their wives. It was not until 2000 that the law was re-enacted giving women rights regarding children, property and divorce. Divorced women are not viewed favorably in society. The age of marriage was also raised from 15 to 18 in 2003. 

While girls are not allowed to attend school after their primary education, the government is now urging them to be educated and join the public workforce. Politics at Tigray is a predominantly male field. Modern influences and local issues have brought about many changes in this region. Financial weakness has influenced women to work outside their homes, with men sharing household responsibilities.

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