In Eritrea, especially in the highlands, January is nicknamed Tiri ebdi, January the crazy month. I think January got this fitting nickname due to the numerous weddings that take place in the month in the highlands.
In January weddings are common sights in the highlands. If you are a resident of one of the towns, it is impossible for you not to come across a wedding hall in January. In fact, if you are a resident of Asmara, chances are that you will come across too many weddings to count.
But, how are January’s ‘madness’ and the many weddings related? To explain this, I have to define, the Tigrigna word, ‘ebdi’. In Tigrigna, ebdi is a word we use to denote a crazy woman. The male equivalent is ebud, a mentally ill man. That is the literal translation of the word. However, as can be guessed from the phrase under discussion, it won’t be right to take the phrase in its literal sense. As we are not talking about human beings, but about a non-human, a non-person.
You can’t call a month, mad or crazy, as you can’t call January smart, wise or lazy. In speaking about ‘mad or crazy January’, the Tigrigna are using a common literary device called personification. In literature, people use personification when they give human qualities to non-humans such as land, rivers, mountains, and other non-living things. Poets use personification to convey some of their thoughts and express their feelings, which they find it to express otherwise. For example, poets use personification to express such abstract concepts as pride, wisdom, arrogance etc.
In Eritrea, many think that people should not engage in wild dancing. Songs such as, awaldeye kida ibeda, which encourages people, especially girls, to go crazy over life and have fun, are very rare. In fact, this is the only Tigrigna song I know with such a message. Our society encourages moderation in different aspects of life. A Tigrigna proverb puts this so well. “Saese emo hadarka aytresie,” (You go and dance, and have fun, but make sure you do not forget your life.) Tiri ebdi (it appears) violates the Tigrigna’s sense of moderation when it comes to music and dancing.
The music in our weddings are not by any standard loud and wild. I have heard blaring music from cars and university dormitories elsewhere ten times louder than our loudest wedding songs. In fact, our customs are so sociable that people are conditioned to take their surroundings into account when adjusting the volume of wedding songs. They take into account that there could be sick people around. If there is a family mourning its dead, wedding songs are often turned to their lowest or even not turned on.
The Eritrean peasant farmer in the highland villages works hard. In the summer, he has to wake up before sunrise and work until sundown, ploughing his fields and sowing crops. Back breaking work, in which the entire family is busy weeding, keeps him busy for weeks. Such hard work continues through autumn as he and his family work hard to harvest and collect crops. Needless to say, his and his family’s life are very tough.
In such a hard life, there is little entertainment for him. Of course, he enjoys the suwa that is brewed in honor of the different saints by fellow villagers, and to whose houses he and his wife are invited. Once a year, his family celebrates the village negdet, a festive time in honor of the village patron saint, to which people from far and near come. Even strangers are welcome, and no one is turned back. Apart from these, the highland farmer has no chance of entertaining himself or his family. For entertainment and for his share of joy in this life, he has to wait until January.
To wed his child, the farmer has to wait until January. He completes harvesting in December, and in January the pace of life slows down for him and his family. By December end, he finishes collecting his harvest. He will not work on his plots until some months later. Naturally, the season puts them in a perfect state of mind for entertainment. Now, he can turn his attention to a happy time, his child’s wedding.
The season prepares him financially for one of his happiest days. Now, he doesn’t need to worry how he would finance his child’s wedding. Of course, he will need money for the groom’s clothes and his bride’s jewelry and clothes. But, that is not an issue for much concern. He has secured some money for this purpose. Suwa will be brewed for the wedding guests. That too will be taken care of. For relatives far and near will do their best to help him financially.
January brings a scene from a Tigrigna novel to my mind. Aptly titled, the novel, Tiri Ebdi, by Berhe Araya at one point describes this scene. I am describing the highlight of the scene, and not quoting the novel, which I read more than thirty years ago. As a drum beat was heard, the novelist says, a woman carried her baby upside down.
She carried her baby upside down because she was absent minded and could not realize she was not carrying the baby properly. Her heart beat like the drum. Her ears heard only the drumbeats, and not the cries of the baby. She didn’t want to miss the dance, which she had waited for months. If she missed this she would not come across another until months later. It was the cries of her baby and the cries of the other people in the dance which brought her to her senses, and made her see her ‘folly’.
In the highlands, the farmer, in his desire to see his son wed, often pushes his child to get married. And, luckily, if his son consented, that day becomes one of his happiest days, for nothing can make an Eritrean father or mother happier than his or her child’s wedding.
Such a joy makes him sing and dance with abandon. His wife, as one of the Eritrean women known for their skills to compose songs on the spot, takes the drum, and sings in the weeks before and on the wedding day. Addressing the wedding day, she sings, “embaba nghoye kixbeyeki endye xeniheye”. (Literally, the song is translated as: Flower of the morning, for you I have been waiting and waiting.”)
The man’s joy is no lesser. Overcome by joy, he joins in the singing: abti hagosey habni shashey kiememo. “Pass my netsela, my white shawl. Let me gird it round my waist and dance in my day of happiness.”
In a society that preaches moderation, the man and his wife come to the dance floor and dance happily. Other men and women join them, giving over themselves to loud singing and unrestrained dancing, crowding the dance floor.
The singing and dancing become so engrossing that some people have to be asked to leave the floor so that others may have a turn. People want to have a turn with the drum too. In other words, not only the dance floor but the drum also has to be shared. People should be allowed their share of joy. Such dancing often continues into the early hours of the morning.
No wonder the Tigrigna call January, the crazy Month. In January they forget and give themselves over to boundless joy, and go crazy over the dance. Now, if you happen to pass by a makeshift wedding tent, remember why it is so loud and very noisy.