It is that time of the year again, and the fact that it has been raining heavenly makes it even more special. I am talking about the Eritrean Festival. Annually in the last week of August and the first week of September Festival Eritrea is celebrated at the Asmara Expo ground for seven days and nights. The festival area is a location to witness the culture, tradition, music and dance of all ethnic groups in Eritrea.
The festival, which was officially opened yesterday by President Isaias Afwerki accompanied by ministers, PFDJ heads, regional administrators, Army commanders, religious leaders and diplomats is expected to be attended by visitors from all walks of life. As this is a unique occasion for fostering national unity and the sole location that embrace the culture, tradition, music and dance of all nine ethnic groups in Eritrea, it is a must visit event during the summer.
Kids wait for it with enthusiasm, vendors toil for it the whole year, regional administrations prepare for it for the better half of the year, and tourists flock to Eritrea just because of it. As kids whenever summer approached besides playing soccer and not doing homework, we looked forward to the festival. Nothing brings people together like the annual Eritrean festival does. The festival plays a pivotal role in nation-building; bringing people from every religious, economic and social background together. It gives you a sense of belonging. Home is usually where you most feel comfortable and the Expo ground for seven days of summer is to a great extent home to all nine Eritrean ethnic groups, youth, different institutions, national associations and many others who are eager to show their ethnic group’s trait and in the process prove the harmony Eritrea enjoys.
In a world characterized by religious segregation and interethnic conflicts, Eritreans, despite their diversity, have managed to live in harmony for hundreds of years. The multi-ethnicity of the Eritrean society reflects different languages and cultures, and as diverse as it may be, it is as harmonious as its marine biodiversity. The festival brings all aspects of the Eritrean natural, cultural, historic and archaeological heritage to one place so that all Eritreans, from home and abroad, can enjoy in a spirit of unity and fervent patriotic feelings.
Over the next six days, each of the administrative regions which are homes to all ethnic groups will showcase their life styles, cultural shows and their core historical and natural endowments.
All six administrative regions are set in a regional pavilion of their own, decorated in all their splendour with images, exhibition and cultural programs. One needs only to visit a regional pavilion to learn almost everything there is to know about any particular region.
Outside the regional pavilions, the scene is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. Replicas of houses and tents of all Eritrean nationalities and their living patterns can be visited. Proudly presenting their lifestyles, women crouch by open fires cooking or churning milk in goat skin leather bags as men tend farming tools. Each group also has its own group of performers who play and sing all day long.
Each of the country’s nine ethnic groups has its own oral and literary tradition, its music and dance, its architecture, its arts and crafts, and much more. Eritrea celebrates this rich heritage at all major celebrations and festivals, with performances and exhibitions that demonstrate the unique contribution of each group.
Tigre women swing their braided hair while Afar women dance holding curved knives. The Rashaida girls, in their finely embroidered traditional dresses, welcome visitors to their huts while youngsters from the Bilen group concentrate on the sword dance. The impressive dance styles of the Hidareb and Kunama are not to be forgotten. And the Tigrigna ethnic group play their famous long pipes, as women and youngsters with peculiar haircuts perform the typical round dance.
Speaking of hair-cuts and hair-dos, all nine ethnic groups have different hair styles that differ from age to age and gender to gender. Every hair cut has significant meaning according to the specific age, sex and ethnic group.
During the festival, numerous competitions are held ranging from music, painting, literature, to drama, traditional folklore and many other categories.
Festival Eritrea, which traces its roots to the early 1980s during the years of the armed struggle for liberation, has had an enormous impact on Eritrean heritage conservation and national identity formation. It also has become a model influence for similar events held by Eritrean communities across the world.
Eritreans by nature are culture-bound people with a deep sense of pride of their identity. Cultural development was an integral part of the liberation struggle and has remained so since Eritrea’s independence, both as an expression of national identity and as a crucial foundation upon which the nation itself is built. During the armed struggle for liberation Eritrean cultural values played an important role in strengthening the commitment towards national unity and freedom. Today, those same values highlight the country’s sovereignty, as they determine the country’s aspirations for peace and prosperity for all its citizens.
For kids it is time to go out with their parents or older siblings to have fun, take picture with Tom and Jerry, eat a bite of Eritrea’s finest food and take a turn at the swing set or slid. For the elderly it is a moment to once again proudly witness Eritrea in continuous harmony. For the diaspora, Eritrean is a joy to be among their people and experience being Eritrean first hand, while for Eritrea it is simply a blessing to have its harmoniously diverse population in one place, celebrating being Eritrean.