Abesha culture: Shackles or Salvation?


What is my purpose? Ahh…the eternal question. To be honest, I am so over it. Thank you, end of article.

Seriously though, you get to a point in life when you think, wait a minute, does it really matter? Isn’t life just a collection of moments and feelings which could abruptly end at any minute so the real question is…what can I do at this very moment that will make my life just that much more comfortable? After all, Armageddon could be in the next 5 seconds…girllll, better grab an extra pillow!

And why is it that this question is even more complex when you add the abesha’net’ clause? I’ll tell you…it’s because the traditional communal abesha culture stipulates that you are not an individual, therefore, the ‘who am I’ question is quite simple to answer. You are whomever WE say you are! If you are male you are typically polite, hard-working, heterosexual, generous, thoughtful, stubborn and manly. If a female, you are soft-spoken, aim to please, heterosexual, non-ambitious, loyal, obsessed with marriage and children. How far off am I? For those who have lived in Abesha land, especially as a young person, will be more familiar with this. You are sort of shaped into becoming this ‘acceptable’ human being who fits perfectly in abesha society, you don’t cause trouble by being different or by standing out. God forbid, you do and people start to notice cause boy, you will be the talk of the town! Soon after, you’ll be kicked out of the town!

Those of us who choose to respect the limitations of our culture usually do whatever makes us ‘different’ behind the backs of those we care about and know will be upset by, smoking is a classic example. This way, we remain perfect little Mimiye or Mamushiye in their eyes. Easy enough…for those of us who live abroad. For those of us living back home, it’s a whole different story. These abeshas are the real super-heroes! Like the ones who switch to an alternate identity at night. They may not save babies from burning buildings or wear fitted costumes (well maybe some of them might!). They save themselves instead…their individuality. It might not even be at night, but it’s definitely under the radar. It could be as simple as having more Enrico cake than the average person should…or as complicated as say, having an abortion. Whatever it is, they have to be on top of their game 24/7, living a double life, watching where they go, who they talk to, what cars are driving by. Truly, living on the edge!

The crazy thing is, despite all this effort, someone will eventually find out the truth. That someone will tell someone else and soon, the whole city will be talking about you and your secret double life. Even worse, the story will go from you stuffing your face with Enrico cakes to you attempting to stab a waiter to get more Enrico cakes. And that’s it! Everyone knows your secret and no one admits the truth to your face. When they see you on the street, the same woman who was spilling your story to her friends while sipping coffee three hours ago, greets you with a smile and asks about your family…while staring subtly at your Enrico-cake-filled belly!

Everyone has skeletons, secrets that are unacceptable to our traditions and culture, no one is perfect! No matter how hard you try to be perfect, they will find something on you! It’s like when my mom and her sisters talk about men the girls in my family are dating…’Ayeee, esuma betam wefereh’ or ‘Ene bebekule, kenem, matam tuta lebso yeminor sew, telek cheger alebet!’….

Of course, you won’t be the talk of the town forever. Someone will come along soon enough and upstage you with an addiction to Bole Mini strawberry juice or Girgiro tere siga! At that point you will be history, standing on the one-hit wonder stage next to the singer of ‘shy guy’ wondering which reality TV show to audition for…joking aside, you will probably be quite relieved, especially if your story was a little more shocking than a food addiction.

So why you ask should I bother to hide and lie about my trips to Enrico when everyone will find out anyway and talk behind my back? Answer is simple…when you are in Rome do as the Romans! You go ahead and do everything your little heart desires, as long as it is not in front of anyone’s face, you will be just fine and accepted with open arms. Ironically, however, no one is really interested in Mr or Miss Perfect anyway. So a little drama probably won’t hurt.

The only question then is what your own conscious will allow you to do. You will be surprised to discover that actually, this excruciatingly limiting culture of ours which you were brought up in has made you so conscious of your actions that there are certain lines you would not event WANT to cross. You might smoke cigarettes but you would never try heroine…you might steal but never murder…you might try weed but never deal…you might cheat but never have children with multiple partners at the same time…it’s your upbringing, your conscious JUST WONT LET YOU!

I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, we can’t talk about culture without some generalisation. However, the abesha culture has a fierce hold and lasting impact on its people. The very limitations that make us feel less of an individual in our adulthood are actually those which protect and sub-consciously guide us away from excess or harm. It is by no means a perfect solution but has definitely stood the test of time and place. We take it everywhere with us, whether we want to or not! It does not take long for non-abeshas to recognise how unique an abesha person is when they meet one. We have a nagging conscious of what people think about us and we care about the community around us ie. the basic ingredients to a successful communal culture. That is why most of us outside of the motherland are considered hard-working and amiable by our colleagues, caring by our friends and die-hard proud about our country by everyone else!

So back to my initial question, what is my purpose? Well, writing is something I have always enjoyed doing, but so is talking…and observing people. Can one have a career in ‘Writing Things You Talked About While You Observed People?’ Cause that would be the ONE for me baby! Do you think mama will be proud? I’ll never forget how disappointed my parents were when my 3rd grade teacher told them I talk too much in class, they looked at me like they just caught me snorting coke! Of course, none of us are perfect and EVERY one of us is different. It’s a hard pill to swallow for some but once embraced, you wonder why you lived any other way! Right? Well, sort of.



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