A Diasporic experience of Ethiopian culture
Last August, I had a firsthand experience of Ethiopian culture like never before.
But it didn’t start there.
My fascination with Ethiopian culture goes back to late October 2014 during my first visit to Washington DC. There, I met a couple of interesting Ethiopians, had a taste of their hospitality, and cuisine with a craving for more.
That memorable experience began my virtual exploration of Ethiopian culture via YouTube videos. Out of curiosity, I would simply search for Ethiopian music selecting the ones with the most views and watch to my delight. With those, I had a better appreciation of Ethiopia; its music, dance, sceneries, language and dressing.
Since then, I’ve flown on Ethiopian airline with brief stopovers in Addis Ababa and experienced the same level of appreciation for Ethiopian culture.
My recent 2-week stay in Silver Spring, Maryland was courtesy of an Ethiopian whom I’d met during that visit in 2014. This time around, it was a deeper experience of Ethiopian culture, thanks largely to my host.
Silver Spring is located in the state of Maryland; one of the adjoining states that make up what’s often referred to as the DMV (Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia). It is a hub for people of African ancestry; most notably, Ethiopians. Hence, it’s no wonder why Afrocentric events like AfricaFest and various Ethiopian festivals are held there annually with thousands of visitors.
Even though Silver Spring is a long way from Ethiopia itself, my experience had all the trappings of what I’d come to love and been keen to experience firsthand about Ethiopian culture.
The following highlight my experience.
Food, Music & Dance
Ethiopian food is one I’ve loved from my first taste of Injera 3 years ago. Ethiopia is renowned for its coffee but it also has lots of delicious spices. This time around, I had more than enough.
I dined a number of times at Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant, one of over 14 Ethiopian restaurants within a 1-mile radius in Silver Spring. My favourite dish was Tibs, sautéed meat served inside a clay pot-like container with the fire. It comes with Injera and different sauces.
Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant also has a live music feature where artistes of Ethiopian ancestry perform. I enjoyed watching the live performances done in Amharic and other local Ethiopian dialects. The best part was watching the guests join in the dancing. It reinforced the dance steps I’d seen in the videos. Seeing them live was fascinating and from my seat, I joined in the shoulder moves, as did my colleagues.
Besides the great food and live performances, the atmosphere made it feel like I was in some restaurant or household in Ethiopia. These included murals on the wall, dressing, people, language and even traditional practices. I happened to be at Lucy for lunch on a Sunday that fasting began and there was a traditional preparation of coffee done in the full glare of the guests and served round.
One of the first things that struck me about Ethiopian fashion was the cross pattern on white dresses. Ethiopia is historically associated with Christianity yet it is the only African country that was not colonized.
It is home to Lalibela, a historic site where you have churches carved within rocks. Ethiopian women usually wear a white colored dress called Habesha Kemis. It has the cross pattern and always looks lovely on them.
No cultural experience is complete without a taste of the language. While I had a great time just listening to people speak the language, the one word or phrase that was constantly reinforced was Ameseginalehu, which means thank you. Why did that stick? For one, every live act that performed during my late night dining at Lucy ended with the word to the audience.
My experience threw up some interesting insights on cultural promotion and preservation.
While I did enjoy the firsthand experience of Ethiopian food, fashion and dance, I wasn’t alone. Culture inspires an acquired taste that cuts across food, dance, fashion and more. Hence, it wasn’t uncommon to find non-Ethiopians dine at Ethiopian restaurants and join in the dance.
Experiencing Ethiopia in Silver Spring shows me that native African cultures can serve the needs of future generation even outside the homeland only if present and older generations purposely ensure its spread. For many kids born and raised outside Ethiopia, I dare say that being exposed to its rich culture in the way that I did is sure to influence them positively, making them accustomed to their roots with every sense of pride.
While my experience was from a Diaspora perspective, my fascination with Ethiopia hasn’t ended. If any, my playlist, which has now grown to include Teddy Afro, continues to be a part of my routine and I long for yet another taste of the experience in Ethiopia sometime soon.