Ngdet, Losing its Authenticity?

About Eritrea - History & Culture

In Eritrea, many traditional customs and holy days continue to be predominant within the society. Both Muslims and Christians follow their faith in the country while respecting one another and celebrating together. One of the holy days is the commemoration of Christian Saints mainly by the Orthodox churches, locally known as ‘Ngdet’.

Remembering the saints is a ritual the faithful make sure not to miss. Some may simply go to specific churches representing the specific saints, such as Medhanie Alem in Geza Banda and pray by the gate of the church. Others follow the prayer starting in the early morning hours until about 9am before visiting relatives living in the area. Those relatives in that area will prepare traditional food and beverage for those passing by before sharing the traditional coffee with some popcorn. Actually, a hectic day for the host family, as visitors start coming early in the morning and never stop until the sun sets.

Ngdet used to be mainly celebrated in the countryside and villages in the outskirts of Asmara such as Godaif or Arbaete Asmera. Through time, with the growing population within the city and the affiliation of each church to a certain saint, the rituals have taken over city dwellers.

One of the big ngdets, Enda Mariam, covers a vast area from Edaga Arbi, Edaga Hamus and Arbaete Asmera. Another one, Kidane Mehret, is celebrated by both the Catholics and the Orthodoxs and the ngdet is mainly in Sembel and some parts of Mai Tshihot in Asmara.

The Ngdet of Kidane Mehret took place last Thursday and as my future in-laws live in the area, I was invited to spend the day with them. Although the family doesn’t do the whole ngdet ritual, it is kind of ‘obliged’ to prepare food and drinks for possible visitors and each year close family members come to share a meal and take the time to catch up.
The area is particularly packed in the day, as people from all walks of life come to the church of Kidane Mehret. Public buses can’t even pass through. Only small cars and taxis are able to make their way through the straight road of Sembel direction up to the church located at the end of the long road on a little hill.

I had a great time but the ngdet I knew as a child is the one in the countryside, at the village of my ancestors. We used to go with lots of food, open the tiny little house where my fathers and siblings were born, enjoy the day with elders and younger cousins before going on adventure by the riverside, and visiting extended family members.

Ngdets are means to catch up with one’s roots. However, nowadays ngdet within cities is mostly synonymous with ‘eating for free’ and a place of business bargains. Many would probably disagree. However, I realized that even in my neighborhood every time ngdet day is celebrated, some people rush from early in the morning to sell stuff on the pavements of specific neighborhood. Items such as cooking stoves to socks. Really? Who’s thinking of buying such items while on the way to the church?

No space to walk in, sellers calling for your attention, ‘Ufun, Ufun’ (sweetcorn), ‘shebet alo, shebet’ (sandals, sandals to sell)… a noise pollution taking over the real meaning of ngdet. Last Thursday, it was difficult to reach the church without stepping on someone’s sweetcorn or socks displayed on the way.

Without doubt, ngdet is excuse to many whom would just use the day for another purpose. Indeed, trying to earn some money, while others to beg or to eat as much as possible for free and many youth will find an excuse to drink the local beverage Suwa and Areqi in abundance.

On top of that, it may become a burden to the host family. Expenses may impact the family’s budget is wasted in preparing the meal and the traditional drinks and the host takes a day off from work. A burden not only to the family but also to ‘negadyan’ (visitors). It has been enshrined in people’s mentality that if an invitation is declined it would be negatively perceived by the host and people’s pockets get empty by the end of the day.

Most of the time, a bottle of traditional drink, Areqi would be offered, or kilos of sugar or coffee to the host. Well, I prefer to buy something useful such as a whole basket of fruits for the family than a bottle of alcohol. This only does not happen only at saint’s days but also in any celebration between graduation parties and their extravaganza, baptisms or weddings.

Elders, actually, are the ones trying to keep up with the tradition, by attending the mass, praying and making wishes until the next year’s ngdet. Besides, during the fasting period, they fast the whole day and then break the feast with a fasting meal made out of helbet, alicha and other vegetables all served on injera.

Above and beyond, the traditional meaning is about making something good, being grateful and also helping one another. Helping one another still exists where neighbors work together during the course of the preparation of the day by cooking together or by giving to the less fortunate ones.

The entire other artificialities that we see more and more are surely ‘overwriting’ the tradition of ngdet coming from villages to the city with its revised version.
Inauthenticity, using the day for other purposes, forgetting the real meaning of traditions are points to discuss on how the culture in Eritrea should be protected by regulating extravaganzas and other useless activities happening on the sideline such as selling items or begging.