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Eritrea: Kedija Adem in Conversation


Kedija Adem is one of the most popular and influential songstresses of Tigre songs. A veteran of the Eritrean armed struggle, she is the singer of what is probably the most famous Tigre song in Eritrea: Imbel Weten. Over the years, she has released more than one hundred songs, most of which are inspired by Tigre culture and the armed struggle for Independence.

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So Kedija, you sang one of the most influential Tigre songs during the armed struggle. What does the song mean, and what was it like to sing it in front of an audience?

The song is called Imbel Weten, which in Tigre means “Without Country.” The song was written by my dear friend Kahsay Gebrehiwet, who’s a very talented songwriter. The song became influential because of the lyrics:

“እምՈል ወጠን፡ እምՈል ምድር

ኢእንነብር ሕና፥ ኢንነብር…

Imbel Weten, Imbel Mdr,

E-innebr Hna, E-innebr…

Without Country, Without Land

We cannot live; we will not live.”

The song is an account of the oppression and the suffering that was inflicted on the Eritrean people and a declaration that without our country, we have no dignity and therefore cannot – and will not – live. During the armed struggle, the song was a sort of call to arms, and it carries a certain weight even now, three decades since our independence was declared.

As for public performances of the song, I still see the concerts quite vividly. As part of the cultural troupe of the EPLF, I got the chance to travel with fellow singers to many places, one of which was Halfa, Sudan. I remember many Eritrean refugees were living in Halfa in those times, displaced from their homes because of the war. That performance, in particular, was special. I remember getting up on the stage and peering at hundreds of people in the audience cheering me on. I was only a few verses into the song when I saw that almost all of the audience’s faces were streaked with tears. Some were crying earnestly, unable to hold back their emotions, not just from my song but from everyone else who had performed before me. Though you’d think it was sadness that caused the tears, it wasn’t. The people were crying tears of joy and pride at seeing Tegadelti – a beacon of hope for many Eritreans abroad – standing in the flesh in front of them. They were reminded of the home they belonged to; they were reminded of the home that we were fighting to free.

Seeing their faces awash with tears, I couldn’t hold back my own. Halfway through the song, my tears had reached my chin, though my voice remained surprisingly intact. I sang my heart out that day. And the amazing thing was that by the end of the night, an estimated three hundred Eritrean refugees decided to leave their camps behind and join the struggle in the Sahel.

That sounds like an incredible experience.

It was. I was proud to have been part of something so impactful. And to do so with music is wonderful!

So far, you’ve sung well over a hundred songs. Is there a song you can tell us about that is closely tied to the Tigre culture?

I can tell you about two songs that represent Tigre culture, both of which I drew directly from traditional Tigre folk songs.

The first is Keskes We Shelil (ከስከስ ወ ሸሊል), named after the two traditional styles of dance in Tigre: Keskes and Shelil. The dance is inspired by the playful games young men and women play with one another on the riverside, the young men stealing the girls’ scarves, and games like that. Keskes can be danced by both men and women because it involves shaking the shoulders in tandem with the rhythm of the music. Shelil (which means braids) can only be danced by young girls and women. It involves wearing the braids down and swinging the head vigorously left and right, causing the hair to fan out and slap from one side to another. Shelil is a big part of Tigre culture because of the great value that long hair traditionally holds: even in the dance, the longer the hair, the more impressive the Shelil dance.

There are also certain customs involved in dancing the Shelil: for instance, young girls get their hair braided a different style as opposed to the older, married women, even though the Shelil itself is danced the same way. Another custom is that men dance behind girls and rhythmically swing their canes. It’s quite a sight!

The second song is Wesomya (ወሶምያ), based on a ritual dance in Tigre families before setting off for their son’s wedding. In Tigre culture, there’s a gift-giving tradition at weddings, specifically for grooms. When a young man is getting married, he is given a set of gifts from his family: the father of the groom gives him the sword that he himself was given on his wedding day, passing down a family heirloom. The mother gives her son a beaded necklace called Yesret (የስረት), while the paternal aunt (or aunts) gives the groom bracelets made of red beads. The men, including the father, the paternal uncles, and the groomsmen, present the groom with beautiful new clothes for the wedding in what is called Msmad (ምስማድ). Then the groom, along with the rest of his family, sets off toward his bride, in either a car (if they live in an urban setting) or on a horse or a camel (if they live in rural areas).

The wedding itself lasts a day or two, but celebrations last about two weeks, sometimes even more. During this honeymoon phase, the women in the family-both young and older women- all play a game with the groom. The women have to steal something from the groom: his sword, his accessories, or his clothes. The women plan the heist while the groom and his best men have to stay alert at all times. The games are so serious that both parties have to wait for the other to fall asleep. If the women succeed in stealing something from the man, then the only way he can get them back is by paying the woman a substantial amount of money, or he has to give them a goat or a sheep in return for his possessions. Though I sometimes felt bad for the poor grooms who had to stay alert at all times, I do believe that tradition is one of the many flavors of our culture.

You were married to the late poet and screenwriter Isayas Tseggai for 25 years until his untimely death in 2012. I’m sorry for your loss. If it’s all right with you, would you tell us about your married life?

Isayas and I met and got married in Sahel during the liberation struggle, where we were both part of the cultural troupe. Isayas was Christian, and I am Muslim, but that never mattered to either one of us. And thankfully, religion was never a factor, not just for us but for all EPLF members as well.

As a side note, I think this is one of the unique things about our armed struggle and our country: that Muslims and Christians have always been – and I believe will always be – brothers and sisters here. Regardless of our beliefs, we have always been one people. And we experienced everything together: we all suffered through colonialism together, and we all fought to free our country together. That will never be forgotten.

I believe our kinship and mutual respect for one another have allowed us to transcend religious differences.