Modernisation, Not Westernisation

January 18 , 2019
By Ambessaw Assegued ( )

How Ethiopians celebrate Gena, the Ethiopian Christmas, is losing its traditional roots and distinctiveness, which should not be confused for modernisation. The government needs to do its part to conserve the cultural heritage of the nation, as well as funding the arts, literature and historical councils, writes Ambessaw Assegued (

Timqet, the Epiphany festival that is just around the corner from Gena, the Ethiopian Christmas, is more traditionally observed, while Genais proving to be quite a different matter in this country.

The decorated Christmas tree has been a fixture of high-end hotel lobbies and boutique stores for decades in the capital, but to find an artificial tree decorated with colourful ornaments, tinsels, string lights and welted poinsettias at the home of a local confessor is quite another thing.

“Oh! It is my daughter’s idea for her little girl, my granddaughter,” says the cleric, almost apologetically, to a visitor who is side-glancing at a decorated Christmas tree in the corner of a living room.

The apology is unwarranted as the local markets have been flooded with holiday knickknacks.

The plastic flecks, lights, trees, wreaths, and other festive adornments are put up for sale everywhere in this cosmopolitan. On Christmas day, there were television shows presented by women in traditional garb but with red and white backgrounds, artificial snow-sprayed trees, silver frosted decorations, dazzling light-up ornaments and sparkling white stars glistening on the screens.

Christmas in January on these tropical highlands feels different than anywhere else on the planet. After all, the Ethiopian Christmas experience is rooted in centuries of tradition and customs. Gena bears no relationship to Saint Nicholas of Bari, the French Père Noël, the Germanic God Odin or Old Man Bayka of Liberia. Liberians greet one another on Christmas Day with “My Christmas on you,” basically saying “please give me something nice for Christmas.”

Genais a season of fasting, attending to ancient liturgies in antiquated building, feasting, and playing traditional games and sports. There are no gift exchanges; no white Christmas with the image of snow falling softly on evergreen branches; and no frosted sugar pines and Fraser firs with dusting of faux snow.

Christmas festivals are indigenous to Ethiopia. But the Western influence is overbearing; and the source of holiday trifles, China, is unrelenting in its pursuit to deluge every corner of our lives with its cheap merchandise. The result is that we clamber as if our lives depend on it, to ape the West in Christmas celebrations; and adopt St. Valentine’s Day and Halloween as our own cultural icons.

The functional roles of our culture should not be replaced by Westernisation, as Japan’s Hideo Kishimoto once pointed out. Modernisation, Hideo claims, is basically a means by which to remould a cultural system into a new mode. Adoption of Western holidays, food and hairstyles is Westernisation, but the introduction of mobile phones, health systems, computers and the internet are ways to remold a cultural system into a new form - that is modernisation.

Individuals make choices which part of the cultural influxes they choose to adopt and maintain, but it is the role of government to ensure the rich and deep cultural foundations of the country are kept in good order and that they flourish.

The government has a duty to promote, support and nurture the cultural life of the country. These include providing proper funding for the National Theatre; establishing film institutes, music conservatories and theatre companies that promote traditions; supporting national museums and galleries; and funding art, literature and historical councils.

It would not be far from the truth to say that the commitment of the government in this regard is scant. It is a shame, in fact, to see the state of the National Theater and how the government has botched the opportunities to preserve and maintain this cultural heritage. The gracious building was first launched by the Italian occupiers as Cinema Marconi and then expanded and completed by Emperor Haile Selassie.

In the 1960s, the National Theatre became part of the French designer’s, L. De Marien, vision of recreating the Avenue des Champs-Elysees of Paris along Churchill Road. The theatre was to be, like the Palace de la Concorde, the southern anchor of the new boulevard.

Today, the National Theatre sits as a shell of its glorious past, a shadow of what it was two generations ago, a ghost of its former self. It has become a darkened, soot-laden edifice, dilapidated by long neglect and disrepair. Its sculpted stone-built entrance colonnades soiled and grungy; its tiled-floors and walls chipped and worn; tangles of grim electric cables hanging from every which way across the ceilings and corners; the old boutique shops, the airy lofts and galleries that line the strip boarded up and chained; the elegant park at the north end of the building, home to the popular Lion of Judah statue, fenced off with an outdoor café that sprawls tastelessly inside of it; and the fountain, long abandoned, forgotten and left as a dry gaping eyesore.

If nothing else, the government should keep our cultural monuments in good repair. It might be a tall task to ask the state, as neglectful as it is, to cultivate the hockey-like games of Genna Chawetaas a cultural icon; or to fund appropriately the arts, music, storytelling and theatrical traditions of the country.

At the very minimum, however, we expect the government to keep our public buildings, structures and institutional offices in good order. We should, for instance, look proudly from the National Theatre towards the northeast at the Ministry of Defense and view that cherished building in all its glory. Alas, what we find in that direction is a confused cityscape; a slime covered structure, whittled of its pastel paint; its window shades cracked; its landscape strewn with debris; rank weed growing atop and below its crafted stonewall perimeter; an ill-conceived and badly contrived entrance guarded by languid soldiers; and a gloomy compound lined with wildly tangled trees that last saw a pruning sheer some fifty years ago.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 18,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 977]

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