The Subtle Art of Holding On


September 21 , 2019
By Hanna Haile( Hanna Haile (hannahaile212@gmail.com) is an Ethiopian writer and social worker. She is one of the organizers of Poetic Saturdays at Fendika Cultural Centre in Addis Abeba and at Terara Bar & Kitchen in Hawassa, where a stage is open to those who celebrate art through performances on the first and second Saturday of each month. )

There is so much fast-paced change in the world that demands that we adopt some of our culture to the times, even so, as the world changes around us, resisting the influences that force us to ignore ancestral truths is an act of freedom that requires the subtle art of holding on to core values, writes HANNA HAILE.


Coffee ceremonies are about connecting with neighbours and friends.

Each year as the Ethiopian New Year arrives, I am reminded that nothing is ever black and white. While we cannot change the mathematics of the earth’s movement, we can change our interpretation; it seems even time can be redefined.

According to history, Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 decided to embrace a new year, giving birth to the now widely used Gregorian Calendar. As we set onto our new year’s first month with a new breath of energy, we should hold on to our resolutions as hard as Ethiopia held on to its calendar.

The third week into the new year, I already feel myself falling into the habits of the past year. Existence is only worthwhile when lived with intention, and not repeating cycles of already lived lives. What can we do this year for the greater intention of tomorrow?


Coffee ceremonies are about connecting with neighbours and friends.


If one has observed, the new year was marked with the sale of sunflowers masquerading as the iconic Adey Abeba flower. While such small details may not matter, when we live a well-intentioned life, we must at least wonder how the community benefited from this holiday. We must be deliberate in the legacy we plan to leave the generations that follow.

As dominant world cultures slowly become the reason other cultures disappear, we must stay mindful. In my human development class, we were taught an invaluable lesson of the evolution of groups; they meet, gather, peak, and eventually, they disappear. There seems to be a time clock on everything, including community structures. We may not beat the expected declines, but we can, however, work toward keeping the values of the cultures and customs we uphold.


Statistics around culture are too difficult to gauge. Therefore, some have used language as an indicator. Researchers can assist in helping us learn why cultures disappear, yet the reality is that when enough people move away from one thought, adapting a dominant one, then it disappears.




Language dictates what communities value through the power of words. In the Amharic language ‘Megderder’ is an act of saying no to something while actually being interested in it. There is a subtlety to this which if used wisely, can attain that which we seek. This is a custom that is more prevalent in some areas but is a character trait of most Ethiopians. I recollect multiple occasions declining offers of a meal simply to be polite as my belly rumbled. But when I am with friends that are not from Ethiopia, they immediately accept if interested. This type of directness manages to shock me each time it happens. Even so, it is a skill I am trying to adopt. Relationships and a sense of self are lost while we linger in the in-betweens of words and customs.

Cultural rituals are harder to keep intact through generations. Values and intentions behind actions are easier to pass down. In today’s fast-paced world, we might not have time for a coffee ceremony, but the idea of gathering with friends for coffee as we smell traditional incense is easily doable. Coffee ceremonies are about connecting with neighbours and friends.

We can celebrate culture through acts of preservation but also honour it through change. If we find that we are holding on to customs and traditions that no longer serve its community, then time has surpassed its use. Time and generations then create new customs that preserve traditions which become accepted by the community. Erosion of culture, tradition and customs, is as natural as time, while globalisation and its people themselves demand it. Change can be positive, yet without intention, it is like a ship without a compass. While the adventure must be enticing, history has taught us that even sea adventurers with compasses have ended up on other ends of the world.


The tradition and customs keepers of communities could find ways to ensure values are passed on. Those in media, creative writing and contemporary community leaders have a chance to ensure these assets are not lost.

American culture is one of the most dominant influencers in this world. Through movies and music, the US has been able to infiltrate pop culture worldwide. This dominant nation is known to use films that cater to its propaganda, using popular media to embrace or alienate topics. Even though this strategy can be used to reinforce thoughts that may not be positive, we can use it as a means to teach about our country’s values, customs and all we wish to preserve.

“Can you believe it’s New Year's again?” Most had mused during celebrations. Each day is a day closer or further from our goals, and we can only influence what is in our immediate control. As the world changes around us, resisting the influences that force us to ignore ancestral truths is an act of freedom that requires the subtle art of holding on to our core values.



PUBLISHED ON Sep 21,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1012]



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