The 125th anniversary of the Victory at Adwa is upon us and the fervor can be felt throughout the city with a range of academic, artistic, and cultural activities planned from government to civil society. We are all familiar with the phenomenal win, after the Treaty of Wichale went too far with the infamous Article XVII, asserting Ethiopia as an Italian Protectorate. But that’s another story. The combat between Italian and Abyssinian forces is often told in a mythical manner describing a tale of Ethiopian “underdogs” running barefoot into battle, armed with only one-shot guns against the well-dressed Italian battalions, armed to the tee, yet still suffered defeat in the highlands of Northern Ethiopia. Well, this story has ‘sort of-kind of’ status. This narrative of an ill prepared and significantly smaller army was part of Emperor Menelik’s war strategy, when indeed almost 100,000 Ethiopian forces were a well-prepared fearless force, armed with traditional and modern weaponry. Though not a fair fight, the bait was bought and needless to say, we celebrate a win that was a shot heard around the world. The victory propelled the Pan African Movement and Africa’s efforts to end colonialism; challenging the notorious Berlin Conference’s carving up of the Continent.
The win at Adwa was colorful and well curated. The troops hoisted red, gold and green banners as they rode on well-groomed highly decorated horses, carrying ornate elephant or rhino skin shields and the sacred St. George Talbot. They were clothed in white cotton and wool garments accented with “goffer” “anfaro” and “lemd” made from lion mane and skins decorated with gold, silver and fine stones such as rubies and sapphires. It was such an incredible sight that ancient paintings and contemporary accounts alike, capture the battle with vast colors and detailed distinction. While today’s Ethiopian fashion may not be designed for the battlefields it is certainly holding its own on the international scene. “Culturally Inspired Globally Desired” is the mantra of AFRICANMOSAÏQUE, the brand of Anna Getaneh dubbed “artisanal design”. Anna – wife, mom of two and former fashion model in Paris and New York – is one of Ethiopia’s leading social entrepreneurs who blends her passion for fashion with a people centered approach to her business. But while that is not breaking news, the launch of her AFRICAN MOSAIQUE EDIT fashion and lifestyle magazine this weekend IS.
African Mosaique has teamed up with Neteb Production to publish an “…international standard fashion and lifestyle magazine that will promote and build awareness around locally manufactured design and innovation as well as share stories of the talented artists behind the labels…” states their press release. The organizers are planning a “first of its kind” publication which will cover a wide array of topics “…highlighting pioneering personalities around fashion, art, music, food, architecture, and culture.” The launch in Legatafu will include a host of offerings for guests from high-end food stations and live music to a photograph exhibition by Michel Temteme. For those unfamiliar with the photography of Michel, Vogue and New York Times are not. The understated well-travelled and seasoned Ethiopian photographer has a different eye. Working in Milan for many years in the fashion industry, he captures beauty in motion but is not limited to just one sphere. His portfolio is diverse and dynamic and Michel can be considered one of Ethiopia’s leading photographers. It appears Anna has carefully selected the best for her newest venture, “AfricanMosaique Edit” magazine, a perfect accompaniment to her vision of “…sourcing, manufacturing and developing talent in Africa.”
Real talk, cultural clothing matters and made ‘for us by us’ was relevant then and is now. In the context of Adwa, I was recently asked by a journalist about the impact of the victory on Ethiopia and Africa for that matter. My response in a nutshell: ‘lasagna instead of injera; embroidered skirts, laced collars chemise blouses with flower and fruit filled hats instead of hager libs; and Italian as national kwonkwa instead of Amharic. You see, Ethiopia’s win ensured the survival of culture in all forms…food, clothing and language. Nelson Mandela was even said to have “…Harnessed Freedom Trough Clothing…” according to a Caroline Kloster, fashion and culture writer. Mandela wrote of wearing a kaross to court in his bio “Long Walk to Freedom”. The kaross is the traditional attire worn by a Xhosa Chief, made from woven cloth draped over one shoulder and accessorized with extravagant neck beads. Kloster writes Mandela “…emphasizing this difference, signifying the entire political mission of the ANC: achieving a world where Black South Africans can be different from White South Africans and still be celebrated and empowered…mark(ing) a drastic change in Mandela’s political career, his change in clothing followed suit.” Some may argue that Mandela’s 1962 time in Ethiopia gave thrust to his vision for not only ending apartheid but in Mandela’s word “…fight(ing) for the value of African characteristics and culture.”
So, as we celebrate the Victory of Adwa, may we not just look at this from a historical lens but with the subsequent effects including a present statement on identity and cultural sovereignty. The right to wear our clothing – sourced, designed and manufactured by us for us – taking a leaf out of Anna’s book. Adwa preserved this right for generations to come. Forseeably, in the year 2146, when African Mosaique or some other Ethiopian fashion house combines cutting edge materials with traditional attire, we will again celebrate the victory of Adwa which ensured the preservation and promotion of Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.