Trick-Or-Birr

The Tigray Region of Ethiopia has its own version of trick-or-treating. Or for all I know, the US has its own version of Tigray’s celebration to honor St. Mary.

Once a year, for three days, women and girls in Tigray Region dress up in traditional Ethiopian dresses, and have their hair braided. The girls in particular (though with exceptions, sometimes they are adult women) then walk around the streets in groups of about 10. One has a drum, and all of them sing to passerby on the street. Since my Tigrinya hasn’t progressed beyond “Okay”, “What’s your name?’ “How are you” and “Thank you” I don’t know the exact lyrics, but the basic theme is that “since we are beautiful you should give us money.” People are then expected to give one birr (about five cents) to the group. They then continue on their way, singing for others.

While it has some similarities to Halloween, this ritual is a lot more amusing, in my opinion. In Halloween, it is during a certain time of day, and it is understood that trick-or-treaters will come to your house. Therefore, you know exactly when and where the trick-or-treating will happen. Here in Tigray, anyone is fair game, at any time. This leads to the fantastic exchange where very serious men in suits on their phones, with ZERO desire to participate in the festivities, are suddenly bombarded by 12 year-olds surrounding them as they walk and continuing to sing to them until they relent and give them a birr. Someone sitting in the car at a building, waiting for their co-worker to arrive? Totally fair game.

They should have known better than to sit on their truck in a completely vulnerable position like that

They should have known better than to sit on their truck in a completely vulnerable position like that

Some of the more audacious girls even find their way into places of business. When I was in an internet café, working on getting some project documents printed, I was surrounded twice by girls singing to me, despite the protests of the owner of the place. At a restaurant I was at, the manager would yell at them and tell them to leave whenever girls tried to come in. However, this required the manager making constant vigilance at the front door, and they weren’t always successful. On a few occasions when the manager went to the back, girls managed to sneak their way in and start singing.

IMG_0130It’s also highly amusing in that the festivities last for three days. Imagine for a moment if trick-or-treaters went out on three consecutive days, and moreover, that it wasn’t just for a few hours each night, but rather was an all-day affair. They’d probably be enthused at the start of the second day, for the chance to get some more sweets. However, by the end of the second day, and certainly by the third day, they would be pretty exhausted. The same was true here. By the third day, all of the girls looked like they had hit their limits; the drum beats a little less frequent, the singing a little less enthusiastic.

Most girls were also confused by my stubbornness. I think for most adults, their goal is basically to get the girls to stop bothering them as soon as possible, and as soon as they are surrounded, they fork over their one birr. The exact opposite was true of me. I figured if I was going to give them their birr, they would have to actually sing and do what was expected of them. This led to several instances where I was surrounded, and where they were a bit confused by the fact that rather than immediately taking out my wallet, I stood there with my hands on my hips, waiting for them to actually sing.

While the origins of this ceremony are quite different, after all it is ostensibly an occasion to honor St. Mary, I know that whenever I see trick-or-treaters in the States, I will think of the Tigrayan girls surrounding helpless passerby, and serenading them until they made their contributions to the cause.

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One Response to Trick-Or-Birr

  1. Nikki Sarkozy says:

    Rituals like this are big in the analysis of gift exchange. A similar ritual is discussed in Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, basically acts of giving and receiving constituted an arena for the circulation of goods outside the market and as a small version of income redistribution. In France, bands of singing children would do the same thing, hound people to give them money, going house to house like trick-or-treaters, and if someone didn’t ‘give’ willingly, that house was socially marked as a house that wasn’t playing along by societal norms.

    In the mid-twentieth century in western France on Easter, it was customary to give eggs to roving bands of young boys, who would sing threatening songs as they went:

    Madame has hidden her hen
    So she will not have to give us anything.
    Do you know what will happen?
    Alleluja!
    Her hen will die!

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