WELET E’DO: A Beauty Contest Worth Preserving

Beauty pageants are common in the world and are held in a variety of ways in accordance with the traditions and customs of countries. The custom of having beauty pageants is said to have started in Britain in the early 20th century. By the middle of the 20th century it developed from a nationally held beauty contest to a continentally and, later on, globally held event.

Eric Murine, a British citizen who is said to be the first to come up with the idea of nominating Miss World, started holding the event in 1951, and he remained the CEO of the Miss World nominating company in Britain until he died in 2001.

But did beauty pageants begin only one century ago and specifically in Europe? Not really. There is evidence that a beauty contest, known as Welet E’do, used to be held at Afabet starting from the 18th century. The event was held in Afabet, a town in the Northern Red Sea region and is located 130 kilometres north of Asmara, and it involved the Tigre speaking ethnic group living in Afabet and four surrounding villages.

‘Welet’ in Tigre language means ‘young girl’ and ‘E’do’ a pure leather rug. The name Welet E’do refers both to the festival when the contest happens and to the winner. Welet E’do is held in winter when farmers are at rest, following the harvest, and can attend the gathering and enjoy the feast. Every villager from Afabet and the surrounding four villages eagerly awaits the festival of Welet E’do. Young men, in particular, anxiously wait to see the result, admire the winner and do their best to ask for the hand of the Welet E’do.

To be nominated as Welet E’do, a young girl should not only be the most beautiful and wisest girl in Afabet and the four surrounding villages, but she should also be unmarried and single. At the festival of Welet E’do, the girls that take part in the contest are nominated from their respective communities on the basis of their garments, their ornaments, beauty of their hairs and hair braids and their postures.

The festival is made colourful by poets reciting memorable poems and singers singing very moving songs. The panel that nominates the Welet E’do is made up of elderly men and women.

After a very lengthy deliberation, the panel announces the winner in the presence of the public, and the new Welet E’do becomes the beauty queen for one year until the next festival. Once the honour of Welet E’do is bestowed on a girl, the girl usually gets married. But if she doesn’t get married, she retains her title until such time she is defeated.

The basic duty of the Welet E’do is to lead the grand opening of the two religious feasts — Eid Al Adhha and Eid Al Fetir. On the two occasions she is adorned with special traditional garments, and she is assisted by an experienced lady who is assigned to dress her up and watch over her costumes.

At the opening of the celebrations Welet E’do comes down to the stage and performs a traditional dance called “shellil”. Unlike the other ladies, she is expected to dance calmly and with pride, carefully watching her movements. Holding a “kezeran,” a traditional cane, she dances surrounded by ladies.

The Welet E’do is highly respected by the communities in Afabet and the four villages. On her marriage, she is showered with gifts not only by her family but the whole community. And the groom who takes her hand is often required to give more than is usually requested by other ordinary girls.

Today, the festival of Welet E’do is no more than a folktale narrated by the elderly in the community. Efforts need to be made to resuscitate it so that it can be preserved for posterity.

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