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“A Taste of the East” welcomes East African culture with open arms

Students honored their East African heritage with a fusion of tradition and modernity

<p>Fostering trust, joy and unity, “A Taste of the East” paid homage to the deeply-rooted values of East African culture.&nbsp;</p>

Fostering trust, joy and unity, “A Taste of the East” paid homage to the deeply-rooted values of East African culture. 

Over 250 students, families and visitors filled Newcomb Ballroom Saturday evening for “A Taste of the East,” the Ethiopian-Eritrean Student Association’s fifth annual art showcase and charity event. Centered on this year’s theme “Love from the East,” the sold-out celebration empowered attendees to embrace the vibrant traditions that make up East African culture.

The event captured the cultural diversity of East Africa, spotlighting countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti. Attendees enjoyed dinner catered from Afghan Kabob and Engocha Market & Carryout, followed by dances, fashion and music from EESA members. Guest performers included ReMiX A Capella, Afro-Hoos Dance Team and Grammy-nominated singer Wayna.

The celebration not only honored East Africa’s rich heritage but also raised money for charity. All proceeds from ticket sales and donations went to two nonprofit organizations — Help the Forgotten Foundation, which aims to prevent homelessness in Ethiopia, and One Day Seyoum, which aids Eritreans affected by the war in Sudan.

Each performance illustrated various customs distinct to East Africa. For second-year College student Hermela Berhanu, choreographing the event allowed her to share the many facets of East Africa to those who may not be familiar with the culture. 

“It's so rich and intricate. There's so much variety in the culture,” Berhanu said. “This is our way of presenting as much as we can — little snippets to expose more of our culture and make people more aware of it.”

The three-part fashion show made up the focal point of the night. Beyond displaying clothes, student models evoked the theme of love, displaying friendly warmth, familial devotion and romantic affection. In one scene, students demonstrated Gursha, the Ethiopian practice of placing food gently into another’s mouth. In another scene, two students fused wedding traditions of Ethiopia and Eritrea, representing unity among East African countries. 

The fashion show also portrayed departure from one’s home country. According to Nate Anteneh, co-host of the event and fourth-year College student, the EESA modeling committee designed “diaspora scenes” in which models began their walks with a relaxed pace, then hastened to represent movement between countries. For Anteneh, the show illuminated immigration from East Africa to the United States.

“Trying to balance our cultural side with our newfound American identity is something that we would like to showcase,” Anteneh said. “You see it in the attitude and in how [the models] walk.”

Attendees were kept in high spirits in large part due to Anteneh and his co-host, third-year College student Lidya Niguse. As the two remarked on each thrilling performance, they ensured audience members remained key participants in the event. They welcomed volunteers to the stage and engaged the audience in banter, quips and call-and-response interactions, eliciting laughs from the crowd. Anteneh emphasized how one of EESA’s missions in “A Taste of the East” was to foster camaraderie among attendees.

“It’s showcasing a cultural background that maybe a lot of people didn't feel confident in when they were growing up,” Anteneh said. “Here, we put it on full display and we cheer each other on.”

“A Taste of the East” touched many visitors who did not identify as East African. Second-year College student Jeanne-Mariam Ehui expressed her admiration for the tight-knit East African community. Although she is West African, she said the showcase gave her a sense of belonging.

“It's a beautiful thing to take pride [in] your culture,” Ehui said. “That's something I always wish I could emulate here at U.Va., but there's not that many Ivorians and so I kind of just live vicariously through the Ethiopian culture. [EESA] keeps it so vivacious and vibrant here on Grounds.”

Between performances, attendees flocked to the six vendors tabling at the event, admiring a host of East African products such as visual art and streetwear clothing. According to Beth Habtegebrael, EESA special events coordinator and fourth-year College student, hosting the vendors at “A Taste of the East” carried out EESA’s mission of uplifting the East African community.

“Through the vendors, we showcase other parts of East Africa,” Habtegebrael said. “Ethiopian small businesses or Eritrean small businesses — just being able to support them is really important.”

Reflecting on EESA’s road to “A Taste of the East” — a journey that began in October — Habtegebrael called this year’s event one of the most challenging to organize. Facing difficulties in securing its usual funding from the U.Va. Parents Program, EESA fought hard to host “A Taste of the East” this year, relying on support from 19 sponsors. Despite the roadblocks, however, Habtegebrael said that all of the workshops, dance practices and late nights made the event even more fulfilling.

“We had to really push to make the show happen,” Habtegebrael said. “I think it's extra special because we put our blood, sweat and tears into this.”

Fostering trust, joy and unity, “A Taste of the East” paid homage to the deeply-rooted values of East African culture. Anteneh emphasized how the East African community, distinct from all others, will continue to thrive at the University.

“No one has the food that we have. No one has our calendar. No one has our clothes,” Anteneh said. “The pride that we have in our uniqueness — that's something we try to highlight here.”


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